Tag Archives: Song Sparrow

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above,  along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.

We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.

Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.

Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?

This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely;  it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.

Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of  American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More

For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The  Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!

On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into the Eastern Meadow.

On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.

When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor).  This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis) seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.

This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus) finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of  sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.

At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!

Stewardship Projects Proceeded

A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects.  Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.

Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us.  Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert!  Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.

Cranberry Lake Park: Prepping for Winter, Sowing for Spring

One of the many spots where meadow meets woods at Cranberry Lake Park

Cranberry Lake Park, with its varied habitats, gives an autumn visitor lots of possibilities. In October, the lake hosts huge bobbing rafts of water birds, feeding and resting on their way south. The grassy trails lead you to expansive meadows covered now by the soft gray of seeding goldenrod, where migratory birds converse in the bushes while harvesting seed. Or you can choose the shady Hickory Lane to the west or the dappled light of the maple forest to the north if you’re in the mood for a woodland walk.   

Text & photos by Cam Mannino

My visits were scattered throughout the month –  unusually warm days early on, a sunset hike one breezy evening, and finally a cold, rainy morning right before first frost. Each time I rediscovered how sensibly nature prepares for a winter rest and a bountiful spring. 

 

 

Cranberry Lake Itself  – A Thwarted Kingfisher, a Remarkable Grebe, and Diving Ducks of All Kinds

The edge of Cranberry lake at the end of an eastern trail.

Cranberry Lake welcomes all kinds of water birds as they begin their long journeys to southern climes. One cold, wet morning, I watched a bird hovering vertically high above the water, head down, scanning the surface below. Suddenly, it gave a loud rattling cry and headed for a leafless tree near the shore. An agitated male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) shouted its noisy call from a bare limb. Perhaps he was put out by not spotting prey from that perch either!

This male Belted Kingfisher had one slate blue belt on his chest. The female has a chestnut brown belt and a blue one.

A small Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) flew in to probe the edge of a mud flat, landing near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Quite an odd couple!

A Killdeer shares a mud flat in the lake with a Canada Goose.

Killdeer are wading birds, being Plovers, but I’ve most often seen them in barren fields, either scurrying along scaring up insects or keening in flight to distract predators.  This one, though, looked right at home as it probed the mud for insect larvae or other aquatic prey before beginning migration.

Far out on the lake, a huge mixed flock of migrating ducks and other water birds, well over 200 of them, floated on the surface, foraged for food, or slept and preened on the mud flats in the shallower parts of the lake.

Part of a huge flock of diving ducks on Cranberry Lake

After studying the photo magnified, Ben guessed that most of the birds were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) which are diving ducks. Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks who simply tip upside down to feed, diving ducks have legs set far back on their bodies.  As a result, they need to run across water, wings flapping,  to get into the air and are awkward on land – but they dive, feed and swim underwater with ease!

(Since most of the Cranberry Lake flock was far from shore, the closeup photos of diving ducks below are all from inaturalist.org photographers. My thanks to all of them and to Creative Commons where they license their work.)

Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes CC BY NC
Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes (CC-BY-NC)

Two other diving ducks that Ben thinks may have been in this flock include Redhead (Aythya americana) which are so social that they’re also referred to as “rafting ducks” and  Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Lesser Scaup chicks “are capable of diving under water on their hatching day, but they are too buoyant to stay under for more than just a moment. By the time they are 5 to 7 weeks old they are able to…swim underwater for 15-18 meters (50-60 ft).” Here’s a wonderful closeup of a Redhead by photographer lonnyholmes and a Lesser Scaup photo by photographer Paul Sullivan. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Far out in the lake, through my binoculars, I also spotted Bufflehead, another diving duck,  on their way from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where according to Cornell, they “nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.” Unfortunately the male and three female/juvenile Bufflehead that I saw at were too far for my longest lens to reach clearly. So on the left is my distance photo from Cranberry Lake (click to enlarge) and  on the right is a closeup from a  photographer at inaturalist.org who uses the name dlbowls showing the male’s dark head iridescent in the sunlight.

Feeding alone on a rainy morning, the solitary  Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) dove repeatedly into the gray surface of the lake. Modest brown this time of year,  these grebes bills turn white with a neat black band in breeding season. Pied-billed Grebes control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. According to Cornell Lab, this allows them to escape danger by doing what children might call “belly smackers” – “plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings … These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface.”

The little grebe at Cranberry Lake gave me a brief demonstration of the submerging tactic –  first trapping water in its feathers , then settling back down on the water, and finally beginning to submerge like a little submarine.  What a trick!  I’m very taken with this little bird. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color

A meadow on the north end of the park

On the trails that lead toward the meadows, small brown birds dash from bush to bush or dart down into the grass.  Some are tiny migrators who might appear modest and plain until you see them through binoculars or a camera lens. Chubby White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), with their yellow “lores” and striped heads, hung out in small flocks, keeping in contact with soft seep calls.

The White-Crowned Sparrow has yellow “lores” – spots in the corners of its eyes.

Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). These normally solitary birds are often quite secretive – hence the name, perhaps? They’re well-dressed hermits, though, with their chocolate back, spotted breast and white eye ring. And during migration, they do sometimes forage with or near other small birds.

The chocolate back of the shy little Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush poses so we can see its spotted breast

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is silent now, no longer burbling its song from high in a bush as it did this spring and summer. In fact, this one glowered from the bare branches, seeming a bit put-out by my presence. Or maybe it’s just irritable about having to migrate, though  it will only travel a short distance to the south.

A Song Sparrow seems to be glowering at my presence from the branches of a vine-enshrouded bush

At the edge of a small meadow, a year-round resident, the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) pecked delicately at the seeds of Common Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis) that nicely complemented its muted gold.

An American Goldfinch fed in its modest winter feathers.

And another year ’rounder, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stared from the drooping vines of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), an aggressive, invasive plant that strangles, shades out and topples trees. Two trees along the trail had fallen recently due to masses of this vine in their canopies. Those orange and red fall fruits are disastrously appealing to birds, who spread their seeds far and wide.

A Northern Cardinal in a tangle of invasive, tree-killing Oriental Bittersweet.

On my early October visits, insects were still very much in evidence. One warm October afternoon, a busy group of adult and juvenile Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) fed eagerly on the seeds of Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca) in a southern meadow. The large beetles below are adults accompanied by the mostly red juveniles. They eat milkweed seeds by injecting saliva through the seed’s surface which liquifies it so it can be sucked through their straw-like rostrums. Milkweeds produce lots of seeds, so luckily these beetles, though destructive to individual pods, don’t really do a lot of damage in a season. And they are kind of jazzy looking, don’t you think?

Juvenile and adult Milkweed Bugs on a Common Milkweed.

Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) mate in the autumn and lay their eggs in the earth. The eggs won’t finish developing until spring, when the first nymphs emerge. They’ll molt 5-7 times during the summer before they are fully adult, like this pair on a grassy trail.

A female (left and larger) and male Red-legged Grasshopper will lay eggs that will hatch next spring.

As October moved on, the goldenrods – Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and late blooming Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – began to seed, casting a silver-brown patina over the meadows.

Despite the cooler days, the small Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) still glided along the meadow paths, stopping on a fallen Canada Goldenrod stem to warm its wings in the autumn sunlight. The yellow-orange blush on the wings near the thorax is a distinguishing field mark. Autumn Meadowhawks fly later than most other species in our area, but are usually gone by early November, having laid their eggs along the lake’s shoreline.

A small male Autumn Meadowhawk warms its wings on a cool fall morning

The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs

The Hickory Lane at sunset

Woodland walks are magical in the early morning or just before sunset. The light filters down through a golden shimmer of falling leaves and sometimes sets a crimson leaf aglow.

A Silver Maple leaf (Acer saccharinum) in the northern forest  set aglow in morning light.

On a warm walk in early October, the bright yellow caterpillar of a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) caught my eye within the dry leaves on the Hickory Lane. Such a fancy caterpillar! Research in Caterpillars of Eastern North America seems to indicate that  it’s the middle instar of the Spotted Tussock moth because in earlier stages, the end sections of this yellow caterpillar are completely black – but I’m open to correction by more knowledgeable readers!

The caterpillar of what I think is a Spotted Tussock Moth

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) on the Hickory Lane basked in the sunset, perhaps resting from a long day of ferrying nuts in its cheeks to stock its underground burrow. It won’t hibernate, but when it wakes periodically from its winter torpor, it will need a little sustenance before snoozing again.

An Eastern Chipmunk rests from its seed and nut-gathering labors before winter.

A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) dashed quickly up a tree on the Hickory Lane (in this case, it’s the black morph). And nearby, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) did the same. I wondered if they had enjoyed some of the hickory nuts that were neatly opened on a fallen log not too far away.

Almost invariably, curious deer emerge at the edge of the woods, and they too are putting on weight for winter. They eat lots of nuts, including plenty of acorns, this time of year. Their love of acorns in the fall and saplings during the winter can make it harder for our oak forests to regenerate. This doe looks like she’s definitely eaten her share and is ready for cold days ahead!

A well-fed doe foraging for nuts before winter arrives.

In a pond hidden in the trees, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had built a roomy “push-up” den in which it can eat above the water line. Muskrats don’t hibernate, but spend the winter cruising very slowly beneath the ice. What appears to be a hole is probably just plant matter or mud, since muskrats generally enter their push-up dens from under the water through a tunnel that leads up to a cavity at the center.  According to Wikipedia, “In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day.”

Near that woodland pond in late October, a tiny masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) literally sat “like a bump on a log,” staring off into the distance, partially lit by the green light of a leaf. Wood Frogs love forested wetlands like this during the summer. But this little frog may be preparing for winter. It will move upland, away from the water, burrow under leaves or a log. Then most of the water in its body will freeze solid, and its breathing and heartbeats will stop! But it will thaw in the spring and go right back to the pond to mate. Hope this little one finds a cozy spot before long.

The astonishing Wood Frog freezes solid in the winter and thaws out in the spring.

On a fallen long nearby, my husband and I came across  a colony of Puffball Mushrooms (division Basidiomycota) just as we did last year. These stalkless mushrooms would disperse spores on their own, of course, but I asked my husband to poke a couple in order to catch the brownish cloud of spores escaping through their tiny apertures. Wikipedia says falling raindrops disperse puffball spores in a similar way.

On my last visit just before first frost, under moist trees in these wooded wetlands, the Sensitive Ferns’ green, leafy, sterile fronds (Onoclea sensibilis) were already withering in the dropping temperatures. But the separate fertile fronds, covered in brown beads called “sori” that contain next year’s spores, stood erect in the grass beneath the trees.

Quietly Prepping for Winter and Another Spring

Cranberry Lake Park, like all of nature, provides testimony every autumn that the year is not “dying” as is so often said of this season. On the contrary. At every turn in the trails, nature is sensibly preparing for winter and sowing for spring. Yes, plants wither – but their seeds, stems, and roots wait within the soil for warm spring light. Gray-brown bracken will eventually fall, nourishing the soil in which those seeds can grow. Bright leaves fade and fall, of course, but only because trees are in “dormancy,” resting, slowing their metabolism, preserving themselves for next spring’s surge of growth. Some insects migrate, others winter-over under bark or within plants, while still others perish, leaving behind eggs which bide their time beneath the earth. Birds fly south, frogs burrow under logs, and animals of all sorts settle into winter quarters. Nature doesn’t resist change. It simply adapts to it, with every intention of burgeoning forth with gusto in the spring. We humans probably do best when we follow nature’s lead by just letting nature take its course –  preparing for longer nights and colder days, while confidently sowing seeds – both literally and metaphorically – for a future spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.

Charles Ilsley Park – Prairies Full of Spring Music

Looking west on the north prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings)  so you can share the sounds of spring.

Summer Birds Find Us Again

The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks.  Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?

Tree Swallows soar with their beaks open to scoop up little flying insects – but they eat plant food more often in early spring.

In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.

A Killdeer scurries along a ridge in a fallow field at Charles Ilsley Park.

Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!

A Killdeer’s nest and eggs at Gallagher Creek in late April 2016.

Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with just a bit of his red and yellow epaulet showing.

High in the treeline,  the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue  into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.

The black mustache, called a malar, is a sign that this is a male, yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.  He’s probing for ants in an old ant mound.

Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)

The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here,  let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.

The turkey vulture soars above the prairies below, preparing to clean the park of unhealthy, unsightly carrion.

Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors

Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.

Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture,  cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!

Two male cowbirds doing dominance displays.

Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.

The modestly gray female Cowbird often sits high in the tree tops watching for a good bird’s nest in which to lay her eggs. Here she’s in bush, assessing the males.

We commonly see  European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s  by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard!  Starlings can be  very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions.  This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.

100 European Starlings, imported by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 1890s, now number about 200 million from Alaska to Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee

Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird  (Sialia sialis)!  Here’s the link to its spring song.

A male Eastern Bluebird at Charles Ilsley Park.

Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains.  The Robin’s “cheer up” call  accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.

An alert American Robin stops to listen while probing the wet soil around the edge of a vernal pool at the bottom of a slope.

Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s  wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker stops drumming long enough to pose at the top of snag.

Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)!  Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer!  Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!

The holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a Wild Black Cherry tree. These woodpeckers tend to make large, often rectangular holes.

The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles  the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.

The classic pose of the White-Breasted Nuthatch as it forages for insects. Listen for its loud “ank, ank” call.

The Other Chorus:  Wood Frogs!

Hundreds of Wood Frogs chorused in the wetland beyond this little stream at the north end of Charles Ilsley Park.

After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side.  Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willows filled a large wetland.  And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Wood Frogs have a black stripe running through their eye and their song is low and sounds a bit like your thumb running over a comb.

If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine!  I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.

Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta).  Moss, an ancient plant,  usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out.  David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill.  The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water.  The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!

A stump draped in two shades of brilliant green moss.

Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction  (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.

I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.

Trees reflected in a very large mud puddle in the middle of a trail.

As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake  (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.

A large Garter Snake slid between my feet, heading for a swim across a large puddle on the trail. Good swimmer!

Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future

Eastern Meadowlark photo by Greg Lasly. Some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will  more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills.  (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the  Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once  again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!”  to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying  Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; 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.

BEAR CREEK: Is It Spring Yet? Ummm, No… plus Tracking Bear Creek Itself

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

What a crazy February and March, eh?  Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again.  Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world.  A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice.  Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail.  Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.

 

Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds

Robin in evening sun BC
A Robin plumps against the cold on an early February day

American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days:  find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.

The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning.  “Peter, Peter, Peter,”  he trilled,  despite the snow below.

Singing Titmouse BC
A Tufted Titmouse tried out his spring call – “Peter, Peter” on a sunny, very cold morning

A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs.  The male  below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.

A male Eastern Bluebird pauses on the branch of a small tree

Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on.  That upward spiral was a clue.  It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark.  If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.

Brown Creeper 2 BC
A Brown Creeper always works its way around and up a tree when foraging.

The longer days brought a  warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps?  This  sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.

Song Sparrow BC Marsh 2
An early Song Sparrow poked about in the grasses of the marsh exposed above the ice.

Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On

Residents take immediate advantage of a spring-like day at Bear Creek.

Somewhere near the middle of February  the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures,  came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!

This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February!  I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!

Eastern Comma Butterfly BC February
An Eastern Comma butterfly emerged from hibernation as the weather warmed unseasonably in February.

Further along, an Eastern Garter Snake  (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.

A basking Garter Snake slipped off the path into the grass.

On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.

Flock of Cedar Waxwings BC
A flock of Cedar Waxwings whistled and flew from tree to tree in late February.

The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs.  Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish.  This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are  difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now,  we’ll just say she’s a crayfish.  If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own.   Thanks to Ben for his great photo.

Ben's photo Crayfish w eggs BC
A crayfish with eggs under her tail

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond.  Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say.  It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose  or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!

Lesser Canada Goose BC
This Canada Goose has a remarkably short neck so it could be part of a subspecies called the Lesser Canada Goose.

In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut  bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later.  The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts.  The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog. 

hazelnut-catkins-1
These male catkins of the Hazelnut bush will fertilize tiny female flowers on the branch to produce  – what else? – hazelnuts!

Winter Returns, Sigh…

The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below.  One morning in a cold wind, a pair of  Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs.  They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.

Sandhill Cranes poked at the thin ice when the marsh re-froze after the false spring.

At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.

Duck feet and wing tracks Center Pond BC
The prints of duck feet and wings on the Center Pond’s snowy surface.

The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled  by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.

Two Geese in icy marsh BC
The male Canada Goose searches for food in an open patch in the thin marsh ice.

On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.

Flying bluebird BC
A male Eastern Bluebird glides to the ground to look for seeds.
Coyote tracks BC Lane
Most likely coyote tracks on the Walnut Lane

And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks.  Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks.  Wish I could see this animal in the park.  Its scat is everywhere!  We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!

 Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself

Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek.  Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears.  At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago.   But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek  and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek.  I never paid  much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk.  But in February, I decided to follow it.

It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw  years ago during a drought that dried up the pond.  All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond,  with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream.  In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out  under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.

bear-creek-begins-out-of-center-pond-bc

From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of  the culvert under Gunn Road.

Bear Creek n of Gunn Road at marsh

The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west.  In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.

Bear Creek at Pine Needle Trail off Gunn BC

It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.

Bear Creek off Bear Creek Court

Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall,  the creek crosses under Collins Road.

Bear Creek going under Collins Road BC

 

It flows  along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,

Bear Creek behind church BC

At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.

Bear Creek empties into Paint Creekk at Cider Mill

A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future

It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek.  Long may it meander across the landscape.  If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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)and websites linked 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.