Some spring days have a special kind of magic, don’t they? Especially in May when the trees dance with small tender leaves, the air is cool, the sun is warm – and the birds of summer arrive in all their mating finery. Wednesday, May 17 was one of those days. (Birding friends, Aaron Carroll and Joan and Bob Bonin shared their photos with me for this blog. Thanks to them all!)
Our Oakland Township Wednesday Birding Group gathered in the parking lot, but Aaron Carroll had arrived early and walked the trails through the eastern fields. In the hedgerow between them, he’d spotted a pair of male Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) jousting among the greenery. (Gender ID is easy with this species. Males have black “mustaches.” Females don’t.) In the first photo below, one bird has its beak straight up in the air, the very pose that author Donald Stokes (Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. 1) describes for both male and female flickers when skirmishing over territory or potential mates in spring. Stokes adds that this position is usually followed by a chase, which seems to be what’s happening in Aaron’s second photo. Good job of catching the action, Aaron!
Once the whole group arrived, we took the northern path from the parking lot, crossed through an opening in the hedgerow and cut through the pathless forest full of dappled light. We emerged at the top of a large meadow and waded through soft grass where it sloped down toward a large marsh. At its edge, we could see and hear multiple Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) whisking about singly and in pairs at the edge near the water. The males serenaded their lady friends and fended off the competition with songs they’d learned from nearby adult males when they were mere fledglings. I couldn’t record their songs while in the birding group, but here’s a Song Sparrow I saw and recorded at Watershed Ridge in 2018, just to refresh your memory. (Click red arrow for sound.)
Two small gray birds flitted about within the branches of a gnarly old tree at the edge of the marsh. Binoculars raised, we identified them as Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers. Then suddenly we recognized their elegant, cup-shaped nest nearby. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website, it’s built in flexible layers of bark strips, stems and grasses outside and softer materials inside like downy plant fibers and feathers, then decorated with lichen. And imagine this! These little birds use spider or caterpillar silk to hold it on the branch and bind it all together, which, some sources say, allows for some flexibility as the baby birds grow. Clever little artist/engineers, these tiny birds. I love Aaron Carroll’s sequence of photos below. He saw both adults taking turns on the nest, which Cornell reports as a gnatcatcher trait! Nice cooperation!
We used a handy rock for crossing a small stream beyond the marsh to explore the field and pond beyond. I enjoy cresting the small slope beyond the stream to see the small wetland below because it often hosts water birds. And sure enough, three different migrators had dropped in for a visit. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) flew up from the shore, while down below, a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scuttled about the muddy edges and a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) foraged beneath the surface with its long beak.
A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) chattered in the thicket at the edge of the meadow. It never made an appearance for fellow birders, Ralph and Andrea Wampler and I. But if you’d like to hear a bit of Catbird conversation, here’s one from Bear Creek a few years ago.
The Big Finish!
From the meadow, we crossed back over the creek and headed up into the trees. Suddenly the people at the front of the group turned to the rest of us, gesturing with their index fingers to their lips and whispering, “ssshhh…!” We gathered quietly. About four feet off the trail, a very focused female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) drilled furiously at a short stump. We all froze. We couldn’t quite believe our luck at being so close to such an impressive bird. As you’ll see in Aaron Carroll’s video below, she was making the wood chips fly as she drilled for insects in the rotting bark. And she went on drilling for several minutes, apparently oblivious to the presence of the birding group! All of us stood in amazement.
Finally the Pileated raised her bright red crest and flew farther into the trees. Perhaps she was annoyed at not finding the insects she sought or maybe she suddenly realized she was being watched by a group of rapt birders! We all stood there for a few seconds in disbelief after she departed and then we started exclaiming. “Amazing!” “Boy, I’m glad I was here!” “What a sight that was!” “Well that may be my most incredible bird sighting ever…” We felt a bit dazed but very pleased with the morning’s events as we started up the trail again. But it turned out that nature had one more treat in store for us.
The up-and-down ripple of paired notes of the Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) reached us from the canopy. Ben led the way and there he was – the male Bunting which Cornell ornithologists describe so beautifully as looking “like a scrap of sky with wings.” This male’s dark wings may have carried him from the Caribbean, Central America or as far away as the northwestern tip of South America. We can hope that he’s arrived to nest and breed at Watershed Ridge Park. We’d be honored to host him.
Lest You Believe That’s All We Saw….!
The birds above are just a few of the 35 species we saw and/or heard that spring morning. They’re the ones that posed nicely for my photographer friends! So here are a few of the other migrators we saw or heard that morning in photos my friends and I have taken on other days. And this slideshow doesn’t even include the “regulars,” like the cardinals, various woodpeckers, the tufted titmice and such that we see on almost every walk but which delight us with their presence too!
You Don’t Have to Be a “Birder” to Enjoy Our Birding Walks
I’m NOT your classic “birder.” I don’t keep a “life list” of birds that I’ve seen. I recognize maybe 10 bird songs from memory. I only travel relatively short distances to go to occasional bird festivals or “hotspots.” We keep feeders in our yard and dedicate a bookshelf to bird identification/ behavior books. I’ve monitored bird boxes and have Cornell Ornithology’s Merlin app on my cell phone to help me identify birds and their calls. So I guess that makes me a bird enthusiast rather than a serious “birder.”
And I just love the Wednesday Bird Walks. This congenial collection of bird fanciers has become a community for me. Our group is a mixture of men and women from late teens to late seventies with a variety of gifts to share. Younger ones bring their energy, enthusiasm, good ears, and sharp eyes, as well as info and insights they’ve gleaned recently in academic settings. Some of us older ones bring years of accumulated bird knowledge and experience. Some can accurately describe almost any plumage pattern or carry a symphony of bird songs in their heads.
We walk at a relaxed pace. Once someone spots a bird, we gather, craning our necks, peering upward through our binoculars, trying to find the bird’s location. “See those two bushes with white flowers? Look about 30 feet up at 3:00,” (which means about halfway up the tree on the right side. ) “It’s at the tip of that bare limb…Oops, it just went down in the grass – but wait. Bluebirds often come right back up.” “I’m hearing a Brown Thrasher but I can’t see it yet.” And so on.
Like me, most bird walkers just enjoy the company of birders as much as we enjoy birds. We share personal stories, laugh, commiserate, chat along the way. We’re silent when we need to be. We mute our phones and look at them only for info or the occasional bird call. We come because we like the people and we love seeing birds, hearing their songs and hanging out together for a couple of hours surrounded by nature. And our stewardship staff reports our weekly discoveries to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s citizen science website, eBird.org. That also allows our stewardship staff to keep a record of bird species in our parks each week over many years.
You’re welcome to join us if any of that sounds appealing. Just bring your curiosity and good will. Wear comfy clothes, sturdy shoes and bring binoculars, or our Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide will happily loan you a pair on the spot. The summer schedule is listed here . If you’re interested but unable to hike with us for any reason, I’m glad you’re joining us here at Natural Areas Notebook!
After all, on some delightful spring morning, YOU might get lucky and find yourself up close and personal with a glorious drama queen like the one below!
They’re coming our way. And others are bidding us farewell. The spring bird migration is under way and will really gain steam in early May. Are you curious about how many birds flew through the night over Oakland County yesterday? Here’s a great tool from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab that can give you a data-based estimate! (Thanks to birding friend Vinnie Morganti for the link!)
The Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea), who nest in colder climates, are beginning to depart from the hedgerows and from under our feeders as they wing their way to their northern breeding grounds. Bufflehead dabbling ducks (Bucephala albeola) showed up on Cranberry Lake in mid-March as they made their way through Michigan to their nesting grounds that extend from Ontario to Canada’s Northwest Territories. And of course, the hoarse, ancient cries of the Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) now draw our eyes skyward. (Click on photos below to enlarge.)
I’m always impressed by the ability of birds to survive the ordeal of migration, successfully navigating their way twice each year across the country and sometimes far beyond. This spring a lot of questions bubbled up in my winter-weary mind.
How does the tiny hummingbird beat its wings thousands of times on its way to Central America without expiring from exhaustion? How do fledglings find their way when they travel without adults, which happens more often than not? How do birds flying nonstop over oceans eat and sleep? And what’s up with birds using the earth’s magnetic field to navigate? I sure can’t perceive the earth’s magnetic field!
Recently, while doing some spring cleaning, I came across an article that I’d saved which gave me some possible explanations and some resources to go further. (See references below.) So I wanted to share with you the astounding and somewhat bizarre adaptations that allow our avian neighbors to successfully make such arduous journeys.
First, a big Thank-You! My photographer friends, Paul Birtwhistle and Bob and Joan Bonin have again generously shared some of their wonderful photos for this blog. My heartfelt thanks to all three!
So How Did This Whole Migration Pattern Get Started, Anyway?
Doesn’t semi-annual migration seem a bit extreme? I mean, why don’t birds just stay in warm regions all year ’round happily eating and breeding? (I’m glad they don’t, though!) The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes two theories: the Northern Home theory that northern bird ancestors moved south little by little as ice ages advanced, or the Southern Home theory that southern bird ancestors followed the ice north as it retreated. According to a recent University of Michigan study of the evolutionary lineage of 800 species of North American song birds, the Northern Home theory seems more likely. (Very cool detail about this subject at this link! Click on the words “Evolution of Bird Migration” at the top left.)
Birds have continued to migrate for eons because of the basics: food and breeding opportunities. Temperate zones like Michigan are very buggy places. Our inland wetlands and shorelines produce a glorious abundance of insects and their caterpillars each spring and summer. Just look at the meal this Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) found in one of our parks! Quite a haul!
So when daylight lingers in spring or shrinks in autumn, birds notice the change and start feeling restless. Even captive birds in scientific studies evidence migration restlessness, which is known among researchers by the German name zugunruhe. As the season approaches, they eat more and later into the evening. Their sleep decreases by as much as two-thirds in some species. (Sounds familiar somehow. Maybe human “snow birds” are experiencing zugunruhe?)
The other big draw is mating, of course. Favorite stopovers bring together migrating birds of the same species, which means a more diverse choice of mates. Let’s hear it for diversifying the gene pool!
And then there’s the “housing market”; early birds enjoy a greater selection of the preferred, sometimes scarce, nest sites.
OK, So How Do Birds Prepare for Migration?
It’s tough to generalize about bird migration. Consider that some travel long distances, like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) who flaps its tiny wings to reach Central America, or the Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) who sets off for the Caribbean. Others travel short distances, like Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and American Robins (Turdus migratorius) who simply move just far enough in winter to find open water and more food.
Many songbirds, like the Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus), make their way at night to avoid migrating predators like the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), which migrates in daylight. Also, according to the Audubon Society, “Free of daytime thermals [rising warm air], the atmosphere [at night] is more stable, making it easier to maintain a steady course, especially for smaller birds such as warblers that might fly as slowly as 15 miles per hour.”
Some migrators fly in single species flocks, like the Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) that arrive in the fall from the Arctic to spend winters in Michigan. Their plumage is whiter in the snowy north to camouflage them while breeding. During their winter visit here, their plumage includes more brown, making them less visible in fallow farm fields and open prairie. Others, like the Greater (Tringa melanoleuca) and Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) make their way north in mixed flocks during spring migration.
According to Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on Wings: the Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds, even if huge numbers of birds are aloft together, a migrating songbird flying at night, “does not fly in cohesive, coordinated flocks; each is migrating on it own.” House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) and Red-eyed Vireos (Vireo olivaceus), for example are lone nighttime migrators.
Given all that that diversity, here’s what I’ve gleaned so far about how birds prepare.
They Fatten Up Big Time!
Birds really lard up for migration. Experienced naturalist and local bird bander, Allen Chartier, checks the weight of each bird he bands and gently blows the breast feathers aside to actually see the fat layer. He told me in a helpful email that our Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, which normally weigh about 3 grams during breeding season can weigh more than 5 grams as they leave Michigan. They need to keep bulking up along the way and amazingly can double their normal weight in about a week just before heading across the Gulf of Mexico in the autumn or the Yucatan in the spring.
Blackpoll Warblers (Setophaga striata) transit across our state twice a year and Allen says they, “… undergo a long water crossing, sometimes from the mid-Atlantic coast down to Venezuela, non-stop. Normally they weigh 10-11 grams, but can put on enough fat to more than double their weight for these multi-day flights.” He reports that “in the Great Lakes, I have had Blackpoll Warblers that weigh more than 20 grams.” Fat is clearly the essential fuel for bird migration!
As author Scott Weidensaul points out, “By any typical measure, a migratory bird ready for travel ought to head to the ER, not the skies.” But he says, unlike seriously overweight humans, fattened-up migrators are not plagued by increased risk of hypertension, heart disease, diabetes or stroke. Weidensaul says that “Researchers hope that insights from avian physiology may help may help unlock new treatments and preventive approaches in people.” I hope so too!
They “Grow or Jettison their Internal Organs on an As-needed Basis!”
The quote above from Scott Weidensaul’s book just blew me away. The internal organs of birds actually shrink and expand for migration? Yes! “Internal flexibility is actually common among migrants … a thrush or catbird, feeding on the dogwood berries in a corner of the backyard, has undergone a late summer expansion of its intestines to squeeze every calorie from lipid-rich fruit.”
Migrating birds, which need to travel non-stop over oceans or deserts for long distances, shrink their digestive organs since they’re expendable when they can’t stop to feed. But their hearts, lungs and pectoral muscles grow larger, and do so without exercise! On arrival, the digestive organs make a comeback that allows them to start feeding again. Imagine! Transforming organs!
The little Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) below, photographed by Paul Birtwhistle in Costa Rica, may not have needed such drastic transformation for its nonstop trip across the Gulf of Mexico. I couldn’t find a definitive answer to that but it definitely burned a lot of fat! According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s subscription website, Birds of the World, a Chestnut-sided Warbler in non-breeding plumage could have weighed 10 -12 grams when it left the U.S. coast. But these birds are recorded as weighing only about 8 grams when they reach Central America, having lost most or all of their stored fat on their nonstop flights across the Gulf of Mexico.
Weidensaul also reports that both male and female birds shrink their sexual organs for fall migration. Anything to make flying lighter and easier, I guess! Allen Chartier wrote, “Ever since humans began preparing “study skins” for museums, more than 200 years ago, it was discovered that during the non-breeding season the gonads of birds shrink in size, to maybe 10% of the size that they are in the breeding season. It was figured, eventually, that this was to reduce weight for migration, and allow for more body fat to be laid on for migratory flights.” Their gonads are ballooning right now, which is why we are beginning to hear that robust morning chorus in the spring!
Once They Start Moving, How in the World Do They Navigate?
In her lively and well-researched New Yorker article, “Where the Wild Things Go: How Animals Navigate the World,” (April 5, 2021), Kathryn Schulz wrote: “A bird that migrates over long distances must maintain its trajectory by day and by night, in every kind of weather, often with no landmarks in sight. If its travels take more than a few days, it must compensate for the fact that virtually everything it could use to stay oriented will change, from the elevation of the sun to the length of the day and the constellations overhead at night. Most bewildering of all, it must know where it is going — even the first time, when it has never been there before – and it must know where that destination lies compared with its current position.” Wow.
Like humans with our much more limited ability to orient and navigate, birds use a variety of basic navigation strategies, and different species may use a combination of them. Kathryn Schulz lists as strategies: sight, sound or even scent cues, landmarks (mountain ridges, coastlines), compass orientation or vector navigation (stringing together multiple orientations (e.g. south and then southwest for a precise distance) or dead reckoning (calculating based on bearing, speed and time elapsed from a previous location). But she points out, “… to have a sense of direction, a given species might also need to have other faculties, something like a compass, something like a map, a decent memory, the ability to keep track of time, and an information-rich awareness of its environment.” And Weidensaul adds to the list: the patterns of stars around Polaris (the North Star) and the movement of “bands of polarized light that are invisible to us but easily seen by birds.” Wow, again! All that in one small skull!
According to Weidensaul, “Migratory birds grow fresh neurons before autumn migration” and scientists have correlated longer migrations with more neuron growth, presumably as an aid to navigation. The neurons also increase according to whether birds travel individually or in flocks. Warblers which generally fly alone show increases in the hippocampus which processes spatial information and memory. Birds in large migrating flocks see most of the increase in regions of the brain that may be more important for noticing and understanding the actions of other birds.
Researchers believe that a bird’s general destination may be defined by instinct, especially in young birds, many of whom make their first trip alone or with other juveniles. But learning clearly occurs during their first flight with or without adults and plays its part in perfecting the best route from then on.
But what I wanted to know was, how do some migrating birds create and use a mental map of the earth’s magnetic field? I kept finding references to their ability to do so, but no one told me how! Well, Weidensaul had an answer which he says “most experts accept.”
Imagine the little Wilson’s Warbler(Cardellina pusilla) in the photo above glancing upward at the stars as it flies through the night from Central America to where I saw it in Tawas City, Michigan. As I understand it, photons of the stars’ blue light hit specialized cells in the bird’s retina containing molecules of a protein called cryptochrome. (Love the Superman sound of that!) Those molecules react by thrusting one of their electrons into a neighboring molecule and the two become connected (“entangled” in scientific jargon) and magnetic. (That’s the quantum mechanics part which is a bit beyond me.) As light continues to stream in, multiples of these paired molecules build a map of the magnetic field within the bird’s eye. Scientists think the map may appear as a “dim shape or smudge — visible as the bird moves its head, but not opaque enough to interfere with normal vision — that shifts with the bird’s position relative to the ground and to the inclination of the magnetic field lines arcing out of the planet” (Weidensaul). Evidently, birds can orient themselves within that map to help find their way to their destination. Many of us humans have a tough time reading a road map!
If my brief summary leaves you with more questions than answers, you’re in good company. Even scientists don’t completely understand how cryptochrome works its magic and some disagree with the whole theory. But at least that little map in the eye created by starlight and quantum mechanics satisfies my curiosity for now. If you’d like a somewhat what more detailed description, I recommend Chapter Two of Weidensaul’s book, A World on the Wing.
Eating and Sleeping,: How Do They Survive Along the Way?
Eating on migrations varies according to what and how a bird eats. Most migrating birds depend on trusted stopover sites for food and rest. Allen Chartier wrote that “Migrating warblers, sparrows, and thrushes migrate at night, and put on fat to fly 200+ miles each night…” to their next stop. Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus)and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) migrate to Michigan from deep in South America during daylight hours, in order to gobble up flying insects while on the wing as well as at known rest stops.
Amazingly, some birds in other regions of the world fly nonstop for multiple days and nights without eating at all! Weidensaul describes the Bar-tailed Godwit’s “7,200-mile nonstop flight each autumn from western Alaska to New Zealand, a journey that takes them eight or nine days of uninterrupted flight — the longest nonstop migration known.” They are an impressive example of “jettisoning” organs and living on fat. I’m really glad I’m not a godwit – but I am impressed by them!
Drinking in Flight
Birds don’t sweat but they do lose moisture through breathing and excreting. That may account for so many birds migrating at night when the air is cooler and more humid, according to Weidensaul. Of course they look for freshwater wetlands as a basic source of drinking water. But on long ocean or other nonstop flights, for instance, research shows that they can still maintain a healthy amount of moisture by extracting water from their beefed-up muscles and organs while in flight.
Sleeping on the Wing
Most migrating birds do their journeys in stages, resting during the day or night depending on when they travel. Weidensaul reports that “For migratory songbirds, like White-throated Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes (Catharus guttatus,) the onset of migration seasons … decreases the amount of time they sleep by two-thirds, even in captivity, and well before they start migration. They may compensate by taking micronaps during the day.”
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have evolved to use unihemispheric sleep, a condition in which only half the brain sleeps at a time and one eye stays open. Neils Rattenborg directs sleep research at Germany’s Max Planck Institute and his team’s work centers around birds. According to an article from the Max Planck Society, Rattenborg documented that “in a group of sleeping ducks, those [Mallards] sitting at the edge kept their outwardly directed eye open and the corresponding brain hemisphere remained awake. The birds can thereby rest a part of their brain while keeping an eye out for potential predators.” I’m on the lookout for that phenomenon!
By outfitting birds Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor) near the Galapagos Islands with tiny transmitters, Rattenborg also discovered something even more important about sleep. It seems these large birds take repeated unihemispheric naps averaging about 12 seconds long while foraging at sea for six days or more. Sometimes these birds’ entire brains slept while slowly gliding up or down in thermals! Talk about power napping, eh?
What Can We Humans Do to Make Life Easier for Migrating Birds?
Clearly, we’ve created big challenges for migrating birds, despite their amazing adaptations over the eons. So here are just a few of those difficulties and how we might help our beautiful migrating neighbors.
Light Pollution: Birds need a clear view of the night sky even more than we do. (Don’t you miss seeing a sky filled with stars?) So we can turn off outside lights (at home and in workplaces), make the light bulbs yellow or red instead of white, or install shades on outdoor lights that direct the light downward. Inside, we can close curtains or shades where a light is near a window in the evening during migration season. It all helps.
Reflective glass like picture windows: Birds that crash into windows may fly off but they often do so with concussions. Check out this link for options for preventing bird strikes.
Cats: Keep our beloved felines indoors. To quote Cornell Lab of Ornithology on this subject, “These are non-native predators that, even using conservative estimates, kill 1.3–4 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals each year in the U.S. alone. Exhausted migratory birds and fledglings are particularly at risk.
Habitat Loss: Restore natural areas and plant native plants at home. Birds count on finding the adult insects, caterpillars, and seeds that make up their diet when they arrive at a stopover or their final destination. If that land is covered by concrete or invaded by non-native plants that don’t provide the nutrition or cover they need, birds suffer along with the rest of the creatures in that habitat.
Climate Change: Actively, drastically and quickly reduce our use of fossil fuels. Climate disruption effects migratory birds in so many ways. But here are at least two important ones. It causes more severe weather events which vulnerable migrators must negotiate over long distances. Also, insects and plants initiate hatching or blooming by ground temperature; as the ground warms earlier, overwintering insects hatch earlier, plants mature more quickly. Birds, however, initiate migration by the position of the sun and the length of daylight. As a result, tired migrators may arrive in the spring unable to find the insects, nectar or pollen on which they depend. Want evidence? Look here!
Birds Do It, Bees Do It, Even Whales in the Seas Do It … Let’s Do It. Let’s Start to Adapt…
Obviously, we humans need to adapt just like the migrators have – but a lot faster! We don’t have thousands of years for evolution to re-engineer our bodies and nature itself to cope with the new climate we’re creating with fossil fuels. No miracles of transforming digestive systems, cryptochrome maps in our eyes or unihemispheric sleep are on our immediate horizon. Nature already gave us our adaptive tools – our brains and our will. We already know much of what is needed; the trick is, do we find the collective will as a species to do it in time? The changes we need to make are significant, but not insurmountable. Nature is already warning us with tornadoes, floods, droughts, melting glaciers. It’s insisting “You can do this! Use the adaptation tools between your ears that you were blessed with and save us all!” I certainly hope more humans heed that desperate call – and soon!
A World on the Wing: The Global Odyssey of Migratory Birds by Scott Weidensaul, W.W. Norton and Company, New York 2021
“Where the Wild Things Go: How Animals Navigate the World,” by Kathryn Schulz, published April 5, 2021 in the New Yorker magazine
Birds of the World, a subscription-only website from Cornel Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University in collaboration with the American Ornithological Society.
“The Evolution of Bird Migration, “Adapted from the Handbook of Bird Biology, Third Edition, on Cornell University’s website “All About Birds”‘
Summer’s slow demise in late August/early September urged me to acknowledge the need for letting go. Tiny warblers seem to suddenly disappear as they head south. Canada geese begin their practice runs, forming loose “V’s” while trumpeting across the sky. Hummingbirds feed ravenously at any available nectar, gaining 25-40% of their body weight before the long journey to Mexico. Some fledglings still flutter, cry and pursue their parents for a meal; others hone their newly acquired foraging skills. Spiraling through the trees, they seek out the feast of eggs or caterpillars that the pollinators left behind. The meadows quiet down as molting birds hide their bare heads in the greenery hoping to be unseen. Wasps buzz above our outdoor meals, struggling to supplement diminished sources of food.
I spent quiet hours at the newer, eastern section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park during these waning days of summer. Come join me in the thinning sunlight and share the ebullience of young birds, the sprays of grasshoppers beneath my feet, and the persistence of butterflies on late summer blossoms that are hallmarks of this transitional season of the year.
Birds, Experienced and Not-so-experienced, Forage and Flutter
I spent my days at Stony Creek Ravine exploring the open fields visible from the top of the Outlook Hill in the eastern section of the park. Much of this area is fenced in to protect small shrubs and trees planted in the re-emerging wetlands. Thousands of native plants were sown there when the old drainage tiles from previous owners were broken to allow water to flow again to the surface. In the spring, pools form and migrating waterbirds glide in for a bit of R&R.
Right now, though, the fenced-in sections are moist but little standing water remains after a hot summer. Social birds flock to the fences to chatter together. Solitary birds, some unusual ones this season, forage within the fence boundaries. Other just need a place to periodically perch while scouting for seeds among the tall grass and flowers within or around the fencing. My photographer friend, Bob Bonin, generously shared some of his excellent photos of birds he came across while patiently waiting near the fence line. It was the right place to be, as you’ll see below!
Young Fledglings Practice Their Foraging, Flying and Landing Skills
One of my mornings at Stony Creek Ravine was in the company of Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s Wednesday bird walks. As we entered the park, we spotted several young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) whisking in and out of the shrubbery, bits of blue on their wings shining in the sunlight. Three of them spent a remarkable amount of time exploring a hole in a distant snag. We wondered if, being cavity nesters, they were just curious about holes in general or if this hole might have been the one from which they fledged only weeks before.
On another visit, an adult Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) regally surveyed the area from the tallest branch of a bare tree. Perhaps the adult I saw (below left) was keeping its eye out for its offspring, a juvenile that Bob Bonin saw a few days earlier (below right.) Both birds will shortly be heading to forests in South America where they will feast on fruit during the winter. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Bob also spotted a female Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps one of her offspring. Like their bright orange relatives, the Baltimore Oriole, these birds build pouch-like nests. They breed in our parks each year but are less noticeable to most of us. The male is a dark russet orange and black and the female is yellow. Orchard Orioles depart for their overwintering grounds earlier than many other birds, so by now they’re on their way to Central America.
I fell instantly in love with this little puffball. Local bird expert, Allen Chartier, tells me it’s a juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). This young bird can relax a bit longer than the distance migrators. Song Sparrows travel around just enough during the winter to keep themselves out of the worst of Michigan’s cold season.
A few other small birds appeared for me along the fence line. A little Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) sings one of the most recognizable calls of a summer day– the rising “Pee – weeeee?” that sounds like an oft-repeated question. Birdsong beginners, like me, appreciate a song that identifies this little flycatcher who can be difficult to spot otherwise. Bob Bonin spotted a little Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) who’ll be heading off to Florida before long. And he also saw a young Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its telltale pink/orange beak and feet.
Breeding Season Over, Adult Summer Visitors Relax Before Migration
My friend Bob brings patience as well as skill to his photography. He caught sight of two birds at the park that people rarely see and waited until he got the shot he wanted. One was a “leucistic” Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) which means that it had partial pigmentation loss. Unlike the complete loss of pigmentation of albinos which also causes white, pink or red eyes, leucistic animals have partial pigmentation loss and their eyes are dark. Bob also waited over two hours for a closeup of another unusual bird, a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) as it foraged for spiders and insects down in the dense grass, sedges and small shrubs within the fence. This is ideal habitat for Sedge Wrens, but since they are unpredictable nomads, we can’t count on seeing them every year.
Stony Creek Ravine hosts some more common summer residents as well – and we’re always glad to see them as well.
The plaintive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fell from the trees around a marshy area filled with sedges (genus Carex), ancient, grass-like plants that thrive in moist ground. When it suddenly appeared overhead, I caught it twice with my camera, once like a magnificent arrow streaking across the sky, and once in mid-scream from a prey’s eye view. Glad I’m too big to be carried away for dinner!
Down Below, Butterflies, Bees and Late-Season Grasshoppers Harvested the Last of Summer’s Bounty
One of late summer’s most glamorous residents appeared in August, the glorious Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), North America’s biggest butterfly. If you’d like to attract some to your garden, two of its favorite native plants are Rose/Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and all of the goldenrods, both of which bloom in late summer and early fall If you can also tolerate thistles, they seem to favor them quite a lot more than we do!
At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the black and gold-spotted dorsal ( upper) sides of the Giant Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes,) especially if they’re flying. But compare the ventral (lower) side of the wings. The underside of the Giant Swallowtail’s wings are yellow and the Eastern Black’s (below) are black. I was lucky to see both feeding at thistles during my visits to Stony Creek Ravine.
Smaller butterflies and moths float and flutter in the grass as well, of course – and one well-fed caterpillar just chews its way along.
As regular readers know, I’m intrigued by insects of many kinds and want to convince all comers to just enjoy them. So here are some of my other favorites during late summer at Stony Creek Ravine.
Hardy Native Wildflowers Mix with Plentiful Non-natives until Restoration Advances.
Though the fields in the eastern section of the park have been cleared of many non-native shrubs, native wildflowers are not plentiful yet in the fields at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The long stretch of native wetland Black-eyed Susans in the photo above is a glorious exception. Restoration of a healthy habitat with more diversity has begun with seed planting at this large park, but it will take several years to come to fruition. So I have to smile seeing sturdy native blooms holding their own amidst the non-native plants on the Outlook Hill, in the surrounding fields and near the wetlands. Here are some of the other stalwart native competitors declaring their presence at this amazing 268 acre park.
One native plant that’s rampant at the park this year may not please everyone – Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia.) So if you suffer from hay fever, now is not a good time for your visit! Please remember, though, ragweed pollen is dispersed by the wind; that’s why it ends up in noses. So please don’t blame your sneezing on innocent goldenrods that bloom at much the same time. Their pollen is heavy and falls right to the ground, far from sensitive noses!
Oh! And One Creepy Fungus that I Just Have to Share!
One of the benefits of being in a birding group is having more eyes and ears seeking out interesting details in the landscape, plus access to other people’s areas of expertise. For example, the energetic, hardworking summer natural areas stewardship technicains each year provide me, at least, with younger eyes and ears, youthful enthusiasm and a knowledge base more updated than mine!
In late July, while walking up the path to the ravine, Emma Campbell, one of this summer’s technicians, stopped to comment on a spiky bump in the trail that most of us stepped around, assuming that it was just a sharp piece of root. But Emma carefully broke off one small portion and finding it white inside, correctly identified as a fungus spookily called Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). Evidently it’s a common fungus that grows from rotting wood; as you can see below, this one emerged around the remains of a stump. What a Halloween-ish discovery! Thank you, Emma! Wish I could have creeped out some friends with this one when I was a kid!
The “Oohs” and the “Ughs” of Nature’s Impulse to Keep Fostering Life
Unless you are a hopeless romantic, every close observer of the natural world knows that nature is not all “sweetness and light.” The lives around us in nature can be both big and beautiful like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) or small and homely like the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea). It can be full of tenderness, like birds tirelessly feeding their young or ruthless in its need to survive, like a hawk tearing the flesh of its prey. It can be inspiring like a flight of fall geese or macabre like the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus. But whatever qualities it has for us humans, nature itself doesn’t judge and never despairs. Against all odds, nature just proceeds eon after eon in service of sustaining life, whatever that takes. The “nature of nature,” as it were, is to adapt, survive and assure the existence of the next generation.
We humans, as just another species, would do well to take a lesson from the creatures and plants that surround us. We cannot afford to despair as our behavior changes the climate, threatening life on this special blue planet. Generations could stretch on into the future indefinitely if we would do as all other creatures have evolved to do – adapt, change, survive and above all, work hard to ensure that long after we’re gone, life continues on a healthier path than we’re on right now. If we do, our grandchildren and their descendants will honor our efforts and that honor will be well deserved. Let’s not disappoint them.
At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.
Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!
So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.
Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors
In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.
But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.
Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies
My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.
This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.
A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!
Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.
At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.
It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.
At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!
One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.
An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.
Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.
Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.
Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.
Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!
On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!
Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails
Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.
The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of MichiganField Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.
A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.
During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.
On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.
The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures
Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).
Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.
Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.
I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.
I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.
This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!
Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April
It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.
During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!
This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.
On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!
A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.
On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.
Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April
Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.
The Avian Summer Residents
My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.
Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!
Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.
In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.
On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.
According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.
Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.
Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)
All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through
The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.
Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods
As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.
In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.
Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.
And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.
Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!
In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.
As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.