Charles Ilsley Park: A-Flutter with Wings of All Sizes

Text and Photos
by Cam Mannino

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

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben Vanderweide (far right) joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center in watching a migrating Blue-headed Vireo at Charles Ilsley Nature Park.

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.

A Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius). Photo by willemspan at iNaturalist.org (CC BY)

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!

House Wren eggs laid in a neat circle within a nestbox crammed with twigs and topped with grass and feathers.

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.

The Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park four days after the prescribed 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.

Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie three weeks after the prescribed burn.

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 Eastern Kingbird can be spotted at a distance by its upright posture and white tail band. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

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
The western woods at Charles Ilsley Park features vernal pools like this and a long, mysterious marsh.

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.

The larger leaves are Duckweed and the smaller are Water Meal which has created a thick green mat on the surface of the long western marsh at Charles Ilsley Park.

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.

A male Wood Duck calmly makes his way through the Water Meal plants on the surface of the park’s western wetland. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

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!

The Great Crested Flycatcher’s yellow breast should make it easier to spot from below as it hunts high in the tree canopy. I’m still learning to spot it, though!

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 Eight-Spotted Forester Moth lays its eggs and pupates in the forest, but the adults feed in the sunshine at the forest edge.

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 Michigan Field 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.

A White-spotted Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively interested in clover blossoms on the low grass of the trail.

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.

The Cuckcoo Bee lays its eggs in the pollen-stocked nest of other solitary bees, eliminating the need for pollen-collecting hairs on its body.

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.

The Grass Veneer Moth is perching vertically on a small grass blade, its wings folded and its long “snout,” (which is really part of its mouth) pointing straight up. And look at that weird white eye! A delightfully odd little moth with its brown racing stripe, don’t you agree? OK, maybe not…

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.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

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.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

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

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in 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.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

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!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

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.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

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.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

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.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

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.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

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.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

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.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

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.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

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.

Charles Ilsley Park: The Solace of Nature, Despite Windstorms and Heat

On June 10, a powerful windstorm with 90 mph winds flattened half of a small woods along  our driveway, dropped and split trees around our yard and dramatically thinned and damaged the larger forest canopy that surrounds our house. As soon as that massive fist of wind plowed its way north, the heat descended, staying around 90 degrees for two weeks or so. As a result, my forays into Charles Ilsley Park to monitor nest boxes became my only opportunity to see nature largely unscathed.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Twice each week, I hike out to see if eggs in the nest boxes have hatched, if nestlings are becoming feathered, if fledglings have ventured forth into the big world outside. So in this blog, I’ll share in one virtual hike what I saw at Charles Ilsley Park before the windstorm and during my semi-weekly monitoring walks. Glad you’re accompanying me.

 

 

CIP_BlogVirtualHike

On the Path Heading In

The trail into Charles Ilsley Park

Local birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, alerted my photographer friends Joan and Bob Bonin and me to the presence of a Yellow-throated Vireo nest (Vireo flavifrons) near the parking lot. I searched the branches on two different trips and never spotted it. But luckily, Bob got a great photo of this lovely migrator on its nest. The nest is such an art piece, as you’ll see below. It’s usually made of bits of bark, grasses, dry leaves; this one is decorated with lichen as well – and all nicely packaged with spider silk! The males and females of this vireo look alike (monomorphic) and both genders incubate the young. Ruth reported that she saw the female in the nest being serenaded by the male nearby. But I have no way of knowing which gender Bob saw for this photo. Sigh…wish I could have seen this bird in its nest – but I’m  so glad Ruth and the Bonins did!

Both male and female vireos incubate their eggs. Photo by Bob Bonin with permission.

An Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) landed in the big oaks along the entrance trail. It appeared to have a bit of nesting material in its beak – probably a piece of lichen. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this little flycatcher’s “lichen-covered nest is so inconspicuous that it often looks like a knot on a branch.”

An Eastern Wood-pewee with lichen for nesting material

The Central Prairie – Flowers Blooming and Boxes Filled with Baby Birds

Birding group enjoying a pause on the central prairie

Blooms, Butterflies and Beetles

On my early visits, purple spires of Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) peeked out of the grass here and there in the central and western prairie. Lupine once established can tolerate intense sun and dry soil, so it does well in prairies. When I came back later in June with the birding group, some of the lupines had made fuzzy seed pods that I’d never noticed before!

By the time the pods had formed on the lupine, a summer bloom, Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) had emerged in the central prairie. Coreopsis bursts forth in golden composite blooms. The sunshine-yellow, ragged “petals” are really ray florets that surround the tiny disc florets at the flower’s center. These florets are tiny individual flowers, part of the plant’s reproductive structure.

Lance-leaf Coreopsis is a composite, a bloom formed by two kinds of florets. The center is a cluster of disc florets that provide nectar and pollen, surrounded by ray florets that look like petals.

According to one of my fave wildflower websites, Illinois Wildflowers, it also provides both nectar and pollen to a wide variety of floral visitors – lots of native bee species as well as beetles, and butterflies. One of the birders spotted a Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) sipping nectar avidly from a Coreopsis. Unlike most butterflies, its caterpillar overwinters. According to Wikipedia, in late summer or fall, the caterpillar stops eating, spins out some silk and wraps itself in a pre-hibernation web on a plant.  Before winter begins, it will exit the web, and spend the cold months hibernating in dead grass or leaf litter until pupating in the spring.

A Baltimore Checkerspot enjoying the nectar of a Prairie Coreopsis

A couple mid-summer wildflowers appeared later in June. Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) produces tiny hairs on every surface – leaves, stems, even petals. Clearly this wildflower knows how to protect itself from predators who don’t like a mouthful of fuzz! And blazing orange Butterfly Milkweed  (Asclepias tuberosa) is thrusting its way up through the tall grass and daisies as well – a food source for the Monarch caterpillar. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

In deep grass at the edge of the trail, a buttery yellow flutter caught my eye. It was a diurnal (daytime) moth with feathery antennae. Knowledgeable folks on the “Butterflying Michigan” Facebook page helped me identify it as a member of the genus Xanthotype. It’s evidently either a Crocus Geometer or a False Crocus Geometer,  but I was also informed that a definitive species identification between the two would require examining their genitalia! Uh, no.

A small Geometer moth from the genus Xanthotype on the path at Charles Ilsley Park

Native bees foraged on flowers in the central prairie too. I’ve learned that it’s nigh on to impossible to identify the species of a native bee from a photograph so I won’t try. But I do love to see these solitary bees at home in our parks, especially a flashy metallic green one like this bee on the non-native Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).

A native bee making the most of a non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Following the path around the Center Prairie in early June, I found one of the small ponds swirling with busy Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae).

A slightly fuzzy photo of a swimming Whirligig beetle as it paused for a second.

These gregarious beetles are beautifully adapted for survival. They row around in circles on the surface with their middle and back legs, probably looking for mates or prey, but also making it tough for would-be predators to catch one! They can also swim underwater if necessary because they trap an air bubble under their stiff wing covers (or “elytra”). They constantly produce a waxy substance that keeps them buoyant and makes them slippery to predators. In fact, males have sticky front legs so the female doesn’t slip from their grasp while mating! Add to that, their split eyes that can see both above and below the water and their ability to fly and it’s clear that whirligig beetles have evolved for survival in pretty sophisticated ways. Here’s a little of the stir they were  creating at Ilsley.

Neonatal Care in the Central Prairie

The nest boxes in the Central Prairie are busy places in June. Birds industriously construct nests inside, lay their eggs, feed their nestling at a relentless pace and eventually frenetically feed the begging fledglings when they emerge. This year the boxes that I’m monitoring sheltered Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and a House Wren. Luckily, all the birds that I monitor this year lived harmoniously, though the Tree Swallows gave me friendly reminders of their presence by swooping right over my head while I checked their boxes. Here’s a Tree Swallow adult (Tachycineta bicolor) giving me the once over as I passed near its box.

A Tree Swallow on last summer’s  Evening Primrose preparing to dive bomb me –  in a friendly way, of course –  as I approached to monitor a nest.

Tree Swallow eggs are small, pure white and sit daintily in their grassy nests lined with white feathers. After the  writhing, pink hatchlings emerge, it takes about a week for them to begin to develop dark feathers beneath their pink skin, as you can see below. I assume that the white edges on their beaks help adults aim their beaks accurately as they feed each of them in the dark of a nest box or tree cavity.

Tree Swallows love to line their nests with white feathers. These nestlings at about a week old are just beginning to form feathers under skin.

Here’s a lovely lady Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) taking a break from incubation on a nest box in the central prairie.

A female Eastern Bluebird with some food for her nestlings.

Bluebird eggs are usually pale blue and the nest is constructed of grass and sometimes pine needles. Here are some nestlings in a pile in one of my bluebird boxes almost ready to become fledglings. It’s pretty crowded in there with six of them! These little ones napping in a heap are about 6 days from entering the big, bright world outside.

Bluebird nestlings piled this way and that about 6 days before leaving the nest.

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) paused on a twig with food for its young. Song Sparrows can nest on the ground or as high as 15 feet up in a shrub. I wondered if this one was waiting for me to move along before darting to its nest hidden somewhere in the vicinity. Wish I could see those nestlings!

A Song Sparrow with food for its nestlings nearby

A Battle for a Nest Box in the Western Prairie

A male bluebird calmly watching a fellow male caught up in a fracas in the western prairie.

Things were not so peaceful in the western prairie. During a birding walk in June, we witnessed a daring feat of courage. For some reason, four adult Tree Swallows attempted to drive a male Eastern Bluebird (and probably the female inside) out of a nest box. We watched the aerial acrobatics of the iridescent blue swallows as they repeatedly dove at the harried male Bluebird who defended the box. The persistent swallows even clipped him with their wings occasionally as he ducked and snapped at them. Here are a series of stills as the battle  raged.

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The bluebird stayed right where he was and Tom from our birding group reported finding bluebird eggs inside the next day. Though Bluebirds will not tolerate another bluebird close by, they generally ignore the swallows and vice versa. But not this time.  Hooray for the brave little bluebird!

A Side Trip to the Eastern Prairie in Search of A Tiny Bird

Birders social distancing on their way to the eastern prairie

By traveling around the west prairie and back through the north one, we reach the central prairie trail again which takes us to eastern prairie. I love this rolling landscape full of dancing native grasses and wildflowers. But I only got there once in early June before the windstorm struck. What prompted me was the alert from Ruth Glass who, along with seeing the Yellow-throated Vireo, had also seen the nest of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) in a Box Elder there. When I reached the right tree,  I stood for several minutes scrutinizing it without seeing the tiny nest. But suddenly a Gnatcatcher flew in with food in its beak – and I could see it! My photos were just so-so, but again my photographer buddies, the Bonins, came through. Joan got a beautiful photo of the nest with an adult Gnatcatcher sitting inside so I can share this little beauty with you. Again, the nest is decorated with lichens which not only are beautiful but scientists believe have anti-microbial properties that fend off infections, like mosses do.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on its little nest decorated with lichen. Photo by Joan Z. Bonin with permission

Near the wetland on the south side of the prairie, a Common Yellowthroat burbled his “witchedy witchedy” song, declaring his territory to ward off other males. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Each male normally has only one mate in his territory during a breeding season. However, a female’s mating calls often attract other males, and she may mate with them behind her mate’s back.”  I believe the female’s “ready to mate” call, a fast series of chips, is the second “call” (as opposed to “song”) listed at this Cornell link.  What scamps, those females! But these little birds are contending with predation from carnivorous birds like Merlins and Shrikes and sometimes have to cope with Brown-headed Cowbirds dropping eggs in their nests. Increasing the genetic diversity of their offspring may help the species adjust to the perils of their habitat, or help that female ensure some of her young survive.

Male Common Yellowthroats are calling all over Ilsley now, defending their territory and access to their mates.

On the Way Back:  An Uncrowned King and a Vigorous Bath 

Along the trail back to the parking lot, an elegant Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) with a white tip on its tail, broad shoulders and a rounded crown perched near the tree line. The Kingbird’s crown, I’ve learned, hides a bright red/orange patch at its center which can be raised in a threat gesture just before dive-bombing any intruder in its territory, even Crows, Red-tailed Hawks or Great Blue Herons flying overhead! Its feistiness and that crown evidently earned it the name Kingbird. I’ve never seen that scarlet crown; I even searched for a photo of it on iNaturalist.org to no avail. But if you want to see a Kingbird’s crown when it’s really riled up, page down a short way at  this link from McGill Bird Observatory! The Kingbird that I saw at Ilsley was considerably more mellow.

Eastern Kingbirds flock together and forage for fruit each winter in the forests of South America.

As I crested a slope on the way back to the car,  I paused at a distance to watch a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) take a dust bath. In a soft patch of dry earth, the bird performed a series of fast gyrations while beating its wings at high speed. When I developed the series of photos, I realized that in its frenzy, this male had exposed his belly by rolling onto his back! I’m guessing he had been plagued by mites and was determined to get rid of them! Here’s the sequence of moves that he made:

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Nature Knitting My Raveled Sleeve Once More…

A Carolina Wren that appeared at our home in March. It’s carrying a bit of moss for the nest.

Shakespeare said that it was sleep that “knits the raveled sleeve of care” – and Will was right, of course. But nature is a gifted knitter of cares for me as well. The leafy landscape at home that has soothed me for more than a quarter century is drastically changed –    large sections of it simply absent, twisted, broken, split, dying.

But despite nature’s power to destroy,  it still acts as a balm through it all. When a pair of Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) disappeared from our yard after the windstorm, I could visit the nest boxes at Charles Ilsley Park to to see pink hatchlings just out of their shells and know life would go on. In Ilsley’s western prairie, the bluebird stood his ground and started his family. The whirligigs danced and dove; blooms rose from the earth and turned their many colored faces to the sun. While sitting at my back door disconsolate, staring at a huge pile of broken tree limbs, two Baltimore Orioles alighted and quickly mated as if to say, “We lost our nestlings in the storm, but here we are, starting again.” And at home, the Carolina Wrens returned four days after the destruction, the male singing his three phrase song as loudly and ebulliently as ever. So through all the craziness of this plague year, I was blessed with short interludes to breathe in the beauty and resilient energy of life despite the chaos around us. And for that I’m very grateful.

A Bevy of Migrators Discover the New Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a common sight this spring at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

While I spent late March and early April scouting out Watershed Ridge Park, the migrating birds –  and ducks especially – discovered the sparkling new wetlands at the 208 acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. As part of this park’s restoration, the tiles that had drained the field while under agriculture were broken. Water began to naturally rise to the surface, recreating the wetlands that once acted as a refuge for wildlife. (For a brief description of this process, see an earlier blog on this park.) So this spring, weary migrators of all kinds began making the most of this new place to rest and forage. Some will spend the summer here raising young. Others relax for a few days and then head north on a strong south wind.

So this blog will be a bit different than others. Thanks to Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager and Ruth Glass, a local expert birder of many years, I received a copious list of the ducks and other migrators that the two of them have already seen at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this spring before I made my visits there. Though they watch and appreciate birds, they rarely take photos of them.

Some photos and all text
by Cam Mannino

A fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, who frequents this park occasionally, was kind enough to share some of her impressive photos with me. And I’ve supplemented my recent photos and hers with photos from the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org. So now, thanks to all of those helpers, I can share some of the wild life that’s visiting our newest natural area. The number of beautiful migrators and year ’round birds spotted at this park is dazzling.

[A note:  Visiting this new section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is difficult right now, because there’s no parking lot and not much in the way of trails, just tire tracks encircling the fenced enclosure that contains the wetlands within the conservation easement held by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ.) But the Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to have a parking lot and some trails mowed by this summer. Meanwhile, consider exploring the original 60 acres that features the ravine itself and is accessible at the end of Knob Creek Drive. And if you visit the east expansion, please stay back from the wetlands so that you don’t flush the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We’ll let you know when this larger part of park is ready for prime time!]

Restore the Wetlands and They Will Come!

One of the large ponds that formed last autumn at Stony Creek Ravine when the drainage tiles installed years ago were crushed and the water rose again naturally.

It gladdens my heart to know that weary migrating ducks and shorebirds are gliding down from pale, spring skies to settle on these pools. Here are a few that Ben, Joan and Ruth saw. What a collection of special ducks!

American Wigeons floating in a restored wetland at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The ducks floating inside the conservation easement in the photo above are American Wigeons (Mareca americana). Wigeons are dabbling ducks, as are all the ducks seen at the huge new expanse of Stony Creek Ravine this spring. I imagine that ducks must be able to gauge water depth from the air since we’ve yet to see any diving ducks, which require deeper water. Dabblers tip up, tails in the air, to forage beneath the water for grasses, mollusks, small crustaceans and insects. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers have legs positioned forward, which allows them to waddle and forage on the muddy edge and sometimes on dry land. The legs of diving ducks are positioned farther back on their bodies to provide more thrust for diving,  which means that walking on land is awkward at best for them.

American Wigeons have a short bill so they can pick grains off terrestrial plants as well as aquatic ones. Here’s a closeup shot from BJ Stacey at iNaturalist. Pretty jazzy green eye patch, eh? And I like the white bill and crown, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is where they got the nickname “baldpate.” Hope I can remember that for ID purposes!

American Wigeons are dabbling ducks that can eat both under water and on land. Photo by BJ Stacey (CC BY-NC)

Ben alerted me to the presence of Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) in the newly restored wetlands, but though I’ve visited the park several times, I’ve missed them! The bills of Green-winged Teals are edged with comb-like structures called lamellae. By dipping their beaks in the water or wet mud, they can strain out tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and such. Both Ben and Ruth spotted 14-16 of these small ducks in the easement ponds at various times this April.

Green-winged Teal strain food through comb-like structures on their bills. Photo by Philip Mark Osso (CC BY-NC) .  

It’s not surprising that a duck with the Latin genus name “Spatula” has a huge spoon-shaped bill! Look at the size of that bill on the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) below! They feed by swinging it from side to side in shallow water to sieve out creatures from the shallows. The male’s bill is black and the female’s orange. These migrators don’t stick around Michigan for the summer. Maps at the Cornell Lab show them heading northwest to breed in western Canada and Alaska or northeast to breed as far north as Maine or New Brunswick. Northern Shovelers may move south for the winter, but prefer cooler summers when raising young.

The Northern Shoveler is identified by its large spoon-shaped bill. Photo by Chris Butler at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) are tiny ducks that make long migrations.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they spend the winter either in the Caribbean, a likely destination for our Michigan population, or Central and South America for western populations. They usually arrive late in the spring and leave in early fall; Ruth saw some in mid-April at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Blue-winged Teal breed and rear their young in Michigan summers. The male’s white “paint stripe” behind the bill will be a field mark I’ll look for in the future, as well as sky-blue wing patches beneath their wings when they rise into the air. (Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org)

A tiny, long distance traveler, the Blue-winged Teal can breed in Michigan. Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Champion bird spotter Ruth Glass also saw Gadwall (Mareca strepera) and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) among the flotillas at Stony Creek Ravine. Gadwall may escape notice from a distance, mistaken for your average brown female duck. But look at the beautifully intricate patterning on its breast and flank in the photo below! Cornell Lab reports that these sweet-looking ducks occasionally “snatch food from diving ducks as they surface.” Sneaky little ducks! They’ll head to northern Canada to breed. Glad they took some R&R with us!

The delicate pattern of its feathers sets the Gadwall apart from other ducks . Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)

One of the ducks that Ruth Glass saw was not a migrator American Black Ducks  (Anas rubripes), according to the Cornell Lab, live here year ’round, but they are shy ducks and often mistaken for female mallards. They actually hybridize with Mallards so some have green patches on their heads. Hope I recognize them if I see some this summer!

American Black Ducks are often seen in the company of Mallards and are mistaken for mallard females. Photo by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Ruth and Ben finally spotted some shore birds in the conservation easement wetlands as well. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) love flooded fields so the shallow ponds are perfect for them. The feathers of  this shorebird were fashionable in the 19th century so their numbers declined. They  rebounded when hunting them was outlawed in the US and Canada in the early 20th century. Sadly though, they are in decline again because of the disappearance of wetlands. So hooray for Oakland Township’s Land Preservation Fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund for enabling Parks and Recreation to acquire and protect this habitat that is so important to these birds!

Though tolerant of other shorebirds during migration, Lesser Yellowlegs fiercely defend their nests in northern Canada. (Photo by jdmanthey CC BY-NC)

Cornell Lab says that the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is known for its strident alarm calls and will perch high in trees to keep a sharp eye out for nest predators. They migrate from Central America or the Caribbean to the boreal wetlands of northern Canada in order to breed. Its beak looks about as long as its legs! Other field marks include a longer, slightly upturned bill for foraging in deeper water and barring on the flanks that go much farther toward the tail. Pretty subtle differences, aren’t they?

The Greater Yellowlegs has a much longer bill than the Lesser Yellowlegs and wades into deeper water. (Photo by jdelaneynp CC BY-NC)

After having failed to see these two Yellowlegs several times at the park, I finally saw a lone one stalking around one of the shallow ponds near Snell Road and took a long distance shot through the fence. Ben and Ruth both guess that it’s a Greater Yellowlegs.  It’s easier to judge the two types of Yellowlegs when they are wading around together and the differences in their bill size, barring on their flanks and overall body bulk are more apparent.

A Yellowlegs foraging in a shallow wetland at Stony Creek Ravine.

And of course, the nattily-dressed Killdeer, a plover who likes a bit of mud at its feet, has taken up residence within the wetlands as well. Since these birds simply scratch out a depression in the soil to lay their eggs, the sparsely vegetated soil of the wetlands provides great habitat. I took this photo between the fence wires and the Killdeer with its large orange eyes paid me no mind.

Killdeers may be happy to nest  inside the protection of the  conservation fence near the water.

Ruth Glass’ Rare Sighting

Ruth Glass reported a rare bird in Stony Creek Ravine Park this spring – the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Some experts consider it a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts identify it as a color morph of that more common hawk. Whatever, it is rare to see a Krider’s this far east in the United States! Ruth described its normal territory for me. “Krider’s breed on the northern Great Plains of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter on the southern Great Plains south to the Gulf Coast, and east into the Mississippi River Valley.” She observed it through her scope for part of an afternoon, but hasn’t seen it since, as it no doubt headed north. What a magnificent and lucky sighting! Here’s a closeup of a Krider’s by an iNaturalist photographer; Ruth said that it’s in very much the same pose and background as the one she saw.

A Krider’s Red-Tailed Hawk showed up for Ruth Glass at the park. A rare sight this far east! (Photo by Mark Greene at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

I saw two of our more common Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) riding a thermal high in the air on a sunny morning at the park. Bathed in the bright sunlight, one of them flew to the field where I was walking and  hung overhead, as if it were scoping me out. Glad I’m not a mouse or a chipmunk! Note its brown belly-band and brown head, unlike the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk above.

“Snow Birds” of the Fields Also Find Their Way Here.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park also hosts a wide variety of upland birds which, like human “snow birds,” leave us behind in the autumn and return each spring. Ruth spotted a pair of  American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) hunting from atop the fence posts at the park. One afternoon, a monumental chase occurred in which one kestrel grabbed a vole in its talons and the other screamed as it chased its compatriot over the fields trying to snatch it away. Wish I had seen that. Glad Ruth did!

The American Kestrel is our country’s smallest falcon. Photo by Pablo H. Capovilla at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) also dropped in at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Ruth loves these birds as much as I do. As she says, “They are such a fun bird! As a close cousin of the Mockingbird, the strangest noises come out of them, including: cell phone beeps and rings, car alarms, sirens, scolding noises, many other birds’ songs, etc.” She took a lovely photo of one through her scope at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

Brown Thrashers are great imitators of noises as well as other birds’ songs. Photo by Ruth Glass with permission

Ruth can identify minor differences between sparrows – and their songs! This month at Stony Creek Ravine, she came across two that are rare sightings for me. I’ve never identified the Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Though it can be heard in the early morning, its name refers to its evensong at twilight. Looking through binoculars, the field marks for this little sparrow are a thin eye ring and a tiny chocolate-colored patch at the top of its wing.

The Vesper Sparrow sings even as it gets dark, hence its lovely name. Photo by Bryan Box (CC BY-NC)

The Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) loves grassy meadows, the denser the better; they build their nests on the ground amid deep thatch left by last year’s stems. I wonder if the one Ruth saw a few weeks ago will nest at Stony Creek Ravine; a lot of the land was cleared to create the conservation area. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Savannah Sparrows are very common – but I’ve only seen this striped sparrow with the yellow patch around its eye twice. Here’s my photo from Draper Twin Lake Park in 2018.

A field mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the yellow patch in front of the eye.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I watched the flight of a returning Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who settled onto a tree limb. Herons normally nest in rookeries so I’ve no idea where this one will settle into its communal nursery. I was just glad that it had a good long look at Stony Creek Ravine from its perch at the edge of the trees north of the wetland enclosure. Amazing how such a large bird can look so tiny against that lovely dark woods!

A Great Blue Heron perched in a tree beyond the north edge of the conservation easement  

Ruth arrived high on the Outlook Point between the restored wetlands at dusk to see the mating flight of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). She tells me she’s seen three of these “timberdoodles!” I finally got a good look at one last year when Ben held his annual Earth Day Woodcock event, sadly cancelled this year due to the need for social distancing. At dusk, this oddly-shaped bird makes a buzzing beep, sounding  a bit like the cartoon Road Runner. Then it sails high up in the darkening sky, spirals down and lands right where it took off. Quite a courtship ritual! I’ve scared them up right from under my feet at least three times in various parks, but with no chance for a photo. Fortunately iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith was luckier than I was.

Woodcocks are known for their dramatic spiral mating dance performed high in the sky at dusk. (Photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC)

My trips to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month have given me a chance to welcome back a couple of my favorite sparrows. The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its pinkish beak and feet showed up for me about 10 days ago. The males sing their bouncing ball song all over the park right now. Maybe the shy, quiet one that my camera caught (left below)was a female. The male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) tirelessly repeated his courting song that ends in a quick buzz or trill. And as always, he accommodated me by sitting on a perch in the open and ignoring my presence completely. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Here’s just a sampling of the variety of birds that the four of us – Ben, Ruth, Joan and I – have enjoyed in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month. Such abundance –  and I’m sure we’ve not yet seen all there is to see!

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With Apologies to John Donne: No Creature is an Island…

Old Oak at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

I must admit that at first it felt a bit odd using so many photos by other people in this blog. Usually the observations and photos are mostly mine. But it’s occurred to me that it’s somehow fitting to be supported by others’ efforts in this season and during this hair-raising global pandemic. In early spring, the bird world is busy with all kinds of cooperation. Migrating birds often travel in large flocks for safety and to find the habitats they need. Mating birds work cooperatively in building and protecting nests. And in the human sphere, we’ve become conscious during the virus outbreak of how much we depend on the assistance of others – all the workers in hospitals, grocery stores, police and fire departments, pharmacies, research labs as well as teachers,  journalists and parents working from home. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the observant eyes and photography skills of others are central in this week’s blog. My thanks to Ruth Glass, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Joan Bonin and all the generous photographers who share their work on iNaturalist. And my gratitude, too, to the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commissioners and staff who worked for years to preserve this special natural area for the benefit of all of us – and more importantly for the wildlife and plant life that sustain us every day in so many ways.

And now to John Donne’s meditation on community written in 17th century England, another time and place of plagues:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

Watershed Ridge Park: Virtual Hike #2 in a Pathless Park

Welcome back to Watershed Ridge Park for our second virtual hike through this as yet pathless 170 acre park.  (If you missed the first hike, click here.) This week’s exploration will take us to the western area of the park, which is a little easier to explore than the east.  Starting in 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township natural areas stewardship manager, started habitat restoration in old farm fields which had grown into thickets of invasive shrubs. Forestry mowing eliminated the standing shrubs, and follow-up treatment and brush mowing  knocked back the invasive plants and shrubs in this area of Watershed Ridge. He then sowed in some wonderful native plants, including grasses which add a golden sheen right now to the upland slopes in the west of the park, as you’ll see a bit further into our walk.

WRP_AerialMap_Hikes2

Aerial map of Watershed Ridge in 2017. Hikes 1 in yellow. Hike 2 in red.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Starting from the parking lot on W. Buell Road (A), we’ll walk along the grassy edge (B) between two fields and head back into the woods to pay a visit to a pond full of singing frogs (C). Emerging from the woodland edge, we’ll enter a big, wild meadow that slopes to a small marsh (D). We’ll follow the forest stream from last week’s hike that burbles its way out of the large marsh to the park’s northeast (H).   It meanders from marsh to marsh before exiting under Lake George Road (E). Our return will take through the western farm fields (F,G) and back to the parking lot. So please, lace up your virtual boots and join me!

The Woods Filled with Frog Song!

As I headed out of the parking lot to the north one afternoon, a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) advised me from deep in a tangle of vines,  to “Cheer up! Cheer up! Cheer up!”  (Listen to the Cardinal under “Duet” at Cornell Lab.)

A Northern Cardinal amid a tangle of branches at Watershed Ridge.

Feeling even better than I did when I arrived – thanks to his greeting – I headed toward the woods north of the field to my right. Halfway there I realized that the ice had melted in the wetlands since my last visit, because I heard…frog song!

A wetland full of singing Wood Frogs at Watershed Ridge.

Arriving at the muddy edge of the pool, I spotted the concentric ripples that I was looking for. At the center of each was a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Wood Frogs spend the winter frozen solid under a log or in leaf litter. Miraculously, they thaw out as the weather warms and rush to nearby water to mate. Imagine how good it felt for this little frog to be stretched out floating at the surface on a spring day. The one below was just beginning to kick and recreate the ripples around him.

When mating, Wood Frogs float on the surface of the water and make a chuckling call to each other.

The whole throng of amorous Wood Frogs floated with their legs extended and kicked their back legs occasionally which kept the concentric circles ripping outward. Vernal pools tend to dry in warm, summer weather so the frogs start to mate quickly in early spring. They benefit from the absence of fish in vernal pools who might make a nice meal of the frogs’ eggs if they were present. Throughout the process of my observations, Wood Frogs make a throaty chuckling sound, as if they are as amused as I am by the whole spectacle.

Out of the Woods and Into the Big Meadow!

The big sloping, meadow that appears as you step out of the woods has been in the process of restoration for several years. Now in early spring, the meadow is sere, brownish gold and easy to traverse since winter snow tamped down last year’s stalks and new growth has barely begun. The marsh at the bottom of the slope (D) is edged in scarlet stands of Red Osier (Cornus sericea). This wetland is fed by the stream that runs out of the much larger marsh (H)  in the northeast section of the park.

Pano Meadow at WR (3)

The sloping Big Meadow in golden hues on a spring day.

In the summer, the Big Meadow is a challenging hike because the native grasses and wildflowers can grow waist-to-shoulder high. A view of the water is even more obscured in warm weather when the shrubs that surround the marsh leaf out. But what a glorious sight the meadow is on a summer day! Butterflies, dragonflies, and summer birds flutter, zip and soar above its changing summer palette of emerging wildflowers.

Ben’s panorama of the Big Meadow in August of 2017.

The Dry Uplands of the Big Meadow and Water Meandering Out of the Marsh

The upland slopes of the Big Meadow seeded during restoration with native Virginia Wild Rye

What’s loveliest about the uplands of the Big Meadow right now is the golden glow of large stands of Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus), a native grass that the stewardship crew seeded onto these graceful slopes.

Virginia Wild Rye , a native grass, sown by our stewardship crew as part of restoring the west side of the park.

The uplands of the Big Meadow are dotted by a variety of trees.  One of my new favorites has three different common names: Hop-hornbeam, Ironwood or Musclewood (Ostrya virginiana).  I love the latter because doesn’t the wood look like a muscular arm?

The trunk tells me why one common name for this tree is Musclewood.

I came across something in the uplands that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t initially identify. It think it was a deer rub, a spot on a tree where a deer has rubbed the area between its forehead and antlers. The sweat glands there will deposit a scent during the annual rut in order to “communicate a challenge to other male deer,” as Wikipedia puts it. The bark certainly looks like it’s been torn upward from below. If a naturalist or  hunter has any other idea about  how this shredded bark happened, though, please educate me!

What I think is a deer rub on a tree at the edge of the woods.

On a visit to the uplands on a sunny day in early March, I was surprised to find a patch of orange, gilled mushrooms. Mushrooms when the ice had barely started to clear from the marshes? My helpful friends at the Mushroom Identification Facebook page identified them for me as Flammulina velutipes, commonly called Winter Mushroom. According to the website fungusfactfriday, “it particularly likes warm spells in the winter and cold snaps during other seasons.” Though it’s theoretically edible, it’s evidently easily confused with a highly toxic mushroom called Gallerina marginata. So unless you are an expert, don’t try these if they show up on your own property.  And please don’t pick any mushrooms in our parks; they are a food source for squirrels and other animals. I found more detailed information on these fungi at a  University of Wisconsin website.

Winter Mushrooms at Watershed Ridge Park are theoretically edible but easily confused with another highly toxic one – so beware! And please don’t pick mushrooms in our parks.

Down near the marsh, the stream that found its way from the large northeast marsh moves on. It runs west at the bottom of the meadow, leaving a soft muddy surface perfect for the earliest of spring wildflowers, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). These strange,  pungent blossoms rise just above the mud; the stems remain below. This ancient and almost alien-looking flower produces temperatures from 27-63 °F, which assists the plant’s reproduction in a couple ways. The heat melts the snow around the emerging mottled hood (spathe). Early pollinators – flies and some bees – are attracted to the carrion-like smell which the heat carries out of the plant. The plant also provides them with a warm refuge from the cold – and while inside, the insects pollinate the flowers on the spike (spadix). Skunk cabbages are an ancient plant and live a long time because their roots contract each year, pulling the stems deeper into the soil. So as Wikipedia notes, ” in effect [skunk cabbage} grows downward, not upward”!  How’s that for an amazing feature!

Skunk cabbage blossoms and perhaps the emergence of their big green leaves?The stems grow underground.  Year after year the roots contract and pull them deeper into the soil.

Before long the flowers will wither, but huge green leaves will emerge, using photosynthesis to provide the energy for the underground growth. Here’s what the leaves looked like at a wetland in Bear Creek a few years ago.

As the blossom withers, the green leaves emerge to feed underground growth.

Near the edge of the marsh, a deer had met its end, probably serving to feed the coyote pups or the adults that I heard in the eastern woods last week. Not being a hunter, I’d never looked closely at deer teeth before. These were accompanied by a skull and some ribs; no doubt both the coyotes and the crows had picked them clean. A strange, melancholy sight, but then deer are so over abundant here that I don’t begrudge the coyotes a good meal at the end of a long winter.

A skull, ribs and these strange teeth tell of a coyote foraging for its family near the marsh.

The stream keeps flowing west toward Lake George Road through a drainage ditch excavated by a farmer at some point in the past. Leaving the meadow, it carves its way into the woods, creating mini-ravines that I needed to navigate in order to keep exploring. Along the edge of these ditches, trees have adapted in a variety of odd ways, like the snail-shaped tree (right below). Some of this flow, Ben says, will be strategically plugged in upcoming wetland restoration work, and in some wet parts of the western farm fields small berms will be placed to slow down water running off the fields, allowing the water to recreate the shallow ponds and saturated soil of years ago.  [Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.}

Eventually, the water finds its way into a small marsh right at the edge of Lake George Road (E on the map), between W. Buell and Stony Creek Roads. On the left is the view of the marsh from Lake George Road, the way I’ve seen it since childhood when I rode my bike past it. On the right is the view I finally got after 60 years or so – looking east from the wooded slope of  Watershed Ridge Park toward the road. A fun moment for me.

The stream runs under Lake George Road, taking a turn as it flows west toward Paint Creek. And in the shallows, multiple blossoms of Skunk Cabbage popped up like small bouquets from the muddy soil. A fine spring display!

Skunk cabbage cropping up within the stream as it flows past Lake George Road

Heading Back through Steeply Rolling Farm Fields

Wetland, farm field and woods – three basic elements of Watershed Ridge Park

Stepping out of the woods, into a farm field in the west of the park (F), I carefully negotiated my path across a small stream and around a little wetland, when I saw a small brown bird sail into some shrubs nearby. It turned out to be a returning  Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia); you can discern the spot at the center of its striped upper breast. This may have been a tired male scouting territory, since it wasn’t singing its spring song of several bouncy notes followed by a trill. Cornell Lab of Ornithology recordings demonstrate that Song Sparrows in other parts of the country sing somewhat different versions of the spring song. So I guess some birds have “dialects,” too!

A Song Sparrow’s field marks are a striped upper breast with a dark spot at the center.

This is one of the fields that the Ben hopes to slowly restore with the prairie plants that were here before European settlement. Wet areas and steep slopes that erode when tilled to expose bare soil will be planted with deep-rooted native grasses and wildflowers. Prairie plants provide food and cover for all kinds of birds and butterflies so those sloping hills will be not only a gorgeous sight,  but productive as habitat. Portions of the western fields and the big fields on the east side of the park, however, will continue to be farmed.

A beautifully shaped Eastern Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) graces the edge of this field if you walk up the tree line – or if you see it at a distance as you head north from the parking lot. I love the delicate tracery of the branches now and wonder if it will look as beautiful to me once it’s leafed out. I’ll let you know.

The beautiful architecture of a Cottonwood Tree at one edge of a farm field at Watershed Ridge.

In the field nearest the road intersection (G), a small wetland provides a good spot to look for birds.  One shiny, late afternoon,  my husband and I spotted a crouching Killdeer within the glare off the water. I think it must have been a loner without a nest  yet, since it didn’t immediately fly away, keening its high-pitched call over the fields. 

The Killdeer was hard to see amidst the glitter of late afternoon sun – which seemed fine with bird who stayed perfectly still.

After stumbling into the open through some feet-snagging brambles between fields on another day, I startled a solitary Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) who’d settled peacefully on the little pond.

A Mallard lifts off from the small vernal pool in the corner of the field at Buell and Lake George.

And farther up the hill, I missed getting a photo of two Sandhill Cranes that must have been feeding there. Frustrating! But then, overhead, a Cooper’s Hawk sailed right above me and I just managed to get my camera pointed upward in time! A lovely compensation for scaring off three beautiful birds!

And with that lovely finale, I headed back to my car.

Nature’s Uncomplicated Generosity

A daytime moon over a farmed field at Watershed Ridge Park.

Thanks for traveling with me this week and last at Watershed Ridge Park. I still want to explore the eastern woods, but I’ll probably wait until drier weather to find my way around the large wetland there. And I’m anxious to see if the deer have left any woodland wildflowers in those moist woods. So perhaps May will be a time for Virtual Hike #3 at Watershed Ridge. We’ll see.

The moon over the field seems to be taking an afternoon nap with its cheek resting on a pillow of blue sky.

A friend of many years recently wrote that lovely phrase “nature’s uncomplicated generosity” when describing the solace of the wild. She let me borrow it here because it expresses two qualities I always appreciate when under a big sky – especially one with a sleepy moon in it! Wildness exists purely in the present moment; it doesn’t regret the past or anticipate the future. It just is. When we venture into nature, it offers itself to our senses with no real effort and yet is generous enough to sustain a continuous flow of experiences. For the hours I’m out exploring, my attention is drawn from one detail to the next, crowding out all the noisy thoughts that normally push me through the day. If you can get out in the fresh air in any way during this self-enforced exile, please do. Putter in your early spring garden, let a breeze cool your cheeks near an open window or outside your back door. Or during this solitary time, hike on the path that poet Robert Frost eventually chose, the one “less traveled by.” I think you’ll find, as I do, that it can make “all the difference.”