October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.
On the short path that winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.
Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping Up Everywhere!
Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know. After all, they’re harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.
The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa, when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!
The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.
I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely” the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis). This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.
Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.
Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest
Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.
My first thrill was holding my breath while a chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.
I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A Golden-crowned Kinglet in the willows by Gallagher Creek
The Golden-crowned Kinglet can stay here all winter because it can tolerate cold temperatures.
Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!
Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.
The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.
Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring
All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.
In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park. The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.
One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.
The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.
The graceful seed heads of Prairie Dropseed dance and bob in the slightest breeze.
The leaves form a tuft at ground level.
The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.
Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking
Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.
Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.
That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.
And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.
All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.
Do me a favor, would you? Imagine standing in front of a huge meadow full of tall grass and wildflowers dancing in a soft breeze. You can hear crickets and cicadas singing in the deep grass. Now turn your computer’s volume to about half and click on the arrow in the image below. (You’ll hear a little of the wind in the microphone.)
There! That’s a bit of what it’s been like at Charles Ilsley Park in the last few glorious weeks of August. Goldfinches sing as they swoop in their roller coaster flights across the fields that are burnished with goldenrod. Butterflies, with golden wings fluttering, sip sweet nectar from the giant thistles. And all of this gilded beauty is backed by the sounds of a summer breeze sighing in your ear and the buzz of cicadas and crickets. That’s about as close to pure glory as my life affords.
The Glow Began in July…
Let’s just say the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) got magnificently carried away in the central meadow at Ilsley. Perhaps the contractor who planted wild seed last year had a wee bit too much of them in the mix? But I didn’t hear anyone complain when the meadow was literally blanketed in black and gold. By early August, they had browned, leaving behind seeds that will provide nourishment for migrators and winter birds.
Nature Comes Back with a Second Wave of Gold
In their place, though not quite as abundant, came a close relative, the buttery yellow Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba). Instead of a single flower on each stem like their black-eyed cousins, these Susans produce branching stems with profuse, but smaller blossoms which create a similar sunny effect.
Of course, August always brings waves of different Goldenrods to keep the gold coming in late summer. Right now, I commonly see three different ones: the cascades of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its ramrod stems lined with clinging oval leaves and bouquet-like sprays of Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia) which is from a different genus of the Aster family. Later in the month, we’ll begin to see the upright, lemon yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) doing its part to keep the fields golden right into September. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A stately plume of Canada Goldenrod
Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) with its fancy stalk lined with oval leaves
Grass-leaved goldenrod is really an aster, despite its common name.
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
The Gray-headed/Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) add their droopy charm to the fields too, though their best days are behind them for this season. And the tall spikes of Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) are topped by gold blossoms that stay open from evening until early morning, and later on cloudy days as well.
I love how native plants host so many insects in an era when the insect world is suffering from plunging numbers all over the planet. Here two False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides) standing next to each other hosted a Soldier Beetle (Cantharidae family) and the nymph of a Katydid (Tettigoniida family). Have a closer look at the amazing length of the katydid’s antennae by clicking on the right photo. One of the ways you can tell a grasshopper from a katydid is that grasshoppers have much shorter antennae than the very long, fine ones you’ll see on the nymph below.
Out in the far west of the park at the edge of the woods, a tall, striking, yellow flower with very unusual blossoms caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, identified it for me as Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) – and indeed, its flat stem had narrow “wings” on either side. Wingstem flower heads cluster at the top of the 3′-8′ stem. Each bloom is actually a flower within a ring of flowers. The “disc florets” in this plant are the tube-shaped flowers that thrust outward from the center of the flower head. What looks like a ring of petals around the central disc is actually a ring of “ray florets” and each of them is an individual flower that has the ability to produce its own seed. In botany, “florets” are individual flowers within a flower head, whereas what we see as individual petals on ray flowers are really three petals fused together. And how about those curly little stigmas that we see whimsically protruding from the ends of the disc florets! What a fun wildflower!
Wingstem has a limited distribution in Michigan, so we’re lucky to have them. These Charles Ilsley Park plants grew from seeds that Ben collected at the township’s Blue Heron Environmental Area, which was the only place he’s seen them in the township. It’s exciting to know that the seeds Ben planted at Ilsley have taken hold, so that we now have two parks in which this unusual native plant has found a home.
Birds Matching the Black and Gold Landscape
Let’s Start with A Goldfinch Saga!
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) – Unlike most other birds, Goldfinches start mating around mid- to late-July when the thistles bloom, which is a source for both nesting material and food for them. Once the first broods fledge in early August, most Goldfinches mate a second time.
On August 9, Mike and Joan Kent, birding friends, took a walk at Ilsley and spotted a nest in a thistle. Joan peeked in and saw 3 eggs. They noticed a lot of Goldfinches nearby and assumed it was probably the nest of one of them. And that was that, until…
On our Wednesday bird walk on August 21, Vinnie Morganti, another member of our bird group, spotted the same nest located within the thorny stems of a tall Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare). A Goldfinch’s cup nest is woven from plants and root fibers and lashed to a bush or plant with spider silk. Then it’s lined with thistle down which makes it close to waterproof inside. A small masterpiece. This pair chose a location which probably deterred predators, though it may have been a bit hard on the parents’ wings while feeding!
Peeking into the nest, I discovered 4 baby birds. Fellow birder, Tom Korb, got a photo of the blind and slightly fuzzy hatchlings by valiantly sticking his cellphone into the thistle above them. Tom and I decided to share monitoring these little birds until they fledged and report our findings to Cornell’s Nestwatch , a citizen science site we use for our township nest boxes.
We bird monitors are trained not to go to a nest more often than every 3 – 5 days. So when I returned to the park the following day, I stood far off looking through a long lens. Imagine my delight when I saw one little head popping up above the nest! I don’t know if it could see the meadow yet. Perhaps it was just enjoying the breeze ruffling its Einstein hairdo!
I came back to monitor on August 24 hoping to get a photo inside the nest despite the thistle’s thorns. I’d brought along the fancy, black leather gloves my mother had given me years ago to wear to the theater – but here I was using them to reach inside a thistle! I could picture my mom laughing and shaking her head – but the gloves worked beautifully! In the photo, I could see the opened eye of at least one little nestling, though the rest were snoozing in their sturdy nest cup. It appeared that the beige tips of feathers might be emerging from their dark sheaths. We think now that they were about a week old in this photo. They’d come a long way from those blind babies in just 3 days!
At our August 28 bird walk in another park, Mike Kent told us about his wife seeing the nest at Charles Ilsley Park on August 9. Good news for us monitors, because that allowed us to use the guidelines on the Nestwatch site to estimate the age of the Goldfinch hatchlings more accurately. After the bird walk, I accompanied Tom on his monitoring trip to the Ilsley nest. What a change! Little heads peered up over the nest edge – eyes and beaks open. According to the Donald W. Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), during their first week after hatching, Goldfinch nestlings are quiet but will silently reach up for food if the edge of the nest is tapped. In the second week, these nestlings begin making a lot of noise – but wisely only do so when a parent arrives with food. Tom got a great photo of the bright red mouth of a begging, but silent, youngster!
That day, all the nestlings, now about 11 days old, looked bright and alert, peeking out into the world and fully feathered. The Stokes Guide explained that those white blobs on the nest are fecal sacs, the avian equivalent of soiled diapers. Goldfinch nestlings are quite fastidious. The first week after the young hatch, adults carry the waste sacs away from the nest. But starting in the second week, little goldfinches back up to the edge of the nest and drop these little packages over the side!
My last turn at monitoring the nest was on August 31 – and the nest was empty. The nestlings had become fledglings. Our estimate is that they fledged on their 12th or 13th day after hatching. The nest was remarkably clean inside (if not outside) which might have meant a healthier, more comfortable environment for the nestlings.
I could hear a fledgling begging far off in a stand of thistle and through my binoculars, I thought I saw a couple of small birds fluttering among the stems. A female flew in among the thistle, perhaps feeding “our” fledglings from her second brood. A male seemed to be on sentinel duty nearby before he flew off to gather more seed. Off into the world for our Goldfinch fledglings! And the end of our nesting saga.
Hard-working Goldfinch Adults
While the females incubate a second brood, male Goldfinches are on their own in feeding the first brood – which can be as many as seven fledglings, according to Cornell’s nestwatch.org! Begging calls of first brood youngsters could be heard a week ago as young fledglings pursued their harried parents around the park or called from the treelines to be found. This little Goldfinch fledgling seemed a bit more mellow than the rest.
The Goldfinches’ primary food source is thistle seed so I’ve seen males all over the fields with thistle down (pappus) hanging from their beaks. They dig industriously into the seedhead, pull out the down, carefully nibble off the seeds and then let the down fly. Stokes informed me that they feed partially digested seed to their young, as they also do for the mate during her first week on the nest. Quite a responsibility!
More Gold and Black Birds!
In a bush in the far west meadow, I saw a flash of yellow and took a quick couple of shots as a bird perched for a moment and then flew. I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Local birding expert, Ruth Glass, identified it as a female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula.) She told me that by now most of our summer orioles have left for Central or South America with their young, so the one I saw was likely a migrator from further north.
The birding group saw other birds sporting lovely yellow trim. A trio of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched far above in a bare tree. Through binoculars, two clearly had the yellow bellies and yellow tail bands that identify this handsome bird. Juveniles have a fainter black mask and some brown streaking on the breast, but in this distant photo against a gray sky, it’s hard to tell if any of them were juveniles or adults .
Ruth Glass also helped me identify a strange looking dark bird that mystified me. She said she was “95% sure” it was a male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) molting from his brilliant blue breeding colors into his mostly brown non-breeding colors which are similar to the female Bunting. This mottled look is common for males during the molt. I would never have guessed! Thank you, Ruth!
Some large dark brown birds also added contrast to all the gold around them. A trio of Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) rested on a broken snag near the edge of the center field. Through the trees on my way into the park, I saw one of them spreading its magnificent wings to the sunlight. They do this to warm them, stretch them, or to expose any bacteria on them to air and light.
Around the corner, two other vultures perched on a broken snag. This one made me smile, because it looked as though it was appealing for a little sympathy. I’m afraid vultures don’t get much appreciation, though I think their soaring flight is graceful and the cleanup services they provide are crucial. Really, though, the bird was just preparing to preen.
The first vulture suddenly flew straight up in the air and landed rather awkwardly on a branch that was much too short. It fluttered clumsily right, then left, until it finally found its footing. Is it my imagination or are the other two a bit embarrassed by the graceless landing skills of their compatriot? Probably, my imagination…. (Tap arrow to play and to pause for reading captions.)
Butterflies Complement the Color Scheme
This August the huge, dramatic Giant Swallowtail butteflies (Papilio cresphontes) arrived in Charles Ilsley Park in large numbers. One afternoon about two weeks ago, perhaps a dozen of them landed delicately on the large purple blooms of Bull Thistle, or hovered in front of them, extending their long proboscises to sip while avoiding the thorns. I don’t know if this thistle is a favorite plant for these big butterflies or if they were just the biggest blooms with the most nectar when they arrived. They chased each other over the fields, creating a shimmer of gold and black all over the central meadow.
You’ll note that the one above has a few missing pieces on its wings and that the black edges look a bit worn. I compared the very tattered dorsal (upper) side of one I saw on thistle at Charles Ilsley Park in late August with the fine specimen I saw on Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in late July a couple of years ago. I wondered if the difference in wear and tear was due to feeding among thorny thistles or perhaps just the normal battering big wings take after an extra month of foraging and mating. I’m guessing a bit of both.
These dramatic swallowtails have expanded their range further north since about 2001 when first frosts became more uncommon in September – perhaps an effect of global warming. They lay their eggs on plants that will act as hosts for their larvae, which includes two of our abundant natives, Swamp Milkweed and the Solidago genus of Goldenrods.
The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) made its elegant contribution to the black-and-gold meadows. These high-flyers raise 2-3 broods each summer. Their caterpillars spin a remarkable chrysalis that matches dead wood very closely. It’s held in place by a thin string of silk on one end of the chrysalis and a silk pad at the other. That’s where the caterpillar spends the winter. There’s a remarkable photo of a Tiger Swallowtail’s chrysalis at the bottom of this Wikipedia page. Be sure to click on it to enlarge so you can tell where the bark ends and the chrysalis begins! My photo below shows the tiny hairs on the swallowtail’s wings – the closest my camera has ever come to a Tiger Swallowtail, I think.
Three small Lepidopterans played a role in the color scheme. Like the members of the Swallowtail family (Papilio), a female Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) found Bull Thistle a good choice for nectar in this transition time just before the Goldenrods reach their full glory and other fall asters emerge. I admit I appreciate the non-native Bull Thistles more this year, having seen how much sustenance they’re providing after a torrid July brought an earlier end to the bloom of so many wildflowers. A Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice) paused on the drying leaves of a Queen Anne’s Lace. I’ve wanted to see a chrysalis of these small butterflies ever since I read it described as “yellow with a pink zipper”! No luck yet. And the Ctenucha Moth (Erebidae family) did a fine job of contrasting its black wings with the yellow Grass-leaved Goldrod.
Just like other swallowtails, the Black Swallowtail makes the most of bull thistles that thrived this year.
A Clouded Sulphur has black bands on the dorsal side of its wings.
A Ctenucha Moth on Grass-leaved Goldenrod
So much gold! And I didn’t even include the gold and black bumblebees, wasps and honey bees foraging among this late summer landscape! Such riches, eh?
Late Summer Serenity
Sometimes life does come full circle. Standing at the edge of the meadows at Charles Ilsley Park with sunlight falling on a fluttering, buzzing, golden landscape, I could feel the deep sense of calm and quiet that I relished in our township in my childhood. On just such a morning then, I would stand on the sturdy limbs of a rugged old tree overlooking a wild pond or spread my blanket in the short grass near the shore and breathe in the comforting scent of warm earth and grass. I feel so fortunate as an older woman to still experience that certainty of being part of something big and beautiful that nature offers all of us if we take the time. I wish that for you, too.
Postcript: Watch for More Ilsley Photos!
Of course, Charles Ilsley Park offered me much more than gold and black in its rich diversity: a wet spot in a field suddenly blooming with red and blue wildflowers, a fuzzy brown House Finch fledgling peeking through the greenery, lavender blossoms emerging from the seedbank where a moist swale was restored, a dramatic Darner dragonfly decorated in a pattern of blue and green and more. So rather than extend this blog, I’ll create a shorter photo blog later this week to fill in the rest of the color palette at Charles Ilsley Park. Hope you can drop by!
Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by producing their colorful blooms. Then the humans – volunteers and Parks staff – take over the work in the other three seasons by harvesting, cleaning and sowing the seed.
Since we’ve just completed the cycle for 2018, I thought we’d share how this ancient cycle of work, organized each year by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship manager, happens throughout the year.
Winter and Spring: Spreading Seed
Readers may remember the blog from last April, when Ben, his stewardship tech Alex Kreibel and I spread wildflower seed in Bear Creek Nature Park. We spent a cool spring morning sowing seed by hand as it’s been done for thousands of years.
For larger projects we might spread seed with a special native seed drill or broadcast spreader attached to a tractor.
The seeds we spread take their time for the next few years, sprouting a bit of greenery to catch the sunlight as they grow deep roots. Those roots help them survive drought like all prairie plants. In a few years, when the roots have grown deep, the plants we sow finally bloom and produce more seed. Luckily, nature has also dispersed seeds for countless years. With a little help from us humans through prescribed fire or invasive plant control, native seeds already in the soil will also find their way to the sunlight and grow!
Summer: Blossoms Attract Pollinators
Plants mostly rely on wind and insects – beetles, flies, butterflies – to move pollen from one plant to the next. Pollination is the process by which male genetic material (in the pollen) is transferred from the anther of one plant to the female pistil of another plant (or in self-pollinating plants to pistils on the same plant). If the pollen lands on a compatible plant, it will germinate grow a pollen tube to conduct the sperm to the potential seeds (ovules) in the ovary of the second plant.
Wind-pollinated plants like grasses and some trees produce lots of pollen and cast it to the wind, taking a chance that a few grains will land in a receptive flower on another plant. But our insect-pollinated plants use a more targeted method to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. These plants create tempting blossoms full of color, scent, nectar and, of course, pollen to attract and reward pollinators, ensuring that some will be transported to another flower on the insect courier.
We’ll follow the three insect-pollinated plants below, from various parks, through our seed collecting cycle: Joe Pye (Euthrochium maculatum), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Autumn: Voilà! Fertile Seeds Ready for Harvesting
Here are the same three wildflowers in their seeding phase in the early autumn. (Please note that two of the three photos below were generously provided by iNaturalist photographers, Ken Potter and mikaelamazzeo94.)
And again, some readers will remember from a November blog that while nature was dispersing seed through wind, water and gravity this autumn, we humans were out among them, snipping selectively. Good stewardship requires gathering some native seed so that 1) the seeds get to spots that need native seed, often our active restoration areas where seeds might not reach on their own; and 2) so that the township can save a bit of money on expensive native wildflower seed!
Winnowing Out the Seed by Hand – and Foot!
On December 6, 2018 the final stage of our seed collecting came to fruition as Ben taught us techniques for separating the seed from the plants to get them ready to spread. Volunteers and staff gathered at the Parks Department pole barn on Buell Road on a cold winter morning to push the dry stalks through various sizes of screening.
For some plants, that meant wearing leather gloves to rub the stalks against the screen so that the seed would fall into the tub underneath, as we did with White Snakeroot(Ageratinaaltissima) shown below.
For plants with sturdy structures, like the round heads of Bee Balm(Monarda fistulosa) below, it meant putting a screened box on a plastic sheet on the floor and actually treading on the seed heads to help loosen the seed!
Once the seeds were separated, they were turned over to Ben’s current stewardship specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, and volunteer Dena Scher who poured the seeds into bags, labeled them with their scientific names and recorded the information.
So here is our haul for this year!
If we have more volunteers to gather seed (hint, hint…), we could harvest even more in 2019! So consider the ancient pleasure of sowing seed in the spring, gathering seed on an autumn day, and cleaning seed at a good old fashioned work bee next December. The hum of voices, the laughter, the earthy fragrances of different seeds – it’s a fun way to meet neighbors and help nature grow more of those beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to carpet our restored prairies. And to top it all off, you get to feel like a kid again as you rub, stomp and get covered in tiny silk parachutes!
Off the western side of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road, a sign indicates that you’re passing through a “wet prairie.” Big Blue Stem grasses bend in the wind while all kinds of beautiful wildflowers flourish in the grass below. If you ever thought “native wildflower” just meant Canada Goldenrod or Black-Eyed Susans, you’re in for a treat.
As many of you know, most native plants in this area are adapted to fire because of thousands of years of natural fires and regular burning by Native Americans for purposes of clearing and fertilizing the land. Once the trains came through in the 19th century, the sparks from the tracks, where the trail runs now, regularly started fires in the area. Native prairie and savanna plants survived because they had adapted to fire; non-native plants were less likely to do so.
Once the trail replaced the train tracks, stewardship was required to preserve this very special environment. Over the years, the Parks Commission has worked to restore this patch of wet prairie and its beautiful native plants. Last year, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and his crew worked long hours from Silver Bell Road to the Wet Prairie, removing Autumn Olive and other non-native plants, trees and shrubs that lined the trail and crowded the field, shading out native plants. We thought you might enjoy seeing a small sampling of the beauty that’s begun to flourish in this special area because of those efforts.
Native Wildflowers of the Wet Prairie
Flowers in wet prairies like this are special – and very lovely. Bring binoculars so you can scan the field since the area is too fragile for hiking or paths at this stage.
I was lucky enough to be introduced, very carefully, to this magical place by Dr. Ben who let me take photos so we could share the native beauty that exists in this special area.
We saw deep sky blue Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita)in several stages of unfurling.
And finally, an open one! Look at the square opening made by the four leaves!
Another deep blue beauty, Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii),never opens its blossoms, but Ben saw a native Bumblebee pry one open and climb inside to get at the pollen!
And here’s Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian at Gallagher Creek Park. Quite a moment to catch, eh?
Tiny orchids appear here and there in the Wet Prairie as well. Who knew we had orchids? You can see where it got its name, Prairie Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum).It looks like a spiraling french braid.
One of my favorite Wet Prairie wildflowers is Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) but until this week I’d only seen one or two blooms. Here’s a closeup from a few years ago of one with its dark green stripes.
Now, thanks to the stewardship efforts of the Parks and Recreation Commission, they’re sprinkled all over the prairie! They’re a bit beyond their peak now, but they’re still lovely.
White Snake Root (Ageratina altissima) grows in the prairie and it’s plentiful on the east side of the trail, flowing downhill toward the creek.
Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), another native plant that was plentiful a couple of weeks ago on the Wet Prairie, is finishing up now, but here are a few late blooms and then its very lovely fruit in the photo just below.
The fruits of the False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) add a touch of fall color to the prairie.
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), with its descriptive if not very elegant common name, is another special plant in the Wet Prairie. It can also be found in other high quality wetlands in our area.
Of course, familiar native wildflowers are present in this prairie as well, like Canada Goldenrod. But there are other kinds of goldenrod here too, like Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) which is much less common because it frequents wetlands, including wet prairies, rather than dry fields and roadsides.
And across the trail from the prairie, we saw Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida).I love the way the soft leaves clasp the stalk.
The dry Old Fields in our parks tend to have non-native Cinquefoils but the Wet Prairie hosts a native Michigan species, called Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) which is often used in landscape settings as well as being found in wild wet areas.
We saw another old friend, one late bloom of the gorgeous orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Most of the the Butterfly Milkweed plants, though, are past blooming and are producing their elegant tapered pods, the fruits that contain their seed, seen below spilling onto the ground to be carried by the wind for next year’s crop.
Although its small white flowers are done for the year, I love the deep purple stems of Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale), which are still standing among the flowers.
Creatures of the Wet Prairie
A Monarch butterfly(Danaus plexippus)rested in the shade of a tree after flitting across the Wet Prairie.
A curious European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) paused on a Little Bluestem stalk where she might have been planning to lay eggs, as these non-native insects do in September.
A Green Darner (Anax junius),a large, very agile dragonfly, took a break from patrolling for insect pray and rested in the shade.
And a tiny Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) hatchling, about the size of a 50 cent piece, tried to make it across the trail. We gave it a little lift to the grass in the direction it was heading.
Native Grasses of the Wet Prairie
Native grasses thrive in the Wet Prairie as well. Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii), a classic native prairie grass, towers over everything with its characteristic turkey foot.
But Dr. Ben made me aware of other native prairie grasses that I’d wouldn’t have noticed without help:
Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.
According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the scientific name of this grass, Sorghastrum nutans, means “a swaying, poor imitation of Sorghum.” I think I prefer the common name, Indian Grass!
It’s not difficult to see where native Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) got its name!
Restoring and preserving the very special habitat of the Wet Prairie is a way to preserve our history for future generations and to encourage plant diversity. But it takes a lot of effort! Please keep an eye on the “Stewardship” tab on our home page here at the Natural Areas Notebook for volunteer opportunities. Perhaps you can help Dr. Ben with the PRC’s ongoing effort to care for the Wet Prairie with its unusual selection of beautiful wildflowers and graceful grasses.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.