A trembling aspen which leafed out in spring, and shed leaves in autumn, despite having fallen across the Draper marsh in a storm at the end of last winter
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.
Photos and Text by Cam Mannino
As the month moves on, a sharpness edges the morning air and shadows slide across the landscape more quickly in the late afternoon. The birds are agitated – snatching up as much seed as possible, drilling holes for snug winter hideaways, or pausing for an overnight respite before catching a north wind going south.
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!
The Common Buckeye is a lovely little butterfly that I see most often during its migration to southern climes.
In early October, afternoons were still occasionally above 50°, warm enough for the
European Honey Bees ( Apis mellifera) to gather more winter stores. The nectar collected by these bees will be turned into honey for the hive to feed on in the winter. Having large stores of nourishment in the hive is crucial if honey bees are to survive the winter months, so this one paid no attention to me as it probed for some last sips of nectar.
A Honey Bee gathering nectar from an aster to feed the hive during the cold winter months.
Heath Aster ( Symphyotrichum ericoides) emerges as the summer fades and blooms heartily in the cooler temperatures. So any warm afternoon in fall, this lovely native wildflower offers itself to foraging bees in the hope of being pollinated quickly so that seeds will be ready before the snow falls.
Heath Asters make their own white snowstorm, often blooming right up until snow falls. Brown-eyed Susans ( Rudbeckia triloba) look a lot like their relative, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). But Brown-eyeds tend to grow multiple stems from a single root and usually grow taller than the Black-eyed variety. I see them only in late summer or fall, whereas Black-eyeds last from June to September. Nice to have some fresh yellow wildflowers just as cool weather sets in!
Brown-eyed Susans are short-lived perennials that grow on mulitple stems.
A lone, fading
Black-eyed Susan hid a tiny beetle among its petals and attracted a greenish-gray caterpillar busily nibbling off the tiny yellow flowers poking from the wildflower’s composite seed head. After pouring over the guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, my best guess is that it’s the caterpillar of the Common Pug Moth ( Eupithecia vulgata) whose larva has chevrons along its spine and which feeds on these flowers, among many other plants. If I’m right about the caterpillar (and remember, I’m just guessing!), the Pug Moth is a modest gray- brown with a small dark spot on both its fore- and hindwings.
An insect caterpillar and a small beetle as well as various windflower fibers have landed on a fading Black-eyed Susan.
In the grass, we found a
Wooly Bear Caterpillar, the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth ( Pyrrharctia isabella). If you look carefully below, you can almost discern its projecting mandibles (jaws) about to tear off the edge of a clover leaf. (Sorry for the blur. It was chewing rather vigorously!) The Farmer’s Almanac these days does a fine job of explaining the “folklore” behind the idea that the width of the color bands predict the severity of winter. A serious scientific study has never been done; it would require too many caterpillars over too many years. According to Wikipedia, however, Wooly Bears vary a lot in their color banding and the bands also tend to widen with each molt – so it’s not likely to be an ace weatherman.
A Wooly Bear caterpillar munching on clover.
In the marsh within the eastern section of the park, a
Midland Painted Turtle ( Chrysemys picta marginata) found a sunny spot on the mud behind the dying leaf of a Skunk Cabbage ( Symplocarpus foetidus). It closed its eyes, turned its head skyward and basked. Shortly it will sink to the muddy bottom and won’t emerge until spring. During winter, it actually stops breathing, but its slowed metabolism means it can survive on the oxygen that passes through its skin from the surrounding water. Hibernation is miraculous, isn’t it?
A Midland Painted Turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thin sunlight of early autumn.
One birding morning on the western side of the park, Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, introduced us to a colorful shrub off one side of Draper’s fishing dock. It turned out to be
Poison Sumac ( Toxicodendron vernix)! It’s a relative of the harmless and quite beautiful Staghorn Sumac ( Rhus typhina), and a sibling to Poison Ivy ( Toxicodendron radicans). I’d never come across this bush with its gray bark and white berries, but the familiar red leaves of other sumacs. Luckily it grows within or at the edge of bogs, fens, marshes and other very wet places where my hiking shoes don’t often carry me. Look but don’t touch and don’t inhale its smoke are the watchwords here. Poison Sumac is more toxic than Poison Ivy. The Michigan Flora website has a great photo of it in bloom.
Poison Sumac looks quite glamorous in the fall with its red leaves and white berries.
A more benign plant sent a spray of red leaves across the lily pads in late September and early October. Native
Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife ( Decodon verticillatus) is not a problem like the non-native, invasive Purple Loosestrife ( Lythrum salicaria). This native wildflower produces purple blossoms along each stem and leaves that turn red in October. In November, its seed heads make a lovely pattern against the water of the lake. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Whorled/swamp Loosestrife in bloom during the summer
Whorled Loosestrife leaves in late September/early October.
Whorled Loosestrife seed heads in November 2016
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.
Two Goldfinches eating while riding the swaying stalks of goldenrod.
Five Goldfinches ultimately enjoyed the seeds of just one clump of Stiff Goldenrod. (The fifth bird is semi-hidden at the lower right.)
A flock of
Eastern Bluebirds ( Sialia sialis) sailed across the path far in front of us – just a swish of blue against the morning sky. Bluebirds restlessly move south a bit in the fall, but can often be seen here in the winter, even on icy days. I never got close enough for a shot during the birding walk, but I did see a flock at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple of weeks earlier. This pair seemed to be exploring the possibilities of a winter hole in a snag at Bear Creek.
The male bluebird pays close attention as a female checks out the possibilities of a hole in a snag.
In the distance, an
Eastern Phoebe ( Sayornis phoebe) rocked on a low branch at the far edge of the field and repeatedly darted down into the grass. At last, it found what was possibly the cocoon of a caterpillar and it rose back to the branch, tail pumping as always, with its prize in its beak.
An Eastern Phoebe with what appeared to be a caterpillar’s cocoon.
Farther down the tree line, pulses of
House Finches ( Haemorhous mexicanus) flew down into the grass to feed and then back into the trees. It seems that the red heads and chests of the males are a bit paler in the fall. I know the depth of the hue depends on what they eat, so perhaps their favorite berries or seeds are not quite as available as the season wanes.
House Finches fluttering out of a tree in the distance at Draper Twin Lake Park
High overhead a pair of
Sandhill Cranes ( Antigone canadensis) bugled their way across the autumn skies. They were headed south but it may have just been one of their many practice runs before migrating to Florida.
Sandhill Cranes flying south over Draper Twin Lake Park
Over in the eastern section of the park, a
Gray Catbird ( Dumetella carolinensis) added its “miaows” from the hedgerow one afternoon, possibly calling a mate or youngster to share some wild Summer Grapes ( Vitis aestivalis). I hope it’s a nice change from their summer diet, since number the insects that they eat during the summer is diminishing with the colder weather. The catbirds will be leaving soon to winter in Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas or along the eastern seaboard.
A Gray Catbird calls to a companion from a wild grape vine.
Down near the water, I noticed a lot of twitching in the shrubbery and waited in the shade for what might appear. The first bird that emerged was a familiar year ’round bird, the
Black-capped Chickadee ( Poecile atricapillus). This tiny acrobat hung upside down, then rightside up, twisting this way and that, to snatch as much seed as possible from Canada Goldenrod ( Solidago canadensis) near the lake.
A Black-capped Chickadee eating its fill of Canada Goldenrod
Small visiting migrators often show up around chickadees. Cornell Ornithology Lab provides a possible explanation. “Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.” Good to have a reliable sentinel! I’ve also read that visiting birds find food by hanging around local chickadees who presumably know the best foraging spots. That was certainly the case at Draper Lake. A migrating
Ruby-crowned Kinglet ( Regulus calendula) popped out into the open and began stripping seeds from the goldenrod just like the local chickadee. In the fall and winter, it pays to look carefully wherever chickadees are gathering.
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet joined the Chickadee in devouring goldenrod seed. A leaf cast an interesting shadow on its tiny back.
As I turned away from the Kinglet, I heard a call that I knew was a woodpecker and looked up. A large black and white bird landed on a nearby tree and began to peck at a hole. Wow! It was the closest I’ve ever been to a
Pileated Woodpecker. And as an added bonus, the afternoon sun lit its crest with a scarlet glow. It may have been looking for the right tree in which to make a new hole, one lower than its nesting hole, that will serve as winter shelter.
A Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be considering whether a hole in this tree could be further excavated for a winter storm hideaway.
Near the end of the path, a
Song Sparrow ( Melospiza melodia) hopped about, restlessly picking up and dropping bits of this and that. Theoretically these sparrows, plentiful in the summer, can spend the winter here, but I rarely seem them after the fall. This one may have migrated here from farther north and also chosen to explore where the chickadee was foraging.
The sparrow near the lake has the typical long tail of a Song Sparrow. If you could see its breast, there’d be a dark spot in the middle of its striping, another field mark.
I saw several other birds at Draper Twin Lake Park with the birding group in the last two months, but only through my binoculars. A quick flash of red or yellow high in the fall leaves, a recognizable song in the distance, or a sudden chasing flight over the prairie – none of that provided a chance for a photo. However, I wanted to share these birds here so that you can appreciate how many birds can be seen at Draper Twin Lake Park in autumn. So here’s a short slideshow of some of them as seen in photos I’ve taken at other times, or in photos from the generous photographers at inaturalist.org. (Use pause button for captions.)
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
Native Indian Grass swaying in an October wind
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.