Since we seem to be heading into a warming trend, I thought I’d share the odds ‘n’ ends of what I’m calling The Big Freeze, those recent days of frigid temperatures and wind. In the interests of preserving my camera and my numb fingers, my hikes during the Big Freeze were shorter and the photos were fewer.
But as usual, I delighted in the sightings or even the signs and traces of other creatures, including other humans, who shared the bitter temperatures with me. On those frigid, silent days, I found myself appreciating the slightest visual treat that passed unnoticed in the lushness of summer – a rock, a mud puddle, snow-covered mushrooms. So here’s a sampling from Bear Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks of what can make a walk worthwhile even on the zero degree days of a challenging winter.
Wildlife Braving The Big Freeze
Birds are rarer sights for me on super cold winter walks, so what a treat to come across a flock of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum)on two different walks at Bear Creek Nature Park. The high-pitched whistling as these winter social groups swooped and settled was quite cheering during The Big Freeze. Here are some other creatures that shared those bitter morning walks with me.
Though I heard more creatures deep in the brambles and watched birds fly overhead, I only caught a few with my camera. Some animals only left their tracks behind. On a bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, we saw the neat tracks of two coyotes who’d trotted along in the moonlight the night before. Coyotes make straight, single tracks, placing their back feet in the tracks of their front feet to save energy. One of the birders said he’d heard that the coyote’s tail can leave a slight drag line as seen in the closeup below. I couldn’t find a source for that, but it makes sense since coyotes run with their tails down, rather than up like wolves or dogs. Click on the photos to enlarge; hover your cursor for captions. (Coyote photo below by amandaandmike at inaturalist.org)
A Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), aka a Meadow Mouse, must have crossed the path at Bear Creek Nature Park on a snowy night and then disappeared by burrowing into the snow. Lucky for this little creature that the coyote wasn’t around! (Meadow Vole photo by Wolfgang Siebeneich at inaturalist.org.)
Meadow Vole tracks disappear into the snow
Meadow Vole by Wolfgang Siebeneich (CC BY-NC)
I’ve never seen a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) at Bear Creek Nature Park, though others have. But I did see the hole one had recently excavated in a tree in the Oak- Hickory forest there – with this “carpenter’s” wood chips scattered below. (Woodpecker photo kindly lent by Joan Bonin, a gifted local photographer.)
Holes excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker.
The wood chips left at the foot of the tree
Pileated Woodpeckerer, photo by Joan Bonin
Evidence of Humans at Play During the Big Freeze
It’s always cheering to come upon evidence of other people using our parks to just play in the snow.
Odds ‘n’ Ends that Caught My Winter Eye
The austerity of winter reveals landscape features unnoticed in the lushness of spring and summer. The birding group marveled at a fast-running spring flowing out into the snow at Charles Ilsley Park which had been dry or hidden in the dense growth of the field the rest of the year.
At sunset one afternoon, I rounded the corner of the shed at Bear Creek Nature Park and saw a pink and blue sunset glowing in a puddle of melted snow.
The graceful “bones” of last year’s wildflowers, clusters of half-moon shelf mushrooms, even an unusual rock catch my eye when framed in white. (Use pause button if you need more time for captions.)
Beauty in the Big Freeze: Appreciating the Small Things
Sometimes it’s just the pale green and lavender of ice in a wetland or the high whistle of a swoop of Cedar Waxwings. The scarlet flash of a Cardinal or a dancing snowman can lift your heart on gray winter day. Feathery snow settling on a seed pod or the gaudy beauty of an early sunset – it’s just a matter of taking in beauty in smaller, more subtle doses that can buoy our spirits in the dark cold of a Michigan winter.
The diversity of Oakland Township’s parks and natural areas is a source of repeated surprise and delight for me.
In the last few, very hot weeks, my husband Reg and I have explored the cool, shady trail that threads its way through Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, a hidden gem that is still under development by the Parks and Recreation Commission. Be prepared to feel you are up north or even out west as you wind your way along a high ridge overlooking the creek.
The 0.4 mile hike isn’t long but it is dramatic. You begin in a tunnel formed by tall shrubs. Here Reg stops to listen to birdsong as we enter the park.
Gray Catbirds meow from the thickets, Black-capped Chickadees scold on nearby branches – and birdsong flows down from the treetops, trilled by cardinals and other songsters that I don’t yet recognize by ear.
Occasionally the trail opens to reveal grassy areas filled with wildflowers. Ben and his summer technicians have worked hard to restore some of the open areas that once existed here.
By ridding areas of invasive shrubs, native wildflowers and grasses like these below find a home here once more.
In these sunny meadows, a large, native Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) basks in the sunlight without competition from the invasive shrubs that Ben removed last year.
Mushrooms grow on the moist, steep sides of the ravine. This one appears to be a mushroom from the genus Amanita, mushrooms toxic to humans. Squirrels, though, eat them with no ill effect.I think a nip’s been taken out of this one, actually.
Of course, all the flowers attract the bees and butterflies who share your walk. For a few minutes, a Bumblebee (genus Bombus) seemed to be enjoying riding down thin stalks of Narrow-Leaved Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) in the middle of the trail. This small bee seemed to be working awfully hard for the limited nectar or pollen on these plants. Maybe it was just a youngster having a good time or practicing its technique?
Where there’s water, of course, there are damselflies. Ebony Jewelwings (Calopteryx maculata)balance on the leaves at Stony Creek Ravine and can be seen in groups down near the water.
The shy Little Wood Satyr butterfly (Megisto cymela) doesn’t search for nectar or pollen. It bustles about in low foliage looking for plant sap or the sticky honeydew left by aphids.
The trail winds gently on into the cool shade of an oak forest.
Along the trail, you’ll see the remains of a farmer’s old stone wall, evidence that this land was once more open and sunny than it is today.
The land begins to fall away on either side of the path, plunging dramatically down to Stony Creek as it winds its way through the narrow ravine below. What a view! And the grade is much steeper than a photo can even make it look!
It’s important to stay on the trail here since the stream bed is a conservation area and downhill sliding and slipping causes erosion and damage. Here are some of our native plants that find a home at the bottom of the ravine, right near the water. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge).
White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are prevalent in this park. The Parks and Recreation Commission allows controlled hunts in this park every Tuesday and Wednesday from October 1 to January 1, with a PRC-issued special license, to provide opportunity for hunters and to manage the high density of deer in the park. Since the park is closed on those days for 3 months, come visit this slice of dramatic beauty on different days or during the other 9 months of the year .
Currently the park’s trailhead is at the end of Knob Creek Drive which is off E. Gunn Road. Right now there is only room for one car to park off-road at the entrance. The PRC applied for a grant to help purchase an adjacent 209 acres to expand this park – an area full of wildflowers and the wetlands that birds and amphibians love, plus space for plenty of parking off Snell Road. Fingers crossed that we receive that grant!
The trail takes you to a great vantage point and then ends within the park’s forest of sturdy oaks and their saplings. When you turn to walk back, you’ll be surprised, I think, by how much you notice that escaped your attention on the way in. I always am.
We all probably have our favorite natural areas in Oakland Township. Mine’s always been Bear Creek Nature Park and yours may be the Paint Creek Trail or Cranberry Lake Park. But it’s exciting to explore the paths “less traveled by” with fresh eyes. Beauty takes so many forms in the natural world and I love being introduced to landscapes nearby that I’ve never seen before. Give it a try. You never know. As poet Robert Frost suggested, taking one of these paths “less traveled by” may make “all the difference.”
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
Hard frost and driving winds – November asserts its presence at Bear Creek. Geese and ducks are re-thinking their presence in the ponds and marshes and gathering to move south. Most migrants have moved on.
But the winter bird crew calls to its fellow foragers as they all stock up for the coming snow. Plant pods crack open, dropping seed or sending them flying through the air with the last of the leaves. Trees have almost finished storing energy in their roots. Like us, Bear Creek’s almost ready to face another winter.
At dusk one night this week, I heard (before I saw) the cacophony of hundreds of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) as they gathered over the marsh to begin their migration. The sound of that many wings at once and their wild calls felt like the very essence of late fall. I wish I could have captured the sound of those geese but I literally was transfixed by the sheer volume, the roar, of their noise.
In the hour before, I’d seen and heard smaller groups of geese wheeling overhead near the treetops, heading southeast to join this larger flock.
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are still in the ponds. This shot from last fall shows a male after his molt, with a whole set of perfect new feathers, ready to find a mate and take off for the south. A new set of feathers makes flying that much easier for migrating birds.
Mallards are beginning to gather in larger flocks as well, readying themselves to move off when ice forms on the ponds and in the marsh.
The Hardy Birds of the Winter Crew
Birdsong is long gone now, but the winter birds use chips and calls to keep in touch with larger flocks as they busily forage. American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) probe for fruit and seeds from bushes on the western slope. (Click on double photos to enlarge. Rest your cursor on a double photo for captions)
Here’s a link if you’d like to hear the musical tweet these travelers use to keep in contact. (Page down to “Calls” and click on the first one.)
A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), a bird that is usually a ground feeder, pulled industriously at a cluster of goldenrod to get at seeds which had not yet fallen.
A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), who always brighten dark days, looked at me warily from small shrubs near the wetland below the south hill. According Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, these adult cardinals live no more than “a few miles from their place of birth.” So these Cardinals, which can live for many years, could have resided in Bear Creek for a long time. Cardinals pair up for the winter and 80% of them stay with their mates the following year.
Here’s a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) who’d just finished vigorously attacking a seed and was apparently tipping its head up to swallow the results.
The photo above came from our back yard this week because the ones I saw in the park seemed to never stay in one spot for more than a split second. But I like the look of this one’s wings as it took off from a branch in the park!
I saw House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus ) in Bear Creek this week but, like the Downy, they were too quick for me. So instead I took these pictures of a male and female at our home, where the feeder keeps them nearby. According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, House Finches were originally western birds. ” In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (‘Hollywood finches’). ” In the next 50 years, they spread all over the eastern US and southern Canada. I can’t imagine these social birds in cages!!
Winter Crew Animals
Below all those migrating birds in the marsh, a new muskrat lodge is being constructed. Since Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are most active at night, dawn or dusk,this lodge was probably constructed in semi- or complete darkness! This one maybe become a full-fledged winter dwelling, as large as the one in the Center Pond, or it may just be a smaller feeding platform, a place to come up through the ice during the winter to breathe and eat.
Three White-Tailed Deer does (Odocoileus virginianus) that had bedded down near the Center Pond moved slowly behind a scrim of trees near the wetland below the southern hill. Maybe they were headed to the western woods to eat some of the plentiful acorns, but this one stopped to peek around a tree at me.
And over in the western woods, an agitated Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) stopped dead when it spotted me, but flicked its tail at top speed, its version of a threat gesture.
Hard frost may have brought the demise of many insects in the park, but seed-eaters can choose from a gigantic larder! Perhaps you remember the Wild Senna (Senna hebcarpa) growing in the native beds near the shed. They’ve now produced long pods which turn black when the seeds inside are mature. Native bumblebees seek the pollen while ants and ladybugs, that may protect the plant from predators, love the nectar. The caterpillars of Sulphur butterflies (the family of small yellow ones) feed on its foliage. The seeds in those long black pods appeal to NorthernBobwhites(Colinus virginianus), a small quail with a distinctive whistle once plentiful in Oakland Township, but now largely missing. As native plants like Wild Senna, that serve so many creatures, return to our parks through careful stewardship, we hope to see the return of birds like the Bobwhite.
Mixed in with the ubiquitous Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) last summer was the more delicate native, Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which looks quite lovely as it seeds. Native bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and lots of other insects enjoyed its nectar during the summer and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) feed on it now. Occasionally it feeds rabbits and deer as well – another important plant in the park’s native habitat.
The modest Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) , a favorite of small bees and hoverflies (that look like bees), is seeding into airy puffs right now.
Trees Conserving Energy for Spring
All summer, the leaves of the Park’s deciduous trees produced sugars by storing the energy of sunlight in chemical bonds (photosynthesis). By autumn, this energy in sugars is safely stored in the roots of the trees, away from the snow and cold. During summer and fall, trees also produce next year’s leaf buds, and in some cases, flower buds, for next spring. The buds are packed with miniature leaves which are covered with a waxy coating that protects them from the cold. In the spring warmer temperatures and longer days break the ends of the cold waiting period, signaling sugar-rich sap to rise. The leaves, fed by the sap, burst forth and start again to supply the tree through photosynthesis. Pretty nice arrangement, I’d say! Here are some leaf buds on Maples in Bear Creek.
Perhaps we can make peace with the changing season by knowing that the seeds of spring wildflowers are already planted and the leaves of favorite trees wait inside those leaf buds for a warm spring day. Some of us go south like the migrating birds. Others of us are like the trees who husband energy in their roots, but stand tall when snow covers their branches. We too turn our energies more inward in the winter, perhaps by a warm fire, but still sally forth, sporting cherry noses and pink cheeks , to enjoy the wintry world. Bear Creek welcomes you in any season.
*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);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich
Well, the sun is shining! It’s a bit cooler than the usual July (fewer mosquitoes!) but summer is proceeding at Bear Creek Nature Park nonetheless.
Young are still being born and raised, almost grown fledglings are trying out new skills and all over the park, wildflowers grow leggy from the rain, reaching upward as they compete with neighboring plants for the sun. Among those plants are more that illuminate our local history.
Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are “chipping” loud and long. Females often do this as way to ward off intruders from their territory, though some also believe that they’re issuing a mating call which may be the case this week, since their second breeding season is June to August. Here’s one sitting on a rock in the sun, doing her aggressive or perhaps flirtatious best, her small body twitching with every “chip”!
And up in the trees, female birds are still sitting on clutches of eggs or warming nestlings on a cool morning. Here’s a Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) sitting on her nest. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, she can make up to 2500 individual trips to construct it!
Fledglings are bigger and more confident now. Here’s a fledgling Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) with his rose and beige breast feathers beginning to replace the brown spotted ones of the smaller fledgling posted last week.
As you enter the park from Snell Road, listen for a young Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) practicing his trill at the top of a small tree on your right. He’s been there every time I’ve gone in the last week. His song’s a little rusty yet and he opens his beak just a bit farther than a mature bird, I think, but he’s catching on! Here’s a link to his “sewing machine” sound – a few squeaks and tweets following by a staccato trill. I think the second “song button” on the link sounds most like our young Song Sparrow.
Down at the eastern end of the Center Pond, a young Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) floats quietly beneath the overhanging branches of a shrub. There are two siblings keeping each other company there at the moment.
And above the lawn that extends in front of the playground, two Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) soared above the clover-covered grass catching insects (mosquitoes, I hope!) on the wing. Though they have cobalt blue backs like the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor ) I talked about earlier, these agile flyers have rusty red breasts rather than white ones. I only got a photo of them on the wing so here’s a link to see them up close.
Beloved Monarchs, Long Distance Travelers, Arrive!
At last, I’ve seen my first Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) of this summer. Flitting quickly from blossom to blossom, this female searched for nectar from Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) in the eastern Old Field. Unfortunately, the flowers aren’t open yet, perhaps delayed by unseasonably cool temperatures. A Monarch who left Mexico in the spring went through 3 generations to get here, turning from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly at each stop along the way – and yet the third generation retains the knowledge that its forebear lived at Bear Creek last year! If this butterfly’s eggs eventually produce another caterpillar and another butterfly, that lovely creature will make the whole 2,000 mile trek back to Mexico in one long haul. Amazing. Monarch populations were up slightly this year but are still down 90% in the last 25 years. May this one prosper and multiply!
Nature’s “Medicine Cabinet”: Wildflowers Tell Local History
Last week, I featured some of the plants that were here when Indians lived in our township, some native wildflowers that probably greeted early European settlers and the non-native grasses and flowers that were planted by farmers for pasture and silage. This week, I thought I’d share some of the plants used or brought here by those settlers, some for their reputed medical benefits.
NOTE FROM OAKLAND TOWNSHIP PARKS AND RECREATION: DO NOT pick or consume wild plants in our parks. In addition to being potentially poisonous, many wild plants are endangered because of over-harvesting. Oakland Township ordinances prohibit removal, destruction, and harvesting of plants within parks. Leave plants for wildlife and other park users to enjoy!
“Worts”: Plants for Healing
According to Wikipedia, “A word with the suffix -wort is often very old…It was often used in the names of herbs and plants that had medicinal uses, the first part of the word denoting the complaint against which it might be specially efficacious.”
For example, this delicate little flower on a long stalk growing profusely on the Snell path into the park is called Nipplewort (Lapsana communis) because, some say, it was thought at one time to increase the flow of breast milk. It’s a widespread non-native these days!
I’ve already discussed the beautiful native with the terrible name Spiderwort which folks must have thought of as a cure for spider bites. It’s still used by herbalists today and is still blooming in the driveway circle at the Snell entrance.
The most well-known “wort” these days is Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), a plant used as a common herbal supplement around the world. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, it’s been used as an herbal treatment since the time of the Greeks, so I’m guessing the plant arrived here in someone’s garden for that very reason. Unfortunately, this species of St. John’s Wort is invasive, poisonous to livestock and also crowds out other plants, including our native St. John’s Worts, which thus far, I’ve not come across.
A native Bear Creek wildflower thought to be medicinal by herbalists is Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) . It was used by Indians to treat superficial wounds and is used to some extent that way in Europe today and for other ailments in Chinese medicine as well. Fortunately, bees and butterflies like this native plant too!
“Banes”: Plants for Warding Things Off
And then there are the “bane” plants, which people believed could ward off or even be toxic to other species. I’ve already discussedDaisyFleabane (Erigeron species), which is meant to be the “bane” of fleas and may have been used at one time in straw mattresses for just that reason. It’s prolific in Bear Creek this year, the most I’ve ever seen there!
And now, growing on the west side of the Snell entrance path, among the trees, is Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra), a native plant with “bane” in its name because it is toxic to humans. Wikipedia claims it was used to make poison arrows by Native Americans. So don’t eat them. You wouldn’t get them down anyway, probably; they’re extremely bitter! They are attractive to the eye though!
Chicory (Cichorium intybus), on the other hand, is neither a “wort” or a “bane. It may have arrived here as a coffee substitute as it is still used in some herbal drinks. But farmers could also have planted it as part of their pasturage for livestock. It’s considered an invasive species since it’s seen all along roadsides, but in Bear Creek, it seems to be coexisting with our native plants. I have to admit that I love its pale blue color, so rare in nature, and the pinking-scissors edge of the petals.
And this week, I also saw the white/light pink version of Chicory, which I’ve never seen at Bear Creek before.
A Few Last Minute Native Plants
Before they finish blooming, I want to mention three other humble native plants before their blossoms are entirely gone. The first might have been named by a woman long ago, Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana). The “thimble” is the fruit and it disperses its seeds by tumbling along the ground.
White Avens (Geum canadense), a very modest woodland native is one of the plants that can live near/under Black Walnut trees but it grows elsewhere in the woods of Bear Creek as well.
And lastly, this delicate plant has almost finished flowering for the year. Now it will start making little burrs that spread by sticking to animal fur or your pant leg! You’ll spot Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) along many dappled woodland paths in the park. It’s no relation to Deadly Nightshade. It was given its exotic name because it lives in the shade and its genus, Circaea, was named after the enchantress, Circe, from Greek mythology who supposedly used it in her magic potions.
The woodland paths and sunny Old Fields of Bear Creek still carry memories of our local history in the wildflowers that bloom there. That idea intrigues me and makes even the most humble plants at my feet more interesting. Hope it does for you, too.
*Quick footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.