All over Oakland Township – along the Paint Creek Trail and in Draper Twin Lake, Charles Ilsley and Bear Creek Parks – citizen scientist volunteers are busily monitoring nest boxes twice a week for Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Nestwatch program . I posted last year about thetraining we receive through our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s annual workshop and Cornell’s online resources.
As a volunteer monitor for the boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park this year, I’ve kept my eye on two species of bright blue native birds : Tree Swallows(Tachycinetabicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) . It’s been such a joy, and it’s also taught me that citizen science can sometimes challenge the heart.
Eastern Bluebirds From Egg to Flight
The Bluebirds have had a good year in the brand new boxes at Bear Creek. Fourteen baby birds from three different boxes have taken the big plunge and ultimately flown out into the summer sunshine. It always strikes me that the moment that little birds fly is really a second birth for them after emerging out of their eggs. What a moment that first flight must be – much like exiting from the womb for human babies – moving from a cozy darkness to a big, bright, demanding world outside.
It all begins, of course, with a nest and an egg. The male Bluebird attracts a mate to a tree cavity or nest box by dropping in a little nesting material and either popping in and out of the hole or sitting on the box fluttering his bright blue wings. But once a pair has mated, the female builds the nest – a cup of nicely woven grasses and occasionally some pine needles. She lays one small egg each day, usually in the morning. Bluebird females don’t stay on the nest all day. They come and go to feed. Incubation takes 11 to 19 days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box at Ilsley Park earlier this year.
First bluebird egg in the new boxes at Bear Creek this year
Bluebird babies hatch out naked, blind and completely helpless. The ornithology term is “altricial” as opposed to “precocial,” which refers to baby birds like the Killdeer that emerge from the egg ready to run and feed. At first, black feathers appear under the nestlings’ skin looking like blue-black splotches. Gradually feathers emerge here and there on their tiny bodies. I’ll bet the beaks of nestlings are lined in white because they help the parent stick the caterpillars in the right place inside that dark cavity.
From hatchling to fledgling takes another 17-19 days for bluebirds. The feathers develop first in spiky looking “sheaths.” I think that’s what we’re seeing in this photo about a week after the nestlings hatched.
Gradually the sheaths drop away, leaving a white dust. The feathers begin to unfurl. As you can see below, nests get pretty crowded as the nestlings grow. Perhaps feeling a bit cramped is nature’s way of encouraging these little birds to take flight. Also, according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.3), the parents feed them less often just before fledging, so that they are more motivated to get out where the food is. Tough love in the bird world evidently!
This summer, I haven’t been lucky enough to arrive at the Bear Creek nest boxes when fledglings are emerging from a nest box. But last year, I was fortunate to be home, camera at the ready, when the first bluebird took off from a nest box in our field. First it hesitated with its tiny feet at the hole and looked around.
After a bit of nervous looking around, it gathered its courage and dropped from the hole, wings up ready for the downward stroke, body and legs hanging below!
And then those blue wings, still partially in spotted brown, spread out for the first time. So exciting!
Normally, the fledgling will fly onto a low branch of a nearby tree or shrub and then flutter their way to higher branches. According to Stokes, the parents will bring the fledgling food for the next three to four weeks. But if the adults mate again during that time, the job of feeding the young falls to the male while the female starts another clutch of eggs.
A variety of predators, of course, can interrupt this miraculous cycle. In the park this year, three bluebird eggs in one nest box simply disappeared a few days after they were laid. I could only guess at the culprit. House Wrens are known to dispose of other birds’ eggs by removal or pecking and they would fit in a nest box hole. It seems doubtful that a snake or raccoon managed to get past the predator guard. Whoever was the nest thief, the bluebird adults were resilient. About a week later, three more eggs appeared in the nest box. This time, they hatched and are now almost fully feathered. I expect them to take wing some time next week.
Tree Swallows Literally Feather Their Own Nest!
The beautiful blue and white Tree Swallows had a tougher time than the Bluebirds this year but nine little Tree Swallows added their blue to the sky anyway. They arrived in late April and began mating displays.
I was pleased to find the beginnings of nest building in the boxes. But shortly thereafter, we had a severe cold snap and the Tree Swallows disappeared for a week or so at least. My fellow monitors and I guessed that the insects that they feed on in flight were wiped out by the cold so the Tree Swallows temporarily flew farther south. According to The Stokes Guide, this behavior isn’t uncommon for Tree Swallows in inclement weather.
By mid-May, the swallows returned and began adding material to their nests. Tree Swallows use grasses as a base for their nests, but they line the nest with feathers, white ones being a particular favorite. Eventually I began to see little white eggs not much bigger than a large jelly bean in three of the boxes. I was so glad to have the swallows nesting again that I decided to forego taking a photo. So here’s a photo of a single Tree Swallow egg shared by a generous iNaturalist.org photographer who uses the name caw33iii.
Eventually, one of my three Tree Swallow boxes had six eggs. Tree Swallows incubate their eggs for 11-19 days also. When I arrived on the 21st day, I was greeted by this lovely sight – one or two day old hatchings! I couldn’t resist a quick cellphone photo. You can see the blue pigment of feathers beneath the skin and of course, white beaks again and completely blind eyes. Such a pretty variety of feathers in this soft, cozy nest!
These babies did just fine, because they seemed to have very experienced parents. Unlike Bluebird parents who will usually flush from the nest as I approach or simply scold from a nearby tree while I monitor, Tree Swallow parents take, let’s say, a more active role! Once when I approached to monitor, a female Tree Swallow just stuck her head out the hole and refused to leave. I went my merry way without data.
Every time I arrived to peek in this nest box, an adult swooped over me repeatedly, issuing liquid warning calls. I’m glad that these parents so fiercely protect their young, so it made me laugh each time. I trust these skillful fliers; they’re just sending a warning to an interloper they have no reason to trust. I always finish my peek in any nest box in less than a minute anyway, as the Nestwatch training advises. The last thing I wanted to do was discourage this conscientious couple!
I believe I arrived late on this clutch’s fledge day, because I heard lots of twittering deep in the nearby bushes. Generally all the fledglings leave on the same day, though occasionally one of them needs an extra day. And indeed, when I took a quick, careful peek into the box, only one little fledgling was left there, probably still screwing its courage to the sticking point. Again, the parents sailed over my head, encouraging me to leave. I took their advice. When I visited again three days later, I was pleased to see that the last little fledgling had taken off into the blue as well.
Tree Swallow fledglings are much more precocious than fledgling bluebirds. They can fly and scoop insects out of the air on their own in just 2 or 3 days! Since I have no Bear Creek fledging photos, here’s one I took two years ago of a fledgling Tree Swallow at Draper Twin Lake Park. It had flown high up onto a guy wire but was having a little trouble sticking the landing!
Another Tree Swallow nest box at Bear Creek did not fare so well this year. Three eggs never hatched and the other three fledglings simply died shortly before their fledge date. I gently removed them from the nest, limp in my palm, and carried them a distance away in the deep grass under a shrub, so predators would not be attracted to the other boxes. A sad afternoon. Perhaps I missed signs of violence but I looked and didn’t see any. Perhaps the parents were less adept at finding food after the cold spring delayed the hatching of insects. But I’m just guessing. It may have just been a challenging year for these Tree Swallows.
Despite a few casualties, the Bear Creek nest boxes have already fledged nine Tree Swallows and fourteen Eastern Bluebirds. And we still have 3 Bluebird eggs and 4 Bluebird hatchlings in two boxes. And that’s just the six boxes in one park! Imagining these small blue birds out in the greenery all over the township, growing, practicing their foraging and flying skills and preparing to make the fall migration makes me very happy.
An adult male Eastern Bluebird
An adult male Tree Swallow calling to its mate.
Both of these species have suffered steep declines over the years. Bluebirds are recovering largely because humans began to provide nest boxes for them back in the 1960’s and 70’s. Tree Swallow numbers have declined by 49% in the last 40 years, but perhaps the nest boxes and the information gathered from them will eventually boost their numbers as well. We have to hope so, because summer would not be as glorious without these little scraps of blue sky winging their way above our flowered fields.
Little, busy Gallagher Creek Park has gone through some big changes in the last few years. The Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission made a commitment to provide this densely populated area of the township with a playground for children. And they made it happen very quickly! Meanwhile, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager, set in motion a plan to eliminate large stands of non-native shrubs and begin restoring the fields that surround the new playground. This spring, he and his crew spent long hours creating and planting an extensive set of native gardens.
So I’ve enjoyed several happy outings at this little green park from late April to late June, observing both the exciting changes initiated by human effort and nature’s annual, sometimes less noticed, transition from spring to summer. Glad you’re here to share both of them with me.
The People Factor: From an Old Farm Field to a Playground Surrounded by Beauty
In the spring of 2015, the restoration of native habitat at Gallagher Creek began with a prescribed burn handled by contractors and supervised by Dr. Ben. Having done a plant survey, he had found many native plants struggling to grow amongst invasives. So in 2015, before the Parks Commission began to consider playground plans, Ben set about removing large stands of aggressive shrubs from the eastern sections of Gallagher Creek. In the early winter of 2016, he was able to begin planting native seed, using budgeted Land Preservation millage funds and a prairie restoration grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service – Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
From 2016 to 2019, the Parks and Recreation Commissioners and Director Mindy Milos-Dale set about making the playground area a priority project. A professional architect from Professional Engineering Associates (PEA) worked with the Parks Commission and staff to develop a design for the playground, picnic pavilion, and paths that would harmonize with the natural environment. The Township Board’s Safety Paths and Trails Committee worked with dedication to complete the northern paved trail along Silverbell Road that leads into the park and LJ Construction did an excellent job of putting it all together. Now it’s easier and safer for families to reach Gallagher Creek Park from surrounding neighborhoods. And the stewardship crew, volunteers of all ages, and Dr. Ben set out to surround the playground with an educational garden that can familiarize both children and their parents with lovely plants that are native to our area.
All of the work came to fruition this May when the park was dedicated and the gardens completed.
Nature Begins its Transition at Gallagher Creek
The paths that lead out of the native gardens create a transition from the playground to the natural areas that surround the slides and swings. Right now, the only trail beyond the playground leads to a platform near the creek, but more are planned. So knees cocked high, I waded through the carpet of tall grass and flowers, exploring, watching a wet, cold, spring make the transformation into early summer.
A Cold, Wet Spring at Gallagher Creek: Wildflowers Emerge, the Birds are Fewer than Previous Years, and Insects Not Yet Active
May was wet! Gallagher Creek, normally shallow and wandering slowly through tall grass, flooded over into pools beneath the sheltering willows. Instead of whispering, it burbled along it path toward Paint Creek. The cool temperatures and moisture were perfect for some plants.
The most spectacular spring wildflower was the Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) tucked in near the old stump left of the platform at the creek. The long purple ribbons on these yellow dancing shoes suit this wildflower’s name just perfectly!
Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) erupted from the soil in time to live up to their name, too. They formed a circular carpet out in the eastern field, where Ben had cleared a dense stand of shrubs in a previous year. Mayapples are more commonly seen in wooded areas but this colony of them seems quite happy to be surrounded by tall grass.
Their modest little flowers, which emerge from little “green apple” buds, droop shyly beneath the leaves.
Wild Strawberry flowers (Fragaria virginiana) lay hidden in the grass all over the park. Their berries will provide a tasty treat for all kinds of animals who always get to these berries before I do!
Where Gallagher Creek had flooded , it had left standing water far out in the eastern field. And some little rivulets flow the other way, toward the creek from the marsh near Silverbell Road. So I was glad I had waterproof hiking shoes. All along the creek in May, golden splashes of Swamp Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) shone like little suns from the wet grass. I’ve never seen as many here as I’ve seen this year.
When Ben cleared the shrubs, he saved a lovely Nannyberry bush (Viburnum lentago) that can now stand out in the landscape. According to the website Illinoiswildflowers.info, this graceful native shrub or small tree later produces juicy, sweet, purplish fruits that many birds love, including Ruffed Grouse, Northern Bobwhite, Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Flicker, Gray Catbird, American Robin, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, Cedar Waxwing, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Purple Finch. It’s also a popular nesting shrub for birds. Sounds like a good one for my yard!
Oak trees are “monoecious,” meaning they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The male flowers look like little bright green balls on the long, elegant catkins and the female flowers, which become the acorns, are inconspicuous little blossoms on the same branch. The female flowers are pollinated by the wind, which means a lot of us around here are sneezing in May! And once the male flowers open and shed their pollen, they fall to the ground. Here are the male flowers on an oak at Gallagher Creek Park (maybe black oak, Quercus velutina).
Just a couple of birds kept me company at Gallagher Creek Park in late April and May. I mentioned in the blog earlier this month that a birder friend sent me a photo of a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) standing over her eggs in the shallow nest she’d scraped in the bare earth. The eggs, however, disappeared without my birder friend or me ever spotting the fledglings. Killdeer nests are awfully vulnerable to snakes, raccoons, coyotes and of course, careless humans! But I’ve learned that the adults can lead newborns to safer territory with water and food on the day they hatch from their eggs. They’re born ready to go. So maybe there are fledglings somewhere on the property being cared for by the male while the female starts a new nest. I hope so.
Last year, the air over the park was filled with swooping and diving Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). This year, I’ve only seen one or two. It may be that the busy playground has encouraged them to settle elsewhere. Here’s a photo of one high in a tree at Gallagher Creek Park about two years ago, and one on the wing, scooping insects out of the air in the wetland area on the far side of the creek as I’ve seen them doing this year.
As Summer Tentatively Arrived More Birds and Lots of Crazy Insects!
Getting to Know a Killdeer, plus Other Avian Visitors
In June, I thought perhaps I was repeatedly seeing the Killdeer that my birding friend had introduced me to in late April. By June 1, the adult Killdeer had abandoned its first nest and seemed to be striking up a friendship with a local American Robin (Turdusmigratorius). The killdeer appears to be the female, since the only other adult killdeer around is usually flying in circles making its piercing territorial call which is the male’s way of protecting his mate’s territory. (No wonder the second part of the Killdeer’s scientific name is “vociferous”!) The Robin may have been a female as well, since its head is not as dark as most males. On that June 1 afternoon, these two birds of different species hung out together in a native bed near the pavilion that hadn’t yet been planted. It was surprising to me that the two of them seemed so relaxed in each other’s presence – especially since killdeer are usually quite excitable. I liked to imagine that perhaps the smaller bird found the Robin’s stolid presence reassuring – or maybe that they were silently commiserating over the difficulties of nesting and raising young!
A week later on June 8, the Killdeer was bobbing along among the newly planted garden where it had visited with the Robin, calling now and then.
Six days later on June 14, Ben texted that he’d just seen another killdeer nest with four eggs in it. When I went on my own, I couldn’t find it; their nests are notorious for being well camouflaged! A day later, sharp-eyed Ben texted again to say he’d seen a hatchling coming out one of the eggs! And he sent me this wonderful photo! Be sure to notice the long beak on this youngster.
My husband and I hurried to the park. At first we only saw the female doing a distraction maneuver near the nest location that Ben had described. She huddled down in the grass and stretched her wings up vertically, spread her tail and fluttered, trying to draw our attention. Killdeer females do this when possible predators approach their young. They want predators to think they are starting a new nest. “Don’t look there! Look over here!”
This time we saw the baby bird, probably just half an hour out of its egg. We wanted to keep our distance to avoid any further distress for either the fledgling or its mother so no photo. But while we watched, this tiny bird struggled to its feet for a few seconds, then flopped on the ground and fluttered forward a little on its tiny wings. By a few repetitions of this arduous process, it got away from the exposed nest, the eggs and the hot sun and hid under some grass. What a little survivor! We walked away.
That evening, I learned the following from A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. II by Donald W. and Lillian Q. Stokes: “Once the chicks have hatched, the parents lead them gradually to areas with abundant food and some cover…On the first day, the chicks may move up to 120 feet from the nests…Brooding [covering the bird with adult’s body] by one or both parents occurs frequently during the first few days and, of course, during the nights.” I felt reassured, though I’ve not seen the fledgling since it hatched. Here’s a little Killdeer in a photo taken by iNaturalist.org photographer, Steven Mlodinow. Definitely “aaawww” worthy, I’d say. Hope someday I get to see one on its feet like this!
The Robin, by the way, may have been staring toward the pavilion because she was contemplating a nest there. Ben reported two adult Robins calmly ignoring humans below as they zipped back and forth bringing food to their young in the rafters of the pavilion. When I visited on June 14, I saw two Robin hatchlings who still needed to grow into their beaks a bit before leaving the nest. Unlike hatchling Killdeers who leave the nest within minutes, the Robin nestlings can spend almost two weeks in their nest.
On each visit over the six weeks, I kept hearing the “witchedy, witchedy” calls of the tiny, masked CommonYellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas). Each time, though, the calls seemed to be coming from the wetland on the far side of the creek. But last week, on June 19, I finally spotted one high atop a snag near the marsh along Silverbell Road.
On that last visit, I also heard a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) trilling its melody and finally spotted it high on a bare limb. It looked as though it were studying the marsh for insects before singing another “verse.”
A few minutes later, I looked up from a flower to see a Great Egret (Ardea alba) soaring away from the creek and across the marsh. It was gone before I could raise the camera to my eye. So here’s a flying Egret photo taken at Bear Creek marsh a few years ago with a possible mate in the distance. I hope the flying egret nests near Gallagher Creek this year.
Gallagher Creek’s Wild and Weird June Insects
The natural areas at Gallagher Creek Park bloomed with a few more wildflowers in June. And that prompted visits by a variety of insects. Some I wrote about last week when I reported on native pollinators – bumblebees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees and hoverflies. This week get ready for some hair-raising stories! These insects are colorful and fascinating but come with some pretty fierce behavior!
Thanks to very kind assistance from Dr. Gary Parsons, an entomologist from Michigan State University, I now know that an insect I saw last week is a female Feather-legged Fly, specifically Trichopoda pennipes. These insects mimic wasps. With their feathery jodpurs, they sip on nectar, spreading some pollen as they buzz from flower to flower. Their genus also has the unpleasant distinction of laying its eggs in or on other insects. Once they hatch they eat the host! Yuck. According to Dr. Parsons, though, they may play a role in controlling an invasive stink bug because of their parasitic habits. Great looking little critter with a grim reproductive strategy, eh? (Note the two tiny Hoverflies (genus Syrphidae) mating on these Yarrow blossoms in the background.)
Speaking of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), the fields at Gallagher are filled with this well-known native plant – and insects are making the most of them! Below, a potential victim of the Feather-legged Flyhas come up with a snazzy defense. An insect group called Froghoppers (superfamily Cercopoidea) has a nymph stage that we commonly call Spittlebugs. To protect itself from predators, the nymph pierces the plant stem, feeds on its sap (doing no serious harm) and then excretes a bitter-tasting foam around itself. That keeps the nymph moist, insulates it from cold, and hides it from view so it can safely metamorphose within its bubbles. This spittlebug seems to have found an exceptionally safe spot beneath an umbrella of Yarrow buds.
Yarrow also hosted a very impressive arachnid. The long legs stretching down this stalk belong to a Daddylonglegs, also known as a Harvestman (order Opiliones). Unlike other arachnids, their body segments (cephalothorax and abdomen) are fused together and they have two tiny eyes on top of their heads instead of up to eight for spiders. Quite a specimen, isn’t it?
A lovely plant with the oddly descriptive name of Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) played host to an Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica ) this week. Unlike the Bumblebee which it resembles, it doesn’t have a long tongue to reach into these delicate lavender tubes for nectar. Sometimes the Carpenter Bee has to slit the petals open to reach the pollen in narrow blossoms. I wonder if that’s why this bee solved the problem by choosing the smaller, shallower flowers?
An Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicollis) rested among the greenery in the eastern meadow. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station, the white tip of her abdomen means she’s a female and they can lay up to 900 eggs per day! Most of the eggs and larvae, of course, will get eaten by fish and frogs. Dragonflies are flying predators. By snagging other insects from the air, they keep the habitat in balance. And they are such flying aces!
We need a relief from cool but strange insects, right? So let’s end with a second, closer look at Gallagher’s butterflies, some of which were featured in a slideshow last week. Here’s another look at the gorgeous Red-spotted Purple buttefly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), this time with the upper (dorsal) view and the equally dramatic lower (ventral) view.
And here’s the tiny Pearl Crescent, this time with its fuzzy face peering over the edge of a leaf as it flitted about the eastern meadow. The matching orange tips on its striped antennae are nice touches, aren’t they?
The Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) is named after the silver patch on the underside of its wings. Its caterpillars protect themselves from predators by creating a leaf shelter by cutting a flap off the edge of a leaf, folding it over and than fastening it shut with silk!
Gallagher Creek Park’s Colorful Future
Gallagher Creek Park already greets the eye with brightly colored playground equipment and the bright little faces of the children who come each day to enjoy it. And out in the meadow, both native and non-native wildflowers add their beauty to a park visit.
Imagine the color and variety that will greet us when the native gardens come to full bloom in two or three years! Those sturdy native prairie plants in the playground gardens will eventually survive bright sunlight and droughts without much watering because they take the time to grow long roots before fully blooming. Here’s a slideshow of some of those plants as they’ll look when full grown. Maybe they’ll set us dreaming about our own gardens!
Spring is an incredibly busy time for our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide. So many projects demand attention at once – and they all depend on so many variables! Planting native seed has to happen while the ground is still cold and wet. Prescribed burns, however, have to happen when the wind is low and from the right direction, and the plants are dry.
Meanwhile volunteer training and supervision is going on for vernal pool monitoring, nesting box monitoring and burn crews. Whew! Here’s a sample of what went on in late March and April at just one location – Bear Creek Nature Park.
Seeding Mowed Areas with Native Seed
In late March, Dr. Ben and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion began a project to spread the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers in the areas cleared by forestry mowing last fall. The hope is that these native plants can help prevent some renewed growth of the invasive shrubs that were removed. It’s a project that will take years of persistent work, but they made a good beginning.
Monitoring the Life in Vernal Pools
In mid- April, the stewardship staff, a stewardship tech from the Six Rivers Land Conservancy (see Ian below) and a group of volunteers, including Parks Commissioner Dan Simon and his wife pulled on tall boots and waders and ventured into the vernal pools in Bear Creek’s forest. The purpose is to monitor the health of these temporary pools, which are biodiversity hotspots in our forests.
As usual, the crew found a surprising variety of creatures. Spring frogs, salamanders and many insects choose vernal pools as a good place to mate and lay eggs because they are free of hungry fish. The pools dry up and disappear in warmer weather, preventing fish from establishing if they are introduced.
Nest Box Monitoring
For the second year, Dr. Ben has organized and trained a group of volunteers to monitor nest boxes from first nesting to the flight of fledglings. We “citizen scientists” report our data to Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “NestWatch” program. This year Ben added six boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park to the ones in Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. And I’ll be the Bear Creek monitor this year, which will be great! I’m hoping to count Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, and possibly Black-capped Chickadees or House Wrens where the nest boxes are closer to trees and shrubs. We might have Brown-headed Cowbirds to count too if those characters lay their eggs in any of the other birds’ nests!
The boxes were only up a day or so when Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) began to explore the boxes. I’m betting they are impressed with the real estate – new construction, a southeast exposure and a security system (metal predator guards to keep out raccoons, snakes, etc.). Between raindrops last Thursday, I watched a pair of Tree Swallows courting on one of the new boxes. They were doing their wet gurgling call to each other the whole time and touching beak-to-beak, while the male performed fancy wing displays. The male had just chased off a competitor, so he seemed excited! It looks like an argument in the photo below, doesn’t it? But I think it was just a lively prelude to mating.
I also found two completed Bluebird nests made of dry grasses in the new Bear Creek nest boxes, but didn’t get to see the female doing the building. However, here’s a little Bluebird female I saw at Charles Ilsley Park the week before bringing nesting material to her box.
Much to my delight, four days later at Bear Creek Nature Park, I found the first egg in one of our new boxes – a Bluebird egg. They lay one egg each day for 3-5 days and won’t start incubating them until all the eggs are laid. The eggs then generally hatch on the same day, making feeding the nestlings more efficient for the adult birds. Remember, please, that only trained and certified volunteers are allowed to monitor the bluebird boxes so as not to cause too much disturbance at the nest!
Holding Prescribed Burns Using Trained Volunteers
The township uses prescribed burns to periodically refresh our fire-adapted native plants, which benefit from periodic fires. Some of these burns are complicated and require hiring professional burn crews. But many are conducted by a group of volunteers trained and supervised by Dr. Ben. In late April, previous volunteer crew members and some new volunteers practiced their skills with two small burns at Bear Creek Nature Park in the native gardens near the parking lot. Volunteers are an important part of the stewardship program and the teamwork is an great way to meet local people who care about the natural world. Consider joining us!
And a Celebratory Dance to End a Busy Month
Toward the very end of April, Dr. Ben arranged our annual Earth Day/Spring celebration: The Woodcock Dance Watch – and wow! This year’s dance was spectacular! This odd bird, with big eyes toward the back of its head, a stout body and a huge beak, does its unique aerial mating dance at dusk.After a short review of information about the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), we toasted marshmallows while waiting for the sun to set. (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith for sharing his photo.)
This year, one of our birding group members had been making almost nightly visits to Bear Creek Nature Park to watch one particular Woodcock who faithfully danced on the path near a certain puddle. So, as the sky darkened, ten of us gathered on the slope designated by our birder friend, Vinnie, and waited.
Suddenly, very close to us, the Woodcock landed on the path and started his dance. He began with a very odd bug-like buzz called a “peent” call while turning in circles, as he attempted to attract any available female. Then he took to the air with whirring wings, flying in lazy circles high in the air while burbling a different call. Finally he plopped back down right where he started. Without pause he started the “peenting” again, and the dance continued. It was an exciting performance! We all came away feeling it had been an evening well spent celebrating the spring rituals of the natural world.
A Busy Month for Nature and its Stewards
Ah, Spring! Little creatures slip into and out of ponds to begin mating. Seeds await the moisture and warmth they need to thrust new stems into the sunlight. Birds are busy migrating north, establishing territory, finding mates, building nests – even dancing! And we humans are busy studying, recording and preparing their habitat for another glorious summer!
Gray clouds blanket our April skies in Michigan – but the occasional bright blue day or a beam of pale sunlight slipping between the rain clouds can lift our spirits in a giddy instant. The earth emerges from its snow cover in shades of gray and brown – but summer birds return dressed in their spring finery, ready to join others in exuberant song.
Hibernators poke their heads from tree holes or slip out of the leaf litter or swim up from thawing ponds, ready to nurture a new generation of young. Early spring takes its time, offering us just a few tastes here and there of the colorful bustle ahead as the days grow longer.
Visitor Birds Fly In Bearing Color and Song on Their Bright Wings
I hope you’ve been able to open a window or step out your door to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus in the last few days. Just in case, I thought I’d play a recording I made outside our home last Sunday morning. If you increase your volume, you’ll hear the insistent call of Northern Cardinal, the buzzing call of a Red-winged Blackbird, the “kwirrr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the “tweeeeets” of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and in the background, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) high overhead, plus a few smaller birds twittering along. It’s a joyful noise after a cold winter.
The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) you heard above, of course, has provided splashes of scarlet against the snow all winter. But now some old friends are arriving for the summer, brightening up an April day. Members of our birding group heard the high pitched whistling calls of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and then spotted a small group that had settled into trees near a Bear Creek Nature Park wetland. The yellow tips of their tails and yellow bellies added a spot of sunshine on a blue/gray morning. Though Waxwings can stay here year ’round, I see Waxwings less often in the winter. I’m glad some of them choose to nest in Bear Creek each year.
As a friend and I skirted the eastern edge of the Center Pond one afternoon, we heard a splash and looked up to see a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying up into a tree with her quarry. She swallowed it, though, before I got her picture. Her blue and rust colored belts show that she’s a female.
The male has only one blue belt. Fortunately, last Sunday, the male was at the Center Pond. When my husband and I arrived, the kingfisher was very agitated, calling as he dashed from tree to tree. These kingfishers don’t sing. At best, their fast, rat-a-tat rattle provides the other birds’ vocals with a little background percussion.
The gorgeous male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) brought more than his share of brilliant color to the chilly waters of the Playground Pond. Together he and his mate will scout for a nesting hole high in the top of a tree near water in the woods nearby. Wood Duck nestlings are “precocial,” meaning born ready to go – eyes open, covered in feathers and, in their case, outfitted with claws for climbing. Only days after birth, they claw their way up to the edge of their nest cavity and leap into the air, following their mother’s calls below. They fall harmlessly into the leaf litter or water and join her in the the nearest pond to feed. Amazing feat for a baby bird! The adult birds make quite a racket when taking flight, the male’s “zeet” call is very different from the female’s “oo-eek.”
The diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) repeatedly sang his lovely up-and-down spring song while he hopped about frenetically in a cluster of vines near the Playground Pond. Through the tangled branches, I could see the red crown raised slightly atop his head, but never got a clear shot. Luckily, gifted local photographer, Joan Bonin, got a lovely photo when a kinglet posed on a branch for her at Holland Ponds in Shelby Township. Thanks to Joan for sharing her excellent photographs for the blog!
In his brilliant iridescent green head, yellow beak and orange legs, the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) seemed to be leading his more modestly dress mate around the Playground Pond one afternoon. But when the female Mallard spotted me, she turned and swam away, quacking insistently until the male looked around nervously, saw me and fled toward her, scrambling awkwardly across some submerged logs to catch up with his mate. By the way, that famous “Quack!” is only given by Mallard females. Have a listen to it along with male’s very different call at this link.
Near the Walnut Lane, a wonderful ripple of song flowed down from the treetops. After a bit of peering around, high above I spotted an American Robin holding forth repeatedly with his up-and-down lilting spring song. I recorded his music and then looked up and took a photo from an angle I hadn’t noticed before. I got a worm’s eye view, you might say, of that very sharp, probing beak and felt glad it wasn’t being thrust in my direction!
Over in the marsh, the male Red-winged Blackbirds have been clucking and buzzing from atop the cat-tails for a couple of weeks as a way of establishing territory. Last week, the females began to arrive. Maybe their dark striping lets them blend safely into the shadows while they tend their nests among the stems down near the water. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
And Then the Frogs Join the Chorus!
After one warm April day, the hibernating spring frogs broke into song. Every wetland at Bear Creek trilled with the high-pitched peeping of Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) and lower chuckling gurgle of the Wood Frogs. Both have been frozen all winter with no heartbeat and no brain waves but enough built-in anti-freeze in their cells to somehow stay alive. And as soon as they warm up, they’re ready to sing!
The Wood Frogs, like the one above, are easier to spot because they croak while floating on the surface, flexing their legs in an occasional kick. The thrust creates concentric circles in the water around them, so I look for the little masked frogs in the middle of those circles. Most Chorus frogs are harder to see, usually huddled on, against or under logs. I haven’t spotted one yet this spring, (though their piercing songs can be deafening up close! Here’s a photo, though, from a previous year.
Some of our local Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers, (Pseudacris crucifer) are nocturnal. I imagine that the Bear Creek Nature Park neighbors are hearing them when the sun sets, or will shortly. If you see one sleeping on a leaf during the day as I did once, you’ll see the “X” on its back just behind its head, though it’s hard to see in this shot. Isn’t it tiny?
Other Hibernators Emerge…
The Raccoon (Procyon lotor) that I watch for every year in the oak-hickory forest has already given birth to four kits. One of them is what’s sometimes called a “blond morph”; it’s not an albino, just a different morph or phenotype of the raccoon. I saw a blond adult raccoon a few years ago in the same tree so that trait must be in the local gene pool. The four kits (one is barely visible at the back right) seem to be laying across their sleeping mother’s back in order to get a good look at me. She’s probably catching up on her sleep after hunting all night to feed these youngsters!
A couple other hibernators made their first appearance in the last two weeks. An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), that had dozed off and on all winter in its multi-chambered den, emerged and just sat quietly in a patch of sunlight along the entrance trail. The light must take some getting used to after months underground, just waking now and then to eat stored nuts and seeds.
A pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) kept each other company on a log in the Playground Pond last week. The slightly warmer water must have signaled them to leave their winter torpor in the mud below and swim up into the light and air. I wondered if these two were a pair; the lower one maintained a steady stare at the higher one, who paid no attention while I was there. They both probably were just staring off into the distance, though, as turtles often do.
Over in the marsh, a whole group of them gathered in the reeds and assumed exactly the same pose in order to soak up the sun on their dark shells.
A couple Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) surfaced in the marsh as well. One fed with its head down as it cruised the marsh, eating vegetation. It looked just like a slowly moving green lump! But the other, much smaller, was basking with its entire body encased in vivid green Duckweed (genus Lemna). It seems very content with the look, and probably feeling, it had created, eh?
Plants Begin to Bloom…and Butterflies (and others) aren’t Far Behind!
Just as spring was breaking and icy puddles were melting, I came across a little stream burbling through Bear Creek Nature Park’s eastern woods. This streams runs out of the Center Pond toward the marsh, joining Bear Creek after it leaves the march. Such a lovely spring sound!
On the north side of the Center Pond last week, the Willows (genus Salix) bloomed and (hooray!) we got our first glimpse this year of butterflies – and other pollinators. First we saw one of the hibernating butterflies, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). It looked a bit ragged from having spent the winter in a tree cavity or under loose bark on the snow-covered ground. It’s often the first butterfly I see in the spring. Mourning cloaks generally don’t pollinate much because they sip tree sap or the honeydew of aphids, rather than nectar from flowers. This one might have been displaying in order to attract a female.
On the same plant, a migrator, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) posed. It does sip nectar but it also competes with other males for territory by showing off its flying skills. Perhaps that’s why this one was flitting busily from limb to limb.
On one bloom, we saw what appeared a small Wasp (maybe suborder Apocrita). It seemed very busy enjoying the willow’s pollen. According to Wikipedia, unlike the better known wasps, like Yellowjackets (fam. Vespidae), most wasps are solitary with each female living and breeding alone.
Over in a wetland on the west side of the marsh, the strange blossom of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) had thrust itself up out of the mud. Its purple and yellow spathe covers a tiny spike of petal-less flowers inside. The smell of skunk cabbage attracts early spring flies that pollinate this sci-fi looking blossom. It releases a skunk-like smell and a bitter taste when bruised which means most predators stay away, too. The stem of Skunk Cabbage remains beneath the ground and the green leaves rise after the flowers. Odd, how this eccentric plant with the nasty scent seems to reverse my expectations of how plants grow in the spring!
The brightest colors in the woods now, though, are the vivid greens of Moss (members of the Bryophytes). Spring light sifts through bare limbs providing enough sunlight to feed these interesting, ancient plants. The leafy green parts of moss are “gametophytes” that produce the gametes, sperm and ova. Once spring raindrops rinse the sperm across the surface of the moss to a waiting ovum, fertilization occurs and a tall thin “sporophyte” rises from the green surface. The sporophyte will eventually release it spores. These spores initiate thin filaments called the “protonema” out of which grow new gametophytes, starting a new patch of moss.
Here are what I’m guessing are three different stages of moss growing on the same tree near the marsh. Or maybe its three different mosses? I’m too much of an amateur naturalist to know. I do know that I love the green glow of moss in the dappled light of the forest. (If you are knowledgeable about mosses, please feel free to correct my guesses and help me identify them! )
If mosses just don’t do it for you, don’t despair. Thanks to last fall’s forestry mowing north of the pond, sun has already reached the sunny faces of the Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis). I admire its leafy cloak that rises with the flower wrapped inside.
The first tender leaves and buds of the woodland wildflower, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) are already rising at the feet of trees in the Oak-Hickory forest.
And out in the eastern meadow, a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) began to bud a few weeks ago, while it peacefully hosts a wide assortment of developing insects within its pine cone-shaped Willow galls. Last Sunday, it had bloomed, but the insects didn’t seem to be issuing forth yet.
Slip on Your Boots and Your Raincoat! Spring is Singing Its Siren Song
Spring’s a great time to act like a kid again. Try heading for the park on a rainy day and let the sounds and sights of spring cheer you like they did when you were small. Slosh through a puddle. Squelch through some mud. Leave your earbuds at home – and pause, eyes closed, for a short serenade by a Robin or a Song Sparrow. Use your binoculars to scan the wetlands for tiny frogs, their throats bulging with song. Let your color-starved eyes feast on the yellow of a Waxwing’s belly, the emerald shine of a Mallard’s head, the exotic, multi-colored pattern of a Wood Duck’s plumage. Swish your palm across a soft cushion of a vivd green moss. Perhaps even get close enough to a skunk cabbage to make your nose wrinkle. Our senses need a good workout after being indoors for so long. Treat yourself to a walk in the park. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll come home happier than when you left. Works for me every single time.
This year eight volunteers are monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park and along the Paint Creek Trail in Oakland Township. We keep track of when the nest is built, the date of the first egg laid, the hatching date and if possible, the fledgling date when the little Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows, House Wrens or Chickadees exit the nest and come out into the big world.
We report our data to NestWatch, a citizen scientist project of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab.
Well, the excitement has peaked in the last two weeks as fledglings begin to screw their courage to the sticking point, leap out of their dark, cozy nests and take to the air. Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see a tiny Eastern Bluebird (Sialissialis) launch itself out of the nest box that I’m monitoring near my house and caught the moment with my camera as well. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)
And now many of us volunteers and members of the birding group feel like we’re in a nursery, because we’re surrounded by baby birds! Unlike the young bluebird, Tree Swallow fledglings (Tachycineta bicolor) “are strong fliers as soon as they leave the nest,” according to the Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1). This one at Charles Ilsley Park seemed to emerge from its nest fully ready to fly. Perhaps that is necessary since swallows feed on the wing. But the adults will help feed their fledglings for the first two or three days. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)[Edit: I’ve deleted the two closeups of the fledgling because from photos others took, I’m not sure it was the fledgling. My apologies.]
In the eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, a Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) flitted about among the Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis). Its slim shape and erratic display behavior made me think it might be a juvenile, too. A larger Field Sparrow (probably a male) sat calmly nearby with a grasshopper nymph in its beak. But when I returned the next day, the slim Field Sparrow again flitted distractedly about in the same location and again was accompanied by another Field Sparrow. My former experience with Field Sparrows had been that they often are elusive and dive into the grass at a moment’s notice. But I’ve learned that in the early spring, Field Sparrows nest on the ground if they have enough cover, which this beautiful prairie now provides. I’m wondering if these two were mates who were trying to distract me from a nest hidden among the flower stems. Since there are low bushes nearby, however, the nest could have been along the tree line since these sparrows make nests in low bushes later in the season.
Back at my home, a clutch of Eastern Phoebe fledglings (Sayornis phoebe) appeared in a low bush at dusk. They’d evidently left the nest under the eaves of the nearby shed very recently and a harried adult was busy trying to feed them. Luckily, both Phoebe parents share this exhausting task. One of the fledglings, as you’ll see below, was smaller and a loner. Perhaps that’s not surprising since Cornell says the Phoebe “is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” It may just have been the last to fledge and is still adjusting to the being out of the nest – or perhaps it’s the “runt of the litter.” But its noisier siblings probably had a lot more luck getting fed that night!
Many birds have more than one brood in a summer – so be on the lookout! Your yard may be hosting hard-working parent birds and their rambunctious, noisy, begging youngsters! Our parks certainly are!