I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”
Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.
First Rule: Use Those Feathers!
We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F – warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets. According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
What About Those Bare Feet, Though?
Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing. Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!
Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!
On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) dashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.” As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)
But What Do They Eat in Winter?
Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.
I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.
But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners; insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.
AmericanCrows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)
Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?
According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging. In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.
Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day. Note the flying wood chips!
Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…
Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.
Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)
Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!
Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter? And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.
If you’d like a short, quiet walk all alone (I do occasionally), consider wandering for an hour or so in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. This 60 acre park is a bit farther off the beaten path than our other township parks; I seldom see another hiker when I’m there. For now, it’s only accessible from a single parking space at the end of Knob Creek Trail which is off of East Buell Road. It’s an in-and-out trail (no loop) that begins in sloping, glacial meadows. Follow the trail into an oak forest overlooking a deep ravine in which Stony Creek burbles and flows around fallen trees and rocks far below. The Parks Commission has been awarded a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to join this little park to 208 spectacular acres along Snell Road. But for now, it’s a quiet little getaway.
Sunny Meadows: Illusive Birds and a Big, Beautiful Butterfly!
The meadows along the first part of the trail are alive with morning birdsong – but seeing the birds is a bit tricky, especially in July. Many adults are hidden high in leafy branches and the recently fledged young huddle deep in the lower greenery, staying out of sight as they wait to be fed. My first sighting was a small flock of tiny brown birds moving quickly back and forth between a leafy bush and a small, dense tree. Suddenly I became aware that my camera and I were being scolded by an annoyed adult House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) perched behind me. (For a perfect replication of its chatter, listen to the second “Calls Northern” recording at this Cornell Lab link.)
No doubt its chatter also served as a warning to the fledglings to hide. But eventually a curious fledgling popped into the open and had a look around. It looked like a plush toy with tiny wings! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A fledgling wren peruses its world.
The wren fledgling considers how far it is to the ground.
It’s a big world to a small wren.
Far out in the meadow in a tall, bare tree against a gray sky, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) threw back his head and sang. He abbreviated his spring song from “Drink your Teeeeeea” to simply “Your Teeeeea.” Just a reminder to other towhees, I imagine, that he was on his territory.
Wherever Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) grace a meadow, it seems the butterflies gather to sip their nectar.
In the same meadow in which it appeared last year, the Giant Swallowtail butterfly(Papiliocresphontes) floated above the flowers. The largest butterfly species in Canada or the United States (4-6 inch wingspread!), the Giant Swallowtail can beat its wings once and sail on gracefully for a long distance. However, it flutters constantly as it feeds, rather than landing to sip at blossoms. These swallowtails migrate like Monarch butterflies do – going south each winter. The females are larger than the males, so the one below must be a female. Perhaps her wings against the Queen Anne’s Lace give you a sense of how large – and how striking – she is!
Male and female Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are choosing both mates and tasty flowers as they dip and rise among the Bee-balm at Stony Creek. The male has a slight bulge in one vein of each hindwing. The female doesn’t.
A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) soared high overhead, landing in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunusserotina), a host plant on which her caterpillars can feed. She may have landed to lay her eggs on a leaf or she could be displaying her beauty and availability against the green leaves for any interested mate. Tiger Swallowtails in our area mate once or twice each summer and their pupae overwinter in their chrysalises until next spring.
Far below, deep in the grass, a Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) landed on a grass stem. For the first time, I noticed the delicate architecture of the underside of its wings – and its long elegant antennae. Males have only a single spot on the fore and hind wing, so I think this is a male.
A curious predator, a female Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), watched me from a grass stem with great interest. Humans, after all, are so good at stirring up prey – easy pickings! Love that face!
The Moist Woods: A Fungus Fatale, a Pretty but Perilous Plant and A Mysterious Song in the Trees
Entering the cooler shade of the oak forest at Stony Creek Ravine, you begin to feel the moisture rising from the creek as it tumbles along far below. On my first park visit, it had rained the previous day so the ground seemed to exhale moisture as well. A perfect environment for mushrooms – and some very interesting ones! [Caution: Please Never Eat a Wild Mushroom Unless a Trained Person Identifies It Definitively for You. I Am Not a Trained Person.}
I first came across some fungi fatale – Amanita mushrooms (family Amanitaceae). Though squirrels nibble on them, they are highly toxic to humans. They are sometimes (not always!) recognizable by little warts on their surface and a collar that forms on the stem. Here are two just beginning to emerge from the soil on the path and a lovely mature white one, slipping out of a crack in the earth.
Small red mushrooms appeared along the woodland trail as well. Joshua Aaron on the “Mushroom Identification” Facebook page identified these as members of a large worldwide genus of red mushrooms called Russula. Some are toxic, some not, so again caution is required. Clearly some creatures gave these a nibble and decided to leave the rest.
Both Amanita and Russula mushrooms are fruiting bodies of those fabulous mycorrhizal fungi which help the trees reach and process nutrients from the soil while the tree feeds them its sugars created by photosynthesis. Helping a healthy forest along is another good reason to let them stay where they are and reproduce!
It turns out that a nearby plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), which appears to be a mushroom, isn’t one. It’s more unusual – a parasitic plant. Indian Pipes have no chlorophyll to use in photosynthesis like green plants do. Instead they tap into fungi, like Russula mushrooms, beneath the soil, feeding on the same sugars that the trees share with the fungi. It’s not too different from the way we tap maples for their sweet sap, is it?
Nearby grew what folks at the Facebook page identified as Chanterelle mushrooms (genus Chantarellus), which, assuming that’s correct, would make them edible. I left them to disperse their spores undisturbed in the interests of both safety and respecting the natural state of our parks. One had fallen over so I got a good look at its fake gills, which are one of the signs of Chanterelles.
A couple of Bolete mushrooms had emerged among the oak leaves along the trail. These mushrooms (family Boletaceae) have pores below their caps instead of gills. They also belong to a big mushroom group that includes both inedible and edible ones. Porcini mushrooms, for example, are boletes.
Walking along the ridge above the creek, I could hear a lone bird singing in the canopy of the oak forest – but it made no appearance. I recorded its incessantly repeated song which reminded Ben and I of the rising and falling song of the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireoolivaceus) – but we’re not sure. Anyone able to give us a more confident identification? (Turn up your volume; it sings about three times.) [Second Edit: Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire, now says definitively that this is the song of a Scarlet Tanager.So I’ve again replaced the photo to show you a Scarlet Tanager. Thank you once again Ruth Glass!]
Although its song accompanied me for over an hour, the bird never emerged from the leafy treetops. So here’s what I missed – a photo of a Scarlet Tanager that I took at Bear Creek.
A plaintive song haunted the shady forest one morning – the questioning call of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I could see this small bird in the high branches of a distant tree, but as soon as I moved closer, it moved farther off. So here’s a photo I took of one at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple years ago.
What seemed to be a juvenile Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) hung from a vertically suspended branch in the forest. Its forehead patch (between the eyes) was gray rather than black (hard to see in the photo) and its buff sides were less pronounced – field marks of a fledgling according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). With its crest a bit ruffled, it looked as though it was not quite sure what to do next.
On one warm morning, I noticed two Mourning Cloak Butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) dancing through the green dimness of the woods. Last fall, Morning Cloaks went into hibernation within hollow logs or under loose bark. There they freeze nearly solid during the winter, their cells protected by self-produced anti-freeze. Very early in the spring, often before the snow melts, they emerge, looking pretty ragged. They mate and reproduce so that by mid-summer, their young emerge. I’m guessing that’s why the ones I saw at Stony Creek Ravine appeared to have just wriggled out of their chrysalises. They were near perfect specimens. One landed, wings open, on a fallen log.
The other folded its wings, showing the underside which closely resembles the tree bark under which they hide in the winter, camouflaging them with protective coloration. Quite a difference from the dorsal (upper) side of those wings, eh?
Native grasses and plants thrive in the light, drier shade along the edge of the forest. I’m particularly fond of the arrow-like spikelets of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). Carrying their seeds inside, the spikelets eventually shoot along on the wind and then pierce the ground, giving the seeds a chance to spread and then be neatly planted.
Native Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is everywhere in shady areas. Some still believe it has medicinal value. I like it for two reasons – the way its purple flowers protrude from its barrel-shaped calyx and the fact that when a raindrop hits the plant, the calyx flexes and flings out the seed. I hope to see that someday!
Where the forest ends and the wetlands begin at the bottom of the ravine, a flower fatale flourishes – Water Hemlock (g. Circuta). Every part of this plant is toxic to humans and other mammals (but as I’ve said before, who would eat it?) – so avoid the fate of Socrates and just admire its big, umbrella-shaped blossoms nodding in the breeze. Many insects, however, feed on Water Hemlock, and it hosts the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies!
An iridescent cloud of male and female Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) darted in and out of the shadows near the creek. These predators of many species are also the prey of many. So thank goodness these beautiful creatures lay lots of eggs!
Nearby in patches of sunlight grew golden stands of a lovely wetland flower called Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). This native wildflower modestly bows its blossoms toward the wet soil waiting for a Melittid bee to come along. These native bees specialize on this flower, feeding its oils and pollens to its larvae. Fringed Loosestrife can also spread by rhizomes beneath the soil.
If you turn up your volume, perhaps you can hear the babble of Stony Creek as it finds it way over stones in the ravine. Such a soothing sound. But you don’t need to traverse the steep sides of the ravine and get wet feet. You can simply rest on the high ridge where the trail ends and watch the water sparkle as the creek rounds a graceful curve right below you. Combined with the birdsong in the treetops, the whispering of summer leaves, and the flutter of butterfly wings, you should walk back out of this little park feeling a bit more mellow than when you walked in.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.
What a crazy February and March, eh? Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again. Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world. A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice. Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail. Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.
Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds
American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days: find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning. “Peter, Peter, Peter,” he trilled, despite the snow below.
A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs. The male below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.
Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on. That upward spiral was a clue. It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark. If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.
The longer days brought a warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps? This sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.
Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On
Somewhere near the middle of February the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures, came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!
This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February! I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!
Further along, an Eastern GarterSnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.
On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.
The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs. Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish. This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now, we’ll just say she’s a crayfish. If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own. Thanks to Ben for his great photo.
A Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond. Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say. It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!
In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later. The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts. The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog.
Winter Returns, Sigh…
The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below. One morning in a cold wind, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs. They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.
At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.
The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.
On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.
And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks. Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks. Wish I could see this animal in the park. Its scat is everywhere! We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!
Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself
Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek. Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears. At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago. But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek. I never paid much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk. But in February, I decided to follow it.
It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw years ago during a drought that dried up the pond. All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond, with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream. In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.
From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of the culvert under Gunn Road.
The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west. In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.
It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.
Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall, the creek crosses under Collins Road.
It flows along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,
At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.
A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future
It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek. Long may it meander across the landscape. If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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)and websites linked in the text.
Snow, ice, sleet, rain – all the elements of Michigan’s traditional “January thaw.” Sigh…Gray skies day after day make me crave color! On multiple jaunts at Draper Twin Lake Park – some icy, some muddy – I sought it out.
As usual, the mushrooms provided a surprising splash of color here and there. Birds in varying shades of red relieved winter’s gray. And changing ice designs added a bit of artistry to every visit. Hey, we take what we can get in beauty at this time of year, right?
Along the Path to the Eastern Marsh: Red Birds, Yellow Mushrooms and Blue Shadows
A Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) drummed noisily on a telephone pole on the eastern side of the park. Let’s hope this male had a cozy hole to spend the winter night; the starlings, twittering in a thicket nearby, are known for absconding with holes created by Red-Bellies. This guy’s red cap glowed against a gray sky – a good omen for someone questing for color on a dark day!
On the way to the marsh, a chorus of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)chirped from the shrubbery. These gregarious birds with their rosy males added both color and the friendly sound of their “chatting” to the gray quiet. House Finches pause to busily crush the seeds they find with quick bites, making them easier to spot and photograph.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) added a gorgeous dash of scarlet as he darted among the shrubs along the marsh edge at the bottom of the trail.
While at the marsh, I was surprised to hear what I think was the call of a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in the distance. The birders saw one at Charles Ilsley Park the previous week but I’ve never seen one in the middle of winter. If you listen to the “Rolling rattle call” at this Cornell Lab link, you’ll hear what I heard far away on a wintry day. Here’s a flicker I saw in early spring last year.
Out on the ice, a graceful swoop of marsh sedges turned blue and silver in the shadows.
On a log near the marsh, a bright patch of yellow polypore/shelf mushrooms glowed under the edge of a log. One of the reasons I love wetlands is that summer and winter, they reward any hiker with colorful birds and mushrooms.
Out on Draper’s Northern Prairie
The Prairie Restoration on the northeastern part of the park looked very different than it did when the trees glowed with autumn color. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But birds were there too. Flocks of modestly dressed winter visitors – Dark-Eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and AmericanTree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) – hopped down from small bare trees and bushes, chattering away as they foraged on the ground.
That bit of leaf in the Junco’s beak may be result of flipping things over to look for seeds. The seeds of two native wildflowers left in the field looked as though they may have provided some sustenance. The seed pod of Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) on the left below and the dried inflorescence of a late-flowering Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the right are both native plants sown in 2015 by Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, to restore the prairie, using a grant from the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Over the crest of a slope on the rolling prairie, a slow, lumbering Possum (Didelphis virginiana) nosed its way along the edge of the field. It appeared to be searching for seeds or earthworms on the wet earth exposed by the thaw. Possums don’t hibernate and are generally nocturnal, but there it was in morning light. Possums feign death (“playing possum”) when extremely frightened – but they’ll fight first – so be wary of their sharp teeth. North America’s only marsupial, possums raise their infants in the female’s pouch for about two and a half months. Later, the babies, up to 13 of them, can be seen draped over their mother’s back as she goes about her business.
In a tree at the edge of the prairie one morning, a lone Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) blended its soft pinks with the gentle shades of the winter landscape.
Along the Western Path to Draper Lake
The western path was a bright glare of ice on my first January trip to the pond. At the edge of the parking lot, a dead branch still sported orange polypore/shelf mushrooms, just as it did in the fall. Amazing how hardy these fungi are in cold weather!
A stick covered in a mosaic of green and blue lichen and a nearby patch of leafy (foliose) lichen caught my eye. Lichen are intriguing, because they are a “composite organism” made up of algae and/or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The fungus provides protection for the algae and gathers moisture and nutrients. The algae uses those nutrients and energy from the sun, and through photosynthesis produces food (carbohydrates) for both itself and the fungus. These ancient organisms occur from alpine regions to sea level in all kinds of shapes (morphologies). The more delicate forms of lichens are very sensitive to air pollution (bio-indicators), which is why you will only find flatter forms that colonize rocks and branches in areas with more air pollution. In areas with cleaner air you’ll find more delicate, branching lichens. I’m just glad they gave me some varying shades of green and blue on a wintry day.
Near the pond during a bird walk, a bright yellow mushroom beckoned in the distance. How’s this for a bit of sunshine on a moist winter morning? I’m no expert at mushrooms, as readers know. To me, it looks like kernels of corn. But I think this one’s common name is “Witches’ Butter,” Dacrymyces palmata (Fungi get more imaginative names than plants do…). Any mycologists out there who can verify that for me?
Lovely russet patterns formed on the path, made from White Pine needles (Pinus strobus) and a variety of leaves embedded in ice near the lake.
A strange ice sculpture took shape along the floating deck at the lake. I dubbed it the “Sunny Side Up” formation when I first saw it on an icy day. When I came back with the birders 10 days later, the surface ice had melted down, leaving the “yolk” standing in 3-D surrounded by icy ridges where the outline of the “egg white” once was. Wonder what created this interesting bulge in the ice?
Twice I came across ice fishermen out on the lake. On the first visit, a man was unloading his sled full of equipment way off in the distance on the far side of the lake, while skaters glided about in the winter sunshine.
Three days after these skating scenes, the melt had begun and the rains came. The surface of the lake turned from white to gray, with inches of water standing on ice.
I saw (but didn’t photograph for some reason!) two fisherman walking out into that sloshing mess, confident about the ice underneath. A strange sight! It looked like two men walking on water!
The last day I visited the park with the birders, the ice had developed a crackled surface. Quite a wonderful abstract design, but not one that would encourage venturing out onto the ice!
Later that week as the snow began to fall again, a Tufted Titmouse paused for a few moments in a nearby bush. One of these little birds fooled the experienced birders in our Wednesday bird group by seeming to mimic the “cheer” call of a Carolina Wren.According to the Sibley Guides website, Titmice have a wide variety of songs so maybe this is one of them. Quite a performance, anyway.
Beauty Reveals Itself When We Seek for It
On my way home from Draper Twin Lake Park one morning, I stopped to admire a “modern art” ice shape in a pond at the corner of Buell and Lake George Roads. It could almost have been a composition by Matisse or maybe Paul Klee. For much of my life, I missed the details as I hiked through a landscape. The camera encouraged me to look more closely. Now nature gifts me with surprises – the quizzical tilt of a dragonfly’s head, the spiral of seeds in a flower head and this winter, odd ice designs and strokes of color within winter’s gray and white world.
But a camera isn’t necessary. An observant pair of curious eyes is all we really need to notice the beauty that might otherwise be missed, especially in a January thaw.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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).
Strolling through the old farm fields of Cranberry Lake Park in summer is an auditory feast. The canopied paths and wide open fields as well as the shady, moist wetlands celebrate summer with a full-throated chorus of birdsong – the quick sweet notes of the Yellow Warbler, the high-pitched trill of the American Redstart, the melodious song of the elusive Warbling Vireo. Ben’s birding group reports more than 50 different bird species on one spring visit, more than in any other park in the township. So you’d expect this week’s blog to be filled with bird photos, right? Uh, not quite.
Oh, I do have bird photos to share but some will come from other times and places in the township because birding in Cranberry Lake right now is more by ear than by sight. Birds dive into tangled brush or tall grass or disappear among the whispering leaves overhead to make nests, feed young, intent at the moment on propagating their species. So they’re not all inclined to pose for photos. Luckily, dragonflies, butterflies, grasshoppers – all sorts of insects – do. And of course summer flowers are very obliging when a breeze pauses for a moment. So let’s set off together with eyes and ears alert to see what this historic farm has to offer.
The lovely Cranberry Lake Farm Historic District on West Predmore Road is a township treasure and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. If you haven’t explored its beautiful grounds, I recommend you begin by taking a visual tour and learning about its history at this link. We, however, are off to explore the southern part of the 213 acre park that once was a working farm.
Out in the Sunny Old Fields
Old Fields Birdsong!
As we head off along the path from the parking lot that’s west of the historic home, we’re surrounded by knee-deep grasses and wildflowers. Tiny Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) are whisking in and out of the large bushes or small trees nearby, still singing their quick “I’m a little sweet” songs as in Antonio Xeira’s recording here. This male with his rust-streaked breast actually paused long enough for a photo!
And another male Yellow Warbler nearby was busying bringing home lunch for his mate or maybe some nestlings in a distant bush.
On three different visits in the last 10 days or so, I heard or saw a male American Redstart singing in the same tree at a fork in the trail. I’m thinking he and his mate must have a nest nearby. For some reason, I’d never seen this bird before and he’s a beauty. There’s a good closeup of him here at the Cornell Ornithology Lab. His song is thin, high and ends abruptly. Cornell Lab says its sometimes described as sneeze-like! Page down at this Cornell link to hear his song.
In the same tree one morning, I saw a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) swinging at the tip of a branch as it tried to harvest something from among the leaves. At this time of year, omnivore birds like the Titmouse are probably looking for protein for their mate or young, so perhaps he’d found a caterpillar?
As I crossed the southern old field, going north, two Common Yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas) announced their territories, calling back and forth across this grassy meadow.
Yellowthroats have the distinction of being one of the first New World birds catalogued in 1766 by Carl Linnaeus, the famous biologist who created the Latin classification system for all life forms. My photo of the Yellowthroat is below but for a clearer photo of this masked bandit, look here on Cornell Lab’s website.
I rarely see Yellowthroats up close but you can hear their “Witchedy, witchedy” songs all over Cranberry Lake Park. Turn your volume up and you’ll hear the singing competition of two males going back and forth twice on my 25 second recording.
Out in the Old Fields: Wildflowers, Competing for Space
The old farm fields at Cranberry Lake exemplify the changes that happen over time when forage crops thrive in abandoned farm fields which are also surrounded by neighboring gardens filled with cultivated flowers.
Native plants are certainly here – native Canada Goldenrod will burnish the fields in the fall and other pre-development plants hold their own at Cranberry Lake, too. Here’s a gallery of a few of them. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions)
The rosy stems of native Dogbane or Indian-Hemp(Apocynum cannabinum)will soon be topped with clusters of white flowers. This plant is toxic if eaten but I doubt you or your dog will be tempted.
The meadows are full of non-native plants that, over the years, have found their way into Michigan’s former farm fields. Many of them are good neighbors, existing side-by-side with native plants without crowding out the original inhabitants. I particularly like Orange Hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum), also called Devil’s Paintbrush (not to be confused with Indian Paintbrush). It can be problematic but isn’t at this point in Oakland Township parks. The Wildflowers of Michigan Field Guide explains that the name came from a mistaken belief that hawks ate it to improve their eyesight!
Other non-natives pop up here and there in the old fields at Cranberry Lake. Goat’s Beard blossoms open in the early morning and close about noon. And when its blooming season is over, it makes a huge seed head, like a giant, beige dandelion, which it is doing right now. By the way, the insect on the blossom at left is a Hover Fly (family Syrphidae) which mimics bees or wasps for protection but has no stinger.
Other non-native plants that usually appear singly are White Campion (Silene latifolia) and Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) which is easily confused with some of our native varieties (thanks to Ben for the ID help!).
Of course, invasive non-native plants have also moved into Cranberry Lake. Here’s a native House Wren (Troglodytes aedon), singing from within one of the worst invasives, the Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), a shrub which is native to Asia. These large bushes fix nitrogen in the soil, creating soil conditions unsuitable for native plants. Its berries are spread by birds and animals. It leafs out early and keeps its leaves late into the fall, shading out other plants. In short, it’s one problem shrub! But the Wren is a welcome summer resident and his beautiful, burbling courting song (recorded by Antonio Xeira) is much beloved even if it does emanate from an invasive bush.
Another serious invasive shrub grows abundantly in Cranberry Lake, the Multiflora Rose(Rosa multiflora). This admittedly lovely plant loses its appeal when its strong thorns catch your skin, and this gangly shrub happens to be crowding out native plants all over Michigan. That hurts both our plant and wildlife communities by making native species less plentiful and less healthy because they are less diverse. Multiflora Rose was brought to the US from Japan by horticulturists after WWII as a fencing plant and spread quickly from gardens into natural or disturbed areas. Like the Autumn Olive, it unfortunately can grow in sun or shade and has the same means of competing for space – lots of berries spread by wildlife and leaves early spring to late fall that shade out other plants.
Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa) is beautiful, like many invasives, but has a tendency to spread. It was brought here as forage for animals. It isn’t as invasive as its relative Crown Vetch (Securigera varia), which forms dense colonies that exclude other plant species, but it does form smaller colonies and can be seen along the paths at various places in the park. Here a native Bumblebee (g. Bombus) probes the tube-like flowers with its long tongue.
And nearby, a Seven-Spotted Lady Bug(Coccinella septempunctata), a species introduced repeatedly from Europe to rid crops of aphids, looked for a meal on a fellow European, the Hairy Vetch again! At least it wasn’t the Harlequin Ladybug/Asian Lady Beetle (Harmonia axyridis) that infested homes a few years ago. Unfortunately, our native ladybugs, the Nine-Spotted Ladybug, (Coccinella novemnotata) are now rare and scientists are not sure why that happened.
Out in the Old Fields: Fancy Bugs!
The sun-drenched Old Fields at Cranberry Lake seem to attract unusually interesting insects, including – wait for it – flies! Yes, I’m aware that flies aren’t as immediately appealing as butterflies or as impressive as dragonflies, but some really are pretty cool. Here’s a photo of a Soldier Fly (Odontomyia cincta) exploring the Dogbane. Can you see the black chevrons on his green back and his red head? Pretty fancy, eh?
Or how about these mating Golden-backed Snipe Flies (Chrysopilus thoracicus)? The male is the smaller one with the much bigger eyes (“The better to find you with, my dear!”).
Of course, butterflies float above these fields as well. This weekend we saw our first Viceroy (Limenitis archippus) of the year. This one had a slightly injured forewing on one side, but was still happily fluttering about the field exploring flowers. Viceroys are often smaller than Monarch Butterflies and have a telltale bar on their hindwing that the Monarch doesn’t have.
And of course we saw the common but lovely Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos), Cabbage (Pieris rapae)and Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela)butterflies as well.
One afternoon I saw a quick, snapping, short flight of what looked like a big moth with yellow-ish wings. It turned out, after I saw it land, that it was a Carolina Locust in flight. The “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee website says that “In The Handy Bug Answer Book, Dr. Gilbert Waldbauer refers to these unexpected wing patterns as ‘flash colors’ which, sometimes in concert with flight noises, attract/distract a predator. When the grasshopper lands and tucks in its flying wings, the pursuing predator suddenly can’t find anything that matches its search image.” That was certainly the case for me. It took me a minute to believe that this brown creature at my feet was the one I’d seen flying. Here’s a link where you can scroll down to a photo of one in flight.
Aaah, Out of the Sunlight: The Lake, Wetlands and Shade
Birds, Amphibians and Reptiles in the Leafy Shade
Walking on shady paths and passing by wetlands, I naturally come across plants, insects, birds and other creatures that prefer that environment to sunny, open fields. Two Cedar Waxwings landed up in a leafy treetop on Sunday afternoon. My photo that day just doesn’t do justice to this lovely bird, so here’s a photo from another summer. The field marks of this elegant bird are its crest, its black mask, the yellow tip to its tail and a red dot on each wing that looks like red sealing-wax. And their color does look like cedar, doesn’t it?
Down near Cranberry Lake, three of the Wednesday birders recognized the melodious tune of the Warbling Vireo, here recorded by birder Antonio Xeira. What a lovely song flowing down from the treetops where it stays out of sight, seeking out caterpillars. I love the contrast in these two song descriptions found at the Cornell Lab website. “The early twentieth century ornithologist William Dawson described the song this way: ‘Fresh as apples and as sweet as apple blossoms comes that dear, homely song from the willows.'” The highly variable song usually ends on a high note, leading the birder Pete Dunne to describe it as sounding “like a happy drunk making a conversational point at a party.” Here’s the closeup photo at Cornell Lab.
Frogs generally love moist surroundings. In summer, though, the beautiful Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens)often moves into grassy areas for its meals. One paused at the edge of the trail at Cranberry Lake Park, an emerald green frog with golden eyes and the spots that give it its name. Northern Leopard Frogs have very large mouths and though they usually eat worms, flies and crickets, they have also been known to swallow birds and garter snakes, according to Wikipedia!
One warm afternoon, I came upon a Painted Turtle trundling along the path toward Cranberry Lake.
I thought at first it was a male, because it had extra long nails which males use to stroke their mates. But I’m not sure, since it may have been a female coming back to the lake from laying eggs in sandy soil out in the fields. A few days later, my husband and I spotted a hole in the meadow edge where it appeared a raccoon might have dug up a batch of turtle eggs to feed its young!
Berries in the Shade
Cranberry Lake is of course important because it has a cranberry bog. At the moment, it’s not visible, but the Parks and Recreation Commission’s Master Plan includes construction of an observation deck at the lake in the next couple of years.
But other berries are forming along the shady path toward the pond. The native Bristly Blackberry bushes are blooming under the trees. In fact, their flowers are beginning to fade in the heat and the fruits, the blackberries, are forming.
And very near the lake, Ben pointed out Highbush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) forming in the shade. This is the plant that Native Americans enjoyed and that was domesticated in 1907 to create the blueberries we all enjoy in July. I’m glad I got a photo, because when I went back a second time, some bird or mammal had already munched some of them. They don’t wait until their ripe the way we do! Drat…
Along the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, I saw fruits forming on False Solomon’s Seal, a native plant that spreads by rhizomes (underground stems) under the trees.
Insects that Have It “Made in the Shade”
Dragonflies patrol along the shady paths as well as the open meadows. I saw one last week that I hadn’t seen for a long time, a female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). She’s emerald green all over with brown/black chevrons on her tail. According to the “Bug Lady” at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, the male gradually changes from green to blue, starting at the tip of its tail and moving up as it matures! These dragonflies stick close to animals, like us, because we stir up a cloud of biting insects they love to eat. Thanks, Pondhawks! Enjoy an all-you-can-eat feast!
Another dragonfly who seems to frequent moist areas almost exclusively is the Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta). The male looks like he’s wearing a Mickey Mouse mask with his white face and eyes. What I think was his mate landed nearby. I couldn’t see her white face but all of her tail and wing markings and her location near the male would seem to indicate she’s the female.
Damselflies also patrol the paths as you near Cranberry Lake itself. Emerald green seems to be a popular color for creatures who want to disappear from predators in the shade. Here’s one called, appropriately enough, the Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes sponsa).
Below the huge Shagbark Hickories (Carya ovata) on the lane at the western edge of the park, a Virginian Ctenucha Moth (Ctenucha virginica) sailed past and settled on a leaf. I was quite excited to see this moth (which caused a slight blur in the photo), since Ben had helped me identify its spiky caterpillar earlier in the spring. It’s quite common and likes goldenrod nectar. This one might have hatched a bit early in the heat, since the goldenrods won’t bloom for another month. This elegantly shaped moth with an orange head flashes its metallic blue body when it flies.
A Park for All Seasons
Improvements continue at Cranberry Lake Park. The northern most part of the central trail that connects with trails in Addison Oaks county park is being renovated this year (and possibly next) to make it less damp so that hikers, bikers and horseback riders will have an easier time accessing the park. That northern section is full of wetlands, those precious resources that clean our groundwater, store flood waters, feed our wildlife and give shelter to exhausted migrating birds – but they make for wet trails in the spring.
But most of the park is open for your enjoyment year ’round with migrating warblers in the spring, breeding birds in the summer (and summer concerts on the farmhouse porch), a bright orange glow in late summer and fall as Canada Goldenrod bloom and Monarch butterflies fill the fields traveling south. In winter, its gently rolling meadows might be a place to try out your cross-country skis. And then there’s all that history near the Flumerfelt Barn and historic home. So branch out. Try a new park this summer and see what you and your children can find to love at Cranberry Lake Park.
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.