On a cold April morning, a monumental figure appeared on the roof ridge of an empty house we can see through our woods.
We’d noticed a pair of vultures over the field next door, circling together, diving and turning, sculpting patterns in the cold morning air. Then a few minutes later, a monumental shape appeared on the roof ridge of an empty house through the woods. A Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) had landed and spread its powerful 5-6 foot wingspan. But where was the other bird? Ah, peering through the trees, I spied a somewhat smaller vulture perched on top of the chimney, keeping its partner company.
Of course, I ran off to consult the Cornell Ornithology Lab website and found this: “Often, especially in the morning, they can be seen standing erect, wings spread in the sun, presumably to warm up, cool off, or dry off.”
Wikipedia added to that list the possibility of “baking off bacteria” which would have made more sense on a warm summer morning. I suspected they might be a mating pair, though the breeding season can run a bit later in their northern ranges.
Since turkey vultures form long term bonds after a group courting ritual, perhaps I was seeing an established couple – or possibly an older bird with a younger one, since the smaller bird seemed to have more of the immature’s gray around its eyes than the typical fully red head of an adult. I wasn’t sure.
Eventually, the larger bird joined its partner on the flat surface of the chimney cap. Vultures evidently like to perch on abandoned buildings or any surface which is slightly cooler than its surroundings.
They stood together for a short time. The smaller bird lowered its head, perhaps recognizing an elder bird or signaling a willingness for a partnership.
They then spent a long time preening, which could have been a precursor to mating, but most likely is also important for any bird that eats carrion.
Turkey vultures, unlike Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), rarely, if ever, kill anything. Instead they cruise using their excellent eyesight and keen sense of smell to spot a freshly dead animal. Their bare heads and sturdy digestive systems make them virtually invulnerable to contracting anthrax, botulism or other diseases in decomposing meat. Vultures and other carrion eaters function in our habitat as a constantly vigilant clean up crew. For all my park visits, I rarely see or smell the remains of a dead animal – which I appreciate.
Predators don’t mess much with adult vultures. But when owls, hawks, or eagles do occasionally attack them, they aren’t agile enough to be good fighters. Their defense is to hiss or just vomit nasty, acid stomach contents on their attackers – and baby vultures do the same when attacked by raccoons or possums. I bet no predator tries that twice!
Vultures are admittedly homely, awkward birds on the ground. They hop and waddle with their wings akimbo and struggle to take flight. But once lift off occurs, they are masters of the sky!
They rise swiftly, riding warm air thermals, circling high into the sky in a teetering, V-shaped flight. Rarely flapping those huge wings, they soar gracefully across and above the landscape. Light shines through the tapered tips of their primary (flight) feathers, creating what appears to be a wide silver-gray band edging their dark wings. I see them that way on almost every hike.
So I felt very lucky to have been gifted – on my birthday no less! – with a glimpse of these impressive birds in a more restful, and even intimate moment. No mating occurred, though. Before long, they both flexed those dark wings, took a few beats, and sailed back into the sky.
Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!
Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
See-sawing on the “dragonfly” at Gallagher
Playing on the “Stand ‘n’ Spin”
Two girls playing on the hollow “log.”
The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…
Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business
The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.
Birds in the Distance as Children Play
Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.
From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.
But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty, a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.
While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.
Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.
Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.
Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife
Autumn, of course, is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.
Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze. I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.
American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries, since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem. Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean. Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.
Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.
The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
Cat-tails are seeding in the marsh on the park’s west side.
A Blue Jay probing for cat-tail seeds.
The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind. Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.
More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass
Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel). I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.
A large puffball appeared along the treeline for the second year in a row.
Turkey-tail mushrooms on a stump at Gallagher.
As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.
Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost
Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.
Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.
Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female
On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.
What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.
But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.
She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.
Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.
At last it seemed she had figured it out. She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.
Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched. And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.
I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.
Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning. I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)
A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play
I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world. So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears. It’s great.
What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.
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; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.
Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above, along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.
We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.
Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.
Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?
This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.
In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!
Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.
During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.
Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely; it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!
Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.
Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.
During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis)also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.
Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More
For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica)thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.
The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!
On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.
On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.
When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!
A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis)seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.
A male bluebird scanning the grass for something to eat.
A female bluebird surveying the eastern meadow
This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.
Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater)foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!
The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!
While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.
With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.
I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.
The skunk cabbage’s flower within its spathe emerging from the mud on March 31.
Its leaves beginning to form by April 18.
At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!
Spring Beauty is slow getting going this year.
Look for its tiny blossoms under forest trees as the sunlight increases.
Stewardship Projects Proceeded
A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects. Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The Promise of Full-fledged Spring
We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.
Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us. Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert! Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; 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, and others as cited in the text.
Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.
Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings) so you can share the sounds of spring.
Summer Birds Find Us Again
The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks. Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?
In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.
Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!
Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.
High in the treeline, the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.
Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)
The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here, let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.
Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors
Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.
Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture, cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!
Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.
We commonly see European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard! Starlings can be very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions. This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.
The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee
Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis)! Here’s the link to its spring song.
Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains. The Robin’s “cheer up” call accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.
Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.
Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)! Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer! Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!
The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.
The Other Chorus: Wood Frogs!
After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side. Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willowsfilled a large wetland. And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).
If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine! I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.
Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta). Moss, an ancient plant, usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out. David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill. The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water. The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!
Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.
I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.
As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.
Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future
With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills. (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus)long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!” to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, 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; other sites as cited in the text.
Winter chill showed up last week – along with sparrows arriving from the arctic tundra. Small migrators, just passing through on their way south, huddled among bare limbs. Fall inspires birds to flock and the skies and trees are crowded with bird society. A few wildflowers are still sending off or dropping their last fruits and all kinds of leaves whirl down and carpet the paths. Now is the time when the negative impact of too many deer and invasive plants becomes readily apparent – so we’ll explore “lovely but lethal” creatures and plants in the park as well.
Birds Flock Together in the Chill Winds
Evidently, wildlife experts have various theories about why birds flock in the autumn. The most common explanation seems to be that it’s protection. More bird eyes and ears can spot predators and find food more easily. In some species, the young flock with adults who know more about food sources than they do. Some experts believe birds learn from other birds about new food sources by hanging out in flocks or rookeries. Migrating is easier in flocks in which individual birds take turns flying in front, thereby decreasing the wind resistance for the birds behind them.
And then there’s the possibility that birds are just more social when they aren’t courting or raising young. American Robins (Turdus migratorius) for instance, are chirping all over the park now in small flocks, often high in the treetops. Many robins spend their whole winter here; we just don’t see them on the lawn because they can’t get to worms, so they eat fruits during the cold season.
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) gather in large numbers in the marsh. I saw a flock of over 50 last week floating and flying near the Gunn Road end of the marsh – and heard reports of hundreds near Rochester Road. Here are about half of the ones I saw.
Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), often seen in ones or twos over the western Old Field during the summer, were soaring in groups of five or more this week. Our “cleanup crew” with its magnificent 6 ft. wing span will soon be gone, migrating to the southeast to spend the winter.
Lately I’ve learned that flocks of Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are good places to look for other small birds who hang out with them when in unfamiliar areas. Their “Chickadee-dee-dee” call ends up being a clue to look for fellow travelers like the sparrows below. The reason? Chickadees are great at sounding alarms that other birds heed. The more “dee’s,” the higher the threat. And as year ’round residents, they probably know the best, closest food sources as well. This Chickadee mustered its impressive balancing skills to take off in the stiff winds this week.
Ever wonder how a bird as small as a Chickadee survives during cold, rainy nights like we had this week or cold snowy ones? Cornell Lab says that these tiny birds can excavate their own individual holes in the rotting wood of snags (standing dead trees) – one bird per hole! I’m glad to hear that, since I know chickadees always face the challenge of eating enough to stay alive in cold weather. They store individual seeds everywhere and then can actually remember where they put thousands of them! Here’s how Cornell says they sort of “clear their hard drives” at this time of year: “Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.” Wish I could do some of that!
Cold Weather Sparrows Arrive While Sparrow Visitors Pause and Move On.
This winter, flocks of Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) will probably gather beneath your bird feeder as well as mine. These distance travelers have spent the summer raising young on the arctic tundra and this week arrived back at Bear Creek. See this link to their beautiful arctic nests made of ptarmigan feathers. These small birds with their warm brown caps and black dot on a gray chest must love cold weather since they clearly think our winters are comfortably mild.
Other sparrows are still just passing through. The large Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with gray above its eye and on the nape of its neck is heading for backyards and fields anywhere south of mid-Ohio. This one looks especially red-brown because it was basking in the light of a setting sun.
This is probably the last week that the White-Throated Sparrow will be at Bear Creek. Its yellow “lores” (spots in front of the eyes) are present at the top of the beak, a bit faint in this photo, but it had the classic field marks of a white throat and striped head – when it would emerge for a few seconds from hiding among the branches!
The Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) was here last week, foraging near the Center Pond as the leaves thinned out. With the cold north winds late in the week, it’s probably winging its way to Tennessee and points south, like the human “snow birds.”
Seeding for Spring Continues
Like the tall non-native Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) above, many wildflowers have finished seeding for the year, but some are still dispersing seeds in a variety of ways. The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), that looks like a tiny white sputnik when it flowers, is now drooping in the marshes. (Rest your cursor on double photos like this for captions.)
But it’s been a great help to the native wildlife around it. According to Wikipedia, “Waterfowl and other birds eat the seeds. Wood ducks utilize the plant as nest protection. Deer browse the foliage. Insects and hummingbirds take the nectar, with bees using it to make honey.” That’s what makes many native plants good for a habitat – lots of uses for native wildlife.
Remember the loose sprays of native Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) that were in or near every park wetland during the summer? This plant, the most toxic in North America, is now making a delicate, brown fruit with tiny hooks that attach to animal fur – or my cotton sweater as I wade into the plants to get a macro photo. In that way, they spread their seeds for next spring.
Native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) has fed lots of birds with its white berry-like “drupes” this fall and now leaves behind a lovely red fringe at the edge of the marsh in the center of the park.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are drying and mature seeds are now being released to the wind. If you see seed on the path or anywhere they can’t sprout, pick them up and send them flying! The resident and migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that feed on them next summer will thank you.
By the Way..
One Tough Dragonfly!
I was astonished on Friday, after the heavy, cold rain and high winds, to still see another Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) calmly sitting on the railing at the Playground Pond. On Sunday a week ago, I’d seen the one in the photo below on a matching red leaf at Seven Ponds and thought that would be my last sighting of the year. That is one tough insect! At Bear Creek, a few grasshoppers were still chirping, a bit forlornly, in the tall grass as well and could still be seen springing about on southern slopes in the park. Amazing.
And Just One Special Leaf this Week:
Isn’t the Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) a lovely tree? They shimmer silvery green in the summer and shower golden leaves in the fall. It’s a very common and short-lived tree with smooth, light bark that’s often mistaken for birch. And as Michigan Flora says, it’s “one of the few deciduous trees of the boreal forest to the north of Michigan.” Another resident from the far north! That Tree Sparrow must have passed thousands of them on the way here. Maybe that’s why I saw my first Tree Sparrow of the year right across from the Aspens on the park’s northern loop. This week, in those stiff winds and rain, the Aspen’s dancing leaves went flying, leaving a carpet of gold on some paths at Bear Creek.
Now for those “Lovely but Lethal” Plants and Animals
It’s tough not to love White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). After all, who doesn’t love to see those “doe eyes” gazing our way?
However, deer are seriously over-populating the landscape here and elsewhere. According to the Nature Conservancy, “No native vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on habitat integrity than the white-tailed deer.” The huge number of deer changes the landscape as they prefer to eat native plants, like Common Trillium, for instance. This feeding has reduced the density and height of forest wildflowers and make more room for invasive plants to spread. Their consumption of acorns also has an effect on the tree canopy in the woods. Deer are native to Michigan and much-beloved by both nature-lovers and hunters, so finding a solution to their over-abundance is a real challenge.
As we posted separately, one of the worst actual killers in our parks is Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – which was very apparent this week in the park. Its yellow leaves, yellow capsules and red fruit can be seen from every path twisting its way up and across trees and bushes. Introduced as a landscape plant, this striking but lethal vine kills trees and bushes in three ways. It winds aggressively around the trunks of trees to get to the sunlight at the top, girdling the tree until it chokes the tree to death.
It also creates so much weight at the tops of trees that once they are weakened by the Bittersweet, they can be blown over in the wind. They also climb over bushes so densely that they simply steal the sunlight and nutrients from the host plant and any plant nearby. So please don’t pick it, don’t make or buy wreaths of it and don’t try to pull the heavy vines down yourself because you could get seriously hurt! Please see our post on how to rid our parks or your property of this beautiful killer.
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) has been the bane of Bear Creek for a long time. The northern end of the park is full of this invasive bush with its fragrant flowers in the spring and its red berries in the fall. This woody shrub can literally crowd out native shrubs and plants as it has, along with other invasives , on the large loop at the north end of the park.
Now a new invasive tree is competing to be the most problematic and it too is lovely. (Most invasives are pretty; that’s why people plant them in their landscapes!) Friday morning I counted 16 small to medium-sized trees of this new problem for Bear Creek in one small corner near the center pond. It’s called Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana) – another lovely, but lethal invasive plant.
Of course, native trees can get out of hand, too, like Box Elder (Acer negundo), actually a not-so-wonderful kind of maple . Look at the number of samaras (a fruit with wings attached to carry seeds) in this one small clump on a large tree at the bottom of the western slope. There are a lot of box elders on the western slope for that very reason! Though the multiple trunks are often thin and the trees are short-lived, it can quickly colonize an area and crowd out other trees and plants.
Nature is remarkably resilient. If we can give it a bit of help through careful stewardship, we can control these lovely and lethal plants and animals so the native ones can take their proper place in the landscape and the non-native ones can slowly be eliminated or at least controlled so they don’t irrevocably change the diverse native landscape that nature provided for us. So consider joining in our stewardship events (see the Stewardship Events tab above) as we weed and plant to help Bear Creek and our other parks thrive in all their natural glory.
A note about “This Week at Bear Creek”: My blog posts will probably slow some between November and February since late fall and winter are more static times in the park – and occasionally the weather will make it tricky to get out with my camera! So please consider “following” Natural Areas Notebook, so that you’ll get an email when a post goes up. I love doing this blog, so whenever I see some changes in the wildlife or something unusual in the park that I think might interest all of you this season, I’ll be here! Thanks so much for your support and interest as we made our virtual walks together through the spring and summer! Let’s see what late fall and winter bring!
Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org.