Tag Archives: Turkey vulture

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

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.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

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!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

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.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

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.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

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!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

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.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

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.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

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.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

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.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into 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!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

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.

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.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

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!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

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!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

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.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

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.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

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.

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!

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.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

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 – Prairies Full of Spring Music

Looking west on the north prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

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.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

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?

Tree Swallows soar with their beaks open to scoop up little flying insects – but they eat plant food more often in early spring.

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.

A Killdeer scurries along a ridge in a fallow field at Charles Ilsley Park.

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!

A Killdeer’s nest and eggs at Gallagher Creek in late April 2016.

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.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with just a bit of his red and yellow epaulet showing.

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.

The black mustache, called a malar, is a sign that this is a male, yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.  He’s probing for ants in an old ant mound.

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.

The turkey vulture soars above the prairies below, preparing to clean the park of unhealthy, unsightly carrion.

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!

Two male cowbirds doing dominance displays.

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.

The modestly gray female Cowbird often sits high in the tree tops watching for a good bird’s nest in which to lay her eggs. Here she’s in bush, assessing 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.

100 European Starlings, imported by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 1890s, now number about 200 million from Alaska to Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

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.

A male Eastern Bluebird at Charles Ilsley Park.

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.

An alert American Robin stops to listen while probing the wet soil around the edge of a vernal pool at the bottom of a slope.

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.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker stops drumming long enough to pose at the top of snag.

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 holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a Wild Black Cherry tree. These woodpeckers tend to make large, often rectangular holes.

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 classic pose of the White-Breasted Nuthatch as it forages for insects. Listen for its loud “ank, ank” call.

The Other Chorus:  Wood Frogs!

Hundreds of Wood Frogs chorused in the wetland beyond this little stream at the north end of Charles Ilsley Park.

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 Willows filled a large wetland.  And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Wood Frogs have a black stripe running through their eye and their song is low and sounds a bit like your thumb running over a comb.

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!

A stump draped in two shades of brilliant green moss.

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.

Trees reflected in a very large mud puddle in the middle of a trail.

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.

A large Garter Snake slid between my feet, heading for a swim across a large puddle on the trail. Good swimmer!

Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future

Eastern Meadowlark photo by Greg Lasly. Some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Flocking Birds, a Winter Resident from the Arctic Tundra and Some “Lovely but Lethals”

Russet trees across Eastern meadow

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.

long line of geese
A long line of Canada Geese straggling into “V” formation over Bear Creek this week

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.

American Robin on a cold day
American Robin on a cold day

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.

29 Ducks in marsh
About half of a flock of over 50 ducks restlessly eating and flying over the marsh this week.

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.

Turkey vulture and Staghorn sumac
A Turkey Vulture soars past a Staghorn Sumac.

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.

Chickadee on a windy day
A chickadee gets ready for take-off in a stiff wind.

Snag w chickadee woodpecker holesEver 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.

Tree sparrow at Bear Creek
Tree Sparrows arrived this week from their summer homes on the arctic tundra.

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.

Fox sparrow2?
The large Fox Sparrow basks in the light of the 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!

Brown form of White-throated Sparrow
Tan-striped form of the White-throated Sparrow which sometimes comes in black and white.

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.”

Hermit Thrush
A Hermit Thrush who probably left on the north wind late this week for warmer climes.

Seeding for Spring Continues

3 Common Mullein
Three non-native Common Mullein plants stand like morning sentinels on the western slope of the park.

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.

Gray dogwood?
Gray dogwood fed the birds with its white berries and now leaves a lovely red fringe at the edge of the wetlands.

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.

Yellow legged autumn dragonfly
A Yellow-legged Autumn dragonfly matched the leaf upon which it rested on a cold, late fall afternoon.

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.

Aspen leaf
Golden Big-Tooth Aspen leaves littered the paths this week like gold coins.

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?

Deer
An over-abundance of the lovely White-tailed Deer can be a problem to native wildflowers and the tree canopy, especially in woodlands like our Oak-Hickory forest.

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.

bittersweet
This invasive lovely and lethal vine that people admire in the fall chokes the life out of trees and bushes.

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.

bittersweet killing small tree
Oriental Bittersweet, a beautiful invasive vine,  will eventually kill this small tree by girdling it and robbing it of nutrients and sunlight.

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.

Bittersweet engulfing a walnut tree
Asian Bittersweet killing a walnut tree in the lane.

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.

Callery Pear invasive tree
A new invasive plant has found its way into Bear Creek – Callery Pear. There are 16 trees of varying sizes already at this corner near the Center Pond.

Of course, native trees can get out of hand, too, like Box Elder (Acer negundo), actually a not-so-wonderful kind of maple . Box-elder samaras seedsLook 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.

This Week at Bear Creek: An Appreciation of Some of Less Appreciated Species! And a Few That Are Easier on the Eye.

Last week, I shared some lovable creatures – a raccoon kit, a baby chipmunk, the majestic yellow swallowtail, the iridescent Tree Swallow.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

This week, I thought we might explore the creatures and plants in the park that perhaps aren’t so lovable at first glance – but who make their own contributions to the rich diversity of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Unglamorous Birds that are Useful, Super Smart or Misunderstood

Well, of course, probably the homeliest bird in Bear Creek is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) with its bare, scrawny red head and hunched posture when perching.

vulture perched
The Turkey Vulture looks a bit menacing when perched in a tree.

Old westerns and horror stories taught us to see them as harbingers of death, circling ominously in the sky.  Actually though, in flight Turkey Vultures are majestic and impressive.  They ride the thermals rising from the warming earth,  their wings teetering right and left, with very few wingbeats.  They’re often  mistaken for hawks or eagles from a distance,  but vultures hold their wings high in a “V” when seen straight on and the undersides of their flight feathers are paler than the rest of their dark brown bodies so the light shining through them forms what  appears from below to be a pale band at the edge of each wing.

vulture closeup_2
A Turkey Vulture in the air looks majestic and powerful riding the thermals scarcely beating its wings.

Vultures are the reliable leaders of the clean-up crew in the park, because they, unlike many birds, have a keen sense of smell and detect carrion (dead animals) even under the tree canopy. With their strong, sharp beaks, they clean up carcasses one strong bite at a time.  Their bare heads mean nothing nasty gets caught in feathers and their immune system keeps them safe even from botulism, anthrax, cholera and salmonella!  If vultures didn’t scavenge, we’d be surrounded by the nasty sight and smell of lots of dead animals.  So say something nice about vultures next time people bad-mouth them, OK?

crow closeup2
The velvety black American Crow is one of the most intelligent of all birds, as intelligent as some apes!

The American Crow  (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is another under-appreciated bird that many people fear. Like vultures, crows do eat carrion but it’s only part of their diet.  They eat seeds, fruit, some small animals and, unhappily, occasionally the eggs or even young of other birds. But crows are also the geniuses of the bird world, outstripped only by their cousins in the Corvid family, the ravens.  Crows have huge brains with a brain/body quotient approaching that of some apes!  They use and even make tools.  They are mischievous – snitching food from river otters while other crows distract it or hauling a fisherman’s line out of the ice by pulling it up with its beak, stepping on it and hauling again in order to eat the bait (or if lucky, the fish!) on the hook and then letting the line slide innocently back through the hole.  They mimic both other birds and humans.  A famous naturalist, Jean Craighead George tells how  a crow outside her back door used to raid picnic tables in the neighborhood and one morning greeted her with “Hiya, Babe!” Children might enjoy Jean’s book A Tarantula in My Purse about her adventures with crows and other creatures or her award-winning novel of a boy learning to survive in the woods, called My Side of the Mountain.

Crows are very social birds.  Their young don’t breed until they are two and the groups of crows you see in summer are usually family groups with youngsters staying with their parents for 4 or more years.  These younger crows guard and sometimes help build the nest and even occasionally feed the nestlings!  We should all have such helpful offspring!

3 male cowbirds
The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s sneaky trick of laying eggs in other birds’ nests may be a result of its original environment.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is perhaps the most difficult bird to like.  The female does not build nests, but lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. This sneaky trick is often played on much smaller birds, who have more difficulty pushing out  the cowbird’s eggs.  The trick doesn’t always work.  Bigger birds may shove the eggs out and smaller birds destroy the cowbirds’ eggs or ignore them, building a second nest on top of the first in which to lay their eggs.   But once in the park, I saw a tiny sparrow stuffing food into the mouth of a baby cowbird, oblivious to the size difference – or maybe just a generous foster parent?  To add injury to insult, female cowbirds lay eggs in huge quantities – 30 or 40 a season – in order to be sure some grow to maturity.

Now why would a bird do this?  One theory that seems plausible is that since we know cowbirds originated in the Western states, they presumably followed buffalo and later cattle herds, eating the insects stirred up by the animals.  That constant movement made it impossible to stay in one place, build a nest and raise young.  So by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, their young  survived and reproduced.  When our area was settled and cleared, cowbirds moved East and like other invasive species, they created havoc among the creatures whose land they invaded.  So I forgive the cowbird who can’t help the adaptation it found for passing on its genes.  But I still don’t love them.

And then there’s the not-so-beloved plant  – Duckweed.

Poor old duckweed is often mistaken for “pond scum” or “algae.” Some believe it’s a sign of polluted water.  But it’s actually a family of flowering plants that live in still water and sometimes along the edges of streams. Let’s look at the three water plants growing in the center pond, one of which is duckweed.  (My thanks to Maryann Whitman for her help in identification!)

white water crowfoot
The White Water Crowfoot, an aquatic buttercup, shares the pond with the green ovals of Duckweed and the smallest flowering plant on earth,  Common Water Meal.

The tiny aquatic buttercup, White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), is much prettier when it’s blooming – as it is now – than when the blossoms die and leave just  a mass of brown strings on the surface.  The clumps of  plump green ovals with red spots are Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) which has tiny air pockets that keep it afloat.  Believe it or not, the tiny green grains in between these plants are the smallest flowering plants in the world!  They are Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) and I’ve never seen their blooms since they are 1/100th of an inch wide!  These plants provide lots of food for animals, fish and amphibians.  In fact, I imagine Duckweed got its name because I’ve seen ducks swimming along the pond near the playground with their beaks open on the surface scooping up Duckweed as they go.  So perhaps we can give it some respect,  though I agree that I prefer the aesthetics of clear water.  Here’s a muskrat, though,  that seems content to be surrounded by it!

muskrat closeup2
Muskrats, ducks and others feed on duckweed, a plant that lives mostly in still water.

 And Now Let’s Get Back to Easier-on-the-Eye Species!

The Eastern Kingbird, (Tyrannus tyrannus) just back from wintering in the Amazon (!), has an  erect posture which makes him easily identifiable. His head is darker gray than his body and his long tail is tipped with white.  Despite their distinguished appearance, Eastern Kingbirds are very aggressive with bigger birds,  like crows, hawks, owls and blue jays.  If an intruder flies over them,  even 100 feet up, they fly up  and dive bomb it from above.  During these flights, they sometimes reveal a red, orange or yellow crown which is usually concealed under their dark grey feathers. Though they eat small insects on the wing, they prefer large ones that they take up into a tree, beat against a branch and eat whole!  They don’t call them Kingbirds for nothing! Did you notice their Latin name above?

Eastern Kingbird2
The Eastern Kingbird aggressively takes on much bigger birds in defending its territory.

If the vulture is the homeliest bird in the park, certainly the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) can compete for the prettiest.  These small thrushes, the male with a royal blue back and brick red breast patch and the female in more subtle hues, grace our park year ’round.

bluebird_edited-1
The male bluebird has a royal blue back and a russet breast patch. The female’s colors are similar but more subtle.

Bluebirds swoop down to pick up insects which they can spot 60 feet or more away.  Their numbers dropped in th early 20th century when introduced species like the European Starling and the House Sparrow took over old woodpecker holes in dead trees, making the Bluebirds’  preferred nesting spots harder to find. Campaigns to place bluebird nesting boxes saved the bluebird.  Here’s one checking out a possible hole for suitability.

bluebird checking out hole
Bluebirds check out holes in large trees, their favorite nesting spots.

For some strange reason, someone named this beautiful butterfly, the Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) although its most distinguishing feature is  iridescent blue hindwings that flash in the sunlight.  The apex of the forewings does have tiny red spots on black but often the tips of the forewings just look brushed with a russet orange. This early butterfly, like others, samples tree sap, rotting fruit, even dung and carrion but unlike the Cabbage White or Mourning Cloak, it also sips flower nectar.

red -spotted purple
The mis-named Red-spotted Purple’s most noticeable feature is bright iridescent blue hindwings flashing in the sunlight..

Dragonflies, one of the beautiful predators in Bear Creek,  are zooming over the ponds right now.  The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) is best seen at noon when it’s most active.  You’ll see mostly males with their wide, flat blue-white tails and a large amber stripe in the middle of each wing.  The females with dark abdomens only visit the water for short periods.  Males perch in the same place each day and protect their territory by chasing off other males.  You can sometimes hear the clatter of clashing wings as the Whitetails  bump into intruders from underneath as they fly over.

common whitetail
The Common Whitetail male has a bluish white tail and amber bands (though the light may make them look black) in the middle of its clear wings.

The Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), like other dragonflies, overwinters in the  water as nymphs, molting  up to 10 times  until they crawl out of the water, find a plant stem, and shed their last exoskeleton, emerging as  adult dragonflies.  They fly off to eat other insects for 2 or 3 weeks.  You can watch their huge eyes turn as they track their prey before taking off and their acrobatic flying is just incredible.  They will also accompany you along a path, hoping you will stir up some tasty insects.  Nice to be escorted through the fields by a dragonfly!

Widow Skimmer dragonfly
The Widow Skimmer has black or dark brown bands near its body with white and black bands farther out on its clear wings.

A lovely native flower should be blooming now in the garden near the shed.  This Wild Columbine  (Aquilegia canadensis) looks almost exotic enough to be found in the tropics! And hummingbirds love its red color and long yellow stamen.

columbine
The hummingbirds love our exotic-looking native Columbine.

Now every nook and cranny is sporting some pretty little Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron species). You’ll come across a lot of wildflower names with “bane” in them,  which I’ve heard simply means that the people who named them thought they repelled or poisoned something –  in this case “fleas” so I imagine they might have been mixed into straw mattresses.  But that’s just a guess.

daisy fleabane
Daisy Fleabane is a little native flower that pops up all over Bear Creek Park. Its name indicates that people once considered it a flea repellent!

 Coming Attractions:

A snapping turtle was spotted in the pond near the playground again this week.  This might be the week to see one laying eggs since I saw this one on June 1 a few years ago.  Wouldn’t it be great to see a baby snapper?

snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle digs a hole with its back feet to lay its eggs in Bear Creek. Most of the eggs are dug up and eaten by raccoons and foxes among others.

Huge green leaves are appearing west of the benches at the top of the hill on the southern side of the park.  In a few weeks, one of the tallest native flowers in the park will bloom, the sunny yellow Prairie Dock on with its lo-o-o-o-ng stalk and lovely big buds.

Prairie dock
Praire Dock, a native plant, can grow as high as 9 feel tall! Look for their giant leaves already coming out of the ground west of the benches at the top of the hill in the southern part of the park.

A Correction:

Last week I mentioned seeing an “albino raccoon” in the big hole in the tree on the western path through the woods.  I’m informed by my stepson, Glenn,  that that is a “blond raccoon” or some people call them a “cinnamon raccoon.”  They are light brown and beige, rather than gray and black like most raccoons.  Evidently they have different “morphs” as I mentioned  last week with the female swallowtail butterfly. I stand corrected!  Anyway, Reg spotted the blond raccoon last Sunday in the same tree in the same big hole!  Keep a lookout!  Here’s his quick photo of a bit of its fur showing as it slept on Sunday afternoon.

IMG_2846
A “blond raccoon” asleep in the same hole in which we often see baby raccoons this time of year!

So I hope the vultures didn’t scare you off !  And that you’ll share in the comments section some of your Bear Creek Nature Park finds and favorites.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels