How can anyone resist Bear Creek Nature Park in late June?!
Flowers keep offering up more and more color. Fledglings are trying out their wings and begging their parents for food. Trees whisper back and forth as the full green leaves of summer rustle and wave, soothing the frayed edges of our lives. But if you’re in the mood for a little excitement, you can always keep an eye out for the little dramas that snakes and other fascinating predators provide. Some examples:
Find A Little Serenity…
Look at this clear invitation from what I like to call The Lane, the central path in the park lined with Black Walnut trees (Juglans nigra) that I imagine the farmer planted there years ago for nuts, beautiful wood and just their sheer magnificence.
Up near Gunn Road, there are water trails leading into the marsh where muskrats, ducks, and geese cruise into and out of the reeds in the summer sun. The curviness of this trail, caught by my husband Reg this week, makes me think it was made by a muskrat but Ben thinks its width might indicate a goose. Or maybe a family of ducks? Anyway, it makes me wish I could follow.
Frog music is part of the charm of a summer day. The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)is out and about now because the breeding season is past and they can wander away from the water. They are beautiful spotted frogs and for reasons not quite clear, their numbers are falling in Michigan. So keep an eye out for this emerald green, leopard-spotted frog wherever it’s moist.
The Green Frog Tadpoles (Rana clamitans)in the Center Pond are a-l-l-lmost frogs. Here’s a nice big fat tadpole with tiny legs that Reg spotted there this week. And the bigger ones in the playground pond are already making their banjo-plucking calls!
Insects add a lot of color and grace as they swoop over the meadows and ponds. Out near the marsh, you’re likely to see the elegant Widow Skimmers. Here’s a male with a black/dark brown band near his body and a white strip farther out on the wing, but this one is immature. When he’s fully grown, his abdomen will turn light blue.
The female Widow Skimmer dresses only in somber colors without the white band, though she shares gold stripes on the abdomen with the juvenile male.
A rare sight but one that occurs this time of the year is the appearance of the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), surely the most beautiful of this family of butterflies, called the Brushfoots. I’ve seen one only once at Bear Creek, but it was in the third week of June so be on the lookout! This smaller butterfly (1.75″-2.5″) with orange-tipped antennae is eye-catching from above.
And it’s even more eye-catching on the underside! See that orange face?
More modest members of the Brushfoot family, but much more common visitors, are the fritillaries. Here is the smaller one we’re seeing now in June, which I think is the Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona), but again, don’t quote me. (Anyone out there a butterfly expert?)
Ben tells me that in the woods near the marsh, the fruits of the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) are now springing open, flinging out five seeds per plant! Go geraniums! While out in the Old Fields of Bear Creek, native and non-native flowers turn their faces to the sun. Here’s our native Old Field/Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) in one of the Native Plant Beds near the shed.
And here is its invasive cousin out in the fields, Rough-fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), a cultivated version that appears much more often, unfortunately, than our native one! You’ll see it on the way into the park from Snell Road once you leave the woods.
Rough-fruited Cinquefoil’s sharply defined, heart-shaped petals and paler color was no doubt pretty in its original garden but unfortunately, it “naturalized,” and is now taking the place of our native Old Field Cinquefoil which is only seen right now in the Native Plant Beds near the shed. Every time that happens, we lose a little of the rich diversity that nature provided us for us here in Oakland Township.
Other invasives aren’t necessarily cultivars, human-bred plants. They are plants from other natural environments that end up here and get carried away, growing aggressively. Unfortunately, this applies to the prosaically named but quite pretty Bladder Campion (Silene vulgarism). This plant which is actually eaten in certain parts of the world, originated in Eurasia and is now found in Bear Creek on what I call the “Steep Slope Path” that runs north/south on the western side of the park near Snell.
However, this little beauty, Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria), is a Non-Native that exists quite peacefully with our native plants, peeking shyly out among the Big Guys. There’s some edging their way into the Native Plant Bed in the driveway circle but there’s some to enjoy as well on the path that runs along the west side of the playground pond.
Appreciate Nature’s Dramas!
While all this color emerges and the air is filled with bird song, frog music and “tree talk,” dramas unfold in Bear Creek as well.
Remember those Eastern Raccoons Kits (Procyon lotor) we featured in May? Well, the mother (here in a previous year) is in charge of feeding those kits until September.
This week Ben saw evidence that part of their current diet is turtle eggs which the raccoon (or perhaps a fox) dug out of the soft earth where the turtle had laid them. Here’s the evidence I saw a few years ago.
A Robin’s egg might be available too, which is one of the reasons, as reported last week, that Robins have 3 broods a year to keep their numbers up! Lovely “robin’s egg blue,” eh?
Some interesting, quite harmless snakes slide through the grass right now, so don’t let them startle you! They’re much more afraid of you than you of them, believe me! The small (9-12 inch), shy Brown Snake (Storeria dekayl) , which can be beige, brown or gray, appears now and then in the Bear Creek Old Fields, though it likes to spend most of its time under things – or underground, eating worms and slugs. I particularly like the lovely tortoise shell pattern on the top of its head and the light stripe along its body accentuated by black markings.
Another beautiful, harmless but much longer snake (2-4 feet) is the Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum). The females lay their eggs right now in June. Contrary to the old farmer’s tale, they do not milk cows! They, like the Brown Snake, prefer to hide most of the time. According to the DNR’s website on Michigan snakes, they eat lots of mice and rats but are “harmless to humans though they may vibrate their tails and bite if cornered or handled.” So simply watch them glide gracefully and seemingly effortlessly away and all will be well.
Of course, sometimes it’s the snakes that are the prey! Just outside Bear Creek last June, we saw a regal but juvenile Cooper’s Hawk which had successfully caught what appeared to be an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Cooper’s Hawks chase medium-sized birds, their preferred prey, through the trees and eat them if they’re successful. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, these chases result in a signficant number of Cooper’s Hawks fracturing their wishbones, even though they are very skillful flyers. They can also make a meal of small mammals and snakes when necessary. This young hawk is doing what Cooper’s Hawks do with prey, holding it away from its body until it’s dead. Always good to diversify your diet, I suppose.
Earlier I mentioned Native Plant Beds. When you visit the park from Snell Road, take a tour of the two Native Plant Beds to the north and south of the shed, as well as the native plants in the driveway circle. Ben’s found some very easy-to-read, attractive plant signs that will help you identify some of what you are seeing. I’m looking forward to the bloom of the Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), delicate blue flowers balancing on grass stems!
Out in the fields, The Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has big, beautiful buds which open into their hearty, dusty pink flowers shortly. Don’t you love how the green leaves have pink veins down the middle of them? (You can see that clearly in the bottom leaf here.)
And in the marsh and other wet areas, the native Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is producing its perfectly round buds. By mid-July, they will burst into bigger balls covered with tiny white flowers, each shooting out a long yellow-tipped stamen, looking like exploding fireworks or the old-fashioned sputnik!
I hope you’ll find the time some quiet afternoon to let yourself rest in the soothing sounds and beautiful sights of a walk in Bear Creek on a summer day. Or get your heart pumping at the site of a hunting hawk or a snake weaving its way through tall grass. Time in nature is never wasted.