Tag Archives: Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Watershed Ridge Park: A Knee-Deep Immersion in Nature

The knee-deep flowers and grasses of a meadow at Watershed Ridge

Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this  wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.

The Forest and Its Wetlands

I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis),  a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!

Pale-leaved Sunflowers shine in the shade under the trees that line the farmer’s field.
A Red-spotted Purple butterfly rests in the cool shade near the sunflowers.

Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.

Blue-green wetlands glow in the distance as you enter the forest.

Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.

A young buck stares intently at me from the greenery near a wooded wetland in the forest.

I could hear an Eastern Wood-Pewee singing plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.

A young Green Frog cools down among the Duckweed in a shady wetland.

Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchellachased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.

A male Twelve-spotted Skimmer settles on a stalk in a marsh.

The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.

The female Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly curls her abdomen to lay eggs on a plant while the male guards her from above.

It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.

A male Emerald Spreadwing stops in the sunlight for a moment.

One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?

The wheel-like web of an Orb Weaver spider

At the water’s edge, three “conks” of  Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .

Three shelf fungi “conks) on a log traced by a tunneling bark beetle.

Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.

Perhaps  this  tiny Wood Frog is contemplating its winter hibernation when it will freeze solid.

As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me.  I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!

Enchanter’s Nightshade lies in wait for passersby to carry its seeds away to new locations.  My socks, for example, make a fine carrying device.

Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!

Once Jumpseed (pink flowers) produces mature seeds, bumping into the plants will propel the seeds up to 3 yards away.

Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.

Jewelweed also throws out its seed when touched, earning its other name, Spotted Touch-me-not.

The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh

The meadow that slopes down to a marsh at Watershed Ridge

Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot.  All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)

A female Widow Skimmer displays against a grass stem.
A female Meadowhawk in bright sunlight cools herself by positioning her wings and abdomen.
A male Meadowhawk nearer the marsh spreads his wings to attract a mate.

Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!

Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow  (Melospiza melodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.

The adult Song Sparrow warned its youngster to stay hidden with a chipping call.

Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.

Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp

Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty.  Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by  “windthrows,”  fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.

While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction.  And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes –  why not the name Duck Potato?

Duck Potato, so named because ducks and others eat their submerged tubers.

Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!

A Wild Calla whose flowers have already been fertilized .  The resulting green fruits will turn red in the autumn.

Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.

Tuckerman’s Sedge, a grass-like plant in the Watershed swamp

Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!

Ben was also rewarded with High-bush Blueberries as he explored the swamp.

His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and  grows only  in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!

Poison Sumac, photo by Mawkaroni at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward,  eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.

A small seasonal stream flows westward from the swamp to the marsh at the foot of the big meadow.

Time to Head Home

By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave.  So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question,  “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed.  There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.

The cornfield became a gathering place for young Red-winged Blackbirds.

I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it.  This young bird  was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago.  But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.

My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes –   but I’d meandered on paths of my own making,  out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.

 

This Week at Bear Creek: The Chickadee’s Amazing Brain, and What’s the Deal with Non- Native Plants Anyway?

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

So far in this  blog,  I’ve paid a lot of attention to migratory birds and I’ll talk about one this week because we want to see them before they’re gone, right?  But I want to periodically focus on the “ordinary” birds, some of whom turn out to be not quite so ordinary!


 

Thinking of Birds

I thought we’d start this week with a year ’round bird that  I’ve taken taken for granted for too many years, The Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus).

chickadee3
The Black-capped Chickadee has an alarm call to which many birds pay attention. The more “dee’s” in the alarm call, the more danger!

Like me, you probably thought this little bird was just another cute face – but we were wrong!  At Cornell Ornithology’s website, allaboutbirds.org, I discovered these alert, bright little birds have astonishing capabilities.  For example, they hide seeds and other bits of food in separate locations and “can remember thousands of hiding places.”  I can’t even find my glasses half the time!  Remember how Harry Potter had a “pensieve,” a magical bowl that could strain out unnecessary memories? Well, according to Cornell, every autumn Chickadees literally “allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons” so they can adapt to change in the next season!

Chickadees’ calls are described by the Cornell Lab as “complex and language-like,” full of information.  For example, you’re probably familiar with this tiny bird’s “Chicka-dee-dee-dee” call.  It turns out that the more “dees” you hear, the more dangerous the threat level.  Their alarm calls are responded to by many other birds, even those with no similar call.  They sleep in individual cavities that they carve out of rotten or soft wood like birch and willow, even without the sturdy beaks of the woodpeckers.  Which just goes to show that looks, brains and (a kind of) brawn are part of the package for the tiny puffball we call a Black-Capped Chickadee.  Who knew?

fearless chickadee
Black-capped Chickadees have an amazing memory, remembering thousands of places it has stored seeds and other foods.

Since the breeding season is off and running, you might come across an occasional fledgling near bushes in the park or hopping awkwardly on a boardwalk like this little American Robin (Turdus migratorius).  Not to worry.  When baby birds get too big for the nest, the parents stay with them and feed them, though you may not see them at the moment.  (See our earlier post on “Saving Creatures (seemingly) in Distress.“)

large high fledgling
This fledgling Robin [Edit:  Actually it’s a fledgling Wood Thrush! I stand corrected by a reader and local birder Ruth Glass]actually doesn’t need rescuing. His parents are closeby and will come to feed and care for it when you’re gone.
[Edit:  Thanks to the comment of a knowledgeable reader and local expert birder, I now know that this is a fledgling Wood Thrush!]Many people still think of Robins as harbingers of spring, but they are generally here year round; in cold weather, they roost in trees and eat berries. I’ve seen them in Bear Creek during the winter eating berries covered in ice!  In summer, they tend to eat more worms in the morning (which can make them vulnerable to pesticide poisoning) and more fruit or berries in the afternoon.   (Cornell Lab says if they eat honeysuckle berries exclusively they can get tipsy!) Males sleep in roosts but females tend to sleep on the nest until the end of the breeding season. Robins can produce three broods per season and they need to because unfortunately less than half the robins in any given year survive to the next year.  But a lucky one can live to be 14 years old!

robin in orange
An American Robin among the spring catkins of an Eastern Cottonwood tree.

The Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) is about to start its second brood.  The male, who in the early spring can be heard singing “Fee-bee,” will now care for the first brood, while the female starts freshening up the nest and laying a second set of eggs.  They’re not easy to spot now that the male is not singing,  but if you see this modest gray bird twitching its tail in a shrub or darting down to the ground to snatch a fresh bit of moss, there’s probably a nest nearby.  The Phoebes are migrants who arrive early and stay late, sometimes into October, so you’ve got time.

Eastern phoebe
An Eastern Phoebe at the playground pond. The female repairs her nest and starts a second brood in June while the male cares for the first brood.

I have to mention one of the our native ferns (which I love) that has no doubt unfurled on the left side of the Snell Road path into the park just before it opens into the field.  It appears to be Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), a name that pleases me, because although they may be fully open now, when they are unfurling, they remind me of a group of elegant ladies in plumed hats having a confab.

fern confab
Ostrich Fern seems an appropriate name for these unfurling native plants that look like the plumed heads of a confab of elegant ladies.

Native vs. Non-Native vs. Invasive?

Speaking of plants, perhaps like me, you’ve heard the terms “Invasive and “Native” plants and thought all plants fell into those two categories.  But Ben, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager, has taught me to consider one more category. Non-native plants that peacefully coexist with our native ones are simply called “Non-native. ” So I thought I’d start sharing  what I’m learning here this week.

“Invasive plants”  in our parks are obviously not native to Oakland Township and present problems for our native plants and the creatures that depend on them for food and shelter.  They limit the wonderful diversity nature provides for us by either releasing toxins that prevent the growth of native plants, shading them out, or simply taking over large areas of land with their aggressive growth.  Let’s consider a beautiful but highly problematical invasive, the Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora), blooming now at the southern edge of the small meadow west of the center pond.

multiflora rose
Multiflora rose is lovely, but as a non-native, it aggressively takes over spaces needed by our native roses and other native plants that provide food for our native bees and birds. That’s a hover fly sampling the pollen.

Pretty flowers, right? –  but super aggressive growth!  This rose, originally from Asia,  was probably brought here for just that aggressive tendency,  to make sturdy fences for livestock,  and is still being used some places on divided highways to block light from the opposite side.  Its flower is lovely, but then, so is our native pink Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) which is also blooming right now!

Pasture Rose
The native Pasture Rose can be crowded out by the more aggressive Multiflora Rose and other non-native plants.

Pasture Roses are hardy.  Like many native plants, they are adapted to fire and come back vigorously after a burn.  They tolerate drought and resist the usual diseases that afflict cultivated roses – and they smell like a real rose!  Long-tongued bees like the Bumblebee (see below) feed on them, as do the caterpillars of a variety of moths.  Native birds like the Meadowlark and  Bob-White and the Non-native Ring-Necked Pheasant,  birds we used to see more commonly in Oakland Township,  eat the red rose-hips that develop when the petals fall.   In Bear Creek, I’ve only come across Pasture Rose on the path through the Western Woods (not an ideal location for this sun-loving plant), just beyond the bridge at the south end.  Perhaps, with the informed restoration that Ben and the Parks Department are doing,   this remnant will eventually return to the edges of the meadow where the Multiflora Rose now dominates.

So, what about the category of “Non-native” plants that aren’t invasive?  Well, how about everybody’s favorite, which is blooming right now, the Ox-eyed Daisy?

Daisy closeup med size
The Ox-eyed Daisy is a non-native flower but isn’t invasive. It peacefully coexists with our native wildflowers.

Ox-eyed Daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare) originated in Europe and Asia, so they’re not native,  but they aren’t considered invasive here. Their presence usually indicates land that’s been disturbed by human activity;  in the old  fields of Bear Creek that would simply be farming or perhaps gardening in nearby homes.  They aren’t native plants but their presence generally does not disturb or decrease the population of native species, like invasive plants do.  In some parts of the country, Daisies can be invasive,  but here they peacefully coexist with our native wildflowers.

Insect Notes

We’ll come back to exploring these three plant categories as different ones bloom over the summer.  But having mentioned the Pasture Rose, the ubiquitous Bumblebee (genus Bombus) , who frequents it, deserves a bit of attention.  Here’s one approaching a native Campanula, probably Harebell ( Campanula rotundifolia).  Notice its long tongue which it uses to go deep into flowers.  

bumblebee in native bed
Notice the bumblebee’s long tongue as the bee approaches a native Campanula/Harebell.

Queen bumblebees hatch in early spring and bluster about looking for an underground burrow in which to nest.  They gather pollen, lay their eggs on  it,  cover them with wax and incubate them – like birds! – for four or five days.  When the larvae hatch, they eat the pollen and construct cocoons from which caretaker females emerge to tend the later broods of fertile bumblebees.  Only the Queen survives the winter to start the cycle again.  Here’s one with the pollen pouches on its legs nicely filled on a Non-native plant, Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa).  Those pollen pouches always remind me of jodpurs.

bumblebee jodpurs vetch
This bumblee is filling up the pollen pouches on it legs from a Non-native plant, Hairy Vetch.

Edit:  For more fascinating details about these essential pollinators, read this beautifully-written article by local wildflower expert, Maryann Whitman.

I’m wondering if this beautiful dragonfly might be spotted in the large marsh on the northeast part of the park near Gunn Road.  I’ve only seen this big beauty (about a 2 inch wingspread) when the water is high there , but with all the rain, perhaps it will appear again!  It’s called simply the Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella).

June 10 dragonfly poised on reed
The Twelve-spotted Skimmer perches on a reed in the marsh near Gunn Road.

And how about this elegant insect, the Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly (Calopteryx maculata)! The glamorous male should appear now at the back of the big loop in the northern part of the park or in the woods near the large marsh, where the female, modest brown with “smoky wings with white dots near the tips”  lays her eggs in the “soft stems of aquatic plants.”   Thankfully, someone with a poetic sensibility named this one, with its gauzy black wings and electric blue body. (Quotes from Wikipedia)

damsel fly
In mid-June, the beautifully-named Ebony Jewelwing Damselfly usually frequents the woods at the back of the big northern loop and the woods near the marsh.

And that humble little brown butterfly that appears all over the park in June?  That’s the little Wood Satyr (megisto cymela)  who loves to bask on tree leaves in the early morning and late afternoon sun.

wood satyr
The little Wood Satyr basks on leaves in the early morning and late afternoon. Though it flutters among low plants, it can rise as high as the treetops.

So despite the rain this year, June rolls on, bringing on many more nectar-drinking butterflies and the flowers they love.  Let us know below what intrigues you on your next visit to Bear Creek Nature Park.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager 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, www.and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.