Tag Archives: White-crowned Sparrow first winter

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Shifting Toward Winter at Cranberry Lake Park

Flock geese flying CL
Flock of geese flying south from Cranberry Lake Park

What a difference a month makes!  I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25.  I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition –  who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.

Late September:  Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds

Mackerel sky CL
The meadow at Cranberry Lake in late September

In late September, the meadow was  still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.

Showy Goldenrod 2 CL
Perhaps last summer’s winds carried the seeds that created this curving swath of Showy Goldenrod in the meadow.

And a few other flowers hung on in September.  Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks (Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a  treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.

In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form.  One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.

Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.

The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed rich patch.
The golden swath of Showy Goldenrod turns to a brown, seed-rich patch.

And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.

Staghorn Sumac no seeds
Staghorn Sumacs’ plumes of seed disappeared in mid-October, either eaten by birds or dropped to the ground.

Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.

Of course,  some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!

Asian Bittersweet CL
A beautiful but deadly plant that kills trees by choking them, shading them out or making them topple in storms. PLEASE DON’T PICK ORIENTAL BITTERSWEET!

By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.

Field at Cranberry Late Oct
The meadow at Cranberry Lake had turned an autumnal brown by the end of October.

I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.

Last of smooth asters CL
A small sprig of Smooth Asters braved the cold nights beneath the shelter of overhanging plants.

During  October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!

It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.

One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-Crowned Kinglets arrived in October to feed and rest on their way south from northern Canada.

One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.

White-throated Sparrow 3 CL
White-throated Sparrows have a shorter migration from northern Michigan to just southern Ohio.

This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly on goldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.

White-crowned Sparrow 1st winter eating
A “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow enjoying some goldenrod seeds after a long  flight from northern Canada.

One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off.  No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.

Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush, with its chocolate brown back and smudges on its breast, picked up a few bugs or some  fruit on its way south.

Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north  to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.

During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now.  Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.

A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call,  the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume,  to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring.  (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)

Towhee Draper Pond2
An Eastern Towhee chipped from the forest edge at the end of the bird walk.

So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.

Late October:  Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees

Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park  from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in  Michigan  is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.

Tree sparrow
A tree sparrow rests in a bush.

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.

bluebird-male-alone-cl
A male Eastern Bluebird in the meadow at Cranberry Lake
Two Bluebirds CL
A male and female Eastern Bluebird shared a bush in the meadow.
3 bluebirds in bush
Three bluebirds decorating a bare bush in the meadow

Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange.   And on October 24,  a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.

The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn.  On the path to the lake,  a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface. 

The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from  locations where I can get closer to them!

young-wood-duck
Two female Wood Ducks were preparing for migration at Cranberry Lake this week. This one cruised the Playground Pond at Bear Creek earlier this year.
mallards-playground-pond
Mallards, seen here at Bear Creek, gathered with other ducks and water birds at Cranberry Lake this week.
swan-showing-off
Two Mute Swans floated in Cranberry Lake this week. This shot was taken a few years ago in a Canadian river where I could get closer.

But there were also  Pied-Billed Grebes (Podilymbus podiceps),  and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake.  Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.

A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park

North path new CL
The greatly improved path entering the woods off of 32 Mile Road.

Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park.  Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding.  You certainly can feel the difference underfoot!  And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed,  should be a great improvement for the park!

Autumn:  Harvest Time for All of Us!

chickadee-eating-seed
Black-capped Chickadee breaking open a seed.

So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow,  will probe the brown goldenrod  for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!

*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; 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, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Birding by Ear, Dueling Chipmunks and Seeds in the Wind

Sloping Path Mid Fall

If you wonder why it’s so tricky to get photos of migrating birds in the autumn, have a look at the colors of the western Old Field above.  The bright gold of the goldenrod has now faded to a soft silvery brown.  In their subdued winter plumage, small birds can be nicely camouflaged as they feed.  Vines full of fruit hang from bushes and trees – with just enough leaves to make a perfect hiding place. So to see these small visitors, a park walker’s best tools are their ears.  Birds aren’t singing now but they do click, whistle, chip and cheep as they move through the tall grass and vines.

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

I’m not expert enough to  identify birds by these autumn calls.  I can only locate birds by hearing clicks and cheeps and then wait for them to emerge long enough to take a quick photo or glimpse them through binoculars. This week, some chirping sounds in the woods led me to a delightful chipmunk competition as well.  So here’s where my ears led me this week at Bear Creek.

Listening for Migrants:  Still Here but in Smaller Numbers

This Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) kindly appeared on a bare branch over the marsh.  Its field marks in the fall are that yellow spot below the wing and the rectangular yellow patch above the tail visible in the photo below.  Yellow-rumped Warblers tend to be quick and noisy while foraging and even make a chek sound when flying.  Page down to “Calls” at this Cornell link to hear their fall cheeping. I love the thought that some of these birds spend the winter on tropical coffee plantations!

yellow rumped warbler non-breeding first winter
A Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Yellow rumped warbler's yellow rump
Here the yellow patch above the tail of the Yellow-rumped Warbler is visible.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was still here this week, but I only saw single birds, not flocks like last week.  This tiny bird is only about 3/4 of an inch longer than a Ruby-throated Hummingbird and like the Hummer, can flutter in the air as it picks seeds off of the goldenrod.  We spotted this one because of its restless flitting and its call, which sounds a bit like a high-pitched version of the American Red Squirrel’s scold.  Click here and page down to “Calls” at this Cornell link.

Ruby-crowned kinglet
A Ruby-crowned Kinglet who can feed while fluttering, in the style of a hummingbird.

White-throated Sparrows on their way south bounced and swayed among the goldenrod, looking for seed,  or rested, perching in short trees and shrubs nearby. The yellow dots in front of their eyes (their “lores”) make them easier to identify than some sparrows.  Cornell describes their call as a “high, level seep”; I’d say a small, soft cheep, but you can listen here under the second “call” and see what you’d name it.  This one seemed a bit annoyed at my camera!

White-throated Sparrow
The White-throated Sparrows migrating through this week make a high “seep” sound as they forage.

A smaller group of young White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys)moved into and out of the tangles of brush along the paths.  These brownish youngsters, like the ones in last week’s post, were born south of the Arctic circle this summer.  When they return in the spring, their heads will be boldly striped black and white. They’ll have a lovely song then but right now they make a rather simple sparrow “chip” as they forage among the greenery.

White-throated Sparrow first year2
A first winter White-crowned Sparrow pauses in the vines.

The cheek pattern on this brown and gray sparrow means it might be a Swamp Sparrow, but since it refused to emerge from its hiding place in the goldenrod, I can’t be quite sure! If it is, it’ll have longer legs so that it can actually put its head under water to capture aquatic insects. This one was clearly hiding so it didn’t make its metallic “chip” call.

Swamp sparrow
This may be a Swamp Sparrow from his cheek markings but it wouldn’t emerge from the goldenrod!

Winter Residents Making Noise

Young Cedar Waxwings still dash about the park until they depart later in the fall or winter. They can make quite a racket as they dip and swirl through the trees looking for fruit.  Check out the bzee trills and whistles of a whole flock at this Cornell link. Here you can see the yellow tips of a Waxwing’s tail feathers in flight and also when it is perched on a limb.

Cedar Waxwing flying
A Cedar Waxwing turning and twisting through tree branches and whistling at the same time!
Cedar Waxwing juvenile
The yellow tips of a Cedar Waxwing’s tail feathers glow on a gray day.

Our summer Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are departing and ones from farther north are arriving here for the winter.  Jays are members of the very bright Corvidae bird family, like Crows.  Here’s a curious winter migrant exploring a standing dead tree (or “snag”) in Bear Creek.  You’ll hear lots of raucous Jay calls in the park right now, as they flock in from the North.  The familiar call is at this link at the third recording under “Calls.”

Blue jay checking out hole1
A curious Blue Jay checks out a hole in a “snag” or standing dead tree in Bear Creek.

Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) make good use of “snags” for drumming when courting or making holes for nesting in the spring.  Now they make only a soft tapping sound as they search for insects and the occasional seed. Their quick vertical/upside-down/every-which-way acrobatic trunk hopping serves as a better clue to finding one. Downies travel in mixed flocks during the winter. According to the Cornell Lab, they get more warning of predators and find more food that way.  Females (no red head spot) evidently feed on larger branches or the trunks of trees because males (red spot on back of head) prevent them from feeding on smaller branches and weed stems which females seem to prefer when males are absent!  So here’s an “oppressed” female Downy on a large limb.

Downy Woodpecker Female
Female Downy Woodpeckers generally feed on tree trunks and large limbs because males prevent them from feeding on the smaller limbs and weed stems which females seem to  prefer.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) sing in flight and they are everywhere in Bear Creek now.  Wikipedia describes their flight call as tsee-tsi-tsi-tsit  or per-chic-o-ree.  Maybe you’ll recognize the first recording under “Calls” at this Cornell link. 

Goldfinch Fall plumage
An adult male Goldfinch in winter plumage still sings when in flight.

A Noisy Chipping Competition with an Unimpressed Audience!

Willow in the marsh autumn
A willow in the marsh

The fall colors in the marsh are lovely and I have always loved this big willow that floats like a cloud above the reeds at the south end.   Male mallards flutter in the water in an effort to impress the females and find a mate for the spring.  Since many of them have not finished molting and still have brown feathers mixed with the iridescent green, the females aren’t paying much attention yet.

Mallards in marsh
The female mallards don’t seem to be paying much attention to the male fluttering his wings, a display gesture for mallards.

In the woods at the edge of the marsh, though, I came across the auditory dueling of  Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus).  They each “chipped” steadily for long minutes, presumably defending their cache of nuts and seeds from possible snitching by the other.  With winter approaching, it happens! So these chipmunks loudly defended their territories – presumably from me as well as other chipmunks.  I saw one of the noisy characters, its whole body throbbing as it “chipped” loudly from a fallen limb.

Chipmunk chipping
A chipmunk chips loudly to protect its territory and defend its winter cache of seeds and nuts.

I wasn’t able to find the answering chipmunk on the other side of the trail, but I did spot a listener nearby.

Chipmunk listens to chipping
A silent chipmunk listens to two others chipping loudly to defend their territory and cache.

But evidently, the listening chipmunk found whatever was being communicated quite distasteful – or perhaps it was just having digestion problems!  But its expression changed and made me laugh out loud.

Chipmunk squinting
The listening chipmunk either didn’t like the chipping competition or was suffering from a bad case of indigestion!

Here’s a 30 second recording I made of the two dueling chipmunks warning each other – and me probably –  to respect their territory!

Seeds in the Wind!

Butterfly Milkweed pods seeding
Butterfly Milkweed pods broke open this week and their ripe seeds were carried away on the wind.

This week the slender pods of native Butterfly Milkweed (Ascelpias tuberosa) broke open and the wind took the ripe seeds dancing through the air.  Whenever we find milkweed seeds of any kind  on a mowed or limestone path, some place where it would be difficult for them to grow, my husband and I  pick them up and release them into the wind.  (We don’t break open seed pods!  The seeds aren’t mature until the pods open and the seeds start flying on their own.) We toss or blow them into the air because we want more of milkweed next year.  And besides,  watching the seeds sail across a meadow, competing to see which one goes farthest and highest,  is a good game!

So if you come to Bear Creek this week – or any week  –  perhaps you too can discover how your ears, as well as your eyes, can help you spot birds, especially small ones, that you’ve never noticed before. And if you see some milkweed seeds that have landed in unfortunate places, toss them skyward and watch them fly!

*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