Well, they’re off! When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.
And of course, it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only 5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that! So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among real, live superheroes!
And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.
At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration, somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.
Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May? Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now. Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:
If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s Cranefestat Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.
Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks. The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m. The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above for “Stewardship Events.” We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators. Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.
So yes, summer is waning. But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures. I recommend looking upward this fall and perhaps wishing “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.
Late April and early May are full of dramas. Birds hassle each other over territories. Some turn their brightest feathers into the sunlight or sing elaborately constructed songs to impress the ladies. Snapping turtles roil the waters of the marsh as they twist and turn with their partners, butting heads and biting as they perform their mating dance. Late spring wildflowers and smaller trees hurry to show their best blooms to attract pollinators before bigger trees cloak them in shade. It’s a bustling, slightly crazy season – and isn’t it great?
Migrating Summer Birds Busy Courting, Hassling and Scouting for Nests
Down at the Center Pond one cool spring morning, the birding group watched a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) warming itself on a log at one end of the pond. Its neck wasn’t stretched over the water, so it wasn’t seriously fishing; it just sat there peaceably. Gradually, a pair of passive-aggressive Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) noticed its presence and decided, evidently, that they wanted the pond to themselves. They cruised slowly up to the heron until one of them was nearly beak to beak with it. The heron just sat. They joined forces and approached together. The heron just sat. Finally, one goose climbed onto the heron’s log, while the other positioned itself directly in front of the hapless heron. It sat for another minute and then finally acquiesced, fluttering off to the muddy shore nearby. Conflict successfully avoided, it probably found plenty of snails, insects and amphibians to eat while waiting for the geese to depart.
Sometimes the ongoing drama is a little less obvious. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) are plentiful in Bear Creek this year. One morning a male turned his bright pink breast patch to the sun and trilled his elaborate spring song repeatedly for his more modestly dressed mate. (If you hear a fancy version of the robin’s song, there’s likely to be a male grosbeak nearby.)
But nearby, there’s a careful observer. The female Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is high in a tree listening, too.
She’s watching for a likely nest in which to lay her eggs. Maybe she’s hoping the grosbeaks will be the ones to nurture and raise her young. Fortunately, the grosbeaks aren’t great prospects. They’re big enough to push the eggs out of the nest – if they notice them. Some birds do and some don’t. The drama hasn’t reached Act II.
In the small meadow west of the pond, a male Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)spent the morning stringing together short phrases – whistles, tweets, trills and imitations of birds, frogs, even occasionally machinery! His complicated song can go on for minutes without repetition! This male combined song with ruffling his feathers and chasing after the female who was playing hard-to-get. She’d stop to listen, fly off and then dart toward him. He’d pursue her, fluff his feathers again and sing something new. And on they went at the forest edge and among the meadow’s small trees and shrubs.
Some migrators arrive in busy flocks, just stopping over for a short while to refuel before flying north. This week, a flock of 6 or 7 White-Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) rode in on a south wind during the night and spent the morning gobbling whatever they could find at the edge of the trails. Such a handsome little sparrow with its striped crown!
Some birds fly in for just a short time to breed and then return to southern climes. This Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius), the smallest of the orioles, flitted quickly among the branches, nibbling on sweet leaf buds for a little quick energy. Even if he finds his yellow-green mate and nests, he’ll likely be gone by mid-July – back to his favorite haunts in Central America.
High overhead, a pair of Sandhill Cranes croaked their wild cry, sounding and looking like two prehistoric pterodactyls with their giant wings. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The warblers, the tiniest of migrants, have begun to arrive. A week ago a fellow birder helped me spot two species – the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) – and, we think, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula.) I didn’t manage to take any decent photos since some ate high in the tree tops and others hopped madly from limb to limb nibbling on leaf buds. So here are three photos from last year just to jog your memory.
In the western meadow, an Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) paused on a stalk. Kingbirds have a crown of red, orange or yellow feathers under that black cap, but they only show when they’re attacking a predator. I’ve never seen them. According to Cornell lab, this solitary, feisty bird changes his lifestyle in the winter, traveling in flocks all along the Amazon and eating fruit instead of Michigan insects. A favorite photo below from a few years ago shows his crown just slightly raised and his red gaping mouth. Maybe he’s feeling just a wee bit aggressive?
Drama in the Wetlands as Well
Over in the marsh, a very small Snapping Turtle(Chelydra serpentina) and a MUCH larger one roiled the water at the far end of the marsh. The difference in their neck lengths will help you determine their relative size in the photos.
I assume the smaller one was the male as he attempted to mount the back of the female’s huge shell at one point. Snappers generally do a lot of face biting when they mate, sometimes injuring each other. The photo below may look like a kiss but it’s more likely that the small turtle on the left is approaching to bite some indeterminable body part of the larger on the right. It didn’t look as though things worked out too well for either of them. After some rolling and tumbling in the marsh, the smaller swam off and the larger floated calmly in the distance.
Blue-spotted Salamanders ((Ambystoma laterale) reproduce in a less excited manner. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, salamanders emerge from their burrows on the night of the first snow-melting rain (now that would be dramatic to witness!) and go to the nearest vernal pool After a little nudging and hugging, the male deposits a sperm-topped cone of jelly on the ground in front of the female. She takes it in to fertilize her eggs, which are laid in the water in the next day or so. By mid-summer, the hatched tadpole-like larvae develop lungs instead of gills and absorb their tail fins, taking adult form. Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) lay their eggs in burrows and their young hatch as miniature adults. Here are some salamander eggs and a salamander larvae/tadpole that the monitoring team found in a pool last year, plus three different species of juvenile salamanders under some wood in the park two weeks or so ago.
In the Woods, Not Much Drama, but Burgeoning Life
Again this year, a raccoon is inhabiting the giant hole in the Oak-Hickory forest. Other years this has meant a passel of playful kits by the end of May. I saw nothing until I stepped into the crunchy leaves at the trail’s edge and this curious face popped up at the edge of hole.
The Red Admiral Butterfly (Vanessa atalanta), a migrating insect who probably overwintered in southern Texas, arrived at the wood’s edge a couple of weeks ago. According to Wikipedia, Red Admirals usually have two broods here between May and October.
Under the growing canopy of bright new leaves, a carpet of Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) is blooming. In the blossom below, a tiny bee from the Halictadae family has curled up to feed on flower nectar. These tiny bees are commonly known as “sweat bees” because they like to lick salt from us humans (luckily, their sting is very minor). This bee’s bright metallic green may mean it’s an Augochlora Sweat Bee (Augochlora pura), solitary bees who don’t live socially in hives. If you know your Michigan bees, please feel free to correct me.
The Little Dramas Keep Life Coming
The dramas of spring creatures mean life continues. The best singer, the most beautiful feathers, the best provider of a good territory get chosen and a new generation begins. Fortunately, the temporary territorial disputes of birds don’t usually result in death or destruction. One bird moves on to new territory and in many cases, joins his former competitor in a fall flock which ends up feeding calmly together on winter feeding grounds. Nature knows that both low level conflict and general cooperation keep life going, even improving, generation by generation. Maybe we humans should take a lesson from them?
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell; 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.
In the spring, when the leafing trees are full of warblers, it sure helps to have a birding group like our Wednesday Morning Bird Walks to provide trained ears and 14 eyes (or so) instead of just my 2! Migrating birds ride south winds into our parks on their way north, with most birds moving through in April and May. These temporary guests are small and move quickly about in brush or high in the trees. Some birders, like Ben and our fellow birders, Antonio and Mark, can tell us which birds we’re hearing or they spot small movements in the treetops and show us where to point our binoculars.
In the last two weeks, I went looking for warblers and other avian visitors at Cranberry Lake and Charles Ilsley Parks. Some are just passing through, some spending the summer.
As an amateur photographer, it’s a challenge to get decent pictures of these tiny, fast-moving bird guests, so please, click on red links in this blog to see, or in some cases hear, birds that eluded my camera. They’re beautifully diverse. Who knows? Maybe you’ll recognize them in your yard or on your next walk.
Warblers and Others Just Passing Through
According to Wikipedia, English-speaking Europeans refer to their warblers, sparrows, and other small birds as “LBJ’s, ” meaning “little brown jobs.” I used to ignore our “LBJ’s” thinking they were “just sparrows.” Turns out, sparrows can be beautiful too! And our warblers here in North America come in all sorts of subtle colors, especially in the spring when they’re dressed for courting. Here’s a beautiful Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) that the birding group saw at Cranberry Lake Park.
During the winter, this little male hung out with tropical warblers in the Caribbean or Central America. After traveling so far, it’s no wonder he needed to stock up on food and rest on his way to breeding grounds farther north.
We spotted the Northern Parulawarbler (Setophaga americana), but it just wouldn’t come out for my camera. Even Cornell Lab’s photo doesn’t do it justice, because its gray is much bluer in morning light and its back has a green patch – plus those rusty stripes on a golden throat! (Look at “Field Marks” lower on the page for a better shot.) No LBJ, I’d say!
For a bit of warm sunshine on a gray day, listen for the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia). The male’s quick song ,recorded at Cranberry Lake Park by Antonio Xeira and posted on the Xeno-Cantu site, sounds to some folks like a repetition of “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet!” – very appropriate for this bright yellow bird with a rusty-striped breast. Yellow warblers can be found in wetlands in our parks throughout the summer.
The Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) isn’t quite as glamorous but it’s definitely not an LBJ. These small birds with their eye rings, gray backs and yellow breasts travel north to pine forests where they make their nests out of moss, bark and pine needles, or sometimes, according to the Cornell Lab, even porcupine quills! Here’s a photo I took of one at Bear Creek last fall.
The modest Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) looks much more subdued. Both were named for the place they were first sighted and both stopped at Cranberry Lake Park this spring.
Ben heard or saw some other warblers in the two parks that I haven’t seen this spring. Have a look at the Blue-winged Warbler(Vermivora cyanoptera), seen at both Cranberry Lake and Ilsley Parks, whose wings look gray in some light (as in the photo) and blue/gray at other times. Or the Black-throated Green Warbler,an olive-green bird with a black throat and black stripes down the side of its breast. Ben always identifies this warbler by its buzzing call, which some folks describe as “zoo-zee, zoo,zoo, zee.” Listen here for the insect-like call (middle of page under “Typical Voice.”). The Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia), with its bright yellow head and black-striped breast, also stopped by Cranberry Lake Park. Isn’t it great that our parks provide food and rest for these little travelers ?
Even our sparrow visitors are not just LBJ’s! Have a look at the boldly striped cap of this White-crowned Sparrow(Zonotrichia leucophrys)at Charles Ilsley Park. In the second photo, he’s munching off dandelion seeds. See, those puffs in your lawn are food to some of our avian visitors!
Guests That Spend the Summer With Us
The parks are filling, as well, with migrating birds that come to our parks to nest and raise their young. One of the smallest (and hardest to photograph) is one that I think should be called “The Bandit Bird.” But unfortunately, this warbler’s name is the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), another bright yellow bird, but this little bird has a black mask across its eyes. Like any good bandit, the Yellowthroat skulks in tangled vines and branches often near marshy areas. The males, though, give their presence away with a very distinctive call of “Witchety, witchety, witchety” as heard here in Antonio’s recording. (Click on images to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Some larger summer guests have arrived in the parks, as well. We saw an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) at Cranberry Lake but it was down in the grass near the parking lot – so here’s a previous spring’s photo from Bear Creek.
Ben and some other birders saw a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)at Cranberry Lake before I arrived – drat! But here’s a photo from a previous spring at Bear Creek. This beautiful bird traveled all the way from South America just to raise young here in Oakland Township.
The nesting boxes are busy at Charles Ilsley Park. Here a Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) stands guard at one of them.
Nearby, its Eastern Bluebird neighbor, who may have stuck around all winter or arrived much earlier in the year, was out plucking what looks like a caterpillar from a plant and delivering to his presumably nesting mate.
The glorious Baltimore Orioles were in both parks that I visited. The male’s pure, high whistle can be heard high in the treetops as he and his mate search for a spot, usually near water, to weave its bag-like nest that will rock its young in the wind.
Time and Migration Wait for No Man…or Woman Either!
The rolling slopes of Ilsley Park, with its golden dandelion-strewn paths, await! If you can spare the time, join the Wednesday morning bird walks listed under the Stewardship Events tab above. Ben will provide binoculars and his expertise and the easy-going birders will welcome you. So will the glorious avian visitors either enjoying a little R&R before moving on or settling in to raise a family. But many of the warblers will only be here a few more days. So come have a look!
Footnote: My sources for information 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 insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; 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 America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
What a glorious week for seeing migrating songbirds – and what frustration for a photographer who can’t quite manage to capture them all! The trees, bushes and vines (like the Virginia Creeper on the right) are full of tiny, chirping birds that hop about quickly searching for sustenance before the next leg of their fall journeys.
I’ll share what I was able to photograph this week, with all the imperfections of an amateur photographer who, until this year, had almost no experience with warblers – who are very small and move very fast!
And then I’ll link you to better photos from Cornell Lab or Audubon.org, so you can see these little beauties up close – instead of half hidden by brush, silhouetted against the sun or at the very tops of trees! So much color and energy in the park! It’s a wonder how these small songbirds sail through the night and land in Bear Creek for a day’s rest and some fruits, seeds and insects to sustain them on the next leg of their journeys.
Winged Visitors : Warblers and Kinglets Everywhere!
If you’re looking for small migrating birds at Bear Creek, bring good binoculars and a lot of patience! I learned a lot at Wednesday’s bird walk from Dr. Ben and Ruth Glass who leads bird walks at Stoney Creek Metro Park and is a highly experienced birder. For instance, they told us that in early morning, it’s best to look for birds where the sun first hits the trees. (Makes sense, eh?) So take the path into the park from Snell and once you get out in the field, look in the trees and bushes at the first large curve to the left. Wow! Lots of birds in those bushes and trees!
Other great places for me have been the Walnut Lane and the circuit all the way around the Playground Pond. Walk slowly and very quietly and begin by listening to any cheeping in the bushes. Watch for twitching foliage and you’ll see them. But you need to go soon! The migration for many songbirds peaked this week and numbers will decline until they are gone by early November.
Here’s a sampling of what you might see:
Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) hopped from branch to branch again this week. Look for their “field marks,” including a rusty cap, dark eye line, breast streaks at the sides and yellow underparts. It’ll be leaving soon to go as far south as the Caribbean – which could be where it got its name?
I caught sight of what I think is a Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) going after some fruit. It seems to be a male in its non-breeding, fall colors. Page down to the bottom of this link for several different good views, including the non-breeding (fall) plumage. Side note: Last week’s Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) and this one aren’t necessarily from Tennessee. According to Ruth Glass, they were first reported and drawn by John James Audubon who lived in Kentucky for part of his life and probably named birds for where he saw them.
The tiny, almost constantly moving Kinglets pass through Bear Creek during the spring and fall, too. The flitting Ruby-Crowned Kinglet is identified by its size, irregular white eye ring and its twitching wings! Its “ruby crown” only shows when it’s excited or courting, though one of the birders saw a Kinglet’s crown this Wednesday! Maybe you can see the tiny red dot on the head of this bird that I saw the next day – or you can have a look at it really flared in this Audubon link.
I saw another Kinglet last weekend silhouetted in the sunlight and had no idea what it was until Ruth Glass identified it from my poor photo as a Golden-CrownedKinglet (Regulus satrapa.)Their field marks are a very short, thin beak perfect for winkling out insects and of course the gold on their wings and crown. Have a look at this Audubon link for a better view!
Winged Visitors: Sparrows? Yes!
I learned this year to stop ignoring small, brownish birds assuming they were all sparrows that I already knew. That’s how I missed seeing other small migrants. Look at this beautiful White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) with the bright yellow dots(called “lores”) in front of its eyes, a striped crown and of course, a white throat marked by black stripes called “whiskers” or “malar stripes”!
And here’s a young White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys ) which needs to be differentiated from the White-Throated Sparrow above. It’s about to make its first migration, because it was born somewhere in the far north below the arctic circle this very summer. (Thanks again to Ruth Glass for the ID!)
White-Crowned Sparrows look radically different after one year. Here’s a photo I took at Bear Creek on October 6, 2008 and then a closeup of one at my house in spring a few years later. Hard to believe it’s the same bird as the brown “first winter” bird in the photo above, isn’t it?
Sharp-eyed Ruth also saw two Lincoln’s Sparrows (Melospiza lincolnii ) which look very much like a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) but are smaller and daintier and have no central spot on their breasts. Unlike the courser streaking on a song sparrow, the Lincoln’s Sparrow’s black streaks are finer and on “buffy” flanks. Wikipedia says they are “quite secretive” – too much so, for my eyes and camera! So here’s another Cornell link to get a look.
The visiting summer sparrows that spent their summer in the park are still here too. A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its bright white eye ring and pinkish bill and feet watches other migrants hop in the trees. As their name implies, Field Sparrows avoid suburban areas and will soon fly off to somewhere south of Michigan so keep an eye out for them soon at places like Bear Creek!
Winged Migrants: a Mixture of Species
During the Wednesday bird walk, the treetops on Walnut Lane were filled with Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus). This nomadic finch appears some years and not others as it follows the best seed crops. My photo in morning sun in the treetops shows its streaky head and body but not the flashes of its subdued winter yellow as they flutter or fly, so have a look at Cornell Lab’s photo.
Down at the Center Pond, we saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) darting from the shore to the water, catching a few bugs. The most distinguishing field mark of a Phoebe is a constantly pumping tail, plus a dark head and white breast. The males usually sing “Phee-beee” only when courting but one was trying out its song on Wednesday. It probably spent the summer here. It will be migrating in the next couple of weeks and be gone by early November.
At the western edge of the pond on Wednesday, deep in the brush, skulked a migrating Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) who probably raised its young farther north in Michigan or Canada. These birds rummage in leaf litter looking for insects, so they can be hard to see. But the following day, it appeared on a log near the pond.
Also at the pond, Ruth spotted a Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) which may have spent the summer among pines farther north. It generally looks blue-gray but Ruth told us it’s more blue in direct sunlight. I love its white “spectacles.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of it but here’s the link to Cornell’s photo.
The Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) males at the Center Pond are slowly getting rid of their eclipse plumage. Here’s one whose beautiful green head feathers have almost completely molted.
He’d probably like the molt to be over, since some of the males now have their full complement of courting plumage and are already pairing up with females, though mating won’t happen until spring! They’ll move to the Gulf Coast this winter, unless they can find an area with sufficient food and open water farther north.
The Gray Catbird raised its young here this summer but will be leaving soon, too. This one in the vines and bushes north of the Playground Pond looks like it’s finished molting and is about ready to go.
Winter Residents (or Delayed Departures) Molting into Winter Garb
A flock of young Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), who have left their fledgling feathers behind and now wear their first winter garb, jostled noisily among the fruiting vines and trees. Some of them may remain here for at least part of the winter and then head south. I saw a flock of Waxwings at Bear Creek eating in ice-glazed branches on Christmas Eve two years ago! Others have already left for warmer climes, sometimes as far south as Central America. These noisy young ones are identified by mottled chests, shorter crests, and a wider white lines around the mask – but the tips of their tails still glow bright yellow in sunlight like adult waxwings.
This female American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) looks a bit disconcerted about molting into her drab winter colors, much like the female Cardinal that I posted last week.
This winter-ready Goldfinch, though, looked as if it enjoyed its ride on a plume of Canada Goldenrod as it picked seeds from the dried blossoms as they swayed in the wind.
Odds ‘n’ Ends
A tiny Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) dashed up a tree near Snell Road. I love how his tail was backlit by the late afternoon sun.
In the southernmost meadow near Snell, I spotted a large patch of white plants I’d never seen before. Dr. Ben identified them as FragrantCudweed. The University of Michigan Herbarium uses that common nameor the slightly less bovine Old-Field Balsam. Many internet sites call it Sweet Everlasting (my fave of the three) and look at its Latin name – Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium – !! Whatever you call this native plant, it’s interesting. According to a Minnesota Wildflower site, the clusters of what look like egg-shaped buds are actually the blooms with the yellow/brown anthers (pollen- producing flower parts) exposed at the end. And what looks like whorled petals are bracts, leaflike structures which will open and fall when the seed ripens. Nice to have fresh blooms so late in the year! As the weather gets colder, we’ll really wish they were everlasting!
Fall migration must be a restless, exhausting, but exciting time for birds. Their hormones, the shorter days, and the temperature all tell them it’s time to go south. Dangers lurk along the way, which is one of the reasons perching birds travel at night, avoiding raptors who travel by day. Severe weather, a shopping mall where a woods used to be, lighted buildings that confuse the birds’ navigation systems can all be disastrous. But the pull is strong and off these small birds go in the night, riding the wind if they can. I hope you get to see some of them off.
*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