Nourish Nature Around You: Plant an Oak!

Oak at Charles Ilsley Park in spring

We aren’t called Oakland Township in Oakland County for no reason. For thousands of years, oaks have been a keystone tree sustaining our local habitat and the people who live here. When Europeans arrived in the early 1800’s, they marveled at rolling grasslands filled with wildflowers and large oaks scattered here and there or standing in groves. An article in the Michigan Botanist journal quotes C.F. Hoffman from 1835:

Clumps of the noblest oaks, with not a twig of underwood, extending over a gently undulating grassy surface as far as the eye can reach: here clustered together in a grove of tall stems supporting one broad canopy of interlacing branches, and there rearing their gigantic trunks in solitary grandeur from the plain . . . .

C.F. Hoffman 1835
Text and most photos by Cam Mannino

What a vision, eh? If you want a taste of that landscape, visit the restored prairies at Charles Ilsley Park this spring or summer!

I decided I’d better get to know this giant among local plants. I came away impressed! My hope is that what I found will encourage you to take special care of the oaks on your own property – and if you’re without any oaks (heaven forbid!), find a corner for one this year!

What Makes Oaks So Special?

Well, of course, most of the oaks near us are big – which means that they extract huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their bark, branches and roots for years. How many years? White Oaks (Quercus alba), the elders of the plant family here, can keep that carbon stored for 900 years! Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and author of The Nature of Oaks, explains that given the right conditions, oaks have a life cycle of 300 years growing, 300 years in stasis (just living!) and 300 years of decline.

During their long lifetimes, they stabilize the soil around them with huge root systems, producing ten times more biomass underground than they produce above ground! They need those roots to support them for all those long years. Their large canopies and ridged bark prevent erosion by controlling runoff in heavy rains, maintaining nearby watersheds for centuries. Their shade cools the air. Many native trees provide these services of course, but the oaks do it all on a grander scale. And that’s only the beginning of the services they provide to their surroundings.

Oaks Generously Feed the World Around Them

White Oak near the Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park

Throughout the centuries, and even after death, oaks literally make life possible for hundreds of species, untold thousands of individual creatures. I’m imagining that what comes first to your mind is acorns. And you’re right, but there’s more to the story.

Acorns and the Creatures that Love ’em

A single oak tree can provide three million acorns in a lifetime which feed a wide range of mammals, bird and insects. Tallamy cites squirrels, deer, mice, possums, rabbits, raccoons and foxes among our local mammals, plus many birds, including turkeys, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, towhees, flickers, even wood ducks! Acorns provide them with protein and fat before and during the cold winter months – just when food is scarce and hungry creatures need to bulk up to cope with frigid temperatures.

Blue Jays and Oaks: A Match Made in Heaven

Blue Jays spread oaks by caching them and then forgetting where most of them are!

Oaks have a special friend in the crow family (Corvidae), the jays, including of course, our noisy neighbor, the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata). All over the world wherever oaks shade the ground, some species of jays are planting their acorns far and wide. Our Blue Jays cache them for winter by tapping them into open soil one by one. According to Professor Tallamy, one Blue Jay can bury up to 4,500 acorns a year! Luckily, they only remember the location of about 25% of their acorns. The rest are free to grow into trees, if they germinate or aren’t eaten by other creatures. Jays can carry acorns up to a mile away which means that oaks move out into the landscape faster and farther than other trees. What a great tradeoff – food for the jays, dispersal for the oaks. (Scientists call this “mutualism”)

Oak Strategies for Outfoxing the Fox Squirrels (and other nibblers)

“Mast Years” – Overdoing It With a Purpose

Oaks have evolved a strategy for preventing those plentiful acorn-eaters from gobbling up every acorn. At random intervals, all the oaks in a given location cooperate in producing a giant crop of acorns – more than all those local munchers, like squirrels and deer, could possible eat in a season. It’s called a “mast year.” That way, chances improve for some acorns growing into oak saplings.

The population of acorn consumers increases as well-fed animals produce more young. Ah, but the next year and for several years after, the oaks somehow coordinate again in producing very few acorns, reducing the population of acorn consumers. By doing this together, but unpredictably, the oaks make it impossible for acorn lovers to plan for a mast year. They never know when a good acorn year is coming. And neither do the researchers who have yet to discover how oaks coordinate with other oaks to create a mast year! A mystery, yet to be solved! I love a good mystery…

Fending Off Bud Nibblers – A Yucky Mouthful

Four sapling oaks at Charles Ilsley Park kept their lower leaves this winter perhaps to discourage browsing deer.

You may have noticed that oaks, young oaks especially, keep their dead leaves on their lower limbs until spring. It’s called “marcescence.” One hypothesis is that since oaks evolved with huge, browsing mammals, like mastodons and other megafauna, they needed to protect their tasty, nutritious buds for next year’s growth. That might explain why oak leaves as far as 18 feet up don’t drop in the autumn; that’s about as far as a mastodon could reach! Today’s browsers, like deer and moose, may be put off by a mouthful of distasteful, nutrition-poor dead leaves, just as the mastodons may have been. Or it could be that the dry leaves protect the buds from cold, maintain moisture by holding snow longer or create nutritious leaf litter in spring when most tree growth occurs. Or it may be a combination of all those factors. No one’s quite sure but it’s a distinctive feature of oaks, beeches, hornbeams and a few willows.

But Oaks Sustain Life with an Even More Plentiful Food Source than Acorns!

Oaks provide another much more impactful way of feeding a park, a forest or my yard (which is surrounded by Black Oaks.) It all centers around the creatures that the famous entomologist E.O. Wilson once called “the little things that run the world” – insects! Insects are a basic food group for countless creatures. Stop a second and think of all the creatures around us that eat insects: fish, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, and especially birds!

Some mammals also include insects in their diet, like possums, raccoons, bears, bats, and moles to name a few. Plants eat insects, too. Here are three local species: Sundew (Drosera anglica), Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris).

Even insects eat other insects! My list includes dragonflies, praying mantises, ladybugs, and crickets, but no doubt there are many more.

An Autumn dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) eating a damselfly

Insects also pollinate about 80 to 90 percent of all plants on the earth. What a huge service for life! Without pollinated plants, we’d all go hungry since even human meat-eaters dine on plant-eating creatures. Insects also act as essential decomposers of dead plants and animals.

But what’s just as crucial about insects is their young – those squiggly caterpillars. As the largest class of animals on earth, they feed countless creatures. The massive number of caterpillars in any given area feed a greater number and wider variety of creatures than any other animal that eats plants – more than deer or even elephants!

E.O. Wilson once observed, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” See what he meant when he said they “run the world”?

And What Makes Oaks So Special When It Comes to Insects?

Well, wherever oaks grace the landscape, they are the undisputed champions at housing and feeding caterpillars. They support over 900 species in North America. Here’s just a tiny selection among the more than 500 species that oaks support around here in Michigan. Aren’t they amazing?

We don’t even know most of these small caterpillars exist (at least, I didn’t!), because most of them are so small and live high in the trees. Caterpillars largely eat at night in order to avoid birds and other daytime predators. Many adult moths, which make up a huge percentage of the more than 500 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) in our oaks, pollinate at night as well. No wonder we don’t see them! Their presence generally presents no problem for oaks and the leaf damage is not really noticeable to us from the ground. So even if we don’t see them, they’re up there, along with the young of other insects like katydids, beetles, and praying mantises among many others.

According to Jim McCormac, former field botanist at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, only a tiny percentage of insect eggs, caterpillars and pupae survive to produce the next generation. The vast majority become food for other creatures. Doug Tallamy uses our friendly Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) to demonstrate the gigantic quantity of insect offspring needed each year.

A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day but seeds make up only 50% of their diet. The rest is insects and their caterpillars.

To feed a clutch of their young, two Chickadee adults must catch 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars each season to feed their young just while they’re in the nest! Then they feed their fledglings outside the nest for another 21 days. And those numbers don’t include the frozen insect eggs and caterpillars that Chickadees rely on to survive the winter.

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center watching a Blue-headed Vireo, another insect-eater, at Charles Ilsley Park.

Migrating birds flock here each spring because our native trees and plants produce such a flush of nutritious caterpillars. Imagine the numbers of caterpillars required to just feed the birds in your yard. Then imagine the number required in one of our parks, or in a national forest – in every season, all over the country and the world! Insect numbers are in drastic decline worldwide due to insecticides and habitat loss. But we can help by planting and preserving oaks, the trees that host the largest number of caterpillars in their leaves, their bark and their roots – even in their leaf litter!

One of the many litter moth species in the forest at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park emerges onto a patch of moss.

Most caterpillars native to North America can’t eat the leaves of non-native plants, or if they do, they can’t reach maturity by eating those leaves. They didn’t evolve with plants from far away, so they can’t properly digest the leaves. That’s why native flowers, shrubs and plants are so crucial to preserving life everywhere. Pollinator gardens are wonderful at feeding adult insects, but unless they also have a significant percentage of native plants, even they can be a desert for butterfly offspring.

Would You Consider Planting One? Hmmm?

My first year attempt at starting a bed of soft sedges and spring flowers beneath a tall Black Oak in our yard.

Now I know what you’re thinking, or at least I think I do. See if I’m right and if I can give you a somewhat acceptable answer.

  1. You believe that they grow too slowly? They don’t really. The first few years they develop slowly above ground because they’re developing the root system that has to support and feed them for hundreds of years. In one of his presentations (cited below), Tallamy shows yearly photos of a White Oak that he planted from an acorn that grew to 45 feet tall in 20 years with a canopy spread of 30 feet! That’s a lot of cooling shade! Of course, that amount of growth assumes: a) the oak is planted where its roots can grow deep, i.e. no interference from sewer lines, foundations, compacted soil; b) that it’s not fertilized. North American trees grow best on the nutrient poor soils left by glaciation. Weird, eh?
  2. Looking for a somewhat smaller oak? Yes, we have some! Dwarf Chinkapin Oaks and Pin Oaks might work in your yard here in the township. Across the state and the country, there are other smaller varieties. Ask a native nursery or landscaper.
  3. You’re worried that they’re expensive? Get the smallest oak sapling you can find. Small oaks won’t have such heavily pruned root systems. Large nursery saplings need to spend many years re-growing their previously cut roots, but a small sapling can establish and start growing right away. Or simply pick up an acorn right after they fall. There’s a section at the back of Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, called “How to Plant an Oak.”
  4. Too many leaves? It’s best if you can find a spot where the leaf litter can just be left below the oak tree – no raking or mowing. Leaf litter keeps the soil moist, slowly returns nutrients to the soil and nurtures many moth caterpillars. Some moth caterpillars stick their cocoons to the bark of a branch or trunk. But others drop to the ground, burrow into the soil and pupate there – or spin a cocoon in the fallen leaves to overwinter there. But if leaving fallen oak leaves is impossible in your yard, consider planting ferns, sedges and/or wildflowers beneath your tree. They’ll make for a soft, safe landing for little caterpillars.
  5. Too many acorns? Remember that mast years occur periodically but not every year. And you can handle the acorns from one or two trees. Oaks in the Red Oak group have mast years less often than White Oaks do. Maybe consider sharing some acorns with neighbors along with planting instructions?
  6. You’re afraid a tree might fall on your house? If you have room, plant a grove of oaks, or a mix of oaks and other species, so that their roots interconnect and support each other. And by the way, oaks don’t lift sidewalks or driveways because they grow deep enough not to bother hardscape on the surface. The pavers near our black oaks do just fine. Also, don’t panic about old, hollow oaks. Like a pipe, all the strength of any tree is in its outer ring; the interior is softer, dead material. So unless it poses a danger to structures or you often walk beneath it, don’t cut it down. It’ll survive for a long time and continue feeding the habitat around you.

How’d I do? Are you persuaded? If you still have other concerns about planting an oak in your location, consider leaving me a question in the comments and I will try to find an answer.

Protect Your Oaks!

It’s important that you don’t prune your oaks or damage their bark in any way from mid-March to November. Wait until late fall or winter to trim your oak trees, and avoid attaching signs, bird houses, or anything else to your trees. In warmer weather, a deadly, non-native fungus called Oak Wilt can be carried by native beetles that adore the smell of broken oak bark. They can arrive at your damaged tree within 20 minutes! Keep a can of clear shellac around; if damage happens, quickly spray it on the wound. Currently there’s no reliable cure for oak wilt. Trees in the Red Oak group can spread the disease to other oaks through their interconnected roots. We don’t have much oak wilt in our area yet. Let’s keep it that way!

Also be aware that occasional infestations of non-native Spongy/Gypsy Moths (Lymantria dispar) can severely defoliate oaks and other trees. The trees usually survive and re-sprout, even if defoliated for repeated years. But if you’re concerned, here’s Michigan State University’s web page on identifying and dealing with them. Please don’t confuse them with the native silk web caterpillars, Eastern Tent Caterpillars or Fall Web Worms, which cause only minimal damage. Remember, spraying an oak can kill over 500 species!

A Brief Guide to Oak Identification

I’ve only included leaf shapes here. I’m trying to learn bark patterns for winter ID’s but have a long way to go before I master it. Consult a tree ID app or guide book for more complete information. Lots of acorns look very much alike, but I love the distinctive fringed, stocking-cap-look of Bur Oak acorns that make identifying them so easy!

The bristly caps of Bur Oak acorns

Our oaks fall into two groups, White Oaks and Red Oaks. Here’s a quick look at leaves of the most common species in our area.

The leaves of the White Oak group have rounded lobes. This group includes species such as White Oak, Swamp White Oak, Chinkapin Oak, and Bur Oak. The leaves of Swamp White Oaks and Chinkapin Oaks are slight more pointed but don’t have bristles at the tips like the Red Oak family.

Each lobe on the leaves of the Red Oak group has a sharply pointed tip ending in a bristle. The Red Oak group in our area includes species such as Northern Red Oak, Pin Oak, Red Oak, and Black Oak.

So, What Do You Think? Can You Host an Oak in Your Yard?

A very old oak at Stony Creek Nature Park extension off Snell Road

I know not everyone can plant an oak, but I’m hoping many of you can. More than any other native tree, the mighty oaks provide life support for the whole, intricate web of life that surrounds each of us. All of our native trees host some native caterpillars; our insects evolved with them after all. But if we want to make a big difference with just one tree, the oak’s our best bet. And just think, it will be standing right where you planted it for hundreds of years after you and I are gone. Such a great legacy to leave for the future!

Primary Sources:

  1. Michigan Botanist, 2008, Vol 47 “PRAIRIE AND SAVANNA IN SOUTHERN LOWER MICHIGAN: HISTORY, CLASSIFICATION, ECOLOGY” by Kim Alan Chapman and Richard Brewer. Quote from Hoffman, C.F. (1835). A winter in the west. Michigan History Magazine 9:221–228; 9:413–437 (1925)
  2. Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks by Professor Doug Tallamy
  3. Doug Tallamy’s online presentation for the Washtenaw Conservation District. The first section is an interesting piece on how to help oaks regenerate in forests. Doug’s section on the nature of oaks begins 27 minutes in.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.

The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Nature and Park Stewardship Working in Harmony All Over the Township

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

From early autumn until the first really cold weather,  nature is busy preparing for winter – and so is the Parks Commission. While plants disperse seed and mushrooms release spores for next spring’s growth,  our stewardship manager, Ben VanderWeide, is sowing native seed as well. As the trees drop leaves to prepare for spring growth, Ben and his contractors clear away invasive shrubs to provide spring sunlight  for native  grasses, bushes and wildflowers. So this week, please join me for some short visits to several parks to see how nature and the Parks Commission work together to prepare for winter snow and the spring to come.

 

Bear Creek Nature Park: Seeding, Feeding and Choosing a Mate

Bear Creek made a glorious exit from autumn. In late October, it burned with autumn gold and red.

Fall at Bear Creek

Late October at Bear Creek Nature Park

As usual, the Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) “fell asleep” before the other trees; they “wake up” late in the spring, too. I like to think they need more rest than other trees!

Walnuts sunset BC

Bare trees on the Walnut Lane at sunset in Bear Creek

The Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were busy with two kinds of preparation: finding a mate for the spring  and eating to store up fat for the winter. Happily, both could be accomplished at once. Males, now in courting colors, cruised the Center Pond with females, going “up tails all” while feeding below the surface.

Mallards Up Tails All BC

A small flock of upside down ducks foraging underwater at Bear Creek’s Center Pond.

Mallards choose partners in the fall and then mate in the spring. So eventually they begin to pair off like these two did as the setting sun gilded the pond.

Mallard Silhouette Sunset BC

A mated pair of Mallards float through the golden light of sunset on the Center Pond

Plants, of course, are dropping seeds and fruits. The white fruits of Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) have either been eaten by birds or dropped to the ground to produce a dense thicket of more dogwood next year. On the right are the bare red pedicels in November. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

At the edge of the wood, I spotted a Gilled Mushroom (order Agaricales) within a dead stump. It will drop its spores from the gills beneath the cap to produce more mushrooms next year.

Mushrooms piled in stump BC

Gilled mushrooms will drop spores from the gills beneath their caps

Lost Lake Nature Park:  Shedding Leaves and Seeds

Forest on LL 1

The forest behind the sledding hill in late autumn

Fall is a time when trees shed their summer leaves. The apparent path of the sun lowers toward the horizon from September to Winter Solstice (December 21). So,  the days grow shorter. Less daylight means that leaves lose the chlorophyll that makes them green and allows them to photosynthesize. This process of photosynthesis stores energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of sugars. Trees use these sugars to grow during spring and summer, and many times sugars are stored for the future as starch. In the fall leaves change color as the chlorophyll recedes, their job completed for the season. Eventually lower light signals the trees to create “abscission cells” which grow between the stem and the branch, separating them.  Down come the leaves. (“Abscission,” by the way, has the same root as the word “scissors!”)

Leaf carpets are useful as well as beautiful.  As they decompose, leaves release nutrients back into the soil and provide the spongy humus that helps the soil hold water. And of course, they can act as protective mulch for the roots of forest plants and trees.   Here’s a colorful carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake.

Bur Oak Leaf collage

A carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake

Out in Lost Lake, the big flat leaves of Fragrant Water Lilies are fading for all the same reasons as other leaves. Their graceful simplicity against the dark water was eye-catching.

In the forest, near the top of the sledding hill, some native plants were still preparing to drop their seeds. Showy Goldenrod’s (Solidago speciosa) seeding plumes still stood tall in the forest light under the trees. And a stem of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) had yet to let go of  its awn-tipped seeds. The grass fruit flies through the air and lands on the ground like tiny arrows, carrying their cargo of next year’s seed.

A flock of restless American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) swooped and dove near the western edge of the lake and foraged over the grassy area near the former stable. Tree Sparrows, summer residents of the Arctic, are experienced foragers. They spend the winter here finding edible seeds, fruits, insect larvae –  whatever they can find in a snowy Michigan winter.

Tree Sparrow LL

A Tree Sparrow makes a good winter meal from the seeds of sedges, grasses, insect larvae and whatever else it can find.

At the end of the walk, human prep for winter becomes apparent. Jeff Johnson, the Parks Commission’s Maintenance Tech, spent about a day and a half preparing the sledding hills for winter use. He marked off the big hill, the kiddie’s hill and the boundaries of the upward trek. Just in time for the big snowfall!

Sledding hill prep LL

The sledding hill was prepared for winter. And the snow arrived a few days later.

Cranberry Lake Park:  Pond Ice and Puffballs

In the center of Cranberry Lake Park is a large pond where I’d seen herons and mallards feeding together one early fall afternoon. When I went back to explore in late fall, the pond was beautifully still and silent.  A light skim of ice had formed on one end.

Pond CL south end w ice skim

A skim of ice formed on the pond at the center of Cranberry Lake Park

Near the pond, a large colony of tiny Puffball Mushrooms (genus Bovista) had finished releasing their spores. These tiny puffballs tend to grow in groups like this.

Puffballs on long b. Bov.ista

Tiny puffball mushrooms cover a log near the pond in the center of Cranberry Lake Park

A few years ago, I saw these little mushrooms covering a stump at Bear Creek.  They were plump in early autumn, filled with spores. When the spores are mature and are tapped by falling raindrops, small creatures or the occasional curious human – poof! – the spores pop out of the open center to be carried on the air so more mushrooms appear the following year.

Puffballs when the spores are developing are plump and sensuous.

Puffballs when the spores are developing are plump and sensuous.

The little mushrooms at Cranberry Lake  were spent; their center holes had opened, releasing the spores.  Quite a come-down in appearance, I’m afraid.

Once the center opens and releases the spores they look quite different!

Once the center opens and releases the spores,  these tiny Puffballs look quite different!

Stewardship: Lending a Helping Hand to Nature’s Winter Prep

The Wet Prarie on the Paint Creek Trail: Birds Gather Seeds and So Do We

The Tree Sparrow at Lost Lake is not the only creature foraging for wild seed this autumn. Ben and a crew of volunteers spent a peaceful morning at the Wet Prairie off the Paint Creek Trail gathering native grass and wildflower seeds for planting in other areas of the township.

Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks: Seeds Sown by Plants and People

While the native plants are dropping seeds to prepare for spring abundance, so our Township Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide is busy sowing native seed around the township. During the first week of December, parts of two parks, Gallagher Creek  and Charles Ilsley Parks,  were planted with native seed that Ben had gotten through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. The land had earlier been prepared in Gallagher Creek’s west section by clearing invasive shrubs and plants through selective treatment, mowing, and prescribed burns. Now a no-till native seed drill, designed to handle the varying sizes of native seeds,  went to work. Discs cut a thin furrow in the ground to a pre-determined depth and simultaneously, seeds were dropped into the thin furrows.

Seeding Gallagher Creek

Planting native seed at Gallagher Creek Park

At Charles Ilsey Park, the machine sowed more native seed after last year’s more extensive prairie planting.  Here’s a YouTube video of the native seed drill at work.

Watershed Ridge Park, the Wet Prairie and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park:  Trees and Humans Prepare for New Growth

Just as trees prepare for spring by discarding their old leaves in the autumn, Ben and his contractors are working on ridding our parks of shrubs and underbrush to encourage new native growth. After cutting invasive woody shrub sprouts on the Wet Prairie, Ben carefully treated stumps to prevent them from re-sprouting next year. Invasives are persistent,  so Ben has to be too!

At Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Ben brought in a contractor with a forestry mower to clear invasive shrubs from  the current entrance. What a difference! Though not taken at exactly the same place, the photo just below will give you an idea of the density of the invasive shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine before removal – and below that is the wonderfully open look it has now.  A lovely view from the beautiful stone bench in the distance.

My husband in the dense invasive shrubbery at Stony Creek Ravine

My husband in the dense invasive shrubbery at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

The park entrance as it look after removing invasive shrubs

The park entrance as it looks after removing invasive shrubs. The Kezlarian stone bench is in the distance.

But the biggest, most impressive “clearing the decks” project this fall was the beginning of habitat restoration process at Watershed Ridge Park. Just a month ago, the rolling slopes of this park were tangled with invasive shrubs that in many places were impenetrable. However, Ben noticed sun-loving native grasses and wildflowers struggling to survive under the heavy cover of overhanging limbs and vines – plants like the delicate orchid Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species), Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and three kinds of native Goldenrod.

So the first week in December, restoration began. A contractor’s forestry mower cleared 10.5 acres of invasive shrubs from among the trees. Now the contours of the land can be seen, dotted with oak, ash, elm and cherry trees.

The land slopes down from east to west to a marsh and a pond, both fed by a stream running from the large marsh that’s to the north of the park.

Stream at Watershed Ben's photo

This un-named stream runs from a larger marsh on the north through the woods to a marsh and pond on park property.

Cleared Hillside Watershed Ridge

Looking south toward Buell Road across a newly cleared hill that slopes down to the pond.

Now the stream, the marsh and the pond, which extends as far as Lake George Road, can be approached easily without fighting through dense, invasive shrubbery and vines. Once trails are created, this will be a lovely spot to watch for water wildlife!

Pond at Watershed Ridge

The west end of the park’s pond that extends off  Lake George Road.

In the forest at the edges of the cleared area are Red, Black and White Oaks. Here’s an old White Oak (Quercus alba) within the cleared area. Probably because of the crowding from shrubs and small trees, it never had the chance to spread its limbs wide in the sunlight, like the White Oak we all enjoy near Bear Creek’s Center Pond.  But it’s still pretty impressive!

White Oak at Watershed Ridge

A large White Oak within the newly cleared area.

I couldn’t  resist taking a photo of the orange Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) Ben spotted sprouting from a fallen long nearby. Turkey-tails come in a wide variety of colors!

turkey-tail-mushrooms-watershed

Turkey-tail mushrooms on a fallen log

In case you’re interested, this is the contractor’s forestry mower that cleared the shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine and also at  Watershed Ridge.

Shrug-chewing machine WR

Forestry mower used at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park and Watershed Ridge Park. Thanks to the Ruffed Grouse Society for your great work!

What an exciting beginning to restoring this piece of land and creating a park that the community can enjoy! It will take time to develop trails and any other amenities that are appropriate to this beautiful land with its woods, slopes and wetlands. We’ll try to keep you posted on developments.

Nature and Parks Stewardship: Partners in Fostering Our Natural Heritage

Stony Creek Ravine late autumn SCR

Stony Creek Ravine Park in late autumn

I’ve come to see that stewardship supports nature by mimicking it in so many ways. Seeds that create new growth each year drop to the ground or sail away on the wind to take root and grow into more life. And we gather native seed and carefully sow it in narrow furrows to do the same. Trees drop their leaves to make way for new ones next spring. We too clear away invasive plants and shrubs to make way for new life. Native seed, lying dormant in the underground seed bank for years, will now sense exposure to sunlight and moisture on the earth above, crack open and begin to sprout. And with those plants, eventually will come butterflies, other insects, and birds that eat or nest in those native plants, restoring the diverse habitat that is part of our area’s natural history.  So much life from simply giving nature a helping hand!

 

Footnote:  My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager 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 insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; 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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Huge Hawk, a Rare Flock, and Birds Color the Changing Landscape

Eastern field and walnut lane late fall

Eastern Old Field looking toward the bare Walnut Lane and a late afternoon November sky

Warm days don’t seem appropriate to November, but we’re happy to have them when the Old Fields darken to russet and the architecture of the trees reappears. The landscape deepens as we can see far into the underbrush to places hidden by summer foliage. The slopes and hollows of the woods are more defined as the understory thins.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

The skies become even more dramatic in the slanting light of late fall when the vivid shades of autumn fade – or maybe we just notice them more. It’s all about noticing, isn’t it?  I wasn’t sure I’d see enough to share this week.  How wrong I was!

Birds Hold Center Stage: A Bold Raptor, Shy Visitors, and Busy Residents

An impressive Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) warmed herself in thin morning sunlight erect in a bare tree near the Center Pond on our Wednesday Bird Walk. (Female Red-tails are larger than males and this was a big hawk!) She may, as Cornell suggests, have been waiting for the air to warm, because soon she was “climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.”   Off she went, probably searching for mice, voles or other small mammals to shore her up against the cold to come.  Red-tails tend to stay with their mates until one of them dies, but they must be loners outside the mating season.  It’s rare in my experience to see more than one at a time. We saw this one from behind at first; look at that red-tail! (Click on photos to enlarge them.)

Red-tailed hawk tail from back

The red tail of the Red-tailed Hawk

And then she turned around to survey her domain!

Red tailed Hawk

A large Red-tailed Hawk, probably a female, surveys her domain.

When I arrived on Wednesday, Ben and the birders were watching five  Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) at the Playground Pond.  I hadn’t seen one in weeks and thought their migration was over.  These secretive, shy birds spend most of their time in the shadows at the edges of wetlands, flipping over leaves to look for tiny invertebrates.  They land in trees only to pause a second before diving down into the underbrush and skulking along among wet, black mud and leaves.  Unable to get a good shot on Wednesday, I lucked out on Friday when I came upon a whole flock (10 or more?) in the wetland below the benches on the southern hill.

rusty blackbird female closeup

A female Rusty Blackbird posed for a few seconds on a branch in the wetland below the southern hill.

Cornell says the population of these  birds has “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years and scientists are completely puzzled as to what is the cause.”  One theory is that they find fewer wetlands so I’m glad we have several in Oakland Township that they can poke about in before heading south.

rusty blackbird2

A male Rusty Blackbird hiding in low bushes in a wetland last Thursday

On the same day (Thursday), a male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) searched for a crack in tree bark in which to store what appeared to be a piece of nut.

red-bellied woodpecker with nut

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looking for a crack in tree bark for storing his piece of (most likely) hickory nut.

Shagbark Hickory nuts

It could well have been a Shagbark hickory nut since there are lots of them still on the trees, which is where Red-bellies prefer to find their nuts, though they’ll take them off the ground if necessary.

Since the nut photo doesn’t show the plumage, here’s a fall picture from a previous year of a male Red-belly.  You can tell males from females by the fact that the red back of the head extends all the way to the bill in males but stops at the top of the head in females.

Red belly male in tree2

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker has red extending from the nape of its neck to its bill, while red on the female goes only from its nape to the top of its head.

Nearby a year ’round resident, the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) repeatedly made its loud, nasal “nyah” call (Cornell calls it a “yank call”)as it probed right-side-up and upside-down around a branch.  A very distinctive call!  Listen to the “Eastern Call” at this Cornell Lab link.  You’ll probably recognize that you’ve heard it before!

White-breasted nuthatch

A White-breasted Nuthatch made its  “nyah” call repeatedly as it probed about on a branch.

Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were in a scrappy mood this week, which isn’t unusual for Blue Jays.  I saw two repeatedly giving each other a hard time on the western slope earlier in the week.

Blue jays playing

Two Blue Jays playing or fighting, not sure which, on the western slope.

A migrating Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), with its large vivid body, smaller round head and long tail, visited the park again this week on its way south. I thought at first it was a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) from its vivid color but Ben had it right.  A handsome sparrow! We did see a Hermit Thrush but I didn’t manage to get a good photo this week.

 

Fox sparrow morning light

The Fox Sparrow’s color clearly gave this migrant its common name.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) seem much more secretive this time of year.  I’ve seen both the male and female slipping silently from limb to limb down under the Button Bush in the wetland north of the playground – a great contrast to their exuberant singing from the tops of trees and bushes during spring and summer months.

Cardinal male in swamp

This male Northern Cardinal might be a bit disturbed by the presence of us birders, since his crest is slightly raised.

More Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) are arriving by the day from their summer homes on the tundra.  I saw only one near the marsh nearest to Snell Road but I heard what sounded like several in the dense underbrush nearby.

Tree sparrow

Tree Sparrows continue arriving from the arctic to spend the winter here.

A Winter Lodge and Abandoned and Fiercely Defended Nests

Two weeks ago I saw a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) diving in the Center Pond and then appearing briefly as it swam quickly into the shadows near the eastern shore.  It looks as though it’s been making modifications to its lodge on the southern shore, as the sturdy heap of pond mud and dead plant material appears to have grown higher and darker recently.  Muskrats don’t hibernate but are trapped under ice for months at a time.  How do they breathe, find food and keep warm for all that time?  We’ll explore those questions later  – during a snowy winter week at Bear Creek.

Muskrat den2

There seem to be recent additions of mud and plant material on the muskrat’s lodge at the Center Pond.

Also at the eastern end of the pond, the beautiful wasp or hornet’s nest swaying at the tip of a slender limb, is fraying at the edges from wind and rain.  The colony’s founding queen, workers, males and unfertilized queens have all died by now and all that’s left of that huge colony are the fertile queens who mated this fall.  Back in August and September, they put on weight, being fed by the workers.  Now they are snugged up for the winter under bark, leaf litter, logs or stumps near the pond where they’ll emerge and start new colonies next spring. And that amazing piece of insect architecture will slowly unravel.

wasp nest in autumn

A hornet or wasp nest frays at the edges while the only survivors, the fertile queens, hide in nearby nooks and crannies ’til spring.

On the eastern path, a tidy little nest, most likely that of the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) , sits securely attached to three branches of a small tree.  It seems destined to survive the winter, though bird nests are rarely re-used.  Goldfinches like to nest in small trees and shrubs in open fields.  According to Cornell Lab, “…the nest is an open cup of rootlets and plant fibers lined with plant down, often woven so tightly that it can hold water. The female lashes the foundation to supporting branches using spider silk, and makes a downy lining often using the fluffy “pappus” material taken from the same types of seedheads that goldfinches so commonly feed on.”  That aptly describes this little nest both inside and out! (Rest your cursor on double photos to see captions.)

I got another ferocious scolding from an aggressive little American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) this week, who was probably defending itself and its stockpile of nuts, seeds and mushrooms cached nearby.  During the winter, they generally live inside logs, stumps or in woodpecker holes, popping out around midday to dig into their food stores cached nearby.  Speedy little rodents, Red Squirrels can reach 14mph over a short distance when excited!  I told Ben and the birders that if this one had been about 10 times bigger, I’d have taken off running.  Look at that fierce little face!

Aggressive red squirrel

An American Red Squirrel fiercely warns me to get away from its winter hole in a nearby tree or log –  or perhaps its winter food cache stored nearby.

Wildflowers: Then and Now

Native wildflowers are almost gone, having produced seed for next year and along the way, fed the honey bees and native bumble bees, caterpillars, birds, even some of the animals in Bear Creek.

Up by the benches on the south hill of the park, the gigantic leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) curl around the bare stalks of these giant wildflowers that grew from 3 to 10 feet high this summer!  Prairie Dock nectar fed native bumblebees and perhaps the occasional hummingbird, while goldfinches snacked on the seeds.  Now their huge brown leaves curl, reminding me of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland.

Across the way, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) that turned their faces to the sun a few months ago show only those rich brown centers now.  Lots of bees and other insects enjoy this native wildflower during the summer.

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) still sports its red stalk, but the white plumes have fruited into brown seeds for next year.  Bees of all kinds fed on the nectar of this lovely plant all summer.  Rabbits probably nibbled on the lower leaves while deer sometimes consume the upper ones.  Meadowsweet also feeds a variety of native moths, some of which, of course, are consumed by birds.

Native plants like these are an important source of nourishment for the birds, bugs and other creatures of Bear Creek.  That’s one reason we try to foster them.

Leaf Patterns

The Pin Oak leaves were bright red and green as they encircled the playground a week or so ago.  Suddenly this week, they turned brown but held on.

Pin Oaks Playground Fall

Pin Oaks that were bright green and red last week have quickly turned brown, but held on.

A week ago, the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) near the shed blazed a brilliant red but it appears from the pattern of its now-fallen leaves,  that a gust of south wind brought most of them down at once .

Bur oak shedding leaves

From the pattern on the ground, the Red Maple appears to have lost most of its leaves to the warm south wind this week.

Down at the center pond, the giant White Oak (Quercus alba) shed its leaves this week, creating a mosaic in the water nearby.

white oak at center pond

One of the biggest White Oaks in the park, the one near the Center Pond, shed its leaves this week.

White oak leaves in the pond

A White Oak leaf pattern in the Center Pond.

So despite the fact that November’s fading light cues birds to move on, flowers to wither and leaves to fall, Bear Creek is still a place of beauty and surprise.  November cues us too – to don heavier jackets, maybe a raincoat, some days a hat and gloves – to come take part in the changing of seasons.

Gray dogwood red against yellow leaves

The red tips (pedicles) of Gray Dogwood that are left now that the white fruit (drupes) have fallen or been eaten by birds.

*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 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 American Online; Audubon.org