Tag Archives: White-Throated Sparrow

Short Walk at Gallagher Creek: Grasshoppers Galore, Winged Wayfarers, and Acres of Seeds

Canada Wild Rye rolling like waves in the fields at Gallagher Creek Park

The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

On the short path that  winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.

Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping  Up Everywhere!

Grasses and sedges thriving in the cool fall air in the native gardens at Gallagher Creek Park

Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know.  After all, they’re  harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.

The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa,  when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!

The Differential Grasshopper can be brown or green, and in the fall, the female can lay up to 200 eggs in the soil where they overwinter.

The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the  lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.

The Two-striped Grasshopper, like the Differential, does not migrate so its one season  life ends after the first hard frost.

I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely”  the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis) This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.

The Narrow-winged Grasshopper moved quickly down into the grass every time it hopped!

Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.

Male grasshoppers, like this Red-legged Grasshopper, are normally smaller than the females.

Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest

Gallagher Creek runs from west to east across the park and eventually ends up in Paint Creek near the Cider Mill, near the intersection of Gallagher and Orion Roads.

Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.

My first thrill was holding my breath while a  chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring  dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet travels to Canada to mate and raise young. Kinglets are now on their way to the southern US, and may go as far as central Florida.

I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!

White-throated Sparrows breed from northern Michigan all the way to Hudson’s Bay, but they winter from here to Florida.

Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.

Sandhill Cranes calling in flight over Gallagher Creek Park. Soon they’ll be on their way to Florida for the winter.

The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.

Starlings became a problematic invasive species once they were brought to the US in the 19th century.

Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring

Black-eyed Susan and Virginia Wildrye seed heads with crimson blackberry leaves in late afternoon sun

All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite  flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.

In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park.  The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub  (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a  shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package  is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.

The slender, rangy Bladdernut shrub isn’t glamorous but produces drooping clusters of green and white blossoms in the spring and very cool seed pods in the summer and fall.

One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that  I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.

The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.

The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of  interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.

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Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking

The Chipmunk, busy storing seeds and nuts in a special chamber below ground, pauses to soak up some sunlight.

Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.

Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.

That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.

And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo  perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.

All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand  and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Autumn “Couples” and A Startling – and Absolutely Beautiful – Restoration Begins

Autumn on the western slope in the southern section of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Bear Creek Nature Park can be surprisingly busy on a late autumn afternoon. Couples sit chatting on a bench, while pairs of other species are gliding together on the Center Pond or cozying up in the hollow of a tree. Birds soar overhead or chatter from distant branches.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

And meanwhile  on the north side of Bear Creek, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, along with hard-working volunteers and a forestry mower, are ridding the park of invasive shrubbery. And what emerges from their efforts is a beautiful, rolling oak savanna landscape!  You may be a bit shocked at first by the change – but trust me, you’re going to love it!

Pairing Up in Autumn

Spring may be for lovers but autumn’s got its own appeal. One late afternoon, a young couple came wandering down a forest path toward me, the girl giving me a shy hello. And shortly thereafter, as I approached the north platform of the marsh, a slightly older pair of friends relaxed on the bench, just enjoying together the golden light of an autumn day.

A couple shares the peace of an autumn afternoon at the marsh.

Nearby at the Center Pond, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were paired up as well. Mallards choose their mates in the autumn once they’ve finished their molt. They won’t mate until the spring, but they spend the winter hanging out together. Kind of nice, really….

Mallards choose a mate in the fall but don’t get serious about reproduction until the spring.

A third couple showed up in the comfortable, big hole in a White Oak (Quercus alba) where I’ve often seen Raccoons (Procyon lotor). They were looking pretty cozy as the sun went down. You may see only one  in the photo below at first, but note that there’s a third ear showing! The second raccoon, sleepier or less curious than its companion, stayed hidden behind the first. Raccoons are generally solitary but they occasionally den up together and sleep through cold snaps, especially in December and January. They don’t actually hibernate, which would involve slowing down their metabolism for a continuous period. This sleepy-eyed raccoon could be a female and its kit; the young generally stay with their parent for close to year. But from their size, I’m guessing it’s two young raccoons of the same sex – they den that way too –  just waking up as the night comes on.

 

More Birds and a “Bear” of Sorts…

As I approached the pond one afternoon, a flash of slate blue and a ratcheting call alerted me to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  Though Cornell tells me I should see them year ’round, I only seem to spot them in the spring and the fall. Again this time it was a noisy, solitary male; kingfisher mating pairs only associate in the breeding season. He stayed off in the distance but I could tell it was a male from the single blue band on his chest. Females have two bands, one blue and one chestnut brown.

One blue belt across the breast means this is a male Belted Kingfisher.

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) circled high above the eastern meadow, scouting for a snack before nightfall.

A Red-tailed Hawk hoping to spot an early evening snack.

On a snag near the marsh, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled for her evening meal. Downys look a lot like Hairy Woodpeckers, but are smaller and have shorter, sharper beaks and dark dots on their outer white tail feathers. Hairy Woodpeckers have a longer, heavier, spike-like beak and clear white feathers on the outside of their tails.

A female Downy Woodpecker drills for her dinner.

During the bird walk at Bear Creek Nature Park two weeks ago, we were treated to the sight of a good-sized flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). At first we saw just one of two.

A lone male Eastern Bluebird on a gray autumn morning at Bear Creek Nature Park.

And then Ben spotted a whole flock on the western slope where they eventually landed in a single tree, as if decorating it for the holiday season!

A tree began to fill with bluebirds. There are six in the photo but eventually there were about 10 of them!

A couple of migrants had arrived as well. The Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) had just arrived from Alaska or Hudson’s Bay where it raised its young this summer. This bird loves cold weather but the far north is too extreme even for Tree Sparrows at this time of year, so it traveled south to relax in a balmly Michigan winter!

American Tree Sparrows think Michigan is a great place to enjoy a mild winter – but then they spend their summers in the far north of Canada and Alaska!

Another migrator was just passing through. I didn’t catch a photo two weeks ago, but here’s a photo of the White-throated Sparrow (Zonothrichia albicollis) from a previous autumn. Notice the yellow lores above its eyes! Handsome bird!

A White-throated Sparrow  stopped at Bear Creek Nature Park on its way south.

And About that Bear…

As you know, there are no actual bears in Bear Creek Nature Park. But there is, of course, the Wooly Bear, the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). I have a particular fondness for these little creatures because they so often introduce children to the pleasures of nature. Wooly Bears, as you may recall, curl into a ball if handled as a defensive move. So placing one in a child’s hand often elicits surprise and laughter as the bristles of its brown and black hair tickles a youngster’s palm. In fact, I recently saw this happen to little children at Gallagher Creek Park. So here’s Bear Creek’s only bear, at last.

Wooly Bear Caterpillars can’t actually predict the extent of the winter but they’re fun for children and essentially harmless.

Volunteers Open New Vistas at the Marsh

When farm fields were abandoned in the township decades ago, aggressive non-native shrubs quickly took over the fields and surrounded wet areas. Bear Creek Marsh has been surrounded by these non-native shrubs for many years. But in late October, Six Rivers Land Conservancy and a group of industrious volunteers from Fiat-Chrysler helped Ben VanderWeide and stewardship specialist Alyssa clear huge thickets of glossy buckthorn from the edges of the marsh at the eastern edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The crew created huge piles of the invasive shrubs which Ben plans to burn during the winter months. The stumps of the buckthorn shrubs were carefully treated. As you can see above he uses a blue dye with the treatment to be sure he’s covered the stumps completely in order to prevent re-sprouting.

The end result of their remarkable effort is that we have wonderful new views of the marsh which we could never enjoy before! And, of course, other native plants can thrive at the edge of the marsh!

A fresh view into the marsh created by removal of huge dense stands of invasive shrubs.

An Oak Savanna Emerges from a Tangle of Invasive Shrubs

Before farming came to Oakland Township, the landscape was defined by tall native grasses, native wildflowers and widely spaced oak trees – what is called an “oak savanna.” That grassy, open landscape is just beginning to be restored at the north end of Bear Creek Nature Park – and it is just spectacularly beautiful!

Until last week, invasive Glossy Buckthorn shrubs filled the entire area surrounding the Center Pond,  just as it had surrounded the marsh. Starting at the edge of the forest, the Buckthorn and a few other invasive shrubs formed super dense thickets filling the entire loop trail and the trail edges up to the forest. The photo below, taken the first day that the major restoration began, shows just how densely the Buckthorn had grown!

As the forestry mower began, it became apparent just how dense the thickets of invasives were!

Because of those shrubs, the trails had become tunnels between non-native vegetation. Here are the two arms of the Big Northern Loop and the trail behind the pond as they looked before restoration began and how they look now after we started the restoration process.

Eastern Trail on the Big Loop

Western Trail on the Big Loop

Trail Behind the Center Pond

Before the forestry mower arrived, Ben carefully marked the trees to be saved and the areas filled with invasive shrubs that required removal.  The operator of the mower, an employee of the Ruffed Grouse Society that owns the machine, carefully avoided the trees Ben had marked and even preserved other young oaks that he found buried in the thickets.  As the mowing proceeded, what gradually appeared behind it was an oak savanna – oaks and a few other trees sprinkled across a plain – the very type of  landscape that thrived here hundreds of years ago!  All that’s needed are tall native grasses and wildflowers.

A lovely grove of oaks found among the invasive shrubs – a future oak savanna!

When Ben took me last week to see what had begun, I was astonished and delighted to discover vistas that I’d never known were hidden beneath all those shrubs! Here’s the western loop trail stretching south toward the pond. Now I could see a cleared meadow dotted with young oaks and other trees with the edge of the forest on the perimeter. What a difference from walking through a tunnel of buckthorn!

I could stand in the center of the loop which had been an impassible tangle of shrubs and look south down an undulating slope to the whole expanse of the Center Pond, a viewpoint I’d never had before!

Looking south to the Center Pond spread out below a slope that was made visible once the invasive shrubs were gone.

When Ben and I left the western loop heading back up the trail toward the south, the forest stood tall beyond the newly cleared field.  We could now see the forest, a dark wall of  hickories and oaks, that embraced the new landscape. We were no longer inside a  tunnel of shrubs that blocked  everything but the treetops beyond. Ben looks pretty pleased with the work after the first day of restoration, doesn’t he?  He should be!

A Landscape Resurrecting

When I followed that path around to stand again on the observation deck at the Center Pond, I realized the scope of the  transformation emerging at Bear Creek. Now the graceful, flowing curves of the landscape began to dip and rise in graceful curves beyond the pond. These three photos together can give you some idea of what I saw standing there, looking north from west to east across the pond.

I’m guessing that you can tell I was thrilled at the transformation taking place at Bear Creek. I  have walked this park for over 25 years and at one point, I walked it every day for 3 years. It’s essentially my “home park,” and I know it intimately. So when Ben first talked of changing it, I was skeptical. When I came to see the first day’s restoration work last week, I actually stopped in my tracks as I came to the pond and gasped – and then I began to smile. That smile never left my face as I wandered through a vastly changed Bear Creek that for me had suddenly become even more beautiful. The feeling of “rightness” was so powerful. This, I felt, was the way this land was meant to be. It seemed as if the earth could take a deep breath, that the oaks that had been hidden among the tangle of shrubs were now stretching to the sky, ready to grow taller and stronger in the sun and the wind.

A grove of oaks appeared among the shrubs. Notice their dry leaves on a number of trees!

It will take years of hard work to complete this transformation. Buckthorns don’t give up easily. This winter Ben will plant native grass seed among the shards left from the shrubs, the broken wood eventually returning its nutrients to the earth. In the spring, the buckthorn will vigorously produce sprouts again and Ben and his crew will have to persist in keeping the ground that they gained for the oaks, the native plants and the wildlife.

Eventually, when the shrubs have subsided, Ben can plant the area with native wildflowers. Turtles will emerge from the wetlands to find soft soil in which to dig their nests and lay their eggs.  The native plants will slowly sink their roots deep enough to survive fire and drought. And if we’re patient and lucky, they will finally come to full bloom. And that’s when we’ll be able to see birds and butterflies fluttering and floating between and above the oak trees, over the rolling grassland – some perhaps that we haven’t seen in a long time.   And won’t that be a sight to see?

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: Amazing Migrators on the Move!

Monarch butterflies at Tawas Point State Park last weekend. Photo by Nancy Isken

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.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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!

A female Green Darner on the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

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.

A Painted Lady sipping nectar during migration

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:

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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  Cranefest at Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.

A large flock of migrating Tundra Swans called over Cranberry Lake Park. (Photo by Bon Bonin)

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.

Cranberry Lake Park: Prepping for Winter, Sowing for Spring

One of the many spots where meadow meets woods at Cranberry Lake Park

Cranberry Lake Park, with its varied habitats, gives an autumn visitor lots of possibilities. In October, the lake hosts huge bobbing rafts of water birds, feeding and resting on their way south. The grassy trails lead you to expansive meadows covered now by the soft gray of seeding goldenrod, where migratory birds converse in the bushes while harvesting seed. Or you can choose the shady Hickory Lane to the west or the dappled light of the maple forest to the north if you’re in the mood for a woodland walk.   

Text & photos by Cam Mannino

My visits were scattered throughout the month –  unusually warm days early on, a sunset hike one breezy evening, and finally a cold, rainy morning right before first frost. Each time I rediscovered how sensibly nature prepares for a winter rest and a bountiful spring. 

 

 

Cranberry Lake Itself  – A Thwarted Kingfisher, a Remarkable Grebe, and Diving Ducks of All Kinds

The edge of Cranberry lake at the end of an eastern trail.

Cranberry Lake welcomes all kinds of water birds as they begin their long journeys to southern climes. One cold, wet morning, I watched a bird hovering vertically high above the water, head down, scanning the surface below. Suddenly, it gave a loud rattling cry and headed for a leafless tree near the shore. An agitated male Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) shouted its noisy call from a bare limb. Perhaps he was put out by not spotting prey from that perch either!

This male Belted Kingfisher had one slate blue belt on his chest. The female has a chestnut brown belt and a blue one.

A small Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) flew in to probe the edge of a mud flat, landing near a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis). Quite an odd couple!

A Killdeer shares a mud flat in the lake with a Canada Goose.

Killdeer are wading birds, being Plovers, but I’ve most often seen them in barren fields, either scurrying along scaring up insects or keening in flight to distract predators.  This one, though, looked right at home as it probed the mud for insect larvae or other aquatic prey before beginning migration.

Far out on the lake, a huge mixed flock of migrating ducks and other water birds, well over 200 of them, floated on the surface, foraged for food, or slept and preened on the mud flats in the shallower parts of the lake.

Part of a huge flock of diving ducks on Cranberry Lake

After studying the photo magnified, Ben guessed that most of the birds were Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) which are diving ducks. Unlike mallards and other dabbling ducks who simply tip upside down to feed, diving ducks have legs set far back on their bodies.  As a result, they need to run across water, wings flapping,  to get into the air and are awkward on land – but they dive, feed and swim underwater with ease!

(Since most of the Cranberry Lake flock was far from shore, the closeup photos of diving ducks below are all from inaturalist.org photographers. My thanks to all of them and to Creative Commons where they license their work.)

Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes CC BY NC
Ring-necked Duck by lonnyholmes (CC-BY-NC)

Two other diving ducks that Ben thinks may have been in this flock include Redhead (Aythya americana) which are so social that they’re also referred to as “rafting ducks” and  Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis). According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, Lesser Scaup chicks “are capable of diving under water on their hatching day, but they are too buoyant to stay under for more than just a moment. By the time they are 5 to 7 weeks old they are able to…swim underwater for 15-18 meters (50-60 ft).” Here’s a wonderful closeup of a Redhead by photographer lonnyholmes and a Lesser Scaup photo by photographer Paul Sullivan. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

Far out in the lake, through my binoculars, I also spotted Bufflehead, another diving duck,  on their way from the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, where according to Cornell, they “nest almost exclusively in holes excavated by Northern Flickers and, on occasion, by Pileated Woodpeckers.” Unfortunately the male and three female/juvenile Bufflehead that I saw at were too far for my longest lens to reach clearly. So on the left is my distance photo from Cranberry Lake (click to enlarge) and  on the right is a closeup from a  photographer at inaturalist.org who uses the name dlbowls showing the male’s dark head iridescent in the sunlight.

Feeding alone on a rainy morning, the solitary  Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) dove repeatedly into the gray surface of the lake. Modest brown this time of year,  these grebes bills turn white with a neat black band in breeding season. Pied-billed Grebes control their buoyancy by trapping water in their feathers. According to Cornell Lab, this allows them to escape danger by doing what children might call “belly smackers” – “plunging with head and tail raised above the belly, making a splash. They can also dive head first, or simply sink quietly out of view, leaving no trace. Parents dive with young clamped under their wings … These grebes often avoid danger by submerging, crocodile-style, with just the eyes and nostrils above the surface.”

The little grebe at Cranberry Lake gave me a brief demonstration of the submerging tactic –  first trapping water in its feathers , then settling back down on the water, and finally beginning to submerge like a little submarine.  What a trick!  I’m very taken with this little bird. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color

A meadow on the north end of the park

On the trails that lead toward the meadows, small brown birds dash from bush to bush or dart down into the grass.  Some are tiny migrators who might appear modest and plain until you see them through binoculars or a camera lens. Chubby White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), with their yellow “lores” and striped heads, hung out in small flocks, keeping in contact with soft seep calls.

The White-Crowned Sparrow has yellow “lores” – spots in the corners of its eyes.

Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus). These normally solitary birds are often quite secretive – hence the name, perhaps? They’re well-dressed hermits, though, with their chocolate back, spotted breast and white eye ring. And during migration, they do sometimes forage with or near other small birds.

The chocolate back of the shy little Hermit Thrush
The Hermit Thrush poses so we can see its spotted breast

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is silent now, no longer burbling its song from high in a bush as it did this spring and summer. In fact, this one glowered from the bare branches, seeming a bit put-out by my presence. Or maybe it’s just irritable about having to migrate, though  it will only travel a short distance to the south.

A Song Sparrow seems to be glowering at my presence from the branches of a vine-enshrouded bush

At the edge of a small meadow, a year-round resident, the American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) pecked delicately at the seeds of Common Evening-Primrose (Oenothera biennis) that nicely complemented its muted gold.

An American Goldfinch fed in its modest winter feathers.

And another year ’rounder, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) stared from the drooping vines of Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), an aggressive, invasive plant that strangles, shades out and topples trees. Two trees along the trail had fallen recently due to masses of this vine in their canopies. Those orange and red fall fruits are disastrously appealing to birds, who spread their seeds far and wide.

A Northern Cardinal in a tangle of invasive, tree-killing Oriental Bittersweet.

On my early October visits, insects were still very much in evidence. One warm October afternoon, a busy group of adult and juvenile Large Milkweed Bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) fed eagerly on the seeds of Common Milkweed (Ascelpias syriaca) in a southern meadow. The large beetles below are adults accompanied by the mostly red juveniles. They eat milkweed seeds by injecting saliva through the seed’s surface which liquifies it so it can be sucked through their straw-like rostrums. Milkweeds produce lots of seeds, so luckily these beetles, though destructive to individual pods, don’t really do a lot of damage in a season. And they are kind of jazzy looking, don’t you think?

Juvenile and adult Milkweed Bugs on a Common Milkweed.

Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) mate in the autumn and lay their eggs in the earth. The eggs won’t finish developing until spring, when the first nymphs emerge. They’ll molt 5-7 times during the summer before they are fully adult, like this pair on a grassy trail.

A female (left and larger) and male Red-legged Grasshopper will lay eggs that will hatch next spring.

As October moved on, the goldenrods – Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and late blooming Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) – began to seed, casting a silver-brown patina over the meadows.

Despite the cooler days, the small Autumn Meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) still glided along the meadow paths, stopping on a fallen Canada Goldenrod stem to warm its wings in the autumn sunlight. The yellow-orange blush on the wings near the thorax is a distinguishing field mark. Autumn Meadowhawks fly later than most other species in our area, but are usually gone by early November, having laid their eggs along the lake’s shoreline.

A small male Autumn Meadowhawk warms its wings on a cool fall morning

The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs

The Hickory Lane at sunset

Woodland walks are magical in the early morning or just before sunset. The light filters down through a golden shimmer of falling leaves and sometimes sets a crimson leaf aglow.

A Silver Maple leaf (Acer saccharinum) in the northern forest  set aglow in morning light.

On a warm walk in early October, the bright yellow caterpillar of a Spotted Tussock Moth (Lophocampa maculata) caught my eye within the dry leaves on the Hickory Lane. Such a fancy caterpillar! Research in Caterpillars of Eastern North America seems to indicate that  it’s the middle instar of the Spotted Tussock moth because in earlier stages, the end sections of this yellow caterpillar are completely black – but I’m open to correction by more knowledgeable readers!

The caterpillar of what I think is a Spotted Tussock Moth

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) on the Hickory Lane basked in the sunset, perhaps resting from a long day of ferrying nuts in its cheeks to stock its underground burrow. It won’t hibernate, but when it wakes periodically from its winter torpor, it will need a little sustenance before snoozing again.

An Eastern Chipmunk rests from its seed and nut-gathering labors before winter.

A Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) dashed quickly up a tree on the Hickory Lane (in this case, it’s the black morph). And nearby, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) did the same. I wondered if they had enjoyed some of the hickory nuts that were neatly opened on a fallen log not too far away.

Almost invariably, curious deer emerge at the edge of the woods, and they too are putting on weight for winter. They eat lots of nuts, including plenty of acorns, this time of year. Their love of acorns in the fall and saplings during the winter can make it harder for our oak forests to regenerate. This doe looks like she’s definitely eaten her share and is ready for cold days ahead!

A well-fed doe foraging for nuts before winter arrives.

In a pond hidden in the trees, a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) had built a roomy “push-up” den in which it can eat above the water line. Muskrats don’t hibernate, but spend the winter cruising very slowly beneath the ice. What appears to be a hole is probably just plant matter or mud, since muskrats generally enter their push-up dens from under the water through a tunnel that leads up to a cavity at the center.  According to Wikipedia, “In snowy areas, they keep the openings to their push-ups closed by plugging them with vegetation, which they replace every day.”

Near that woodland pond in late October, a tiny masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) literally sat “like a bump on a log,” staring off into the distance, partially lit by the green light of a leaf. Wood Frogs love forested wetlands like this during the summer. But this little frog may be preparing for winter. It will move upland, away from the water, burrow under leaves or a log. Then most of the water in its body will freeze solid, and its breathing and heartbeats will stop! But it will thaw in the spring and go right back to the pond to mate. Hope this little one finds a cozy spot before long.

The astonishing Wood Frog freezes solid in the winter and thaws out in the spring.

On a fallen long nearby, my husband and I came across  a colony of Puffball Mushrooms (division Basidiomycota) just as we did last year. These stalkless mushrooms would disperse spores on their own, of course, but I asked my husband to poke a couple in order to catch the brownish cloud of spores escaping through their tiny apertures. Wikipedia says falling raindrops disperse puffball spores in a similar way.

On my last visit just before first frost, under moist trees in these wooded wetlands, the Sensitive Ferns’ green, leafy, sterile fronds (Onoclea sensibilis) were already withering in the dropping temperatures. But the separate fertile fronds, covered in brown beads called “sori” that contain next year’s spores, stood erect in the grass beneath the trees.

Quietly Prepping for Winter and Another Spring

Cranberry Lake Park, like all of nature, provides testimony every autumn that the year is not “dying” as is so often said of this season. On the contrary. At every turn in the trails, nature is sensibly preparing for winter and sowing for spring. Yes, plants wither – but their seeds, stems, and roots wait within the soil for warm spring light. Gray-brown bracken will eventually fall, nourishing the soil in which those seeds can grow. Bright leaves fade and fall, of course, but only because trees are in “dormancy,” resting, slowing their metabolism, preserving themselves for next spring’s surge of growth. Some insects migrate, others winter-over under bark or within plants, while still others perish, leaving behind eggs which bide their time beneath the earth. Birds fly south, frogs burrow under logs, and animals of all sorts settle into winter quarters. Nature doesn’t resist change. It simply adapts to it, with every intention of burgeoning forth with gusto in the spring. We humans probably do best when we follow nature’s lead by just letting nature take its course –  preparing for longer nights and colder days, while confidently sowing seeds – both literally and metaphorically – for a future spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels,  and others as cited in the text.

Photos of the Week: Migrating Fall Birds

Every Wednesday morning the Oakland Township Birders gather at a township park for our weekly bird walk. Chickadees, Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, and Song Sparrows regularly greet us with their songs and antics, while Black-billed Cuckoos, Green Herons, and warblers are a special treat.

During the spring and fall we pay special attention to the birds using our parks as they move between their seasonal homes further north and south. On our walk at Draper Twin Lake Park this week we got great looks at a Hermit Thrush foraging quietly on juniper berries. Check out these great pictures that Bob Bonin captured on Wednesday.

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A hermit thrush peers from behind a branch. Draper Twin Lake Park, October 25, 2017.
Hermit-Thrush2
The hermit thrush shows off its throat and breast, highlighting the crisp dark-brown chocolate drops on a clean, white background that fade toward the belly. The warm reddish-brown tail also helps us identify this bird.

 

Nearby, White-Throated Sparrows bounced around in the thick brush, occasionally popping up to show off their clean white bibs and the splashes of yellow in front of their eyes.

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This White-throated Sparrow shows off the beautiful colors and patterns on its head.

Before I started learning about birds a few years ago, I didn’t even know these species existed. But now I look forward to seeing these old friends each spring and fall, messengers of the changing season.