Well, they’re off! When the wind sails in from the north, it’s a signal to all kinds of creatures: “Time to go!” So they take wing singly and in large flocks, letting the flow of cool air support them, carrying them quickly onward as they beat wings of all sizes to make their way to warmer climes.
And of course, it’s not just birds. Above you can see our friend Nancy Isken’s photo of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) last week resting at Tawas Point State Park before crossing Saginaw Bay. They were beginning their long journey to Mexico where they will spend the winter. In the spring, these Monarchs will make the first leg of the journey back north, stopping in warm areas like Texas to produce a new crop of butterflies who continue heading north. These new generations will fly only a few hundred miles, stop and reproduce, completing their whole life cycle in only 5-7 weeks. So it takes several generations to complete the trip back to Michigan each summer. Sarina Jepson of the Xerces Society, which is focused on invertebrate conservation, says in a fine National Geographic article, “…when fall rolls around again, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.” Imagine that! So the Monarch butterflies born here In Oakland Township each summer can potentially live for 8 months instead of 5-7 weeks and fly 3,000 miles instead of a few hundred. We are living among real, live superheroes!
And Monarchs aren’t the only insects that migrate. Green Darner Dragonflies (Anax junius) (also tracked by the Xerces Society) travel down to Texas and Mexico as well. For dragonflies, it also takes many generations of reproduction before their trip is completed, though their migration is less well understood. But again, like the Monarch generations that arrive here each summer, the dragonfly offspring seem to know how to find their way in the right direction. Citizen science and research is helping explore dragonfly migration. But for now, I love a good nature mystery, don’t you?
Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) make multiple generation migrations all over the world. But they migrate erratically. Some years they migrate and some years they don’t. And the direction and route can vary widely. Some experts speculate that their migration routes may be affected by dramatic changes in weather and climate – another nature mystery yet to be solved.
At this time of year, the night sky begins to fill with thousands, even millions, of birds riding the wind south in the darkness, navigating by the stars or the setting sun, or by sensing the earth’s magnetic field. Some may navigate by landmarks or simply remembering good feeding grounds. And amazingly, most juvenile migrating birds, like those insects hatching during migration, somehow know how to find their way without any help from adults! Cornell’s BirdCast website is a great way to watch the flow of birds across the United States day by day throughout the fall.
Remember all those bright little warblers, unusual sparrows and other small birds that sailed up here on a south wind in May? Well, most of them have now finished breeding farther north and are beginning to make their way back to more warmth and sunshine. They’ve molted out of their bright breeding feathers so they’re a little less colorful now and their routes vary a bit depending on available food and weather. But keep a look out for these little travelers starting now. Here are a few from the autumn of previous years:
If you’re thinking you’d like to see some bird migrations in BIG numbers, you might check out the Hawk Fest featuring hawks, eagles, falcons and owls at Lake Erie Metropark on September 15 and 16. Or if you love our Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis), consider a trip to the Audubon Society’s Cranefestat Big Marsh Lake in Bellevue, Michigan (near Battle Creek) on October 13 and 14.
Of course, if you want to stay close to home, you’ll be warmly welcomed at our Oakland Township Wednesday morning bird walks. The walks rotate through our township parks each month and in September and October, they start at 8 a.m. The schedule is available year ’round if you click on the drop-down menu above for “Stewardship Events.” We’re a friendly group with some experienced birders who are glad to help beginners see their first migrators. Bring your binoculars or borrow a set from Ben, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, who leads the walks.
So yes, summer is waning. But I can’t help feeling celebratory as autumn air turns crisp and the skies fill with winged creatures. I recommend looking upward this fall and perhaps wishing “Bon Voyage!”, to our migrators who provide such beauty and mystery as they find their paths through the air.
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.
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
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!
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!
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.
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.)
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.)
Wide, Sunny Meadows Surrounded by Autumn Color
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.
Another brown migrant paused in the bushes along the trail from the lake – the Hermit Thrush (Catharusguttatus). 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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
The Hickory Lane and Wooded Wetlands – Filtered Light, Foraging Nut Eaters, a Frog and Puffballs
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My last blog on Draper Twin Lake Park was in April. So I thought it was high time to return there to share how its lake, wetlands and prairie transform in autumn. I began the first week in November, just before the first hard frost, and ended in the cold, gray days before Thanksgiving. Autumn brings such dramatic changes. Brilliant leaves, hardy fall flowers, migrating birds and insects give way to winter birds and the quiet, brown-and-gray austerity of November.
In the April blog, I explained, with a map, the three sections of Draper – the western lake section, the central large marsh that separates the two hiking areas, and the eastern marsh/prairie section. You can refresh you memory at this link, if you like. So join me for a series of virtual hikes in this unusual tripartite park to watch nature hunkering down for winter.
The Western Trail to Draper Twin Lake: Early November
As you can see above, the lake was beautifully calm one early November afternoon. An angler at the fishing dock that day shared his excitement from the previous day when he’d caught a 25 inch Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)there. In the photo above, you can see the water circles made by something surfacing and by the angler’s line in the water, but luck wasn’t with him that afternoon.
In the distance, a pair of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) floated peacefully along the far shore, apparently unconcerned about the angler and his line.
The grace of these non-native birds is irresistible, but how I wish I could see native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) in our township parks. In childhood, I saw one on a pond near Orion Road, but they aren’t common. The more aggressive Mute Swans have affected their numbers by commanding the prime nesting sites. And native trumpeter swans were almost wiped out in the 19th century by two forces – the fashion industry that coveted their feathers and the hunting of muskrats and beavers whose lodges made dry nesting places for native swans then as they do for Canada Geese today.
In the water alongside the dock, a few fruits of the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) remained on their dark stalks. I wish I’d experienced this native plant’s pink blossoms and sweet fragrance when it was in bloom. (Here’s an Illinois Wildflowers link to a photo.) Aren’t the bright crimson spots of the rose hips pretty against the silvery dried grasses in the marsh?
Some yellow and lavender leaves crowded the railing at the end of the dock near the shore. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, identified them as possibly the stems of a small Basswood tree. I wonder if the deer and rabbits that like to eat Basswood saplings during the winter will let this one grow. Basswood is fine-grained and soft so it’s often been used by whittlers to carve small objects like children’s toys.
When I headed back to the western parking lot in early November, many of the autumn leaves along the trail were still russet and golden.
One of the last insects of autumn, a Yellow-legged Meadowhawk/Autumn dragonfly, flitted down the trail, keeping me company as I headed back from the lake. Its clear wings with their brush of orange at the base, as well as its orange-red body provide good camouflage once it lands on a fallen leaf.
After an afternoon shower, I saw a Bur Oak leaf (Quercus macrocarpa) along the trail beaded in silver raindrops.
On the way out of the parking lot, a cheerful “family” of Shaggy Mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) stood at attention at the edge of the parking lot. The overnight appearance of mushrooms on autumn days almost makes up for the thinning out of wildflowers.
The Western Trail to the Lake: Late November
A week or so later, I returned to the lake near sunset and the view had changed quite dramatically but was still very lovely.
The Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife that surrounds the fishing dock had gone to seed. Ben identified this native wildflower for me and called it “a very nice plant to see in wetlands and around the margins of lakes.” It had purple blossoms in the summer and now made a graceful silhouettes against the autumn reflections in the lake.
The pointed male section at the top of Cat-tails (genus Typha) had fertilized the female “brown-suede” section below earlier in the summer. Now huge plumes shed their seeds at the edge of the dock in the rosy light of an autumn sunset.
By late November, the pair of swans had probably departed for points south and one breezy afternoon, a trio of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis)took their place on Draper Lake. They drifted with the wind, dipping their long necks below the surface periodically to feed on submerged vegetation.
The Shaggy Mane mushroom family had disappeared, as mushrooms can do so suddenly and completely. But as I got back to the parking lot on my later visit, some orange mushrooms glowed in the distance on a dead branch. My best guess is that they are toxic Jack O’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) which cluster on dead wood in the fall. But I’m no mushroom expert so feel free to correct me!
The Eastern Trail to the Marsh and Prairie: Early November
Heading east from the lake section of the park, past the big marsh on the left, you reach a driveway near the crest of hill where a gray building and a small parking lot indicate you’ve reached the the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park. As you head off down the trail on the left, in the distance you can see the big central marsh through the trees.
In early November, a few fall wildflowers were still in bloom along this part of the trail. As I set off, I thought I saw a bee probing a blossom of a fall aster (genus Symphotrichum) but on closer inspection, it was one of many Hoverflies (family Syrphidae) that mimic the bee’s appearance, perhaps to ward off predators. Bees were noticeably absent. Presumably non-native European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) had already retreated to their hives inside nearby trees and native Bumblebee queens (genus Bombus) were settling into their individual underground burrows.
Crawling into that blossom above is another insect that was new to me. I got a clearer shot of the Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) as I watched the EasternYellow Jacket (Vespula maculifrons)below foraging for nectar on a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). The beetle’s lime green thorax, spotted abdomen and striped antennae make it look like a cartoon insect, but it’s a major pest for farmers. These bright green beetles attack a variety of crops, including cucumbers and soybeans, and their caterpillars (or larvae) drill down to eat the roots of young plants. Here at Draper, though, this one seemed to just be searching for food quite peaceably with its neighbors, the wasp and hoverfly.
As you round that first curve in the trail, there’s a “floating mat” marsh to your right. In the center of this marsh is a tightly woven tangle of plants and roots with water running beneath it – and shrubs as well as individual plants thrive on this mat.
Before the first frost, Ben’s birding group was still seeing a few migrating sparrows on this path. The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis),which probably raised its young in Canada, was traveling to southern Ohio and beyond for the winter. (Note the yellow “lores” at the corner of the eyes.)
Ben’s group spotted a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) as well. It has longer legs than other sparrows so it can wade into water. It will actually put its whole head under the surface to fish out small invertebrates. It was on its way south, too.
After turning the corner at the north end of this path, you’ll see the prairie that’s being restored from an old farm field. When I went in early November, the trees along the edge were in full color. (See the photo at the top of the blog.) In the prairie itself, some native plants were still blooming this fall. I was surprised to see Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) still turning their bright faces to the autumn sun. Ben identified for me another native plant as White Vervain (Verbena articifolia) which produces tightly packed tiny white flowers in the summer. The Blue Vervain(Verbena hastata) that Ben planted on the prairie last fall will hopefully make an appearance next year.
A female Clouded Sulphur butterfly (Colias philodice)danced among the dry stems on the field, finally landing on a seeding Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), trying to find a last sip of nectar before the first frost.
Nearby, a drab little Skipper (family Hesperiidae)that I was unable to identify had found the same plant for a last minute snack.
As I rounded the curve and headed back to the parking area, I heard a commotion in an adjoining field. And suddenly a small tree was filled with dozens of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) gathering for their migration. Such a gabble of sound and a fluttering of restless wings!
Eastern Trail: Late November
By late November, most of the color had drained from the trees. Around the marsh edges, the Poplars (genus Populus) created a crisp contrast to the russet leaves nearby.
Poplars are plentiful in many of our township parks, while White Pines (Pinus strobus) are less frequent. These soft-needle, native pines were lumbered off from the late 18th through the early 20th century. The few very large white pines that remain in our township probably reflect where they were found historically, while the smaller white pines most likely spread from planted trees often used in landscaping. According to Wikipedia, White Pines produce new needles each spring which they shed about 18 months later in the fall, creating thick carpets on the ground beneath.
Just off the curve in the trail near the prairie, there’s a remarkable White Pine with seven trunks, five of which are full size! I’ve never seen such a tall pine with multiple trunks. On the left is the base of the tree and on the right is my 5′ 11″ husband looking very small next to the height of this impressive tree – or should I say “trees?”
Birds migrating farther south no longer skittered from limb to limb. Instead, our tried-and-true, hardy, year ’round birds – Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) – huddled in shrubs to avoid cold winds or basked on bare branches on sunnier days.
And there were the familiar migratory birds of the far north – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) and the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – who think Michigan is great place to spend the winter.
Bare Trees, Early Sunsets, and Acres of Quiet
Autumn turns us inward, I think. The bustle and color of summer has quieted to more somber grays and browns. Windsong is changed by flowing through dry leaves and bare limbs. A woodpecker drills in the distance; a crow or a jay stridently announces your presence. Now that leaves are underfoot, the trees sleep down in their roots. Turtles and frogs drowse in torpor beneath the water surface. In autumn’s quiet depths, the natural world offers us a place to listen, watch, and maybe just…be. A welcome respite from the hurly-burly of our lives.
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.
What a difference a month makes! I began a series of visits to Cranberry Lake Park on September 24 and ended on October 25. I wanted to watch the park change as fall moved toward winter. It’s as if the color slowly leaves the flowers and grasses in the earth, flows up into the trees and then disappears into the black and white of winter. So this time I’m sharing a transition – who and what is coming and going at this changeable time of year.
Late September: Flowers Change to Fruit and Seeds
In late September, the meadow was still green, but splashed with the gold of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). A sweeping curve of this beautiful native plant swept around the large thicket of shrubs in the center of the meadow. It was easy to imagine the path of last summer’s winds as it carried the seeds that created this graceful shape.
And a few other flowers hung on in September. Individual stems of Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)glowed gold among the greenery and a few hardy, flat-topped Yarrow stalks(Achillea millefolium) thrust their way above the browning Canada Goldenrod. Late-blooming Sweet Everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium) – which some call Cudweed! – appeared as well, its tightly furled white buds just beginning to open in the cool autumn air. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Wild Grapes, also known as River Bank Grapes (Vitis riparia), hung in clusters on almost bare branches offering a treat for migrating and resident birds – and a few of us humans as well! A few weeks later they had either fallen to the ground or been eaten right off the vine.
Abundant clusters of wild Riverbank Grapes adorn the branches of this shrub.
A few weeks later the wild grapes had disappeared, probably nourishing animals as they stock up for winter.
In September, the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) leaves changed from green to scarlet and the upright plumes of deep red fruits began to form. One morning, a flock of Black-Capped Chickadees bounced among the branches, foraging either for fruits or the occasional bug. Perhaps they were the ones who stripped the fruit from some of the plumes. Sumac fruits are eaten by many game and songbirds, though normally they’re not a first choice this time of year.
Over the next few weeks, the Goldenrods began to brown and go to seed. Showy Goldenrod seems to start seeding from the top down, week by week. And eventually that golden curve of Showy Goldenrod had turned a seed-rich, but not very attractive, brown.
And despite not being a first choice fruit, the Staghorn Sumac’s seeds had either been eaten on the plant or fallen on the ground to be found by ground feeders.
Talk about cool seeds! Looks at these elaborate seed pods of Dogbane/Indian Hemp (Apocynum cannabinum)! Dogbane is related to milkweeds, and like milkweeds the seeds with tufts of hair help the plant float on the breeze to new places. On the left is this red-stemmed, white-blossomed plant in June and on the center and right, the unbelievably long, angular seed pods this week.
Of course, some seeds are actually a HUGE problem. In autumn, the invasive, tree-killing vine, Oriental/Asian Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), produces its seductively beautiful yellow and red fruits. This vine encircles the trunks of trees while climbing for the sun. In doing so, it can choke the life out of a tree. If it gets to the top, it can kill the tree by shading it out and/or by making it top heavy and more likely to fall in storms. Unfortunately, hungry birds eat the berries and spread Bittersweet readily through their droppings. PLEASE DON’T PICK THIS VINE OR MAKE WREATHS FROM IT , ETC. Contact the Parks Department if you want some strategies for getting rid of this beautiful “bad guy”!
By late October, the meadow at Cranberry Creek had turned November brown as plants continued to produce seeds.
I did, though, find a few shy Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) tucked beneath overhanging foliage, braving the cold with the last of its lavender blossoms.
During October: A Feast for Migrating Birds!
It’s hard for us to watch the palette of spring and summer fade – but birds? They love it! Warblers and other small visitors who spent their summer raising young in the cool northern reaches of Canada sailed into the park and found a feast! As did our year ’round resident birds.
One of my favorite partakers of fruits and seeds is the tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) who’s found its way here from around Hudson Bay in Canada – or even farther north. I seem to always miss seeing the ruby crown which the male shows when he’s excited. I guess the birds I’m seeing are either females or males that are just too calm!
One afternoon at Cranberry Lake, the park was filled with White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis). They whisked in and out of shrubs while dashing down into the grass in search of seeds. This one paused just long enough for me to see its yellow lores, the spots at the corner of its eyes. It may have arrived from the UP or the tip of the mitten on its way to points south – not quite as arduous a trip as some migrators have.
This “first winter” White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) was probably born this summer. It will take on adult coloring when it molts next spring into its bright black and white crown that now is brown and gray. This one was feeding avidly ongoldenrod seed during its journey from northern Canada to somewhere south of Michigan.
One morning, far up the path in the shadow of trees, a small Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) landed quickly, picked up a bug or fallen fruit from the grass, and took off. No photo. But here’s one from a previous year with its chocolate brown back and breast smudges. Too bad the Hermit Thrush doesn’t court its mate here, because its song has 3 different phrases with a pause between each. You can hear two versions of it here.
Our birding group saw other migratory birds enjoying the rest and sustenance provided by Cranberry Lake Park, but through our binoculars. They were too far away or too restless for me to capture them with the camera. The little Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) is making its way from Canada’s far north to Mexico or Central America. The Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) stopped by on its journey from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. And the Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) has a comparatively short migration from northern Michigan or Canada to just south of Michigan. So as in all of our parks, Cranberry Lake offers much needed R&R for these small seasonal visitors.
During the bird walk, a Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) swooped into the Hickory Lane on the west side of the park, perhaps chasing a songbird. It flew straight in front of us and quickly disappeared – we think without snagging the bird. Pretty exciting! Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller and seen less often than the similar Cooper’s Hawk. They usually appear only during migration, so it’s probably headed south by now. Here’s a link to a photo at Cornell Lab.
A summer resident, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) called “chewink!” from the edge of the woods one birdwalk morning. When Ben imitated his call, the male Towhee darted into a nearby bush, intending, I assume, to check out the competition. Here’s a photo of one from last spring. (Let’s just say my photo luck was not with me on that bird walk!)
So though we miss the flowers, they have done their work. They attracted the right pollinators which helped create the very seeds that feed tired and hungry migrating birds – as well as having provided bees with the makings for the honey that will feed them through the winter, too. As a compensation, color comes to us once more as the trees begin to turn.
Late October: Winter Resident from the Far North Arrives – and Color Fills the Trees
Just this week, an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) may have flown into Cranberry Lake Park from the edge of the Arctic tundra! This sparrow, with a spot in the middle of its gray chest and a two-tone bill, loves cold weather. During the summer, Tree Sparrows make elegant nests of ptarmigan feathers right on the ground in the Arctic in order to raise their young. Evidently for a Tree Sparrow, spending the winter in Michigan is like going to Florida! Below is the first one I’ve seen this year.
A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) did a lot to brighten up the browning of the meadow last week. Most Bluebirds migrate south, but a few actually stay with us all winter, either in family groups or small flocks, as long as there are seeds and berries available. I couldn’t resist taking more than one photo. Their splashes of azure in the field were really cheering on a gray fall day.
Color, of course, is the glory of a Michigan autumn. On September 24, the Hickory Lane still looked green and lush. By October 11, the colors had changed to gold and orange. And on October 24, a single glowing Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) at the south end of the lane was still shining in the sunlight after most of the other hickory trees began to turn brown.
The maple family contributes lavishly to the beauty of autumn. On the path to the lake, a striking leaf from a Red Maple (Acer rubrum) featured some colorful geometry. And nearby, the deeply lobed greenish-white underside of a pale yellow leaf from a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) created some contrast. At the lake’s edge, oak and maple leaves formed a scarf of fall color floating on the surface.
The lake again was filled with migrating ducks and water birds – all much too far out for any kind of shot. Female Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa), Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and Mute Swans(Cygnus olor) were among the throng. Here are photos of those birds from locations where I can get closer to them!
But there were also Pied-Billed Grebes(Podilymbus podiceps), and American Black Ducks(Anas rubripes)on Cranberry Lake. Please click on these red Cornell Lab links if you’d like to see them up close. Let’s hope a viewing deck gets built on Cranberry Lake in the next few years so all of us can get a closer look in person at the water birds that flock to the lake in spring and fall to socialize and feed.
A Different Kind of Transition in the North of the Park
Finally, a wonderful transition is being finished on the trail at the north end of the park. The Parks and Recreation maintenance staff has spent long hours this summer improving the trail from 32 Mile Road into the park. Instead of an oft-flooded, muddy track, they have laid down a solid surface with periodic drainage pipes running beneath it to keep the new trail from flooding. You certainly can feel the difference underfoot! And I imagine equestrians, as well as hikers, will appreciate the improvement. Thanks to Maintenance Foreman Doug Caruso and Maintenance Technician Jeff Johnson for a hard job that, when completed, should be a great improvement for the park!
Autumn: Harvest Time for All of Us!
So, just as we humans harvest crops before the snow falls, birds and animals harvest the wild “crops” of the fields – seeds and fruits. Some of them, like Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), both eat and store them, tucking the seeds into bark where they will find them when snow blankets the meadow. Others, like the Palm Warbler, use them to fuel their flight to warmer climes. Winter residents, like the Tree Sparrow, will probe the brown goldenrod for seeds all winter – as well as flocking at your feeder. So when the color drains away, when the leaves are wet and brown underfoot, it may be a comfort to think of the bounty that surrounds us in those dry, drab plants. The brown and gray seeds nourish all kinds of creatures, and guarantee next summer’s bounty of plants. Those dry leaves underfoot dropped when they completed their work of sending sugars to the trees’ roots, ready to fuel next year’s growth. Seeds and falling leaves really are another reason to be thankful as November arrives. Maybe nature deserves a rest after a job well done!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.