Tag Archives: Widow Skimmer dragonfly

Watershed Ridge Park: Restoration Off to a Colorful Start!

 

Wildflowers re-establish themselves in a meadow at Watershed Ridge after invasive shrubs are removed

Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.

The slopes of Watershed Ridge after last fall’s removal of invasive shrubs

The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!

The sloping landscape of Watershed Ridge Park this summer after the removal of invasive shrubs

Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeveand a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)

Ladies Tresses, a small orchid, is a fall wildflower that Ben saw at Watershed Ridge last autumn.

Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about  walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky  and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy.  Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.

So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!

 

 

 

Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road

The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.

The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.

A young Phoebe exploring the shed at Watershed Ridge – a very typical behavior for a bird that often builds nests in human structures.
The same Phoebe in a nearby tree to provide a glimpse of how small this little flycatcher is!

A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.

A juvenile Downy Woodpecker considers what to do next.

I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!

From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.

American Goldfinches like thistle down for their nests and the seed for feeding themselves and their young.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.

A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache”

A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.

When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve  evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.

One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the  mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.”  Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?

The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees,  or flies,  rather than honeybees or bumblebees.  They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!

Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.

Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason –  so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.

Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods

One of the wetland pools within the woods at Watershed Ridge

Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed.  Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving.  (Anyone have an ID for me?)

Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left) basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.

At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year  to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that  occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.

A tiny Wood Frog pausing on an oak leaf near one of the woodland pools

At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs  take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!

A small (about 2 inch) Leopard Frog, among hundreds that sprang out of the tall grass into the bean field a few weeks ago.

A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow

Black-eyed Susans and Butterfly Milkweed “take the field” after invasive shrubs are removed from Watershed Ridge

Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them.  So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)

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And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!”  A new creature for me!

This is not a bumblebee. It’s a Snowberry Clearwing Moth mimicking one!

On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from the great swath of bee balm that now flows across the restored meadow.

Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge.  The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur  (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.

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The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.

The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.

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A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming

Another view of the meadow that is slowly being restored at Watershed Ridge

Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

Enjoying an Evening of Turtles, Salamanders, Frogs and, oh yeah, a Rattlesnake!

Last Thursday, Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted a well-attended event on rare/endangered “herps” (Herpetofauna), that is, amphibians and reptiles.

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

At this time of year, talking about snakes, turtles, salamanders and frogs may seem a bit odd to you.  Actually though,  the Herpetology expert and presenter, David Mifsud of Herpetological Resource Management (HRM), told us that he sees Spring Peepers, Eastern Garter Snakes and Red-backed Salamanders moving around in Michigan winters when temperatures warm up as they have lately.    So for starters, here are three that he says we might look for during this winter thaw:

 

Garter snake closeup GC
Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) may be moving on warm winter days.
red-backed-salamander-1
You could see a Red-backed Salamander (Plethodon cinereus) in a vernal pool created by snow melt.
Spring Peeper largest size
Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) can occasionally be heard/seen on a warm winter day.

And even if you don’t see one of these herps “in person” this winter, it’s just pleasant to think about springtime creatures in the dead of winter, right?  So here’s a brief trip through some of the important and lively information that David shared with about 30 of us last Thursday night.

Note:  Because some of these creatures are rare, some of the photos this week are courtesy of photographers at iNaturalist.org.  Please check the captions for names of these gifted people and many thanks to Creative Commons, iNaturalist and these photographers for sharing their work!

How Important are Amphibians and Reptiles?  Let Me Count the Ways…

  • Canaries in the coal mine. Amphibians and reptiles accumulate toxins and other contaminates in their bodies and most live both in water and on land.  So they are effective gauges (bio-indicators) of what’s getting into both environments.
  • Many eat invasive species.  For example,  the very homely Mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), an aquatic salamander, favors eating invasive Zebra Mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) and  invasive Brown Gobies (Neogobius melanostomus), both huge problems in the Great Lakes. I grant you  this much-maligned aquatic salamander is not pretty. But it’s eating these invasive species, crayfish, worms,  and insect larvae! There’s no evidence that they reduce game fish populations (see Harding 1997). So please!  Return them with care to the water if you catch them on your hooks winter or summer.
original
Mudpuppies eat invasive species not game fish. Photo by Marcus Rosten CC-BY. I lightened and cropped slightly.
  • Predator and Prey. Herps can be both predator and prey, meaning they’re important in nature’s food web.  For example, dragonflies, like the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) on the left below,  lay eggs in vernal pools.  The  nymphs that hatch feed on the eggs of salamanders who deposit their eggs on sticks in vernal pools, as seen in the center photo.  But when the Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum) on the right – an inhabitant mostly of western and southern Michigan –  reaches adulthood,  it in turn eats dragonflies.  This kind of food cycle helps keep a healthy balance between predator and prey in the ecosystem and builds the ladder system of the food web.
  • Our natural heritage. And of course, these creatures deserve our care because they are native to the habitats which are our natural heritage. And just as we preserve historic homes, we need to preserve the habitats for plants and animals that share our natural inheritance.
  • Just because. These beautiful creatures deserve a place to call home too!

And the Prognosis for Michigan Herps?  Uh, Not So Good…

Unfortunately, in Michigan and the Great Lakes Region, more than half of our species of amphibians and reptiles are declining. Why?

  • Amphibians and reptiles spend time on land and in the water. So those pollutants and contaminants that they accumulate, making them bio-indicators, can also kill them. Plastic beads in beauty products, pesticides from lawns and agriculture, hormones from our medicines in waste water, and agricultural run-off can affect these creatures.
  • Many reptiles have to live a long time in order to mature and reproduce.  The Blanding’s Turtle (Emydoidea blandingii), found in our township,  is listed as a Species of Special Concern in Michigan. It takes up to 20 years for these yellow-chinned turtles to mature enough to produce young and they can live up to 90 years! This one on a road near Draper Twin Lake Park is demonstrating one of the hazards – habitat loss or disruption.  In this case, a road cut through its habitat. If you see a turtle on the road and can safely do so, be sure to move it gently in the direction it was going or it will turn head right back the way it came. Turtles are very focused on getting to and from their breeding grounds!

    Blandings Turtle near Draper
    A Blanding’s Turtle has to survive up to 20 years before it produces young!
  • Creatures with long lives like turtles especially need connected habitat corridors since they require both water and dry land, where they lay their eggs. Here a Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) is laying her eggs high on a sunny slope in Bear Creek before she returns to the pond. She demonstrates a common natural hazard. A female Snapper has a strong scent from living in marshes so it’s easy for predators – like foxes, coyotes, or raccoons – to track down her nest of eggs. And the mounds of earth she leaves behind are a big clue too!
snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle leaves a strong marsh scent on her trail that lead predators, like raccoons, to her nest of eggs.
  • As cute, and as pesky,  as raccoons can be, they are serious predators of amphibians and reptiles and over-populated in some parks. Their numbers are often higher in urban areas than they would be naturally because they are “subsidized” by the food we provide unwittingly, such as our trash and the dog food we leave outside. After racoons leave the feast in your backyard, they return to a local natural area to snack on amphibian and reptile eggs, often causing over 90% nest failure. To keep park environments in balance between predators and prey, please remove food sources from around your home, and don’t transport trapped raccoons or other animals to our parks! 

 

raccoon in hole
Raccoons are efficient predators of “herp” eggs and young. So please don’t transport yours to the parks or we’ll have too many! This one peeked from a tree at Bear Creek.

Of course,  birds and other creatures prey on amphibians and reptiles as well.  This Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is heading for quite a feast!

cr cooper's hawk with snake
A Cooper’s Hawk prepares to dine on a snake.
  • Unfortunately, salamanders and turtles are sometimes poached from the wild for pets, both by wildlife traffickers and uninformed parents and children. This has had a devastating effect, for instance,  on the very cute and tiny Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) who’s only 3-5 inches long! And the same thing has happened to Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina) and even Common Snappers, which are sold overseas as well as domestically for supposed “medicinal” purposes.
spotted-turtle-cc-no-my-photo
Photo of the tiny Spotted Turtle by Todd Pierson (CC BY-NC-SA) whose numbers have declined due to treating them as pets.

The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), which appears in our parks, is also a Species of Special Concern in Michigan due to its declining numbers. This lovely frog with its emerald body and oval spots has unfortunately been poorly studied. So researchers still need to find the reasons for its distress.

leopard frog
The Leopard Frog’s numbers are declining and no one yet knows exactly why.

OK, but what about that Michigan rattlesnake???

emr_andrewhoffman2008_cc-by-nc-nd-3
Photo by Andrew Hoffman CC BY-NA-ND 4.0. No changes were made to the photo.

Most of us have heard of, but never seen, Michigan’s most venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus) (a couple other snakes have weak venom that only causes irritation). This very shy, low-key snake only grows to about 2 feet long. According to Michigan DNR, it has one set of rattles at birth and develops more as it sheds its skin several times each year.  Its head is triangular like most rattlesnakes, though it is the smallest and least venomous rattler in the U.S.  Look also for a vertical eye slit and saddle-shaped spots.

The likelihood of you being bothered by this snake is low.  In 2016 it was listed as a Federally Threatened Species, which means its numbers are becoming drastically low.  And these snakes just want to avoid you. David reports having searched for this snake with a tracking device and after hearing a loud “beep” from his device, found it under the grass between his feet!  As he moved the grass aside, the snake silently slid over his shoe and away. That’s a conflict-avoiding snake! And a herpetologist with nerves of steel, I might add.

So if you do get to see one, consider yourself lucky. Don’t hurt or handle these docile snakes, since folks most often get bitten when harassing a snake that just wants to get away. Many bites are “dry,” meaning no venom. It takes lots of energy for the snake to produce the venom, and it doesn’t want to waste it! But if you get any kind of bite from this snake, see a doctor right away. Luckily, Dave informed us that no one in the US has died from such a bite in 100 years.

In spring, when these snakes are most active, they’re seen near wetlands, but they are likely to move to drier, upland areas in the summer. While they been seen recently at Stony Creek Metro Park in our area, we have no recent sighting in our township parks. Let us know if you see one!

Massasaugas overwinter for up to six months under logs, in small animal burrows and often in the “chimneys” created by crayfish, like this one.

A recently refreshed Crayfish hole among the detritus
A recently refreshed crayfish hole can hold many creatures over the winter, occasionally including Massasauga rattlesnakes.

Evidently, these burrows fill with ground water which maintains a more constant temperature in the winter than above ground – and that’s what important to an animal that can’t control its body temperature internally.  What’s amazing is that they often share these chimneys with other small creatures during the winter when all of them are in hibernation mode.  A kind of winter “condo” as David described it.  Imagine that!

Befriending Our Local Amphibians and Reptiles

Five turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.
The “Von Trapp Family”  Painted Turtles line up on a log at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Our parks are great places to see all kinds of “herps.”  Snappers and painted turtles cruise Bear Creek’s ponds and marshes.  Our wetlands in every park fill with a chorus of frog song every spring.  Snakes bask in sunny spots and quickly disappear into tall grass.  And in moist woodland uplands, salamanders emerge on the first warm night to make their way to vernal pools to mate and lay their eggs.  We need to care for these interesting creatures and their habitats  to be sure that they still thrive in our world when our children or grandchildren go looking for them.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Harding, James H. (1997) Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

This Week at Bear Creek: An Appreciation of Some of Less Appreciated Species! And a Few That Are Easier on the Eye.

Last week, I shared some lovable creatures – a raccoon kit, a baby chipmunk, the majestic yellow swallowtail, the iridescent Tree Swallow.

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

This week, I thought we might explore the creatures and plants in the park that perhaps aren’t so lovable at first glance – but who make their own contributions to the rich diversity of Bear Creek Nature Park.

Unglamorous Birds that are Useful, Super Smart or Misunderstood

Well, of course, probably the homeliest bird in Bear Creek is the Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) with its bare, scrawny red head and hunched posture when perching.

vulture perched
The Turkey Vulture looks a bit menacing when perched in a tree.

Old westerns and horror stories taught us to see them as harbingers of death, circling ominously in the sky.  Actually though, in flight Turkey Vultures are majestic and impressive.  They ride the thermals rising from the warming earth,  their wings teetering right and left, with very few wingbeats.  They’re often  mistaken for hawks or eagles from a distance,  but vultures hold their wings high in a “V” when seen straight on and the undersides of their flight feathers are paler than the rest of their dark brown bodies so the light shining through them forms what  appears from below to be a pale band at the edge of each wing.

vulture closeup_2
A Turkey Vulture in the air looks majestic and powerful riding the thermals scarcely beating its wings.

Vultures are the reliable leaders of the clean-up crew in the park, because they, unlike many birds, have a keen sense of smell and detect carrion (dead animals) even under the tree canopy. With their strong, sharp beaks, they clean up carcasses one strong bite at a time.  Their bare heads mean nothing nasty gets caught in feathers and their immune system keeps them safe even from botulism, anthrax, cholera and salmonella!  If vultures didn’t scavenge, we’d be surrounded by the nasty sight and smell of lots of dead animals.  So say something nice about vultures next time people bad-mouth them, OK?

crow closeup2
The velvety black American Crow is one of the most intelligent of all birds, as intelligent as some apes!

The American Crow  (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is another under-appreciated bird that many people fear. Like vultures, crows do eat carrion but it’s only part of their diet.  They eat seeds, fruit, some small animals and, unhappily, occasionally the eggs or even young of other birds. But crows are also the geniuses of the bird world, outstripped only by their cousins in the Corvid family, the ravens.  Crows have huge brains with a brain/body quotient approaching that of some apes!  They use and even make tools.  They are mischievous – snitching food from river otters while other crows distract it or hauling a fisherman’s line out of the ice by pulling it up with its beak, stepping on it and hauling again in order to eat the bait (or if lucky, the fish!) on the hook and then letting the line slide innocently back through the hole.  They mimic both other birds and humans.  A famous naturalist, Jean Craighead George tells how  a crow outside her back door used to raid picnic tables in the neighborhood and one morning greeted her with “Hiya, Babe!” Children might enjoy Jean’s book A Tarantula in My Purse about her adventures with crows and other creatures or her award-winning novel of a boy learning to survive in the woods, called My Side of the Mountain.

Crows are very social birds.  Their young don’t breed until they are two and the groups of crows you see in summer are usually family groups with youngsters staying with their parents for 4 or more years.  These younger crows guard and sometimes help build the nest and even occasionally feed the nestlings!  We should all have such helpful offspring!

3 male cowbirds
The Brown-Headed Cowbird’s sneaky trick of laying eggs in other birds’ nests may be a result of its original environment.

The Brown-Headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is perhaps the most difficult bird to like.  The female does not build nests, but lays its eggs in other birds’ nests. This sneaky trick is often played on much smaller birds, who have more difficulty pushing out  the cowbird’s eggs.  The trick doesn’t always work.  Bigger birds may shove the eggs out and smaller birds destroy the cowbirds’ eggs or ignore them, building a second nest on top of the first in which to lay their eggs.   But once in the park, I saw a tiny sparrow stuffing food into the mouth of a baby cowbird, oblivious to the size difference – or maybe just a generous foster parent?  To add injury to insult, female cowbirds lay eggs in huge quantities – 30 or 40 a season – in order to be sure some grow to maturity.

Now why would a bird do this?  One theory that seems plausible is that since we know cowbirds originated in the Western states, they presumably followed buffalo and later cattle herds, eating the insects stirred up by the animals.  That constant movement made it impossible to stay in one place, build a nest and raise young.  So by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests, their young  survived and reproduced.  When our area was settled and cleared, cowbirds moved East and like other invasive species, they created havoc among the creatures whose land they invaded.  So I forgive the cowbird who can’t help the adaptation it found for passing on its genes.  But I still don’t love them.

And then there’s the not-so-beloved plant  – Duckweed.

Poor old duckweed is often mistaken for “pond scum” or “algae.” Some believe it’s a sign of polluted water.  But it’s actually a family of flowering plants that live in still water and sometimes along the edges of streams. Let’s look at the three water plants growing in the center pond, one of which is duckweed.  (My thanks to Maryann Whitman for her help in identification!)

white water crowfoot
The White Water Crowfoot, an aquatic buttercup, shares the pond with the green ovals of Duckweed and the smallest flowering plant on earth,  Common Water Meal.

The tiny aquatic buttercup, White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), is much prettier when it’s blooming – as it is now – than when the blossoms die and leave just  a mass of brown strings on the surface.  The clumps of  plump green ovals with red spots are Greater Duckweed (Spirodela polyrhiza) which has tiny air pockets that keep it afloat.  Believe it or not, the tiny green grains in between these plants are the smallest flowering plants in the world!  They are Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) and I’ve never seen their blooms since they are 1/100th of an inch wide!  These plants provide lots of food for animals, fish and amphibians.  In fact, I imagine Duckweed got its name because I’ve seen ducks swimming along the pond near the playground with their beaks open on the surface scooping up Duckweed as they go.  So perhaps we can give it some respect,  though I agree that I prefer the aesthetics of clear water.  Here’s a muskrat, though,  that seems content to be surrounded by it!

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Muskrats, ducks and others feed on duckweed, a plant that lives mostly in still water.

 And Now Let’s Get Back to Easier-on-the-Eye Species!

The Eastern Kingbird, (Tyrannus tyrannus) just back from wintering in the Amazon (!), has an  erect posture which makes him easily identifiable. His head is darker gray than his body and his long tail is tipped with white.  Despite their distinguished appearance, Eastern Kingbirds are very aggressive with bigger birds,  like crows, hawks, owls and blue jays.  If an intruder flies over them,  even 100 feet up, they fly up  and dive bomb it from above.  During these flights, they sometimes reveal a red, orange or yellow crown which is usually concealed under their dark grey feathers. Though they eat small insects on the wing, they prefer large ones that they take up into a tree, beat against a branch and eat whole!  They don’t call them Kingbirds for nothing! Did you notice their Latin name above?

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The Eastern Kingbird aggressively takes on much bigger birds in defending its territory.

If the vulture is the homeliest bird in the park, certainly the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) can compete for the prettiest.  These small thrushes, the male with a royal blue back and brick red breast patch and the female in more subtle hues, grace our park year ’round.

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The male bluebird has a royal blue back and a russet breast patch. The female’s colors are similar but more subtle.

Bluebirds swoop down to pick up insects which they can spot 60 feet or more away.  Their numbers dropped in th early 20th century when introduced species like the European Starling and the House Sparrow took over old woodpecker holes in dead trees, making the Bluebirds’  preferred nesting spots harder to find. Campaigns to place bluebird nesting boxes saved the bluebird.  Here’s one checking out a possible hole for suitability.

bluebird checking out hole
Bluebirds check out holes in large trees, their favorite nesting spots.

For some strange reason, someone named this beautiful butterfly, the Red-Spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis) although its most distinguishing feature is  iridescent blue hindwings that flash in the sunlight.  The apex of the forewings does have tiny red spots on black but often the tips of the forewings just look brushed with a russet orange. This early butterfly, like others, samples tree sap, rotting fruit, even dung and carrion but unlike the Cabbage White or Mourning Cloak, it also sips flower nectar.

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The mis-named Red-spotted Purple’s most noticeable feature is bright iridescent blue hindwings flashing in the sunlight..

Dragonflies, one of the beautiful predators in Bear Creek,  are zooming over the ponds right now.  The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) is best seen at noon when it’s most active.  You’ll see mostly males with their wide, flat blue-white tails and a large amber stripe in the middle of each wing.  The females with dark abdomens only visit the water for short periods.  Males perch in the same place each day and protect their territory by chasing off other males.  You can sometimes hear the clatter of clashing wings as the Whitetails  bump into intruders from underneath as they fly over.

common whitetail
The Common Whitetail male has a bluish white tail and amber bands (though the light may make them look black) in the middle of its clear wings.

The Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), like other dragonflies, overwinters in the  water as nymphs, molting  up to 10 times  until they crawl out of the water, find a plant stem, and shed their last exoskeleton, emerging as  adult dragonflies.  They fly off to eat other insects for 2 or 3 weeks.  You can watch their huge eyes turn as they track their prey before taking off and their acrobatic flying is just incredible.  They will also accompany you along a path, hoping you will stir up some tasty insects.  Nice to be escorted through the fields by a dragonfly!

Widow Skimmer dragonfly
The Widow Skimmer has black or dark brown bands near its body with white and black bands farther out on its clear wings.

A lovely native flower should be blooming now in the garden near the shed.  This Wild Columbine  (Aquilegia canadensis) looks almost exotic enough to be found in the tropics! And hummingbirds love its red color and long yellow stamen.

columbine
The hummingbirds love our exotic-looking native Columbine.

Now every nook and cranny is sporting some pretty little Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron species). You’ll come across a lot of wildflower names with “bane” in them,  which I’ve heard simply means that the people who named them thought they repelled or poisoned something –  in this case “fleas” so I imagine they might have been mixed into straw mattresses.  But that’s just a guess.

daisy fleabane
Daisy Fleabane is a little native flower that pops up all over Bear Creek Park. Its name indicates that people once considered it a flea repellent!

 Coming Attractions:

A snapping turtle was spotted in the pond near the playground again this week.  This might be the week to see one laying eggs since I saw this one on June 1 a few years ago.  Wouldn’t it be great to see a baby snapper?

snapper laying eggs
A Snapping Turtle digs a hole with its back feet to lay its eggs in Bear Creek. Most of the eggs are dug up and eaten by raccoons and foxes among others.

Huge green leaves are appearing west of the benches at the top of the hill on the southern side of the park.  In a few weeks, one of the tallest native flowers in the park will bloom, the sunny yellow Prairie Dock on with its lo-o-o-o-ng stalk and lovely big buds.

Prairie dock
Praire Dock, a native plant, can grow as high as 9 feel tall! Look for their giant leaves already coming out of the ground west of the benches at the top of the hill in the southern part of the park.

A Correction:

Last week I mentioned seeing an “albino raccoon” in the big hole in the tree on the western path through the woods.  I’m informed by my stepson, Glenn,  that that is a “blond raccoon” or some people call them a “cinnamon raccoon.”  They are light brown and beige, rather than gray and black like most raccoons.  Evidently they have different “morphs” as I mentioned  last week with the female swallowtail butterfly. I stand corrected!  Anyway, Reg spotted the blond raccoon last Sunday in the same tree in the same big hole!  Keep a lookout!  Here’s his quick photo of a bit of its fur showing as it slept on Sunday afternoon.

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A “blond raccoon” asleep in the same hole in which we often see baby raccoons this time of year!

So I hope the vultures didn’t scare you off !  And that you’ll share in the comments section some of your Bear Creek Nature Park finds and favorites.

*Quick footnote:  My sources for information, as well as 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