On June 10, a powerful windstorm with 90 mph winds flattened half of a small woods along our driveway, dropped and split trees around our yard and dramatically thinned and damaged the larger forest canopy that surrounds our house. As soon as that massive fist of wind plowed its way north, the heat descended, staying around 90 degrees for two weeks or so. As a result, my forays into Charles Ilsley Park to monitor nest boxes became my only opportunity to see nature largely unscathed.
Photos and text
by Cam Mannino
Twice each week, I hike out to see if eggs in the nest boxes have hatched, if nestlings are becoming feathered, if fledglings have ventured forth into the big world outside. So in this blog, I’ll share in one virtual hike what I saw at Charles Ilsley Park before the windstorm and during my semi-weekly monitoring walks. Glad you’re accompanying me.
On the Path Heading In
The trail into Charles Ilsley Park
Local birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, alerted my photographer friends Joan and Bob Bonin and me to the presence of a Yellow-throated Vireo nest (Vireo flavifrons) near the parking lot. I searched the branches on two different trips and never spotted it. But luckily, Bob got a great photo of this lovely migrator on its nest. The nest is such an art piece, as you’ll see below. It’s usually made of bits of bark, grasses, dry leaves; this one is decorated with lichen as well – and all nicely packaged with spider silk! The males and females of this vireo look alike (monomorphic) and both genders incubate the young. Ruth reported that she saw the female in the nest being serenaded by the male nearby. But I have no way of knowing which gender Bob saw for this photo. Sigh…wish I could have seen this bird in its nest – but I’m so glad Ruth and the Bonins did!
Both male and female vireos incubate their eggs. Photo by Bob Bonin with permission.
An Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) landed in the big oaks along the entrance trail. It appeared to have a bit of nesting material in its beak – probably a piece of lichen. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this little flycatcher’s “lichen-covered nest is so inconspicuous that it often looks like a knot on a branch.”
An Eastern Wood-pewee with lichen for nesting material
The Central Prairie – Flowers Blooming and Boxes Filled with Baby Birds
Birding group enjoying a pause on the central prairie
Blooms, Butterflies and Beetles
On my early visits, purple spires of Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) peeked out of the grass here and there in the central and western prairie. Lupine once established can tolerate intense sun and dry soil, so it does well in prairies. When I came back later in June with the birding group, some of the lupines had made fuzzy seed pods that I’d never noticed before!
Wild Lupine growing in the deep grasses below the hill in the central prairie at Ilsley
A few weeks later some of the lupines had been pollinated and produced these fuzzy seed pods.
By the time the pods had formed on the lupine, a summer bloom, Lance-leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) had emerged in the central prairie. Coreopsis bursts forth in golden composite blooms. The sunshine-yellow, ragged “petals” are really ray florets that surround the tiny disc florets at the flower’s center. These florets are tiny individual flowers, part of the plant’s reproductive structure.
Lance-leaf Coreopsis is a composite, a bloom formed by two kinds of florets. The center is a cluster of disc florets that provide nectar and pollen, surrounded by ray florets that look like petals.
According to one of my fave wildflower websites, Illinois Wildflowers, it also provides both nectar and pollen to a wide variety of floral visitors – lots of native bee species as well as beetles, and butterflies. One of the birders spotted a Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) sipping nectar avidly from a Coreopsis. Unlike most butterflies, its caterpillar overwinters. According to Wikipedia, in late summer or fall, the caterpillar stops eating, spins out some silk and wraps itself in a pre-hibernation web on a plant. Before winter begins, it will exit the web, and spend the cold months hibernating in dead grass or leaf litter until pupating in the spring.
A Baltimore Checkerspot enjoying the nectar of a Prairie Coreopsis
A couple mid-summer wildflowers appeared later in June. Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) produces tiny hairs on every surface – leaves, stems, even petals. Clearly this wildflower knows how to protect itself from predators who don’t like a mouthful of fuzz! And blazing orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is thrusting its way up through the tall grass and daisies as well – a food source for the Monarch caterpillar. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Hairy Beard-tongue fends off predators with fuzz on every surface.
Summer’s glory, Butterfly Milkweed, finds its way to the sunshine through daisies and tall grass.
In deep grass at the edge of the trail, a buttery yellow flutter caught my eye. It was a diurnal (daytime) moth with feathery antennae. Knowledgeable folks on the “Butterflying Michigan” Facebook page helped me identify it as a member of the genus Xanthotype. It’s evidently either a Crocus Geometer or a False Crocus Geometer, but I was also informed that a definitive species identification between the two would require examining their genitalia! Uh, no.
A small Geometer moth from the genus Xanthotype on the path at Charles Ilsley Park
Native bees foraged on flowers in the central prairie too. I’ve learned that it’s nigh on to impossible to identify the species of a native bee from a photograph so I won’t try. But I do love to see these solitary bees at home in our parks, especially a flashy metallic green one like this bee on the non-native Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare).
A native bee making the most of a non-native Ox-eye Daisy
Following the path around the Center Prairie in early June, I found one of the small ponds swirling with busy Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae).
A slightly fuzzy photo of a swimming Whirligig beetle as it paused for a second.
These gregarious beetles are beautifully adapted for survival. They row around in circles on the surface with their middle and back legs, probably looking for mates or prey, but also making it tough for would-be predators to catch one! They can also swim underwater if necessary because they trap an air bubble under their stiff wing covers (or “elytra”). They constantly produce a waxy substance that keeps them buoyant and makes them slippery to predators. In fact, males have sticky front legs so the female doesn’t slip from their grasp while mating! Add to that, their split eyes that can see both above and below the water and their ability to fly and it’s clear that whirligig beetles have evolved for survival in pretty sophisticated ways. Here’s a little of the stir they were creating at Ilsley.
Neonatal Care in the Central Prairie
The nest boxes in the Central Prairie are busy places in June. Birds industriously construct nests inside, lay their eggs, feed their nestling at a relentless pace and eventually frenetically feed the begging fledglings when they emerge. This year the boxes that I’m monitoring sheltered Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and a House Wren. Luckily, all the birds that I monitor this year lived harmoniously, though the Tree Swallows gave me friendly reminders of their presence by swooping right over my head while I checked their boxes. Here’s a Tree Swallow adult (Tachycineta bicolor) giving me the once over as I passed near its box.
A Tree Swallow on last summer’s Evening Primrose preparing to dive bomb me – in a friendly way, of course – as I approached to monitor a nest.
Tree Swallow eggs are small, pure white and sit daintily in their grassy nests lined with white feathers. After the writhing, pink hatchlings emerge, it takes about a week for them to begin to develop dark feathers beneath their pink skin, as you can see below. I assume that the white edges on their beaks help adults aim their beaks accurately as they feed each of them in the dark of a nest box or tree cavity.
Tree Swallows love to line their nests with white feathers. These nestlings at about a week old are just beginning to form feathers under skin.
Here’s a lovely lady Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) taking a break from incubation on a nest box in the central prairie.
A female Eastern Bluebird with some food for her nestlings.
Bluebird eggs are usually pale blue and the nest is constructed of grass and sometimes pine needles. Here are some nestlings in a pile in one of my bluebird boxes almost ready to become fledglings. It’s pretty crowded in there with six of them! These little ones napping in a heap are about 6 days from entering the big, bright world outside.
Bluebird nestlings piled this way and that about 6 days before leaving the nest.
A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) paused on a twig with food for its young. Song Sparrows can nest on the ground or as high as 15 feet up in a shrub. I wondered if this one was waiting for me to move along before darting to its nest hidden somewhere in the vicinity. Wish I could see those nestlings!
A Song Sparrow with food for its nestlings nearby
A Battle for a Nest Box in the Western Prairie
A male bluebird calmly watching a fellow male caught up in a fracas in the western prairie.
Things were not so peaceful in the western prairie. During a birding walk in June, we witnessed a daring feat of courage. For some reason, four adult Tree Swallows attempted to drive a male Eastern Bluebird (and probably the female inside) out of a nest box. We watched the aerial acrobatics of the iridescent blue swallows as they repeatedly dove at the harried male Bluebird who defended the box. The persistent swallows even clipped him with their wings occasionally as he ducked and snapped at them. Here are a series of stills as the battle raged.
The bluebird stayed right where he was and Tom from our birding group reported finding bluebird eggs inside the next day. Though Bluebirds will not tolerate another bluebird close by, they generally ignore the swallows and vice versa. But not this time. Hooray for the brave little bluebird!
A Side Trip to the Eastern Prairie in Search of A Tiny Bird
Birders social distancing on their way to the eastern prairie
By traveling around the west prairie and back through the north one, we reach the central prairie trail again which takes us to eastern prairie. I love this rolling landscape full of dancing native grasses and wildflowers. But I only got there once in early June before the windstorm struck. What prompted me was the alert from Ruth Glass who, along with seeing the Yellow-throated Vireo, had also seen the nest of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) in a Box Elder there. When I reached the right tree, I stood for several minutes scrutinizing it without seeing the tiny nest. But suddenly a Gnatcatcher flew in with food in its beak – and I could see it! My photos were just so-so, but again my photographer buddies, the Bonins, came through. Joan got a beautiful photo of the nest with an adult Gnatcatcher sitting inside so I can share this little beauty with you. Again, the nest is decorated with lichens which not only are beautiful but scientists believe have anti-microbial properties that fend off infections, like mosses do.
A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on its little nest decorated with lichen. Photo by Joan Z. Bonin with permission
Near the wetland on the south side of the prairie, a Common Yellowthroat burbled his “witchedy witchedy” song, declaring his territory to ward off other males. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Each male normally has only one mate in his territory during a breeding season. However, a female’s mating calls often attract other males, and she may mate with them behind her mate’s back.” I believe the female’s “ready to mate” call, a fast series of chips, is the second “call” (as opposed to “song”) listed at this Cornell link. What scamps, those females! But these little birds are contending with predation from carnivorous birds like Merlins and Shrikes and sometimes have to cope with Brown-headed Cowbirds dropping eggs in their nests. Increasing the genetic diversity of their offspring may help the species adjust to the perils of their habitat, or help that female ensure some of her young survive.
Male Common Yellowthroats are calling all over Ilsley now, defending their territory and access to their mates.
On the Way Back: An Uncrowned King and a Vigorous Bath
Along the trail back to the parking lot, an elegant Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) with a white tip on its tail, broad shoulders and a rounded crown perched near the tree line. The Kingbird’s crown, I’ve learned, hides a bright red/orange patch at its center which can be raised in a threat gesture just before dive-bombing any intruder in its territory, even Crows, Red-tailed Hawks or Great Blue Herons flying overhead! Its feistiness and that crown evidently earned it the name Kingbird. I’ve never seen that scarlet crown; I even searched for a photo of it on iNaturalist.org to no avail. But if you want to see a Kingbird’s crown when it’s really riled up, page down a short way at this link from McGill Bird Observatory! The Kingbird that I saw at Ilsley was considerably more mellow.
Eastern Kingbirds flock together and forage for fruit each winter in the forests of South America.
As I crested a slope on the way back to the car, I paused at a distance to watch a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) take a dust bath. In a soft patch of dry earth, the bird performed a series of fast gyrations while beating its wings at high speed. When I developed the series of photos, I realized that in its frenzy, this male had exposed his belly by rolling onto his back! I’m guessing he had been plagued by mites and was determined to get rid of them! Here’s the sequence of moves that he made:
Nature Knitting My Raveled Sleeve Once More…
A Carolina Wren that appeared at our home in March. It’s carrying a bit of moss for the nest.
Shakespeare said that it was sleep that “knits the raveled sleeve of care” – and Will was right, of course. But nature is a gifted knitter of cares for me as well. The leafy landscape at home that has soothed me for more than a quarter century is drastically changed – large sections of it simply absent, twisted, broken, split, dying.
But despite nature’s power to destroy, it still acts as a balm through it all. When a pair of Carolina Wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) disappeared from our yard after the windstorm, I could visit the nest boxes at Charles Ilsley Park to to see pink hatchlings just out of their shells and know life would go on. In Ilsley’s western prairie, the bluebird stood his ground and started his family. The whirligigs danced and dove; blooms rose from the earth and turned their many colored faces to the sun. While sitting at my back door disconsolate, staring at a huge pile of broken tree limbs, two Baltimore Orioles alighted and quickly mated as if to say, “We lost our nestlings in the storm, but here we are, starting again.” And at home, the Carolina Wrens returned four days after the destruction, the male singing his three phrase song as loudly and ebulliently as ever. So through all the craziness of this plague year, I was blessed with short interludes to breathe in the beauty and resilient energy of life despite the chaos around us. And for that I’m very grateful.