I’ve found that knowing the names of plants around me begins a kind of relationship with them. They’re no longer just green – or in this season brown – background. So imagine my pleasure on coming across this quote from Potawatomi scientist and professor, Robin Wall Kimmerer, just as I was starting this blog:
"In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with each other, but also with plants." (From Gathering Mossby Robin Wall Kimmerer)
Perhaps you’re like me. When wildflowers are in colorful bloom, their names rise more quickly from my memory. But in winter, when their graceful but desiccated architecture contrasts with winter white, I can’t always recognize, much less name, my summertime acquaintances.
So this week, I’ve paired summer portraits of wildflowers with their winter portraits. Perhaps as we recognize more wildflowers in their spare but beautiful winter garb, we’ll feel more connected to the winter landscape. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)
Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum)
Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris)
Nodding Wild Onion (Allium cernuum)
Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)
It’s clear to me now why natural landscape designers encourage us to create some “visual interest” by allowing some of these plants to remain in native gardens for the winter. Ornithologists and others also remind us that dry stalks and seed heads provide food and cover for winter birds and snug homes for overwintering beneficial insects. Not surprisingly, the natural world gifts us with beauty and practical benefits in all the seasons of the year!
Late summer wildflowers nodded and swayed in the meadows, woods, wetlands and native gardens at Bear Creek this August. Monarch butterflies paused on the blossoms, competing mostly with industrious native bumblebees. And all over the park, young birds were feeding on their own – or in a few cases, still getting fed by doting adults. In the center pond, a tiny creature foraged in disguise!
So take a wander along the trails, as goldenrod transforms the park from green to gold, and enjoy the bright beauty of summer’s last hurrah!
Like Some Human Youngsters, A Few Avian “Adolescents” Stick Close to Mom or Dad
A young Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannustyrannus) hid in a shrub in the eastern meadow, insisting loudly about being fed. No parental response was forthcoming from the adult on a shrub some distance away. So eventually, the youngster ventured out into the field, looking about with curiosity. Seemingly satisfied with this move toward independence, the adult flew in to feed the youngster. And then they shared the bush a while until the adult flew farther off again. (Click on slideshow’s pause button for captions.)
Two groups of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were escorting their young around the Center Pond. In one group, two males and a female floated along with a small juvenile. The males are now in their late summer “eclipse plumage” which makes them look very much like the females – except that the males have yellow bills, while females’ bills are orange and black. The males will change back to their glamorous, iridescent green head feathers later in the fall when Mallards choose their mates for next spring. I guess these two males on the right were sticking close to this female just in case she made an early decision!
Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)seemed remarkably calm at my approach as he concentrated on gathering seeds in his beak. Usually they dash off at the first sight of me when they’re on the ground. He wasn’t crushing the seeds, so I assume he had a nest nearby since cardinals can have up to four broods in a season. That’s a lot of parenting in just a few months.
A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) plucked buds from native Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) which is just beginning to bloom.He may have been feeding his young as well, since this is the nesting season for goldfinches.
While Adults Molt, Young Birds Forage on Their Own
Many bird species molt from mid-August until mid-September, including Field Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and many others. The Eastern Kingbird, featured feeding its young above, doesn’t molt until it reaches its winter territory in South America. It’s occurred to me that since birds go into hiding during the molt, perhaps their young have to be a bit more independent sooner than other birds. Just a guess. In any case, a lot of young birds are out and about, clumsily trying to forage on their own.
I saw what I think is an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) just beginning its molt. The bird’s feathers looked oddly fluffed out and it was picking at its breast in a persistent way. It might be a male since they molt a bit earlier than females. Below, a group of young song sparrows hopped along the trail, seeing what they could find in the grass before flying up into small trees nearby. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Downy Woodpecker adults(Picoides pubescens)are molting now too. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol II) says “[Downy] Fledglings in general can be told from adults by the clearly new, white feathers on their breast. Adult have gone in and out of the nest hole hundreds of times by this stage and look very worn, with bits of black showing through their white breast feathers.” The feathers on the young female I saw looked wonderfully fresh as it tried to drill into a branch, so I’m guessing it’s a foraging juvenile.
Down at the Center Pond, a Green Heron rested calmly on a log. Since spring, I’ve repeatedly seen a Green Heron in that very place, so I’m thinking it’s a mature bird. Cornell contends that Green Herons are sometimes found in colonies. But I’ve never seen more than one of these solitary birds at a time.
Two other solitary birds could have been adults or juveniles. It’s hard to distinguish with the House Wren and the Black-capped Chickadee once they’re out on their own. The House Wren may have been a youngster since it was clearly curious, but the Chickadee appeared to be a sophisticated contortionist as it probed a stick for insects.
Glorious Wildflower Color, Exuberant Vines and a Few Pretty-but-Toxic fruits in the Woods and Shady Wetlands
Though wildflowers are not generally as numerous on the shady paths of Bear Creek, you don’t want to miss them. So keep an eye out for their exotic shapes and vivid colors shining out of the greenery as you make your way, especially near wetlands. I just learned from Wikipedia that the Jack-o’lantern mushrooms(Omphalotusolearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?
Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and Native Gardens
In the native gardens, the center of the parking lot, and scattered across the sunny meadows, native wildflowers bloom among the Canada Goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace. The monarchs seem to be enjoying them. A female sipped nectar from the Purple Coneflower and a male spread his beautiful wings on the Joe-Pye. (The field marks for males are bulges in the veins on their hind wings.) Here’s a sampling:
A Quarter-sized Creature Dons a Bubble Disguise
One cloudy afternoon, my husband spotted a very small clump of bubbles, green Water Meal (Wolffia coumbiana) and Duckweed (Lemna minor) moving slowly around the water of the center pond near the dock.
At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)peeked out of the bubbly mass.
At last, we could see this tiny creature – a turtle about the size of a quarter – who’d found a nifty disguise to wear while munching on the Water Meal and Duckweed greenery that covers the pond. I’m betting on this little one to survive to adulthood!
Perhaps when this baby gets a little bigger, it can join the Painted Turtles who hang out on this log at the east end of the pond almost every warm day. Last Saturday, this group seemed to be doing a slow motion version of the Hokey-Pokey (“You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out”), except for that one member who is not quite with the program!
The Delight is the Details
Meadows like the one shown above on the western slope are an eye-full on a summer day. The sweeps of green, yellow and white against a blue sky soothe the spirit like a cool hand on a fevered brow. Soak it in. You can feel yourself unwinding. Then look a little closer. So much of the delight in nature comes from noticing small things – like the turtle in its bubble disguise, the scarlet cardinal flower shining in a shady wetland, or a parent bird feeding its young on a leafy branch. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to see in nature’s landscapes than what comes quickly to the eye. So perhaps spend a few quiet minutes looking down into the water or into the tall grass. Scan the treetops through your binoculars. The smallest discovery can add just a little more joy to a walk in the park.
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.
Hard frost and driving winds – November asserts its presence at Bear Creek. Geese and ducks are re-thinking their presence in the ponds and marshes and gathering to move south. Most migrants have moved on.
But the winter bird crew calls to its fellow foragers as they all stock up for the coming snow. Plant pods crack open, dropping seed or sending them flying through the air with the last of the leaves. Trees have almost finished storing energy in their roots. Like us, Bear Creek’s almost ready to face another winter.
At dusk one night this week, I heard (before I saw) the cacophony of hundreds of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) as they gathered over the marsh to begin their migration. The sound of that many wings at once and their wild calls felt like the very essence of late fall. I wish I could have captured the sound of those geese but I literally was transfixed by the sheer volume, the roar, of their noise.
In the hour before, I’d seen and heard smaller groups of geese wheeling overhead near the treetops, heading southeast to join this larger flock.
Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are still in the ponds. This shot from last fall shows a male after his molt, with a whole set of perfect new feathers, ready to find a mate and take off for the south. A new set of feathers makes flying that much easier for migrating birds.
Mallards are beginning to gather in larger flocks as well, readying themselves to move off when ice forms on the ponds and in the marsh.
The Hardy Birds of the Winter Crew
Birdsong is long gone now, but the winter birds use chips and calls to keep in touch with larger flocks as they busily forage. American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) probe for fruit and seeds from bushes on the western slope. (Click on double photos to enlarge. Rest your cursor on a double photo for captions)
Here’s a link if you’d like to hear the musical tweet these travelers use to keep in contact. (Page down to “Calls” and click on the first one.)
A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), a bird that is usually a ground feeder, pulled industriously at a cluster of goldenrod to get at seeds which had not yet fallen.
A pair of Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), who always brighten dark days, looked at me warily from small shrubs near the wetland below the south hill. According Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, these adult cardinals live no more than “a few miles from their place of birth.” So these Cardinals, which can live for many years, could have resided in Bear Creek for a long time. Cardinals pair up for the winter and 80% of them stay with their mates the following year.
Here’s a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) who’d just finished vigorously attacking a seed and was apparently tipping its head up to swallow the results.
The photo above came from our back yard this week because the ones I saw in the park seemed to never stay in one spot for more than a split second. But I like the look of this one’s wings as it took off from a branch in the park!
I saw House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus ) in Bear Creek this week but, like the Downy, they were too quick for me. So instead I took these pictures of a male and female at our home, where the feeder keeps them nearby. According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, House Finches were originally western birds. ” In 1940 a small number of finches were turned loose on Long Island, New York, after failed attempts to sell them as cage birds (‘Hollywood finches’). ” In the next 50 years, they spread all over the eastern US and southern Canada. I can’t imagine these social birds in cages!!
Winter Crew Animals
Below all those migrating birds in the marsh, a new muskrat lodge is being constructed. Since Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) are most active at night, dawn or dusk,this lodge was probably constructed in semi- or complete darkness! This one maybe become a full-fledged winter dwelling, as large as the one in the Center Pond, or it may just be a smaller feeding platform, a place to come up through the ice during the winter to breathe and eat.
Three White-Tailed Deer does (Odocoileus virginianus) that had bedded down near the Center Pond moved slowly behind a scrim of trees near the wetland below the southern hill. Maybe they were headed to the western woods to eat some of the plentiful acorns, but this one stopped to peek around a tree at me.
And over in the western woods, an agitated Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) stopped dead when it spotted me, but flicked its tail at top speed, its version of a threat gesture.
Hard frost may have brought the demise of many insects in the park, but seed-eaters can choose from a gigantic larder! Perhaps you remember the Wild Senna (Senna hebcarpa) growing in the native beds near the shed. They’ve now produced long pods which turn black when the seeds inside are mature. Native bumblebees seek the pollen while ants and ladybugs, that may protect the plant from predators, love the nectar. The caterpillars of Sulphur butterflies (the family of small yellow ones) feed on its foliage. The seeds in those long black pods appeal to NorthernBobwhites(Colinus virginianus), a small quail with a distinctive whistle once plentiful in Oakland Township, but now largely missing. As native plants like Wild Senna, that serve so many creatures, return to our parks through careful stewardship, we hope to see the return of birds like the Bobwhite.
Mixed in with the ubiquitous Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) last summer was the more delicate native, Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), which looks quite lovely as it seeds. Native bumblebees, honey bees, butterflies and lots of other insects enjoyed its nectar during the summer and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) feed on it now. Occasionally it feeds rabbits and deer as well – another important plant in the park’s native habitat.
The modest Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) , a favorite of small bees and hoverflies (that look like bees), is seeding into airy puffs right now.
Trees Conserving Energy for Spring
All summer, the leaves of the Park’s deciduous trees produced sugars by storing the energy of sunlight in chemical bonds (photosynthesis). By autumn, this energy in sugars is safely stored in the roots of the trees, away from the snow and cold. During summer and fall, trees also produce next year’s leaf buds, and in some cases, flower buds, for next spring. The buds are packed with miniature leaves which are covered with a waxy coating that protects them from the cold. In the spring warmer temperatures and longer days break the ends of the cold waiting period, signaling sugar-rich sap to rise. The leaves, fed by the sap, burst forth and start again to supply the tree through photosynthesis. Pretty nice arrangement, I’d say! Here are some leaf buds on Maples in Bear Creek.
Perhaps we can make peace with the changing season by knowing that the seeds of spring wildflowers are already planted and the leaves of favorite trees wait inside those leaf buds for a warm spring day. Some of us go south like the migrating birds. Others of us are like the trees who husband energy in their roots, but stand tall when snow covers their branches. We too turn our energies more inward in the winter, perhaps by a warm fire, but still sally forth, sporting cherry noses and pink cheeks , to enjoy the wintry world. Bear Creek welcomes you in any season.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991);Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich
The Walnut Lane in the center of the park is a hangout for avian adolescents this time of year. Every few feet you hear or see another fledgling sparring with siblings, practicing a song or poking about for food on their own as their tired parents retreat from constant feeding. Below I’ve provided links to Cornell Ornithology Lab photos of the adult birds so you can see how the juveniles differ from the adults in appearance.
The numbers of the most successful park predator keep growing – and no, it’s not coyotes! And native wildflowers love the second half of the summer (yes, we’re already there!) and are showing their colors everywhere you look.
Avian Adolescents – and one baby…
I have to begin with a nestling. Remember the female Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)on a nest from last week’s post? Well, this week her nestling stuck its little half-masked head above the nest edge so I got to see a Waxwing nestling for the first time! It sure doesn’t look like the elegant bird it will be in a few weeks! It’s still mostly mouth and that beak still looks soft, doesn’t it?
Amusingly, adolescent birds have the same awkward, gawky, not-quite-put-together look of a human adolescent. And like them, they seem to hang out together – this year, in the lane of Black Walnuts. Here’s a juvenile Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), a bird which when it matures is sleek with gray feathers and a black cap. This youngster is in shadow, but you can see he still has downy fluff that makes him look a bit like he’s wearing baggy pants!
And here’s a young Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus). The juveniles look like their brown-and-white mothers, but I believe that little red dot under this one’s wing tells you it will eventually look like the stunning male at this link – black and white with a hot pink bib at his throat.
This young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looks a bit scraggly, but seemed to be finding all kinds of things to peck at or eat on a walnut tree. I’m thinking it’s just a gawky adolescent.
Look at the lovely pattern its wing made as it flew off.
And here’s a home photo of an adult Downy to show how much more “together” an adult downy can look!
By the way, if you live in a house with wood siding as we do, you may be frustrated by a male Downy drumming on your house. According to Cornell Lab, the Downy isn’t feeding, which means you don’t have bugs in the siding. This is the Downy’s way of singing; it uses percussion to attract a mate. Of course, they’re still making holes in your wood!
New Fierce but Fascinating Predators Arrive at Bear Creek!
I’m referring, of course, to Dragonflies. Right now, the BIGGESTof these drone-like insects, called “Darners” (after the large needles), are hatching out of the ponds and patrolling the fields of Bear Creek. They can be three to five inches long and have a wingspan slightly larger than their body. I’m quite confident that this is a Lance-tipped Darner (Aeshna constricta ) we saw Sunday along the western sloping path. Dragonflies are notoriously difficult to identify, however, so feel free to correct me!
I’m quite sure that I saw a Swamp Darner (Epiaeschna heros) zooming over the Old Field off the eastern path earlier this week. Here’s a photo of a non-zooming Swamp Darner from a couple of years ago.
Of course, regular dragonflies are hatching out of the ponds as well. Dragonflies successfully snatch out of the air 95% of their prey, (especially mosquitoes!) and consume them on the wing. Lions, for example, only catch their prey 25% of the time and Great White Sharks only 50%, so we’re talking about very successful predators here! How about this face?! This is a common dragonfly, the White-Faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum.)
On a sweeter insect note, we also were gifted with the sight of two Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) mating. We couldn’t determine which gender is larger, but there is quite a size difference! Here are two photos, as they synchronized opening and closing their wings.
Native Wildflowers Assert Themselves as the Summer Warms
The second half of the summer ushers in a big bloom of native wildflowers. In the hot sunlight of high summer, prairie flowers flourish, since long ago, much of Oakland Township’s land was prairie. I recommend bringing your lunch, sitting on the hilltop benches at the south end of the park, and just enjoying the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) as they sway in the wind.
And right across the path, another native, Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) bloom in happy profusion.
Large lavender swaths of Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), also known as Bee Balm, keep company with these other two. This wildflower is certainly a “balm” to bees since you rarely see a group of them without seeing bees busily probing the hearts of these fun, “bad hair day” flowers! Like the native plants I mentioned last week, Bergamot has been considered a medicinal plant and was used as an antiseptic by Native Americans.
CAUTIONARY NOTE FROM OAKLAND TOWNSHIP PARKS AND RECREATION: DO NOT pick or consume wild plants in our parks. In addition to being potentially poisonous, many wild plants are endangered because of over-harvesting. Oakland Township ordinances prohibit removal, destruction, and harvesting of plants within parks. Leave plants for wildlife and other park users to enjoy!
In the native flowerbed near the shed, some glorious plants are blooming for your enjoyment as well. Look at these lovely native False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoides).
And tall plumes of native Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba), standing in the sunlight, hum with pollinating bumblebees.
Nearby, a native plant with an exotic flower also grows tall in the flowerbed by the shed. It’s Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa) and with a flower like this, it should be called wild!
And look how they grow in profusion along the stalk of the plant!
And here’s one last exotic-looking native shrub that I’ve always loved. My parents backyard which backed up to the Paint Creek Cemetery used to be full of native Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) which always looked to me like it belonged in the tropics! No, it’s not poisonous. Here’s a link where you can see that Poison Sumac looks completely different and lives in wet areas, unlike this sumac that is at the edge of the woods next to the western sloping path.
One of the tallest native wildflowers is just barely starting to bloom among the Yellow Coneflowers at the top of the southern hill. Prairie Dock has HUGE leathery leaves and can reach 10 feet in height. You can see the tall stalk with its round buds towering over the other plants in the sunlit native flower bed near the shed as well.
Here’s the first beginnings of a bloom out by the benches on the southern hilltop.
So bring a lunch and/or a friend and hang out with the avian adolescents on the lane this week or simply sit on the benches at the top of the southern hill and watch the Yellow Coneflowers sway and listen to the hum of bees in the Bee Balm. You deserve to nourish yourself with a lazy afternoon at Bear Creek Nature Park!