Tag Archives: Yellow Coneflower

Charles Ilsley Park: Hardy Companions, Tracking the Unseen and the Ghosts of Flowers Past

Charles Ilsley Park’s Northern Prairie, as seen from the spring-fed pond in the center of the park.

I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the  brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of  birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.

Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?

Stalks of Indian Grass forming a scrim as I look across the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!

The two-toned bill, breast spot, eye-line and chestnut cap are the Tree Sparrow’s field marks.

Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact  with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.

Part of a large flock, of Tree Sparrows feeding in the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.

The bent stalk  of a Black-eyed Susan near the ground makes it easier for the  Tree sparrows to get at the seed.

Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.

A male Eastern Bluebird paused from preening for just a few seconds while sitting in the brush near the tree line.

The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit”  call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.

The female bluebird gave a little signal call to her preening mate as I approached.

At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank”  call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.)  It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.

A White-breasted Nuthatch probed the bark on a dead limb for hidden insects or their eggs.

Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…

Some pretty striking tracks greeted me in the center field of the park.

As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks.  I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.

I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do.  They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.

Coyote tracks across the western prairie

Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.

A coyote print in iced-over snow.

I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.

The entrance to the farthest west section of Charles Ilsley Park with its rolling land and woods.

This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.

The coyotes prints entering the western section of the park.

After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.

The coyote heads off into the woods in the western part of Charles Ilsley Park.

It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie.  The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another.  I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.

The coyote’s tracks flowed over the slopes.

At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.

A flat area under the bushes and vines on the right looked like it could be a place where the coyote spent the night out of the wind.

Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.

A trackless pond beyond the one where the coyote’s tracks ended

I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.

The very tall, very straight trunk and furrowed bark of a Tulip-tree

Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.

The dried blossoms of a Tulip-tree which always blooms on the highest branches. 

Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.

Red buds high on a Silver Maple will swell and offer up one of the first bright colors of spring.

As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters.  The tracks around it were hard to read .  I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks  above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times.  Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene.  Just a guess.

A heavily tracked spot on the western prairie trail

One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.

A place where a squirrel may have dug up a nut or seed – or perhaps a coyote found a mouse before bedtime?

The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.

Coyote tracks running through the furrows of the private field on the west side of the park.

If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others.  Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie.  It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.

Mouse tracks that look like stitching disappearing into a hole in the snow.

On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought  a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface.  Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water  or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.

Tracks left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had also trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.)

The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring

I’ve begun  learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers.  Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?

Yellow Coneflower and Canada Wild Rye in late fall.

Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.

Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.

For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much.  I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.

I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.

I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden.  They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters  is represented in the winter photo below  because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling.  (Use pause button for captions.)

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Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.

Well, that’s a start.  I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue  (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!

A young Field Sparrow on Foxglove Beardtongue in Charles Ilsley Park’s Eastern Prairie.

See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…

Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk

It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning.  There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.

Lost Lake Nature Park: Big Birds, Small Creatures and a Forest Full of Mushrooms!

Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) dotted the surface of Lost Lake in the last few weeks.

I’m so glad that Lost Lake Nature Park isn’t really lost.  It’s such a different sort of nature park. The round, blue eye of the kettle lake stares up into the sky. Lately, water birds have been feeding and making practice flights as they prepare to depart for warmer climes. Steep forested hills stretch around the lake like a friendly arm. And, I discovered to my delight, the oak-pine forest sprouts a surprising number of mushrooms in the autumn!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I took several different kinds of trips to this interesting little park in September – once or twice on my own, once with the birding group and once with a group of avid mushroom hunters assisted by two well-informed guides who discerned the edible from the inedible. Such a diverse little park with its tall native grasses in the summer and its sledding hills in the winter – and something new to discover on every visit!

Around the Lake: Migrators Feed and Fly

Far across the lake one cool morning, a strangely gaunt Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodius) spread its wings for takeoff. I hoped that its ragged head and breast meant that it was simply molting, since I’ve read that they do a complete molt in early fall.

A gaunt Great Blue Heron. I’m hoping the appearance is due to molting!

I observed that its wing feathers were largely intact. The heron finally took a few turns around the pond and seemed to fly quite gracefully. So maybe if it was molting, this bird can complete its molt, eat heartily at Lost Lake and still successfully winter in Florida. I sure hope so.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Across the pond, at the same moment, a healthier-looking Great Egret (Ardea alba) took its time fishing, before it too took a few turns around the pond as if exercising its flight muscles before migrating.

A fishing Egret suddenly rose into the air and took a quick turn around the pond.
The yellow bill and black legs mark it as Great Egret. And how about that green eye, eh?

Hearing a high trilling call, I looked around for a Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). For a while, I saw nothing on the muddy flats. But finally I spotted it near some bright green grass, assiduously poking its beak into the muddy shallows at one end of the pond. So often I can’t spot these little birds until they move because they blend so nicely with their surroundings!

A Killdeer searches for insect larvae, snails or beetles in the muddy shallows of the lake.

The Wednesday birders spotted a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) steaming quickly across the lake. So clumsy on land, these furry fellows can really get moving using those swaying tails for propulsion. We birders watched it swim by and it gave us the eye as well!

A muskrat steaming across Lost Lake while keeping an eye on the birders.

As I approached the dock on one visit, I heard a loud “Squeeeak” followed by a watery “plop!” And there under the edge of the dock crouched an alarmed Northern Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans melanota). It may have been a juvenile, since I’ve read that the young are more likely to squeak when caught off guard. Evidently other frogs, like Bullfrogs and Leopard frogs, are also known to make this odd sound, which is much like the noise that results from stepping on a plastic toy!

A Green Frog squeaked loudly as it leapt to a safer perch underneath the dock.

On the other side of the dock, two small red Meadowhawk  dragonflies  (genus Sympetrum) found a convenient lily pad on which to mate. As usual, the male held the female’s head firmly with pincers on its tail as mating commenced. These two seem to be Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum), but there are several red Meadowhawks that look very much alike so I can’t be sure. A short time later they took off flying, still attached, while some frustrated males hovered nearby.

Meadowhawk dragonflies mating on a lily pad at Lost Lake

Throughout September, the lake was fringed with colorful native wildflowers that bloomed vigorously after last spring’s prescribed burn. These beauties have quite interesting names: Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Sneeze-weed (Helenium autumnale), Smooth Blue Aster  (Symphyotrichum laeve), Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa), Beggar-tick (genus Bidens)Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata). (Use pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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In the Moist, Low Areas of the Forest

The rolling woods surrounding Lost Lake

The light sifts through the tree canopy on the hills that surround Lost Lake. If you take a hike up the sledding hill, or reach the top by following the path through the woods, you’re treated to a view of the undulating forest floor. In summer, the sunny side of the sledding hill is a-buzz with dragonflies, butterflies and native wildflowers. But at this time of the year, the lower, moist areas of the forest draw my attention.

Almost any movement out the corner of my eye turns out to be a Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipping along a log or quickly diving into hollow tree trunks. This one had scored a nice big nut in its bulging cheeks.

A Chipmunk with its mouth stretched around a sizable nut!

As we birders passed by the woods near the road, a young fawn waited in the shade for its mother’s return. Female White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) leave their young for long stretches because their adult scent can attract predators, whereas the young have little or no scent.

A fawn waits for its mother’s return in the woods at Long Lake Nature Park.

In the woods, I saw a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) chased away from a huge tree hole by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). The hole was big enough for a raccoon, so I think they must both have been interested for other reasons than nesting next spring! The birds were much too far away for a good shot with my camera in the dim light of the woods. But luckily, I saw this male Flicker hunting in short grass later in the week so you can at least see him up close.

A male Flicker with its black “mustache.”

There are a few shade-loving, late season flowers in the forest now, like the modest Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and Calico Aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). I’m always happy to see any native blooms on these cool gray days, especially on the forest floor where, because of deer, wildflowers are rarer than they used to be.

The Stars of the Show – the Mushrooms!

About 20 of us attended a mushroom identification workshop hosted by the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Department. Two experienced guides from Michigan Mushroom Hunters Club, Phil Tedeschi and Jerry Watson, helped us identify an amazing variety of mushrooms one cool, windy September morning. I admit to not even knowing that mushrooms were plentiful in cool weather! We first learned that mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of certain types of fungi. Most of the fungus grows in the soil or wood, but when conditions are right for reproduction, these fungi will send up mushrooms to produce spores! After an informative lecture,  we meandered heads-down through the lowlands of the forest as our guides identified one mushroom after another. The workshop and its handouts were packed with detailed information, but here are a few highlights I want to share:

Note: Picking plants, animals, fungi, and other natural parts of our natural areas violates park rules. Please leave them to grow, and for others to see and enjoy!

Safety first! Advice from the Mushroom Workshop Handout

A toxic Amanita mushroom that I saw weeks ago at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

When in doubt, throw it out! Take an expert with you until you’ve really learned about mushrooms, which can take some time. Learn the Amanita mushrooms and don’t eat any of them! When eating a wild mushroom for the first time, always take only a small bite and refrigerate the rest, so you’ll have a specimen if you get a reaction. Never eat wild mushrooms raw. Do not eat decomposing or worm-eaten mushrooms. Don’t pick mushrooms from contaminated sites.  Eat wild mushrooms in moderate quantities.

A Sampling of the Fabulous Fungi We Found

The Pigskin Poisonous Puffball (Scleroderma citrinum). Puffballs, common mushrooms, are generally edible, our guide said. But NOT if they are the ones that are black inside!

Cortinarius mushrooms (genus Cortinarius) are generally toxic. The few that aren’t toxic are hard to identify, so best to avoid them all!

The Bluing Bolete (Suillellus luridus) turns blue when the underside is scored. Unfortunately, there are many look-alikes, one of which is toxic. So it’s best not to eat them unless you have a definite ID, and then only when cooked. The raw ones can cause gastric upset.

Some Russula Mushrooms (genus Russula) are perfectly edible; others aren’t. So again, be sure to have a reliable expert guide you! Our guide told me this one was Hygrophorus russula which is edible, though it was a bit too old to eat. As you can see, it’s a gilled mushroom. The gills produce the spores (a mushroom’s “seeds”) which drop down  and are carried away on the wind.

We did find “for sure” edible mushrooms.

We found several edible mushrooms, too, but my notes weren’t clear enough, I’m afraid in most cases. My excuse is that I was taking photos, listening and trying to type in my phone at the same time! But the Cinnabar Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus) is definitely edible.

A few more fascinating fungi that may or may not be edible!

Inky Caps (Coprinopsis atramentaria) start out bell-shaped like this and then flatten out. The guide told us they often grow on animal dung from the previous year, which kind of makes them a bit less appetizing in my book.

Old Man of the Woods (Strobilomyces strobilaceus) suits its colorful name. Sources say it’s edible, but most think the taste isn’t worth the trouble. It’s a polypore mushroom, meaning it drops its spores from the openings (pores) at the end of tubes on the underside.

The birders spotted these tiny mushrooms with black stems on our Lost Lake Nature Park hike. According to the Mushroom Identification Facebook group, they are from the genus Marasmius, family Marasmiaceae, to which Shitake mushrooms(Lentinula edodes) belong – but I have no idea if these tiny mushrooms are edible. And they sure don’t look like Shitakes, do they?

Marasmius mushrooms which may be in the same family as Shitakes but may or may not be edible.

Whether edible or not, fungi have their uses.  As the presenters pointed out, humans use them for dyes, cheeses, yogurts, wine, beer, breads (yeast!) among other uses. The “saprotrophic” mushrooms, which include the famous Portobello mushroom (Agaricus bisporus),  are the recyclers of the forest. Along with bacteria, they decompose dead organic matter (plant or animal), thereby releasing carbon, nitrogen and essential minerals back to the soil. “Mycorrhizal” fungi, of which the toxic Amanitas are a member, partner with trees and plants to create giant webbed networks that gather essential nutrients and moisture for the trees/plants and may allow them to chemically communicate as well. The fungi benefit by feeding on the sugars that the plants can create through photosynthesis. So fungi deserve our thanks, even when they don’t end up on our dinner plates!

Native Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem and Indian Grass growing at the bottom of the sledding hill.

So much to enjoy at this little park. In winter, the sledding hills fill with the laughter of big folks and little ones careening down the slopes. And in all the other seasons, the lake, the forest and the grassy hill host nesting birds, frogs, dragonflies, the occasional mink, native wildflowers – and humans, of course! Some learn to kayak or how to use a stand-up paddleboard at this park. Some practice yoga. And some come to bird watch or just take a short hike through a variety of habitats. Whether you come to meet friends, a squeaking frog or strange-looking mushroom, Lost Lake Nature Park will welcome you and send you home smiling. I can almost guarantee it.

For information on the nature programming at Lost Lake Nature done in partnership with Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve, click here, or click here for other fall nature programs at Lost Lake and all our parks.

Photos of the Week: Hungry Fledglings and Prairies Bursting with Color

Mid-summer on the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

The north and east prairies at Charles Ilsley Park get more glorious each summer as restoration brings the return of colorful wildflowers blooming again in their native soil. Great sweeps of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) stare  up into the blue sky surrounded by the tousled, lavender blossoms of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and flat, compact cushions of white Yarrow (Achillea millefolium).

Sweeps of Black-eyed Susans intermingle with Bee Balm and Yarrow on the Eastern Prairie

 Tall Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in even the slightest breeze.

Yellow Coneflowers tower over the carpet of color on the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley.

The peaceful  beauty of these undulating prairies on a summer afternoon is mesmerizing. The nodding dance of flowers and the flutter of butterflies among them soothe the spirit much like the sight and sound of a peaceful ocean –  but with such a variety of color and movement! Wonderful!

Last Sunday along the entrance trail, young Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) perched high on a dead branch, waiting to be fed. They begged in the usual fledgling fashion, fluttering their small wings rapidly and calling. Finally, a parent arrived (lower left in the photo below), settled and seemed to be considering which to feed first.

Then the adult swooped out across the meadow, gathering insects in its open beak. It returned and managed a short mid-air pause, beating its wings vigorously as it speedily popped food into one of the open beaks.

Then off went mom or dad again to scoop up more bugs! Such a challenging job to feed all four of those hungry youngsters! (One is behind the lowest branch.)

In the center of the park, where restoration planting happened just weeks ago, the melt ponds are drying up, leaving a strange, foamy surface. Water is so crucial for wildlife that it’s always a reliable spot to find something interesting.

A slim bird that I believe was a young Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), with its naturally worried look, poked along the edge of the pond.  The Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol 2) describes juvenile Killdeer as “very similar to adults except that their upper feathers are margined with lighter edges, their dark neck bands are narrower and often gray or brown instead of black.” I think this one fits that description. Do you agree? Once the young are ready to be on their own, their parents breed again. But the male keeps an eye on the youngsters from the first brood from a distance, while the female incubates the new eggs.

A young Killdeer was not quite as adept at finding food yet. Its parent may feed it as evening comes on.

Two fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), with just a touch of blue on their wings,  watched the killdeer from a small, bare tree nearby. No foraging for them right then. Perhaps they were hoping a parent would come to stuff their beaks like the swallows, but at the moment, no such luck. Like the Killdeer adults, their busy parents may also be encouraging their first brood to feed on their own while the adults start a second. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Some adult birds hung out near the pond as well. A Green Heron (Butorides virescens) was so intent on feeding that it flew toward us to find some open water.

This heron was a skilled fisher! It found a bounty of food in the drying pond. Watch below as it stalks and then catches what appears to be a crayfish nymph. (Use the pause button if you need more time for captions.)

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The fiercely territorial Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) looked remarkably unruffled by the other species exploring the resources of the pond below. And nearby in a tree at the edge of the center field, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) looked as though it must have been preening vigorously since its feather were very ruffled! Drat those feather mites!

Summer turned into an unusually busy time for me this year. So I relish escaping into our parks, where I can watch young birds learn the ropes of feeding, or just quietly enjoy the way Yellow Coneflowers sway above a multi-colored prairie. I recommend it to you as a peaceful alternative to a day at the beach.

Photos of the Week: Restoring Nature’s Beauty with Fire? Yep!

Ben VanderWeide, Alex Kriebel and Volunteers Vinnie Morganti, Jim Lloyd and Parks Commissioner Dan Simon at Marshview Park for a “controlled burn.”

This week, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, Stewardship Specialist Alex Kriebel and a team of trained volunteers created a controlled burn around the sports fields at Marshview Park.  Our native plant species are adapted to fire after living for thousands of years with fire on the landscape. While lightning-sparked fires probably occurred occasionally, most fires in the last few thousand years were sparked by humans. The Native Americans in southern Michigan regularly used fire to clear and fertilize land for agriculture and to attract deer and other wildlife with tender, new growth, an early method of herding. As a result, our grasses and wildflowers have evolved to thrive after a burn. In fact, some grow only sparsely until a fire triggers them to emerge,  bloom and seed. And luckily, many of the invasive species in our parks, which didn’t evolve with burning, are weakened by fire.

The burn process begins after the crew reviews safety procedures and checks the wind, making sure that weather conditions allow the smoke to rise as quickly as possible to minimize effects on neighbors. Then fire breaks are created or double-checked where necessary by mowing or raking around the edges of the burn area. This gets rid of fuel that would allow the fire to spread where not wanted. In the case of the sports fields, the green grass and paths provided ready-made fire breaks.

The green grass of the sports field and the pathways provide fire breaks during a controlled burn.

Some members of the fire crew, under Ben’s supervision, use drip torch canisters to spread fire, creating a low creeping flame.

Volunteer Vinnie Morganti with a drip torch used to spread fire.

Others carry water tanks on their backs to spray trees or bushes that need protection and to put out all smoldering embers when the burn is complete.

Dr. Ben with a water tank to protect trees and put out smoldering embers
A volunteer drips fire while another crew member sprays trees and puts out embers
The fire spreads slowly across the burn area

The result will be burgeoning growth of native plants, including wildflowers and grasses.  After the first controlled burn in spring of 2016, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) made an appearance at Marshview Park.  Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) burst forth in the summer along with the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose huge leaves follow the sun during each summer day. (Photo below by Aaron Gunnar of inaturalist.org)  And in autumn, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) made a glorious,  royal purple show around the edges of the sports fields while Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native grass, filled the parking lot islands with its graceful russet stems. (Use the pause button if you can’t see the captions).

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And with these native plants come insects that nourish birds and other native wildlife, while the increase in beautiful butterflies delights the human eye.  So, yes, controlled burning paradoxically helps us restore the wild diversity of beauty that is Oakland Township’s natural heritage.

Lost Lake Nature Park: Fishers of all Kinds, a Tree’s Generous Afterlife and a Lively Meadow

Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) in Lost Lake

Lost Lake Nature Park, a small 58 acre park probably best known for its sledding hills, hums with life in every season. Right now, fishers of all sorts – birds, animals and humans – are testing their skills against the fish in its 8-acre kettle lake. In the meadow that slopes upward along the sledding hill, dragonflies bask on dried flower heads in early fall sun while a crane fly dances over the soil, laying her eggs among tall native grasses and bright wildflowers. And deep in the woods that cover the slopes, an old tree stump sustains a vivid collection of life. On every short trip this month, Lost Lake sent me home with a little something special.

Around the Lake: Fishers, Flowers and Frogs

On each of my visits, Green Herons (Butorides virescens) foraged and flew at Lost Lake. On my first visit, a young Green Heron stood at the corner of the dock, surveying the eastern pond in the late afternoon sun. The telltale field marks are the streaked side of its head and breast, its greenish yellow legs and its smaller size. Two adult Green Herons flew overhead, giving their distinctive alarm flight call (at this Cornell link under “advertising call”) and later I saw them more  closely in a wetland down the road. The adults are a bit more glamorous than their young, I’d say.

A young Green Heron peruses the far side of the pond from the dock.
A mature Green Heron flew to a marsh nearby

On my second visit, the herons were only visible through binoculars on the far side of the lake. But the third time, I was rewarded. A very young green heron, about half the size of an adult, landed in the pond, flew to a mud flat fairly near the dock and began to fish. I watched this skillful youngster successfully snag a meal twice, and then watched as it struggled to swallow its trophies, as you’ll see in the slideshow below. (Use pause button to read longer captions.)

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On my last visit, a small green heron again appeared, perhaps the same one, this time flying above the head of a fishing  Great Egret (Ardea alba).

A small Green Heron flies behind a fishing Great Egret

The egret was also a successful fisher, though swallowing took no apparent effort for this elegant bird with a long graceful neck. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I was leaving the deck one afternoon, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned, an American Mink (Neovison vison) paused at the end of the dock before slipping away into the tall grass. I’d never been that close to a mink before. Quite exciting! Mink always live near water and do lots of fishing, eating crayfish, frogs, and fish as well as rodents and occasionally birds or their eggs. A mink coat, with its dark sheen of guard hairs, looks best on this little creature, I think. Since the mink moved too quickly for a photo, I’ve borrowed one from a gifted and generous photographer at iNaturalist who uses the name DigiBirdTrek.

An American Mink, photo by DigiBirdTrek (CC-BY-NC-SA) found at iNaturalist.org

On two afternoons over Labor Day weekend, human fishers showed up at Lost Lake as well – a threesome one day and a young couple another.  Not sure if they were as successful as the green heron!

Human fishers enjoy Lost Lake as well.

With all those fishers, it’s not surprising that this tiny green frog squeaked and leapt into the pond as I walked off the dock one afternoon. It may have been a young Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus), since it has a fold around the tympanum rather than a ridge running back from the eye, which would indicate a Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). Small bullfrogs are also more prone to squeaking when alarmed; I’ve never heard a squeak from a small green frog.  I’m open to correction, though, since we can see so little of this small frog.

Admittedly, the pond is not at its best right now in terms of flowers. Many of the water lilies closest to the shore have withered into a brown mass and the brown leaves of some Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) stalks protrude from the water near the shore. But in the distance, the water lilies float on a bed of green (see above) and in some places, the lovely lavender plumes of the pickerel weed still stand tall with their huge, graceful leaves. Along the shore, the sunny ball-shaped heads of Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) nod in the breeze near the delicate purple chevrons of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

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Down the road, at the same wetland where I saw the mature Green Heron, an elusive family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) caught my eye. On each trip, I’d notice a threesome of young ducks being shepherded by the male parent.  This dad wanted nothing to do with me and quickly herded his family around a bend, or behind greenery at the edge of the water. But one day I was able to catch two fairly good shots of dad and his three offspring.

Into the Woods: A Blackened Stump with Vivid Life and Some Clever Seeds

The path into the woods at Lost Lake in dappled afternoon light

The path into the woods starts at the end of the driveway that runs in front of the caretaker’s home, and you’re welcome to use it.  It’s a short, uphill path that is quite steep at the end and then runs quickly downward as you descend the sledding hill. The forest floor is deep green and beautifully dappled by sunlight.

On the dry, wooded hillsides,  some native grasses and wildflowers are beginning to create and disperse seed. The long graceful pods of Sicklepod (Boechera canadensis), a native member of the mustard family, crack open when dry, releasing a long line of seeds to the wind. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), another native, is appropriately named; according to the Minnesota wildflower site, its seed “jumps off the stem at the slightest touch,” sometimes as much as 10-13 feet. Cluster-leaved Tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) makes cool fruits called loments that have little pods with one seed each that travel by sticking to anything that comes close. And an old fave, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), sends its seeds flying on arrow-shaped “awns” that can actually stick upright in the earth when they land. Plant evolution has produced some very creative ways to spread seed!

At the bottom of the hill, in the deeper shade of a wetland, I discovered an old black stump that hosted a variety of brightly colored life. According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the insect and fungal life of felled stumps and logs help the forest by breaking down the nutrients held in the trees’ wood for hundreds of years. The process of decomposition can take as long as the life of the tree – in the case of oaks, up to 300 years! And eventually those released nutrients feed the tree’s offspring and other trees and plants. Well, this old tree stump, a White Pine (Pinus strobus), was busy doing just that. Its surface presented all kinds of colorful life that was busy working to break down its nutrients or using it for shelter.

A tree stump hosting lots of life in the forest at Lost Lake – harvestmen, ants, moss and mushrooms.

What originally caught my eye was a group of tiny, deep orange/red mushrooms.  I couldn’t determine the species of these mushrooms, though they could be an early stage of the Jack-o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) featured recently at Bear Creek. A few minutes later a second spot of red caught my eye. A group of Harvesters (order Opiliones, suborder Eupnoi), which are arachnids, but not spiders, scrambled around the inside of the stump. The one below came festooned with tiny bright red mites! And then I spotted a ruby red ant, whose species I was unable to discern.  And a lovely patch of green and orange moss with its sporophytes tipped with the capsules that contain its spores graced the flat top surface like a miniature forest. Quite a colorful bunch of creatures, bryophytes (mosses), and fungi working and living on this old stump!

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Down the Hill to the Meadow – Basking Dragonflies, A Dancing Crane Fly, Wildflowers and Native Grasses

A soft lavender bank of Bee Balm (Monard didyma) still blooming near the caretakers’ lawn before you enter the woods

Wildflowers are still blooming in glorious color on the steep sledding hill, the small meadow below it and a short distance from the pond. A few Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) hang on nearby, their drooping petals still golden in early autumn light, along with some Smooth Asters with their dark red or yellow centers (Symphyotrichum laeve). Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), both late summer/autumn wildflowers, are being visited by native bumblebees. Pale/Thin-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus), that love the forest edge,  shine bright under the trees as you approach the wood. An Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), with its four-parted stigma forming the characteristic x-shape, stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. Near the entrance to the woods, the slender pods of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of shady savannas, will eventually dry and break open to release their seeds to the wind. Among the flowers, native grasses sway, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is now flowering and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which has started to form its seeds.

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Among these grasses, a group of Autumn Dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) rested on dried flower heads, needing a bit more sun on cool days. This species has a little cloud of yellow near the base of the hindwing. They hatch out in August and September, providing more late summer color. Mature males are the easiest to spot with their red abdomen. Juvenile males (in closeup below) have a yellow thorax and a yellowish brown abdomen, according to Wikipedia. And the females (second and fourth from the left  in the photo at the far right below) have a brown thorax and a brownish/red abdomen. I find it hard to distinguish between females and juvenile males in Autumn dragonflies,  so feel free to correct me!

One of the oddest sights at Lost Lake occurred on my last visit. I saw something with very long legs dancing vertically, up and down, above small holes in the earth between the grass stems. Eventually, after developing and cropping a lot of photos and doing online research, it became clear that I’d been seeing a Tiger Crane Fly (Tipula dorsalis) laying her eggs in the soil. Taking photos of a crane fly rapidly jumping up and down is a bit challenging, but if you look closely, I hope you can see her curving, vertical body as she pokes the needle-sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen into the soil. Her narrow wings and very long legs were splayed in every direction as she danced from one hole to another, laying potentially hundreds of eggs. Click this link  from bugguide.net for a much better photo than mine!

A Tiger Crane fly holds herself vertically as she jumps into and out of a hole in the earth, laying her eggs.

By the way, crane flies are gangly, harmless creatures who can’t bite or sting humans or animals as the unrelated mosquitoes do. Crane flies live only 10-15 days and drink nectar, if they eat all (some don’t!). The only damage they do is in their larval form, when the caterpillars, called “leatherjackets,” do eat some turf grasses and agricultural plants.

The Persistence of Life

Despite the ravages of early September – hurricanes one after another, wildfires, earthquakes – here in the protected natural areas of Oakland Township, life persists. The young green heron successfully fishes its food from among the water lilies. In forest shade, the flowers and grasses produce seed, relying on another spring to foster the next generation. A crane fly dances above the earth, seeing to it that their offspring still float over the grass stalks when summer comes again. And what about us?  Well, of course, we’re members too in that community of life on earth. I like the thought that as you and I foster and nourish that community, we’re doing our part to see that life persists on this little blue planet.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.