Tag Archives: Yellow-legged Autumn dragonfly

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.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: November’s Austere Beauty at Draper Twin Lake Park

Trees on Prairie Draper
Autumn color lined the prairie restoration at Draper Twin Lake Park in late October
Cam walking into BC
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

My last blog on Draper Twin Lake Park was in April. So I thought it was high time to return there to share how its lake, wetlands and prairie transform in autumn. I began the first week in November, just before the first hard frost,  and ended in the cold, gray days before Thanksgiving. Autumn brings such dramatic changes. Brilliant leaves, hardy fall flowers, migrating birds and insects give way to  winter birds and the quiet, brown-and-gray austerity of November.

In the April blog, I explained, with a map, the three sections of Draper – the western lake section, the central large marsh that separates the two hiking areas, and the eastern marsh/prairie section. You can refresh you memory at this link, if you like. So join me for a series of  virtual  hikes in this unusual tripartite park to watch nature hunkering down for winter.

The Western Trail to Draper Twin Lake: Early November

Sunset Draper Lake
Draper Twin Lake in early November

As you can see above, the lake was beautifully calm one early November afternoon. An angler at the fishing dock that day shared his excitement from the previous day when he’d caught a 25 inch Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) there.  In the photo above, you can see the water circles made by something surfacing and by the angler’s line in the water, but luck wasn’t with him that afternoon.

In the distance, a pair of Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) floated peacefully along the far shore, apparently unconcerned about the angler and his line.

Swans across Draper Lake
Mute Swans across Draper Lake

The grace of these non-native birds is irresistible, but how I wish I could see native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) in our township parks. In childhood, I saw one on a pond near Orion Road, but they aren’t common. The more aggressive Mute Swans have affected their numbers by commanding the prime nesting sites. And native trumpeter swans were almost wiped out in the 19th century by two forces –  the fashion industry that coveted their feathers and the hunting of muskrats and beavers whose lodges made dry nesting places for native swans then as they do for Canada Geese today.

In the water alongside the dock, a few fruits of the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) remained on their dark stalks. I wish I’d experienced this native plant’s pink blossoms and sweet fragrance when it was in bloom.  (Here’s an Illinois Wildflowers link to a photo.) Aren’t the bright crimson spots of the rose hips pretty against the silvery dried grasses in the marsh?

Berries in marsh Draper
The rose hips of Swamp Rose in the water off the edge of the fishing deck

Some yellow and lavender leaves crowded the railing at the end of the dock near the shore. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, identified them as possibly the stems of a small Basswood tree. I wonder if the deer and rabbits that like to eat Basswood saplings during the winter will let this one grow. Basswood is fine-grained and soft so it’s often been used by whittlers to carve small objects like children’s toys.

Mystery plant draper 2
The autumn colors of a small Basswood tree near the edge of the lake

When I headed back to the western parking lot in early November, many of the autumn leaves along the trail were still russet and golden.

Trail from lake
Trees and bushes along the trail back to the parking lot were still leafed in russet and yellow.

One of the last insects of autumn, a Yellow-legged Meadowhawk/Autumn dragonfly, flitted down the trail, keeping me company as I headed back from the lake. Its clear wings with their brush of orange at the base, as well as its orange-red body provide good camouflage once it lands on a fallen leaf.

Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly Draper DTL
A Yellow-legged Meadowhawk/Autumn dragonfly almost disappears against a fallen leaf

After an afternoon shower, I saw a Bur Oak leaf (Quercus macrocarpa) along the trail beaded in silver raindrops.

Leaf with raindrops Draper
The leaf of a Bur Oak beaded after a rain.

On the way out of the parking lot, a cheerful “family” of Shaggy Mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) stood at attention at the edge of the parking lot.  The overnight appearance of mushrooms on autumn days  almost makes up for the thinning out of wildflowers.

Family of Shaggy Mane Mushrooms Draper Lake
A “family” of Shaggy Mane mushrooms at the edge of the Draper parking lot in early November

The Western Trail to the Lake:  Late November

A week or so later, I returned to the lake near sunset and the view had changed quite dramatically but was still very lovely.

Sunset at Draper marsh Late
Sunset at Draper Lake at sundown a bit later in the week

The Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife that surrounds the fishing dock had gone to seed. Ben identified this native wildflower for me and called it “a very nice plant to see in wetlands and around the margins of lakes.” It had purple blossoms in the summer and now made a graceful silhouettes against the autumn reflections in the lake.

 

mystery plant draper lake
Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife silhouetted against fall reflections in Draper Lake

The pointed male section at the top of Cat-tails (genus Typha) had fertilized the female “brown-suede” section below earlier in the summer. Now huge plumes shed their seeds at the edge of the dock in the rosy light of an autumn sunset.

Seeding cat-tail Draper
A seeding cat-tail at sunset

By late November, the pair of swans had probably departed for points south and one breezy afternoon, a trio of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) took their place on Draper Lake. They drifted with the wind, dipping their long necks below the surface periodically to feed on submerged vegetation.

3 Geese Drifting Draper
In late November, three Canada Geese drifted effortlessly down the pond, carried by the wind.

The Shaggy Mane mushroom family had disappeared, as mushrooms can do so suddenly and completely. But as I got back to the parking lot on my later visit, some orange mushrooms glowed in the distance on a dead branch. My best guess is that they are toxic Jack O’Lantern  mushrooms (Omphalotus illudens) which cluster on dead wood in the fall. But I’m no mushroom expert so feel free to correct me!

Orange mushroom closeup Draper
Possibly the toxic Jack O’Lantern mushroom which appears on dead wood in autumn

The Eastern Trail to the Marsh and Prairie:  Early November

Heading east from the lake section of the park, past the big marsh on the left, you reach a driveway near the crest of hill where a gray building and a small parking lot indicate you’ve reached the  the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park. As you head off down the trail on the left, in the distance you can see the big central marsh through the trees.

Central Marsh Draper
West side of Draper’s circular path with the central marsh in distance

In early November, a few fall wildflowers were still in bloom along this part of the trail. As I set off, I thought I saw a bee probing a blossom of a fall aster (genus Symphotrichum) but on closer inspection, it was one of many Hoverflies (family Syrphidae) that mimic the bee’s appearance, perhaps to ward off predators. Bees were noticeably absent.   Presumably non-native European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) had already retreated to their hives inside nearby trees and native Bumblebee queens (genus Bombus) were settling into their individual underground burrows.

Hover Fly on Daisy Fleabane Draper
A Hoverfly on a hardy stalk of a fall aster one early November day

Crawling into that blossom above is another insect that was new to me.  I got a clearer shot of the Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata) as I watched  the  Eastern Yellow Jacket (Vespula maculifrons) below foraging for nectar on a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa). The beetle’s lime green thorax, spotted abdomen and striped antennae make it look like a cartoon insect, but it’s a major pest for farmers. These bright green beetles attack a variety of crops, including cucumbers and soybeans, and their caterpillars (or larvae) drill down to eat the roots of young plants. Here at Draper, though, this one seemed to just be searching for food quite peaceably with its neighbors, the wasp and hoverfly.

Spotted Cucumber Beetle Yellow Jacket wasp DL
A Spotted Cucumber Beetle and a Yellow Jacket wasp share the last of the Showy Goldenrod

As you round that first curve in the trail, there’s a “floating mat” marsh to your right. In the center of this marsh is a tightly woven tangle of plants and roots with water running beneath it – and shrubs as well as individual plants thrive on this mat.

Draper Marsh from southeast
A view of Draper marsh which has a “floating mat” at its center

Before the first frost, Ben’s birding group was still seeing a few migrating sparrows on this path.  The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), which probably raised its young in Canada, was traveling to southern Ohio and beyond for the winter.  (Note the yellow “lores” at the corner of the eyes.)

white-throated-sparrow-1-of-1
A White-throated Sparrow on its way south from its breeding grounds in Canada

Ben’s group spotted a Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) as well. It has longer legs than other sparrows so it can wade into water. It will actually put its whole head under the surface to fish out small invertebrates. It was on its way south, too.

Swamp sparrow
The Swamp Sparrow has longer legs than other sparrows so it can wade into the water to fish for small invertebrates.

After turning the corner at the north end of this path, you’ll see the prairie that’s being restored from an old farm field. When I went in early November, the trees along the edge were in full color.  (See the photo at the top of the blog.) In the prairie itself, some native plants were still blooming this fall. I was surprised to see Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) still turning their bright faces to the autumn sun.  Ben identified for me another native plant as White Vervain (Verbena articifolia) which produces tightly packed tiny white flowers in the summer.  The Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) that  Ben planted on the prairie last fall will hopefully make an appearance next year.

A female Clouded Sulphur butterfly (Colias philodice) danced among the dry stems on the field, finally landing on a seeding Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare), trying to find a last sip of nectar before the first frost.

Clouded Sulphur female Draper Lake
This hardy little female Clouded Sulphur sought out a bit of late season nectar from a Bull Thistle

Nearby, a drab little Skipper (family Hesperiidae) that I was unable to identify had found the same plant for a last minute snack.

Moth on thistle Draper Lake
A Skipper butterfly seeks nectar from a Field Thistle

As I rounded the curve and headed back to the parking area, I heard a commotion in an adjoining field.  And suddenly a small tree was filled with dozens of European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) gathering for their migration. Such a gabble of sound and a fluttering of restless wings!

Starlings closeup Draper
Starlings fluttering about in a small tree

Eastern Trail:  Late November

By late November, most of the color had drained from the trees.  Around the marsh edges, the Poplars (genus Populus) created a crisp contrast to the russet leaves nearby.

Bare Birch Draper
Bare poplars create a sharp contrast with the russet leaves of autumn.

Poplars are plentiful in many of our township parks, while White Pines (Pinus strobus) are less frequent. These soft-needle, native pines were lumbered off from the late 18th through the early 20th century. The few very large white pines that remain in our township probably reflect where they were found historically, while the smaller white pines most likely spread from planted trees often used in landscaping. According to Wikipedia, White Pines produce new needles each spring which they shed about 18 months later in the fall, creating thick carpets on the ground beneath.

White Pine Needles autumn Draper Lake
White Pines produce new needles each spring and shed them 18 months later in the fall.

Just off the curve in the trail near the prairie, there’s a remarkable White Pine with seven trunks, five of which are full size!  I’ve never seen such a tall pine with multiple trunks. On the left is the base of the tree and on the right is my 5′ 11″ husband looking very small next to the height of this impressive tree – or should I say “trees?”

Birds migrating farther south no longer skittered from limb to limb.  Instead, our  tried-and-true, hardy, year ’round birds – Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata), Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) –  huddled in shrubs to avoid cold winds or basked on bare branches on sunnier days.

And there were the familiar migratory birds of the far north – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) and the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) – who think Michigan is great place to spend the winter.

Bare Trees, Early Sunsets, and Acres of Quiet

Sunset Draper
Sunset at Draper Twin Lake’s eastern section

Autumn turns us inward, I think. The bustle and color of summer has quieted to more somber grays and browns. Windsong is changed by flowing through dry leaves and bare limbs. A woodpecker drills in the distance; a crow or a jay stridently announces your presence. Now that leaves are underfoot, the trees sleep down in their roots. Turtles and frogs drowse in torpor beneath the water surface. In autumn’s quiet depths, the natural world offers us a place to listen, watch, and maybe just…be. A welcome respite from the hurly-burly of our lives.

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

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Flocking Birds, a Winter Resident from the Arctic Tundra and Some “Lovely but Lethals”

Russet trees across Eastern meadow

Winter chill showed up last week – along with sparrows arriving from the arctic tundra.   Small migrators, just passing through on their way south, huddled among bare limbs.  Fall inspires birds to flock and the skies and trees are crowded with bird society.  A few wildflowers are still sending off or dropping their last fruits and all kinds of leaves whirl down and carpet the paths.  Now is the time when the negative impact of too many deer and invasive plants becomes readily apparent – so we’ll explore “lovely but lethal” creatures and plants in the park as well.

Birds Flock Together in the Chill Winds

Evidently, wildlife experts have various theories about why birds flock in the autumn.  The most common explanation seems to be that it’s protection. More bird eyes and ears can spot predators and find food more easily.  In some species,  the young flock with adults who know more about food sources than they do.  Some experts believe birds learn from other birds about new food sources by hanging out in flocks or rookeries.  Migrating is easier in flocks in which individual birds take turns flying in front, thereby decreasing the wind resistance for the birds behind them.

long line of geese
A long line of Canada Geese straggling into “V” formation over Bear Creek this week

And then there’s the possibility that birds are just more social when they aren’t courting or raising young.  American Robins (Turdus migratorius) for instance, are chirping all over the park now in small flocks, often high in the treetops.  Many robins spend their whole winter here; we just don’t see them on the lawn because they can’t get to worms, so they eat fruits during the cold season.

American Robin on a cold day
American Robin on a cold day

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) gather in large numbers in the marsh.  I saw a flock of over 50 last week floating and flying near the Gunn Road end of the marsh – and heard reports of hundreds near Rochester Road.  Here are about half of the ones I saw.

29 Ducks in marsh
About half of a flock of over 50 ducks restlessly eating and flying over the marsh this week.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura), often seen in ones or twos over the western Old Field during the summer, were soaring in groups of five or more this week.  Our “cleanup crew” with its magnificent 6 ft. wing span will soon be gone, migrating to the southeast to spend the winter.

Turkey vulture and Staghorn sumac
A Turkey Vulture soars past a Staghorn Sumac.

Lately I’ve learned that flocks of Black-Capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) are good places to look for other small birds who hang out with them when in unfamiliar areas.  Their “Chickadee-dee-dee” call ends up being a clue to look for fellow travelers like the sparrows below.  The reason?  Chickadees are great at sounding alarms that other birds heed.  The more “dee’s,” the higher the threat.  And as year ’round residents, they probably know the best, closest food sources as well.  This Chickadee mustered its impressive balancing skills to take off in the stiff winds this week.

Chickadee on a windy day
A chickadee gets ready for take-off in a stiff wind.

Snag w chickadee woodpecker holesEver wonder how a bird as small as a Chickadee survives during cold, rainy nights like we had this week or cold snowy ones? Cornell Lab says that these tiny birds can excavate their own individual holes in the rotting wood of snags (standing dead trees)  – one bird per hole!  I’m glad to hear that, since I know chickadees always face the challenge of eating enough to stay alive in cold weather. They store individual seeds everywhere and then can actually remember where they put thousands of them! Here’s how Cornell says they sort of “clear their hard drives” at this time of year: “Every autumn Black-capped Chickadees allow brain neurons containing old information to die, replacing them with new neurons so they can adapt to changes in their social flocks and environment even with their tiny brains.”  Wish I could do some of that!

Cold Weather Sparrows Arrive While Sparrow Visitors Pause and Move On.

This winter, flocks of  Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) will probably gather beneath your bird feeder as well as mine.   These distance travelers have spent the summer raising young on the arctic tundra and this week arrived back at Bear Creek.  See this link to their beautiful arctic nests made of ptarmigan feathers.  These small birds with their warm brown caps and black dot on a gray chest must love cold weather since they clearly think our winters are comfortably mild.

Tree sparrow at Bear Creek
Tree Sparrows arrived this week from their summer homes on the arctic tundra.

Other sparrows are still just passing through.  The large Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with gray above its eye and on the nape of its neck is heading for backyards and fields anywhere south of mid-Ohio.  This one looks especially red-brown because it was basking in the light of a setting sun.

Fox sparrow2?
The large Fox Sparrow basks in the light of the setting sun.

This is probably the last week that the White-Throated Sparrow will be at Bear Creek. Its yellow “lores” (spots in front of the eyes) are present at the top of the beak, a bit faint in this photo,  but it had the classic field marks of a white throat and striped head – when it would emerge for a few seconds from hiding among the branches!

Brown form of White-throated Sparrow
Tan-striped form of the White-throated Sparrow which sometimes comes in black and white.

The Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) was here last week, foraging near the Center Pond as the leaves thinned out.  With the cold north winds late in the week, it’s probably winging its way to Tennessee and points south, like the human “snow birds.”

Hermit Thrush
A Hermit Thrush who probably left on the north wind late this week for warmer climes.

Seeding for Spring Continues

3 Common Mullein
Three non-native Common Mullein plants stand like morning sentinels on the western slope of the park.

Like the tall non-native Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) above, many wildflowers have finished seeding for the year, but some are still dispersing seeds in a variety of ways.  The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), that looks like a tiny white sputnik when it flowers,  is now drooping in the marshes. (Rest your cursor on double photos like this for captions.)

But it’s been a great help to the native wildlife around it.  According to Wikipedia, “Waterfowl and other birds eat the seeds. Wood ducks utilize the plant as nest protection. Deer browse the foliage. Insects and hummingbirds take the nectar, with bees using it to make honey.”  That’s what makes many native plants good for a habitat – lots of uses for native wildlife.

Remember the loose sprays of native Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) that were in or near every park wetland during the summer? This plant, the most toxic in North America, is now making a delicate, brown fruit with tiny hooks that attach to animal fur –  or my cotton sweater as I wade into the plants to get a macro photo.  In that way, they spread their seeds for next spring.

Native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) has fed lots of birds with its white berry-like “drupes” this fall and now leaves behind a lovely red fringe at the edge of the marsh in the center of the park.

Gray dogwood?
Gray dogwood fed the birds with its white berries and now leaves a lovely red fringe at the edge of the wetlands.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pods are drying and mature seeds are now being released to the wind.  If you see seed on the path or anywhere they can’t sprout, pick them up and send them flying!  The resident and migrating Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) that feed on them next summer will thank you.

By the Way..

One Tough Dragonfly!

I was astonished on Friday, after the heavy, cold rain and high winds, to still see another Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) calmly sitting on the railing at the Playground Pond.  On Sunday a week ago, I’d seen the one in the photo below on a matching red leaf at Seven Ponds and thought that would be my last sighting of the year.  That is one tough insect!  At Bear Creek, a few grasshoppers were still chirping, a bit forlornly, in the tall grass as well and could still be seen springing about on southern slopes in the park.  Amazing.

Yellow legged autumn dragonfly
A Yellow-legged Autumn dragonfly matched the leaf upon which it rested on a cold, late fall afternoon.

And Just One Special Leaf this Week:

Isn’t the Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) a lovely tree? They shimmer silvery green in the summer and shower golden leaves in the fall.  It’s a very common and short-lived tree with smooth, light bark that’s often mistaken for birch. And as Michigan Flora says, it’s “one of the few deciduous trees of the boreal forest to the north of Michigan.”  Another resident from the far north! That Tree Sparrow must have passed thousands of them on the way here.  Maybe that’s why I saw my first Tree Sparrow of the year right across from the Aspens on the park’s northern loop.  This week, in those stiff winds and rain, the Aspen’s dancing leaves went flying, leaving a carpet of gold on some paths at Bear Creek.

Aspen leaf
Golden Big-Tooth Aspen leaves littered the paths this week like gold coins.

Now for those “Lovely but Lethal” Plants and Animals

It’s tough not to love White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus).  After all, who doesn’t love to see those “doe eyes” gazing our way?

Deer
An over-abundance of the lovely White-tailed Deer can be a problem to native wildflowers and the tree canopy, especially in woodlands like our Oak-Hickory forest.

However, deer are seriously over-populating the landscape here and elsewhere.  According to the Nature Conservancy, “No native vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on habitat integrity than the white-tailed deer.”  The huge number of deer changes the landscape as they prefer to eat native plants, like Common Trillium, for instance. This feeding has reduced the density and height of forest wildflowers and make more room for invasive plants to spread.  Their consumption of acorns  also has an effect on the tree canopy in the woods. Deer are native to Michigan and much-beloved by both nature-lovers and hunters, so finding a solution to their over-abundance is a real challenge.

bittersweet
This invasive lovely and lethal vine that people admire in the fall chokes the life out of trees and bushes.

As we posted separately, one of the worst actual killers in our parks is Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) – which was very apparent this week in the park.  Its yellow leaves, yellow capsules and red fruit can be seen from every path twisting its way up and across trees and bushes.  Introduced as a landscape plant, this striking but lethal vine kills trees and bushes in three ways.  It  winds aggressively around the trunks of trees to get to the sunlight at the top, girdling the tree until it chokes the tree to death.

bittersweet killing small tree
Oriental Bittersweet, a beautiful invasive vine,  will eventually kill this small tree by girdling it and robbing it of nutrients and sunlight.

It also creates so much weight at the tops of trees that once they are weakened by the Bittersweet, they can be blown over in the wind.  They also climb over bushes so densely that they simply steal the sunlight and nutrients from the host plant and any plant nearby.  So please don’t pick it, don’t make or buy wreaths of it and don’t try to pull the heavy vines down yourself because you could get seriously hurt! Please see our post on how to rid our parks or your property of this beautiful killer.

Bittersweet engulfing a walnut tree
Asian Bittersweet killing a walnut tree in the lane.

Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) has been the bane of Bear Creek for a long time.  The northern end of the park is full of this invasive bush with its fragrant flowers in the spring and its red berries in the fall.  This woody shrub can literally crowd out native shrubs and plants as it has, along with other invasives , on the large loop at the north end of the park.

Now a new invasive tree is competing to be the most problematic and it too is lovely.  (Most invasives are pretty; that’s why people plant them in their landscapes!)  Friday morning I counted 16 small to medium-sized trees of this new problem for Bear Creek in one small corner near the center pond. It’s called Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana) – another lovely, but lethal invasive plant.

Callery Pear invasive tree
A new invasive plant has found its way into Bear Creek – Callery Pear. There are 16 trees of varying sizes already at this corner near the Center Pond.

Of course, native trees can get out of hand, too, like Box Elder (Acer negundo), actually a not-so-wonderful kind of maple . Box-elder samaras seedsLook at the number of samaras (a fruit with wings attached to carry seeds)  in this one small clump on a large tree at the bottom of the western slope.  There are a lot of box elders on the western slope for that very reason!  Though the multiple trunks are often thin and the trees are short-lived, it can quickly colonize an area and crowd out other trees and plants.

 

 

Nature is remarkably resilient.  If we can give it a bit of help through careful stewardship, we can control these lovely and lethal plants and animals so the native ones can take their proper place in the landscape and the non-native ones can slowly be eliminated or at least controlled so they don’t irrevocably change the diverse native landscape that nature provided for us.  So consider joining in our stewardship events (see the Stewardship Events tab above) as we weed and plant to help Bear Creek and our other parks thrive in all their natural glory.

A note about “This Week at Bear Creek”:  My blog posts will probably slow some between November and February since late fall and winter are more static times in the park – and occasionally the weather will make it tricky to get out with my camera!  So please consider “following” Natural Areas Notebook, so that you’ll get an email when a post goes up.  I love doing this blog, so whenever I see some changes in the wildlife or something unusual in the park that I think might interest all of you this season, I’ll be here!  Thanks so much for your support and interest as we made our virtual walks together through the spring and summer!  Let’s see what late fall and winter bring!

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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and 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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Winter Prep, Migrants Coming and Going, Chilly Insects, Fall Leaves, and a New Native Garden

White goldenrod autumn

Autumn’s here and a bit gone, so winter prep begins in earnest at Bear Creek.  The hibernators are finding or freshening up snug housing for the winter.  Migrating birds stop for a rest and a repast before continuing their journeys, while others arrive to spend the winter with us.  A few hearty insects, who survived the migrating birds and the cold nights, hop and fly on warmer south-facing slopes. Leaves rustle underfoot and tumble past so the quest continues to learn their names, to be more familiar with the giants of the plant world.  Let’s start with a walk through the Oak-Hickory forest.

Animals Prep for Winter

Path through Oak-Hickory forest
The path from the Gunn Road entrance into the Oak-Hickory forest

One of this week’s highlights was discovering a North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor) in the same place I’ve seen them almost every spring or fall – in a huge hole in a white oak halfway down the eastern forest path. On my first walk this week, I could only see a bit of fur at the bottom of the hole, but that brought me back the next morning.  At first the hole appeared empty. Disappointed, I approached, crunching noisily through the leaves and surprise!  A raccoon was fully visible in the dark of the huge hole, staring intently at me while I took its photo.  What a treat to know that once more one of these clever bandits will spend the winter dozing in this cozy home with its ideal southern exposure.

Raccoon in hole edited 4
A raccoon returns my stare from a tree that has housed raccoons for many years

The chirping and dashing of chipmunks and squirrels will accompany your walk through our Oak-Hickory forest again this week.  They are  eating and storing acorns and other nuts for hibernation or winter meals.   Here’s an Eastern Chipmunk ((Tamias striatus) with a mouthful of leaves, evidently planning to refresh its burrow before its long sleep .  Chipmunks wake every few weeks in winter, eat  a bit from their food stores and snooze some more.

chipmunk w leaves
An Eastern Chipmunk seems to be freshening up its burrow in time for hibernation.

A scratching and scrabbling sound nearby alerted me to a  pair of Fox Squirrels (Sciurus niger) spiraling up a giant tree near the marsh.  Fox Squirrels mate between November and March and then again in the summer – so it may have been a practice mating chase.  Or perhaps just two young ones feeling their oats, or in this case, acorns!  One paused high above on a tree knot.  The other used its 180°-rotating ankles to stretch out lengthwise, head down on the trunk.  Fox Squirrels prefer winter dens within woodpecker holes, but if none are available, they will build leaf nests in the crotches of trees. They spend the winter days with us – as anyone with a bird feeder knows!

Down at the Pond, Out in the Fields: Migratory Visitors and a Couple of Hearty Insects

Center Pond in Autumn

When I reached the Center Pond this week (so clear this time of year!), I saw two migrants that I’d never seen before  busily flipping over leaves to search for insects in the muddy shadows of the southern shore – a male and female Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus).  Cornell lab calls this bird “relatively uncommon” because it is “one of North America’s most rapidly declining species.”  I hope this turns around because I was thrilled to see them on their trip from Canada’s far north to their southern destination.  My photo of the male in non-breeding plumage is below.  I didn’t get a decent shot of the female, who is gray-brown with a black stripe through the eye. This Cornell link has much better photos of both genders.

Rusty blackbird Center Pond
A quite uncommon, migrating Rusty Blackbird and his mate (not pictured) flipped over leaves, looking for insects at the Center Pond.

Up near the Playground Pond, I saw a recent arrival from Canada who’ll spend the winter with us – the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).  I’m sure you’ve seen flocks of them under your feeder in the winter.  Their black backs and white bellies make them look like Chinese calligraphy on white snow.

Dark-eyed Junco
A Dark-eyed Junco matched the black-and-white shadow pattern on the path west of the Playground Pond.

I’ve been posting photos of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) for the last few weeks but this week I got a good look at a beautiful adult one.  Here you can see both the yellow tip of its tail and the bright red wing spots that evidently looked like sealing wax to the person who named this elegant bird.

Cedar Waxwing with waxwing showing
An adult Cedar Waxwing. Notice the red dots on its wings which looked like sealing wax to the person that named them.

I had an opportunity to clearly see a Swamp Sparrow after only spotting the head of one at Bear Creek last week!  It’s a handsome little bird with slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can wade in and pull food from the water. (Thanks to Ruth Glass again for the ID!)

Swamp sparrow
A Swamp Sparrow has slightly longer legs than some sparrows so it can pull invertebrates from the water.

Likewise, on October 10, I posted a shadowy photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) at Bear Creek.  Today one grazed a window at our home! I followed instructions found on the web and waited 5-10 minutes before intervening – though I had a resting box ready, just in case.  Luckily, it recovered and flew off,  but before it did, I got a slightly fuzzy photo of its golden crown taken through the window. This tiny bird, smaller than a Chickadee and not much bigger than a Hummer, has traveled all the way from the Canadian north and can survive  in -40° temperatures! So let’s hope its accident won’t prevent this hardy survivor from arriving just a bit further south where it intends to spend the winter.

IMG_3480
A Golden-crowned Kinglet who survived a glancing blow against a window in our home. They are in Bear Creek right now as well, but very quick and difficult to see.

Insects that Made It Through Very Chilly Nights!

On sunny days,  you can still hear grasshoppers in warm spots on the trail – though far fewer than before.  I think they are still Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum)since they usually remain in the fields through October.  The female Red-legged Grasshoppers lay their eggs in the ground during late summer or fall. Only the eggs overwinter, I believe, though some species overwinter as nymphs. (If anyone knows more, please share!) I saw a pair mating rather awkwardly on the edge of a path in October last year.  The male is the smaller, greener grasshopper.

grasshoppers mating
Mating grasshoppers.  The larger female will lay her eggs in the ground and the first nymphs will hatch next summer.

I always thought that all red dragonflies at Bear Creek were Ruby Meadowhawks.  But it seems that there are multiple red Meadowhawk dragonflies. The one I’m seeing on almost every sunny path at the moment is probably a late bloomer named the Yellow-Legged Autumn Dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) or at least that’s my best guess.

Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonfly
Lots of these Yellow-legged Autumn Dragonflies are darting along the paths at Bear Creek now.

Now, About those Falling Leaves…

So why the color change?  And how do leaves fall?  The shorter days cue trees to reduce the chlorophyll in their leaves, the substance which makes them green in summer and able to feed sugars to the tree through the chemical action of photosynthesis.  As the chlorophyll subsides with less light, other pigments begin to show or form in the leaves making the leaves turn yellow, orange and red.  In response to less sunlight, a layer of cells gradually forms at the base of each leaf blocking the veins that carry fluids into and out of the leaf.  When that seal is complete, the leaves detach and fall.  More detailed info at this USDA Forest Service link.

Two Members of White Oak Group, the Ones with Rounded Lobes

While in the woods, I continue to snap photos of leaves, trying to imprint their shapes in my mind.  I can now easily recognize the White Oak (Quercus alba) with its rounded lobes and light gray bark.  The fall leaves can evidently be a variety of colors, but are mostly red to brown.

The Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) is a member of the White Oak family, too, with rounded lobes but much deeper sinuses (spaces between the lobes) than the White Oak.  The bristly acorns are a clue to its name.

Three Members of the Red Oak Group, the ones with Pointed Lobes

Northern Red Oaks (Quercus rubra) have leaves with 7-11 bristle-tipped, pointed lobes.  The fall leaves can be red to brown.  I loved the deep chocolate color of this one on a deck in the marsh.

Red Oak Leaf
A Northern Red Oak leaf has 7-11 pointed, bristled lobes.

The leaves of Black Oaks (Quercus velutina), a member of the Red Oak group, have only 5-7 pointed, bristle-tipped lobes and can be yellow to brown in the autumn.

Black oak leaf brown
The Black Oak,  a member of the Red Oak group, has 5-7 pointed, bristly lobes.

Another member of the Red Oak group, the Northern Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), has deep sinuses that reach almost to the central vein between the pointed lobes .  These trees encircle the playground with color right now and they are in the woods as well.

Pin Oak
Northern Pin Oaks have deep sinuses and the pointed lobes typical of the Red Oak group.

Acorns, the nuts which contain Oak seeds, are dropping through the leaves and rolling underfoot.  Eastern Chipmunks take some of them underground to the larder chambers in their burrows.  Squirrels simply dig holes in the ground and cover the nut with earth.  They’ll find some to eat in the winter and others will be forgotten.  While feeding wildlife (some birds eat acorns too), this burying of nuts also helps replenish the forest with saplings in coming years. (Cool info on acorns at this link that two people sent to me this week! Thanks to Mary and Ben!)

Two Kinds of Maples – there are many more!

Maples are tolerant of shade, so they form part of the “understory” of our woods. They produce winged seeds that we, as kids, called “helicopter seeds,”  but that botanists call “samaras.”  There’s a photo at this link of samaras from a Silver Maple.

Red Maples (Acer rubrum)are one of the most widespread trees in Eastern North America.  I liked how the one on the left below had only partially turned when it fell, so it ended up tri-colored. The scarlet one on the right turned before it fell.

The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) has a more delicate, deeply lobed leaf  whose pearly underside provides its name.

Silver Maple leaf
The Silver Maple is more deeply lobed and gets it name from its silver underside.
Some other Leaf Favorites

I’m particularly fond of the 3-fingered leaf of the Sassafras tree (Sassafras albidum).  According to Wikipedia, in the 19th century,  Sassafras roots were used for root beer or “sarsaparilla,” a soft drink that straight-arrow cowboys ordered at the saloon in old western movies, a source of amusement to their macho compatriots.  You can smell the root beer scent if you snap the stem of a green Sassafras leaf.  However, the roots turn out to be bad for your liver, so root beer these days is made with artificial flavorings.

Sassafras leaf
The 3-fingered leaf of a Sassafras tree, whose roots were once used to make root beer and sarsaparilla.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) left a lovely pattern on the path near the marsh. These native trees filled the field behind my parents’ house on Lake George Road so I have a particular fondness for the graceful shape and scarlet color of their autumn leaves.

Sumac leaves
Staghorn Sumac leaves on a path near the marsh.

A New Home for Native Plants at Bear Creek!

Staff and volunteers
A crew of volunteers and staff dug up 25 species of donated native plants and re-planted them at Bear Creek this week.  From left to right: Carol Kasprzak, Bruno Feo, Jeff Johnson, Reg Brown, Ben VanderWeide and me (behind the camera).

This week a team of six volunteers and staff caravanned to Armada to collect two beds of native plants donated to Bear Creek by Nancy Parmenter.  She’d sold her house and the new owners needed a larger play area for their children.  So we’re very grateful that she gave them a new home at Bear Creek.  The crew spent several ideal autumn hours digging up the plants and then re-planting them in a new bed near the parking lot.

The plants may not look glamorous now in late fall, but by spring  25 species of native grasses and wildflowers will be adding more color and diversity to Bear Creek.  The garden is just to the right of the pavilion and there’s a wood chip path through  it so that in spring you’ll be able to walk close to the flowers.   Thank you to everyone who dug and planted and to Nancy Parmenter for this wonderful donation!

So you have lots of reasons to visit the park on these glorious autumn days – watch for migrating birds, laugh at chipmunks during their fall eating frenzy, be escorted by late season dragonflies, spy on a hibernating raccoon or have a first look at our newest native flowerbed.  Savor the season!