Cranberry Lake Park: Traveling Through Time in the “Outer Space” of Nature

The Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park on a winter day

Will you forgive me if I take you back to February for a few minutes? Today it’s 60 degrees, the snow is melting even in the shadows and longer days remind us that the spring equinox is less than a week away. But I’d like to take you back for a few minutes to those days when, for me, walking the trails meant staring downward at icy ground to keep my footing. Calf-deep in February snow, I found myself prompted to recall a summer visitor. I took a turn toward a woodland pond and discovered a hidden world. And I saw and heard the harbingers of spring. Three snowy walks at Cranberry Lake Park lured me out into another realm for a few hours, where I mentally traveled to the past, through the present, and into the near future. So I hope you’ll strap on your mental snowshoes and join me for one last winter outing.

A cross-country skier on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

A Warm Memory on a Snowy Day

The trail into the park in February was a bit of a trudge one afternoon, negotiating my way among the icy footprints of visitors who’d come before me. But luckily near the first trail intersection, I looked up long enough to notice an exquisite little piece of architecture. A small, sturdy nest had been securely anchored in the upright fork of several branches of a small shrub. Though the nest was about four inches long, it was only about an inch and a half deep and about two and a half inches wide inside – a nest for a very small bird! [Click photo to enlarge.]

I know that Black-capped Chickadees nest in cavities rather than in cup nests out in the open. So my mind wandered back over the small cup-nesting birds I’d seen there last summer. Consulting both Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website and my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds’ Nests, I discovered that the depth of the cup was too shallow for either the Song Sparrow or Field Sparrow, which were my first guesses. But then I remembered a small spark of sunshine that frequents that corner of the park each summer, a lemon yellow visitor who arrives from the Caribbean. This nest met all the measurements my sources listed for the nest of one of my favorite warblers. The female Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is my candidate for architect of this little marvel. She needs only four days to gather materials and weave her nest of plant fibers and spider webs, lining it with plant down. If this nest is hers, it’s survived a tough winter remarkably well! It probably won’t be reused, though; most birds build a fresh nest each year. But what a warming memory of last summer! Since I’m no expert at nests, I’m open to input if any of you have a different candidate for the creator of this little nest.

A female Yellow Warbler who may have built the nest I saw this winter.

Nearby on the Hickory Lane on another afternoon, my husband and I stood admiring a very shaggy Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) with long shards of bark angling off its trunk. These wonderful trees can grow as high as 100 feet and can live as long as 350 years, according to Wikipedia. Shagbark Hickories reach maturity and start producing nuts at age 10. They don’t produce large numbers of them until they are 40 years old, but can continue until the ripe old age of 100. I remembered walking the lane last autumn with the crunch of hickory shells underfoot. Getting a wild hickory nut isn’t easy for us humans. They are too favored by squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits and birds, including wild turkeys, wood ducks and mallards.

A candidate for the shaggiest Shagbark Hickory on the lane at Cranberry Lake Park

In late winter for the last few years, I’ve ventured out to Cranberry Lake on the east side of the park to see whether the Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been restocking their food stores. Some years if they have not stockpiled quite enough leafy branches thrust down inside their lodge or in ice nearby, they come out on warm winter days to add a bit more. Beavers consume the leaves and the outer layers of bark from trees, along with some rhizomes (underground stems) and other plant material stored inside the lodge when the weather was warmer. This year I remembered those pointed stumps that I noticed a few years ago and headed out to check near the lodge. But I didn’t find any newly gnawed tree stumps near the edge of the lake. So this year, the beavers’ larder must have been stocked enough to get them through this snowy season..

A beaver lodge at the edge of Cranberry Lake with branches and tree trunks for food protruding from the lodge and on or in the ice nearby.

Wintry Adventures in the Present

The trail near three connected ponds at Cranberry Lake Park

Readers may remember my fondness for imagining how tracks get left in the snow. Noticing some at the edge of the Hickory Lane conjured a possible small drama. My husband and I came across a set of mouse prints leading to a small nook created by overhanging bark at the base of a tree. The tracks were blurry and seemed to be going in two directions. I wondered if perhaps a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had scooted across the trail, turned back for a moment, spotted a potential threat and dashed toward this hiding place again. In any case, its tracks back out of the nook looked to be at a more normal pace, leaving tiny leaping footprints and tail marks in the snow. Of course this is all guesswork on my part. If you have another interpretation, please share it in the comments!

During the January walk with the birding group, a few of us ventured out onto the ice of a small pond along a trail that we take back toward the parking lot. I keep an eye on this pond in the summer because it’s frequented by Wood Ducks regularly and sometimes by Great Blue Herons as well. But on this trip, the ice was plenty thick enough to permit me to explore a bit further afield.

The northern section of the hidden pond where I look for Wood Ducks during the spring and summer

Doing what a friend calls “boot skating,” I slipped across the ice to find a vantage point from the middle of the northern part of the pond. Instead of the narrowed strip of water I’d peeked at from the forest in the summer, a second large section of the pond expanded out before me!

The second section of the hidden pond with a small outlet far at the left.

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, brought up a map of this area on his cellphone to show me that this pond actually had three sections, the farthest south connected to the others by a narrow stretch of water. I was instantly intrigued! After six years of hiking here, I was seeing something that I hadn’t know existed!

The ponds within the trail loop at Cranberry Lake Park

I couldn’t investigate that morning but my husband Reg and I returned several days later to begin exploring these unseen sections of the pond. What fun to shuffle and slip across the icy surface! Near the eastern edge of the pond, a giant tip-up loomed at the water’s edge. It turned out to be the combined roots of 3 tall trees that had been uprooted by a strong wind at some point in the past. I’d never seen a tip-up this big before!

My husband Reg near the three tree tip-up at the edge of the hidden pond’s second section.

Nearby, an old Black Willow (Salix nigra) slanted up out of the soil at a precarious angle. The roots appear to have been alive last year since a whole series of suckers protruded from the tree’s surface. But it was the amazing pattern of the aging bark that fascinated me, like the wrinkled skin of an ancient face.

An elderly Black Willow with wonderfully wrinkled bark

Moving south, we arrived at the narrow outlet that led to the third part of the pond.

The narrow outlet between the second and third sections of the pond

Stepping out of the narrow, tree-lined passageway, I felt a little thrill, as if I were entering a small, hidden world all its own. There was nothing spectacular about this shallower third pond really, except that it seemed more isolated , fringed with forest and farther from the trails that I normally take in and out of the park – a secret place ripe for discovery.

The third section of the hidden pond, surrounded by wetland and woods

We walked tentatively around the ice because it looked softer, perhaps shallower, and the edges gave way to water underfoot. I wondered if the pond would disappear in summer heat, sinking back into the wetland that lay around and beyond it. In warmer weather, it will be more challenging to reach this pond through dense trees, shrubs, tall grass and the mud that will surround it – but I hope to try.

We left by gingerly stepping from clump to clump of Tussock Sedges (Carex stricta) at the western edge of the pond. Sedges can look like grasses, but their triangular stems are different from the hollow, round stems of grasses. During the summer, the two-foot stems of Tussock Sedge produce seeds which, when carried by the wind, end up feeding Northern Cardinals, Wild Turkeys, Mallards and those Wood Ducks that I see in the spring.

Tussock Sedge produces wind-carried seeds that feed many species of birds. Photo by Frank Mayfield at inaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

They also spread vegetatively into colonies through rhizomes. As the leaves wither, they drop onto the live plant below forming what look like plump, brown cushions during the winter.

The tall stems of Tussock Sedge fall onto the living plant below when they die, adding to the clumps that spread into colonies through underground rhizomes.

Looking Forward to Spring and Beyond

Two harbingers of spring greeted me on the way back to the parking lot last month. Despite the snow, the buds on a Silver Maple tree (Acer saccharinum) along the path were already swelling.

Silver Maple buds swelling as spring approaches

And nearby two male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) participated in a singing competition, probably establishing their territories. One was perched off in the distance in a marsh, but the one near the trail paused his singing and posed for a moment.

One of the two cardinals announcing their territories by countersinging at Cranberry Lake Nature Park

Here’s an older recording I took of two cardinals doing the same thing.

The Tussock Sedges near the third hidden pond are host plants for the caterpillars of three butterflies: the Eyed Brown (Satyrodes eurydice), the Black Dash (Euphyes conspicua), and the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris). I’ll be looking for them next summer nectaring on native wetland wildflowers and shrubs like Swamp Milkweed, Button Bush or Joe Pye, though some also get nutrition from bird droppings or tree sap. Knowing who might be there makes going next summer even more inviting!

The Thrill of Discovery in Another Realm

A massive “mackerel” cloud above the Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

My friends will tell you that I’m fascinated by the new rover that landed on Mars recently. Watching the NASA video of the Perseverance robot being lowered to the surface or listening to the recording of the wind blowing on Mars completely delights and fascinates me. But really, we have a largely unknown world available to us right outside our doors. When I step into a new environment like the hidden pond at Cranberry Lake Park, I’m in another realm, too – a wild one very different from my human habitat. And that immediately delights and engages me. I wonder “What grows here and what part does it play in this habitat? Which creatures make their homes here in the summer months? Which birds will nest in this secret wetland out of sight from the trails? Could I find an active Yellow Warbler nest near the pond next summer now that I’ve learned to recognize one? What can I discover that I’ve never before seen, or if seen, not noticed?”

Maybe the impulse that drives NASA researchers to Mars is, in some small way, the same impulse that pushes me out the door on a snowy day to see what I can discover. For a few hours, I leave behind the warm, safe, enclosed human realm to experience the wildness of the other realm that surrounds me. In this nearby “outer space,” trees, wildflowers and grasses thrust themselves out of the ground, using sun, water and earth to grow and reproduce. In the cold, heat, rain and wind, wild creatures scurry, soar, leap, run, crawl and swim day and night year ’round. And when I leave their world behind and arrive back in my human one, I feel awake and alive. Thanks for traveling to nature’s “outer space” with me. I love having you along to share what I’m learning.

Cranberry Lake Park: Spring Music in the Wetlands

In spring, nature generously replenishes the multitude of Cranberry Lake Park’s wetlands. Besides the lake itself, shady woodland ponds and pools glitter through the trees along nearly every trail at Cranberry. All of which makes me happy, because being near water is the surest way to find wildlife and interesting plants.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

I seek out wet places whenever I go visit our parks since so much goes on around wetlands. Right now, ferns unfurl and spring wildflowers emerge on the sunny or shady edges of trails. Birds sing and chatter from within or just outside of the wetlands, as they forage, perform for mates, challenge others for territory or simply celebrate the sun after a cold rainy night. Throughout the park on three spring mornings, glorious music kept me company as nature’s virtuosos joined in a  spring chorus.

An Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) found this insect larva where a wetland meets the eastern meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

After serious downpours, though,  it helps to know the trails well enough to avoid being confronted by a calf-deep small pond! Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, has kindly created a map of my meanderings at Cranberry Lake Park. This route generally can be done with dry or at least only moderately damp feet. So daub on a bit of bug repellent and don some waterproof footwear as we head out to the sights and the special spring sounds of rain-soaked Cranberry Lake Park.

CLP_Update2017_BlogHike

Spring 2020 hike at Cranberry Lake Park. You can also explore this park on our interactive park map at https://bit.ly/3g0GaRs.

Heading North Accompanied by Bird Song

The north trail from the farm site strewn with apple blossom petals

Seeing that the water on the short trail out of the parking lot was ankle-deep and impassible, I headed across the cut grass toward the red-and-white chicken coop that is part of historic Cranberry Lake Farm. I turned onto the trail that looked as if a wedding had just ended, as it was strewn with fallen apple petals. High overhead, the sweet, whistling song of a male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) celebrated the blue sky morning with a joyful noise!

A male Baltimore Oriole greeting the morning with his high, flute-like song.

Across the way, a bit further on, I paused to listen to a male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) repeating his quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song. He was deep in the greenery so I waited and watched. Finally I resorted to playing the warbler’s song on Merlin, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s very useful bird ID app. I don’t use it often to flush out birds because it can stress them. So I played it only once. And out popped the Yellow Warbler to check out the competition.

A Yellow Warbler male pops out of the greenery.

He hopped about a bit for a minute or two and then went back into the greenery and continued to sing. I was relieved that he seemed to have decided that the bird on the app was no match for him!

Tracking West Across a Meadow

I turned left at the round turkey brooder building and headed back west toward the Shagbark Hickory Lane.  Oops – the trail was flooded here too, but luckily, the maintenance crew had set up a boardwalk along the edge which, though a bit askew, provided relatively dry footing.

Along the east-west trail nearest to the farm, a wooden platform provides dry footing after a night of rain.

As I walked into the meadow, I noticed a large insect bumbling about among the dandelions on the trail. I’m so glad I stopped for a closer look! A Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) trundled its hefty body from one dandelion to the next. The non-native dandelions provided the nectar that morning, though I’ve seen Clearwings (there are two kinds around here) most often on native Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) when it blooms later in the summer. These moths, which look so much like bumblebees, fly during the day, but if they find a good nectar source, they can forage in the evening as well. So check out bumblebees on your flowers and see if you can spot one of these moths!

A Snowberry Clearwing Moth can easily be mistaken for an oversized bumblebee! 

The Snowberry Clearwing Moth sipping nectar from a dandelion.

Dandelions were also being visited by a green florescent native bee. I’ve learned not to attempt identification of native bees. According to Doug Parsons, director of the MSU Bug House, you really have to be an expert who has both the insect and a magnifying glass in hand to positively identify them.But I do love to look for these small, solitary, native bees!

A native bee making the most of early season dandelions.

Wild bees hadn’t yet discovered the modest wildflowers of Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) when I saw these tiny blossoms down among the tall grasses of the meadow.  I imagine hover flies and bees will show up once a few more flowers emerge. If the plant is fertilized, it will set a tiny fruit which no doubt some bird or animal will get to before I do!

Wild Strawberries in the south meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) chatted its conversational song in the bushes at the back of the meadow. Catbirds held their loud “conversations” all over the park one morning, combining whistles, squeaks and bits of other birds’ songs. Finally this one emerged into a Wild Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) where I took a quick shot before he sailed back into the shrubbery to sing some more.

A Gray Catbird sang its long song full of trills, chirps, whistles and such from among the blossoms of a Wild Cherry tree in the meadow.

The vigorous breezes of a beautiful spring morning drowned out my recording of this male. But a Catbird I heard last year at Bear Creek Nature Park’s Center Pond will give you a feel for the long, complicated phrasing of its song. On this recording, Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) provide backup percussion from the water below!

By now regular readers know that I’m quite fond of the Eastern Towhee (Dumetella carolinensis) –  probably because its song was one of the first ones I learned to recognize.   A male perched in a small tree invited a nearby female to appreciate his rendition of  “Drink your teaaaaa.” She listened politely nearby. I was surprised to learn from Donald W. Stokes’ A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol.2 that Towhees make their nests on the ground like many sparrows. Once the nest is built, both adults become more secretive. The male stays away until the eggs hatch. At that point, he returns to feed both his mate and the young and continues helping the female with caring for the young from then on. So look for them in spring before they start nesting! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A Trip Down Hickory Lane

An old farm lane lined with Shagbark Hickories runs near the western boundary of the park.

A wonderful row of Shagbark Hickories (Carya ovata) line the western edge of the park. I love strolling along this dappled lane. The ground is  mostly firm underfoot and birds dart back and forth across the trail, forage along its edges and sing from the wetlands and fields off either side. Each spring I try to resist taking another photo of the large, almost rococo design of the Shagbark’s leaf buds. I failed to resist again this year.

The elegant design of an opening Shagbark Hickory leaf bud.

Ahead of me, I saw a Gray Catbird shoot across the trail and disappear. But as I got closer, I had the chance to watch it balancing on a twig over a large puddle to forage repeatedly for some kind of insects or larvae in the water. Once it had gathered a number of whatever it was, it jumped in for quick dip, ruffled its feathers and took off again.

A Gray Catbird foraging for insects or insect larvae in a large puddle next to the Hickory Lane.

Wild Geranium blossoms (Geranium maculatum) added dashes of lavender along the shady lane – some still in perfect form, others having served as a meal for the larvae of some hungry insect. A little damage to a blossom or leaf can mean a well-fed caterpillar to nourish a hungry baby bird. So holes here and there on plants are fine with me!

Two other native wildflowers graced the shade of the Hickory Lane. A cold snap had just ended, so the Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) looked a bit beyond its peak bloomBut the buds of Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) had just formed beneath its leaves when I lifted its stem for a peek.

An adult Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipped across the path and froze when it saw me. I snapped my photo of the crouching little critter and waited. It dashed off and disappeared down a hole.

An adult chipmunk who’d taken its  young out on a foraging expedition.

Just as I lowered my camera, three baby chipmunks came tumbling onto the path, jostling each other as they raced after their parent and dove down the same hole. I wish I’d been fast enough to get you a photo of the babies, but alas, no. But I’ll include below one of my favorite baby chipmunk photos taken at home a few years ago.

A baby chipmunk about the size of the three I saw dash into a hole on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

Several metallic green Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) darted down onto the path under the hickories. They can commonly be found in patches of sunlight at the edge of wooded areas. Despite their ferocious name and appearance, they don’t bite humans unless we handle them, and even then it’s an unnoticeably mild pinch, according to Wikipedia. Small caterpillars, ants and spiders, though, find them ferocious predators!

The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle is iridescent green with six white spots around the bottom edge of its abdomen.

On the Trail to the Lake Accompanied By Birdsong and an Amphibian Chorus

In the center of the park, several trails converge in a small meadow.  The one that heads out from the Hickory Lane and east to the lake was my choice. In the short video below taken on a glorious May morning, I spun around slowly where the trails converge, trying to record the bright blue sky, the fresh greenery and the birdsong soundtrack that was making me smile.

The background music was partially provided by a robust male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing his lyrical song that is similar to the Robin, but a bit sweeter. I wondered if he was establishing territory because I’d seen an older male singing nearby a few days before. I’m betting that the younger male’s elegant pink ascot and vocal ability won him the territory and a mate – unless experience counts with Grosbeak females. The older male looked like he’d seen a few seasons, but he was a vigorous singer as well!  [Correction!  The bird on the right is actually a male juvenile who has not yet finished molting into fully adult male plumage!  The telling field mark is the white eyeline and white feathers at the neck.   And the one the left is in his second or older year!   Thanks to Ruth Glass, local birding authority, who set me straight on this!   I’m learning all the time from readers of the blog!]

Near a wetland on the north side of the lake trail, I heard a quick song that I didn’t recognize. Ah! I spotted a small, bright yellow bird with a black mask and a fancy black necklace – the Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia). I actually heard two of these warblers on the way to the lake, but only one stopped hopping from limb to limb long enough to show me how beautiful he was. He’ll nest farther north in dense forests of spruce or hemlock.

The Magnolia Warbler actually nests in conifers and spends winters in the American south.

Deep within the shrubbery of every  moist area along this trail, I could hear the “witchedy witchedy” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), but I have yet to see one this spring! I waited, watched, but no luck. I’m sure I’ll catch sight of one before long since Yellowthroats raise their young here. But for now here’s an earlier photo of another lovely masked bandit. I think he throws his head back farther than any other bird that I’ve seen – and his whole body vibrates with the song!

A Common Yellowthroat singing “witchedy, witchedy, witchedy” from a shrub near a wetland.

Warblers are challenging subjects for us amateur photographers. They’re tiny, they rarely stop to pose and they arrive when the trees are leafing out! So I was happy to catch a quick photo of a Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) as he busily spiraled around a trunk near the lake. It’s easy to mistake this little bird for a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or even a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) as they circumnavigate trees. Theoretically, this little warbler breeds here, but I’ve only managed to spot one during spring migrations.

A Black-and-white Warbler spirals around a tree searching for insects with its slightly curved beak.

As I approached the lake, I heard an amazing chorus of amphibians singing.  It wasn’t any frog song that I recognized,  so I was puzzled. Eventually, a herpetology authority, David Mifsud of the Michigan Herp Atlas, helped me out. I hadn’t recognized the mating calls of the American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)!

American toads were chorusing their mating song in Cranberry Lake.

I come across single toads in the park periodically, as I did with the Toad above last year at Bear Creek Nature Park. But I’d never before been in the audience as they sing for the females! The water out at the edge of the lake was rippling with their activity. Straining for a sighting, all I could see was a periodic flash of what appeared to be white skin thrust out of the water. I still don’t know if I was seeing toads mating or a fish catching a mouthful of courting toad!

The song was mesmerizing as one toad started the swelling sound, followed by others, until the trills died down. And then after a brief pause,  another round began. It reminded me of the buzz of cicadas on a summer day. Listen!

In the shade at the edge of the lake,  some Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) emerged from the moist earth and were unfolding from their parchment-like covers.  Ferns seem almost other-worldly to me, since,  like mosses, they are ancient. Fossil forms of early ferns appeared on earth almost 400 million years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the earth about 200 million years later! Look at the brown cauls that cover the Ostrich Fern before it opens and then its unfurling green stem with a deep U-shaped groove, a hallmark of this native fern.

Ostrich Ferns unwrap from their brown coverings as they emerge.

You can see why they are also called “Fiddlehead Ferns,” can’t you? And here were a few a bit farther along in their growth. When the sun shines on their unfurling fronds, they just glow!

One Last Encouraging Song to Carry Home

A wet, somewhat battered Northern Cardinal singing with abandon

Since I knew the alternate trails would be too wet to traverse, I re-traced my steps back up the trail, down the Hickory Lane and out to the road. When I entered the parking lot, I was greeted by the cheerful whistle and “cheerups” of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) who’d seen better days. After some rainy, cold nights and perhaps an itchy case of mites, he seemed to be having the avian equivalent of a tough day. Despite that, his song was as upbeat and vigorous as ever. I listen entranced and never thought to record him, but luckily I had recorded another male singing the Cardinal’s ebullient spring song back in April.

I stood quietly and just listened to him for a few minutes before I left. And in these difficult days when grief, fear, and anger move in waves across our world, a battered bird still sang. It felt like a model I should try to follow. No matter what life throws at you, that scarlet messenger seemed to say, sing on! I mean to try. I hope you do, too.

Worried About the Planet? Let’s Make a Difference One Garden at a Time.

It’s admittedly a worrisome time for those of us  who love our small, blue planet. Devastating fires, raging floods, 30 billion fewer birds in the last 50 years, a UN report that 100 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades. According to Eduardo Brondizio at Indiana University, half a million species have “insufficient habitat for long-term survival.” Their best hope is restoration of their habitat.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Aha! Now here’s something you and I can do something about! And we can do it without leaving home, or participating in protests or influencing recalcitrant politicians. We can enrich the habitat right beyond our kitchen windows. And it won’t take sacrifice – in fact, it’s rewarding! It won’t take giant sums of money or raising taxes. All it takes, dear kindred spirits, is adding native plants to our gardens and yards – as many as we can plant each year. By doing so, we can make a HUGE difference to the survival of species. Stick with me here. The news keeps getting more hopeful as we move along.

Is Your Yard Full of Non-native Plants?  Mine Is…

I’m betting your garden is a lot like mine – filled with non-native trees, grass, shrubs and flowers that evolved in distant countries.  I’m thinking of common garden plants like Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) from the Balkans in Southeastern Europe, Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from eastern Asia,  or Vinca (Vinca minor) from Europe, Africa and Asia.  Take a short world tour in this slideshow and discover where a few of our most popular garden plants originated. [Use pause button for time to read captions.)

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Our non-native, international gardens look lovely;  butterflies sip nectar from the flowers and insects never leave a hole in the leaves.  The turf grass looks like a seamless green carpet if we fertilize it and water it regularly.  So what’s the problem?

Well, in their homelands, our non-native plants were not a problem.  They did just what nature asks plant to do – pass on  the sun’s energy (through photosynthesis) to all the other organisms in their habitat that can’t do that.  In its native Europe, invasive Phragmites (Phragmites australis subspecies australis), for example,  supports over 170 insect species. But not here! Here the invasive, non-native grass crowding every wet roadside supports only 5 species – and it’s been here for centuries!

Burning won’t kill phragmites! Here, we’re using controlled burning to remove dead Phragmites that was treated in fall 2014. We remove dead material in the hope that native plants may emerge.

Problem: Our Gardens are Missing One Essential Feature – Plentiful Caterpillars

Now you may be thinking, “Caterpillars eat holes in leaves! The lack of caterpillars is not a problem!!!” Well, actually, it is. Like me, you’ve probably always thought of your garden or lawn as an artistic or decorative enterprise. And it should be! We all need beauty around us. But nature needs our garden flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to be productive, as well as beautiful. Our yards also need to nourish creatures large and small who live around us. The sad truth is that  most of our gardens are green, colorful food deserts that leave nature hungry and malnourished. Luckily, we can easily change that!

Insects: “The Little Things that Run the World”

Insects, including butterflies, moths, and many other pollinators keep an ecosystem fed. They really are, as the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, “the little things that run the world.” An insect’s chubby caterpillars chewing and hunching along a plant stem provide essential food for the whole web of life. Birds stuff them down the scrawny throats of baby birds; caterpillars are soft and filled with the fat and protein nestlings need. Adult birds snag insects from the air, pluck them off the ground, and snatch them from leaves. They even spend winter days probing loose bark looking for frozen insect eggs or caterpillars to get the protein that helps keep their small bodies warm on icy nights.

Without enough caterpillars, birds won’t lay a full clutch of eggs in the spring. Their  young will not be as large and healthy. And they need a lot of them! Chickadees, for example, need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise their clutch of nestlings! Caterpillars are simply the most important food source for birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and some mammals. Seeds and fruits contribute to food webs too – but caterpillars are essential.

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So Why Are Our Yards Missing So Many Caterpillars?

Ninety percent of our native caterpillars, the young of daytime butterflies and the moths who maneuver through the night, are picky eaters! They can only eat plants with which they co-evolved. They are specialists who, over eons, have overcome the chemical defenses of particular native plants and are now adapted to eat them and nothing else. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to switch to what’s available. It would take thousands of years of evolution to make that possible. So if our caterpillars don’t hatch out on a native plant, they generally die of malnutrition before reaching adulthood.

The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), of course, is the classic example; its caterpillars can eat only one genus – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias).  Monarchs will sip nectar from all kinds of flowers, but their caterpillars need one of the milkweed species for food that will nourish them to adulthood. And 90% of all our insects face the same challenge of finding the native plants their young can eat. Not enough native plants means not enough insects and their caterpillars, which means not enough birds, not enough amphibians –  and on it goes as hunger spreads through a habitat’s food web.

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A Beautiful, Simple Solution: Plant More Native Flowers, Grasses, Shrubs and Trees

So many environmental issues are beyond our control. But we can control our yards, our gardens, the fields and woods on our land. And we can turn around the declining numbers of butterflies, pollinators, birds and more by nourishing wildlife around us with beautiful native plants. They come in all kinds of colors and shapes. Some thrive in wet areas, some in dry. Some need the sunshine, some the shade. Some bloom in only one season, some in more than one. Some are even green all winter! Here’s just a tiny, rainbow sampling  to whet your appetite!

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Our Gardens and Yards Can Change Gradually, Right?

We don’t need to overhaul our gardens overnight. I plan to just gradually add in more native plants each year. Ideally, our goal is to reach at least 70% native – but any increase in native plants benefits our local habitats. For example, I can’t afford to eliminate the non-native woods of invasive Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) next to our driveway – but I can remove its invasive sprouts wherever I come across one. And maybe year by year, we can remove a bit more of the Vinca and Lily-of -the-Valley that have choked out native woodland flowers on the forest floor. I’m thinking  of removing Locusts that are crowding the few native Wild Black Cherry Trees (Prunus serotina) in the woods and perhaps adding in a few native understory trees to help out the birds and insects.

Dense woods of non-native Black Locust

Three years ago, I started taking on the invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that has encircled our yard and infiltrated the woods for years. Pulling them out by the roots is quite easy; my 4-year-old neighbor enjoyed doing it with me! And the reward at our house is that beautiful, native White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) now rises out of the earth each autumn wherever I pulled the Garlic Mustard in the spring! (Have a look at the beautiful bank of white blossoms below!) I’m anxious to know what else may be hiding in the seed bank under the forest floor!

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If placed in the right environment, native plants are less fussy than non-native plants we usually get from the garden store. They’ve evolved in our ecosystem so they don’t need the regular watering, fertilizing or soil amendments that non-natives usually do. In fact many of our native plants do better in poor soil! Rain generally provides enough water for them, except in severe droughts. You’ll need to experiment to see what works, just as you do with non-native plants. Some will grow more vigorously than you’d like and need to be thinned; consider sharing them with neighbors! Others will need to be moved to a new location. That’s OK! It’s all a learning process, right?

A Word about that Lawn…

Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, a sort of  “bible” for native gardeners, points out that millions of acres in America are covered by our lawns. In fact researchers say that the American lawn covers an area the size of New England! Turf grasses are non-native and require huge amounts of water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep them  green. Mowing them frequently also uses lots of fossil fuel.

Now neither Doug Tallamy nor I are not advocating that you ignore your lawn and let it grow into a fallow field full of invasive plants! What Tallamy and other conservationists are asking is this: Could you do with less grass and plant more native gardens? Could you plant a native White Oak (Quercus alba) in your front yard? (White Oaks can support over 500 different insect species and still look great! Could you put native shrubs along your driveway? Maybe you could plant a more formal native garden in the front with drifts or masses of native plants that love to be planted close together.  (No need for mulch!)

Grass paths could be used to guide you through your landscape; turf grass is great to walk on. If your children play outside (and I fervently hope they do!), leave a play area but surround it with native wildflowers or flowering native shrubs. And where you have slopes or large open areas with plenty of sun, consider taller native grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a variety of sun-loving prairie plants. Native grasses and shrubs provide artistic structure in a garden, but also give caterpillars safe places to spin their chrysalises and cocoons.  The possibilities are endless.

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An Inspiration for the Future:  The “Homegrown National Park”

In his newest book,  Nature’s Best Hope, Dr. Tallamy proposes a glorious vision of what a dedicated nation could create for its people and its wildlife. He envisions all of us together creating huge swaths of native habitat by linking our native-growing neighborhoods into a “Homegrown National Park.” Imagine that! Our new national park could be as large as 20 million acres if we all reduced our lawn areas by half. Wow! An audacious idea, but theoretically possible. For the moment though, our goal can simply be to enhance the habitat around our own houses and perhaps eventually a network of houses and neighborhoods full of both life and beauty.

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Wild geranium and wild columbine make a stunning spring combo

Imagine Your Native Garden as Living Landscape, a Beautiful Habitat Where Nature Thrives

February is a great time for garden dreaming. Envision the possibilities outside your kitchen window. A green path wends it way between native gardens that change with each season. Warm patches of sunlight bring butterflies looking for nectar. Perhaps fledgling bluebirds beg to be fed beneath your native flowering shrub. In the shade of the native tree canopy, migrating birds stop by to sing while looking for caterpillars or to pluck a few berries on their way south for the winter. I’m finding a whole new set of yard dreams myself. I hope you conjure up a few too, and add some natives to your yard this year.

RESOURCES:

Ready to Plant Some Native Plants this Spring and/or Fall?  We Can Get Them for You Wholesale!

Starting last year, our Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, created a new native plant sale for township residents.  All the information for this year’s sale is right at this link  or under “Native Plant Sale” at the top of the Natural Areas Notebook home page.  But you need to order by March 4th!

Need More Detail about Native Plants, In-Depth Information or Answers to Frequently Asked Questions?  

  1. Get hold of a copy of any of Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy’s books:  Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press);  Nature’s Best Hope – A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press), and one he wrote with native landscaper, Rick Darke, The Living Landscape – Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.
  2. Listen to this podcast of Dr. Tallamy being interviewed about native plants.
  3. Find native plants for your county by using this national database and putting in your zipcode!
  4. Check out the somewhat more comprehensive blog about native plants that I wrote last year after attending the Wildlfower Association of Michigan annual conference.

TINY, INTREPID MIGRATORS: The Colorful Warblers of Late Spring

Polish up your binocular lenses and head outside, dear readers!  The trees, shrubs and marshes are filled with a rainbow of colorful birds. And though some of these visitors may choose to stay and raise young here, others are just passing through.  So time’s a-wasting!

The second and third weeks of May are probably the busiest weeks of the spring for those of us who enjoy birds. New birds arrive daily at our feeders and we rush to the window. Flocks gather at  birding ‘hot spots” like Tawas Point in Michigan or Magee Marsh in Ohio and we pack up the car and take off to see them.  Familiar birdsong in the treetops prompts the birding group to go silent and look up.

A tree full of busy warblers captivated the birding group in May 2018.

Scientists theorize that the tiny warblers, and many other spring birds, may have made long, arduous journeys through the night ever since their ancestors in the tropics experimented with moving north in the spring.  As the glaciers retreated, some of the tropical or sub-tropical birds kept pushing on a bit further north each spring, seeking more sunlit hours and different or more nourishing food. Those ancestors liked what they found –  longer summer days, an abundance of blossoms and insects and plenty of nesting sites. And lucky for us, they eventually arrived here in Oakland Township and liked what they saw.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

This year,  I got curious about  where our visiting warblers spent the winter. How far had they  traveled to reach Michigan from their wintering grounds? I also wanted to be sure which birds you and  I need to look for right now, before they fly off to breed further north and which ones we can relax about a bit, because they’ll spend the summer with us, raising their young in our parks and yards. The more I learn about nature, the more I feel myself embedded in the natural world – and I like that feeling.

So here’s what I’ve learned about some visiting warblers so far this month. These birds are all ones I’ve seen this spring. But I’m using some of last year’s photos  when they’re better than some of the ones I took during this year’s cold, rainy spring. Next week, I hope to explore the fellow travelers, other beautiful migrators that accompanied this year’s warblers  and will be spending the summer with us as well.

Some Warblers are Here Only Occasionally or are Just Passing Through

Evidently for some birds,  our area is a good place to get some R & R, but locations further north have charms that lure them on.  Perhaps these migrators long for cooler summer temperatures, deeper forests, or a reliable food source that they need or simply prefer.

At Magee Marsh in Ohio, my husband and I saw our first male Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria citrea), named for the bright yellow robes of Roman Catholic papal clerks.  You can’t see this male’s lovely blue-gray wings in my photo because he wouldn’t stop singing his four tweet song.  I think his clear golden feathers with a peachy blur are probably the prettiest yellow feathers I’ve ever seen! Prothonotary numbers are dwindling due to a lack of forested wetlands in the U.S. and the loss of mangrove forests along the Atlantic Coast of Central and northern South America, where they spend the winter.  They more commonly breed in Missouri, Arkansas and the south but a few do choose to breed in our area.  Some were seen along the Clinton River Trail in the last couple of years. So,  enjoy a rare treat if you spot this beautiful warbler!

The Prothonotary Warbler has blue-gray wings that don’t show here because he was too busy singing to hop about!

The male Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata) below may look like an overgrown Chickadee, but Blackpolls are avian record-holders!  Cornell Ornithology Lab reports that, “This long-distance athlete weighs less than half an ounce yet makes the longest overwater journey of any songbird—nearly 1,800 miles nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean to its wintering grounds.”  Imagine!   Now they are on their way to mate in Northern Canada; some go all the way to Hudson’s Bay! According to Cornell Lab, to accomplish their monumental autumn flights, Blackpolls have to double their weight!  Talk about bulking up!

The Blackpoll Warbler can fly over the Atlantic for 3 days nonstop on its way to its wintering grounds. Though still quite numerous, their numbers have fallen 88% in the last 40 years.

This male Magnolia Warbler with its black necklace and mask was on its way to Northern Michigan or Canada because he prefers to breed in dense conifer forests.  And he’s already traveled a long way since he winters in the Caribbean or Central America.

This male Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) spent his winter in the Caribbean or Central America. He’s on his way to the conifer forests of Northern Michigan  of Canada.

Blackburnian Warblers (Setophaga fusca) travel super long distances, too.  According to Wikipedia, they winter in the mountains from Colombia to Peru at heights of 2,000-8,000 feet.  They also prefer to breed in coniferous forests, especially ones with hemlocks.  So they’re heading farther north to upper Michigan and Canada.  While there, they’ll spend most of their time in the high canopy, plucking moth and butterfly larvae from the treetops.  So the best time to see them is during migration when they’re down at eye level.

The Blackburnian Warbler travels here from mountainous areas from Colombia to Peru

The Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) spends its winters in Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America.  Parulas raise young from Florida to the boreal forests of northern Canada, but according to Cornell, they skip Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin and some northeastern states.  Why avoid us?  Mosses like the southern Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides)  or northern lichens like Old Man’s Beard (g. Usnea) that droop from branches are important to the Parula for nesting material and neither is common in our area.  So since they breed north of us and south of us but not here,  try to see them before they move on!

The Northern Parula’s  rust-colored throat isn’t visible in this photo.  It breeds in many states but not here since we don’t have the tree mosses  or lichens they depend on for nesting material.

According to the migration map at Cornell, the Yellow-rumped Warbler just barely misses our area during the breeding season.  They  breed north of  Michigan’s “thumb.”  The reason may be that,  like the Blackburnian, they prefer mature forests with more conifers in them than we have around here.  Luckily, during migration,  I’ve seen them many times at Bear Creek Park, either around the playground pond or in the oak-hickory forest.  They can winter as far north as Indiana and Ohio (rarely in the southern edge of Michigan) because they can digest fruits that other warblers can’t,  like juniper or myrtle, but also the fruits of poison ivy, poison oak and virginia creeper, for heaven’s sake!   Strong stomachs, eh? This one rested at Magee Marsh this year before crossing Lake Erie.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler prefers the conifer forests of Canada as nesting territory.

During migration, I’ve spotted Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) year after year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Their song is a rapid buzzing trill,   Look for Palm Warblers on the ground, a location uncommon for most warblers.  They also do a lot of tail pumping while they forage. Palm Warblers prefer to nest in the boreal (evergreen) forests of Canada. Their migration north begins in Florida or the Caribbean.

Palm Warblers spend a lot of time on the ground, which is unusual for warblers.

Some Warblers Spend the Summer With Us.

All summer long, we are graced with the presence of other warblers.  They are small and can be difficult to see hidden in the summer greenery, though, so it’s a delight to see them before the leaves are fully grown.  I have yet to see a warbler nest, but I’ve only become aware of these little beauties since I joined the birding group, so maybe you long-time birders have spotted them raising young. If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), one of my favorite warblers,  is shown on Cornell Lab’s migration map as  nesting here in our area,  but I’ve only seen them during migration.  Please let me know if you see one during the summer or hear what Cornell describes as their “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” breeding song. These little birds spend their winters among tropical birds in Central and northern South America. They tend to go back to the same tropical area each autumn and  hang out and feed with the same mixed group of tropical birds they hung out with the previous year. I’d love to see that reunion each year!

The Chestnut-sided Warbler spends the winter with the same group of tropical birds in Central or northern South America.

Happily, the Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is a common summer resident in our parks.  These bright yellow birds are likely to be in shrubs or trees near wetlands.  The male’s very quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” call can be heard at quite a distance, so keep following that call! This tiny bird is also a long distance migrator.  Yellow Warblers fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to spend the winter in Central America or northern South America. Wouldn’t their tropical ancestors be proud of them?  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Some of our eastern American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) only travel to Florida for the winter.  But many fly on to the Greater Antilles (the large islands in the Caribbean) or to northern South America.   Listen for its cheerful song since they mate in our area, as well as over a large area of the  country. The Redstart is believed to startle insects out of trees by simultaneously drooping its orange-patched wings and flashing open its colorful  tail. It must work, because Cornell says that they excel among the warblers at catching flying insects.

The intricately  patterned Black-and-white Warblers (Mniotilta varia) hop along, around, over and under the trunks and branches of trees, much like nuthatches,  looking for insects in the moss and bark. They can nest here, though I’ve only seen them during migration and don’t yet recognize their rapid, shrill trill.  They build nests  on the ground in forest leaf litter, so we’re more likely to see them in parks than on our tidy lawns.  They are scrappy little birds that give the Redstarts and Chickadees a hard time when establishing territory. Some travel to Florida for the winter, but others fly on to northern South America where they hassle inhabitants there as well!

The Black-and-white Warbler hops about on trees and branches searching for insects or insect eggs,  much as the Nuthatch and Brown Creeper do.

The birding group sees  or hears Black-throated Green Warblers (Setophaga virens) during migration.  The maps at Cornell Lab shows that some breed here, but they’re more likely to nest farther north in forests with mature trees. There they often feed high up in the canopy.  So really, the best time to see them is when they’re migrating because they tend to stay further down in the greenery. Though they do have a mating song, we’re most likely to hear their buzzing “zzzzz” territorial song while they’re traveling.  The mating song is the first recording at this Cornell link and the buzzing call is the second one.  They may have migrated up  from the Caribbean. Or they may have traveled from Central America and northern South America, either around or over the Gulf of Mexico.

Listen for the buzzing “zzzzz” call of The Black-throated Green Warbler to locate it during migration.

Birds Flowing Over Us  in the Dark Night Sky

Imagine standing on your lawn in the dark on a warm spring night.  Though you can’t see them in the dark sky, a river of small birds, dressed in their best courtship colors, are  alternately soaring and fluttering as they ride the south wind.  Most of  the smallest ones travel in large mixed flocks for safety.  For hundreds of miles each night, they wing their  way beneath the stars.  They’re battered by unexpected cold fronts and rainstorms that force them down  to the earth, sometimes in places unsuitable for rest or foraging. They rest, try to forage and fly on.  They dodge predators like owls  or suburban cats that patrol the night and hawks and other predators by day.  They fly on. Some are confused by the bright lights of buildings or towers and break against unseen glass or metal, falling to their deaths by the millions each year. But luckily, others manage to tilt their wings, swerve away or over these obstacles and fly on.  Driven by the need to find the optimum habitat for raising their young,  these colorful small birds persist in the journey defined by their tropical ancestors thousands of year ago.

Now these lovely, hungry, weary travelers have arrived or  at least have chosen to stop, rest and eat here before continuing on.  It seems only right that we take a little time to appreciate them.  Their bustling activity,  brilliant color and cheerful song provide a welcome change after the quiet, cold, gray-and-brown landscape of  winter.  Now that I’ve come to know some of them, late spring is even more of a joy.  I wish that for you, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS OF THE WEEK: A Warblerfest at Two Township Parks

Fellow birder Tom Korb’s photo of Oakland Township birding group watching spring warblers.

I doubt that many of the  birders in Tom Korb’s photo above had previously spent over half an hour observing a small group of trees with sheer delight. But of course, these trees at Cranberry Lake Park were decorated with colorful, little spring warblers! The warblers and other migrators had flown in on a south wind the night before and were now hungrily feasting on sweet spring catkins. Most of  these tiny birds will rest here and then fly farther north, so there were no territorial or mating squabbles. They were content to just nibble and flutter from limb to limb among their traveling companions as we eagerly watched below.

The same phenomenon occurred at Bear Creek Park the week before. A south wind had helped carry warblers and other small birds over the township and then heavy rain had forced them down out of the skies to settle in the trees around the playground pond.

So here’s a gallery of the photos I was able to catch of these tiny, flitting warblers, and a few bonus birds. For birds that we saw or heard, but were too quick for me, I’ve added two photos taken in previous years and two by  gifted local photographers, Joan and Bob Bonin.  Thank you to Joan, Bob and Tom! (Click on pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

 

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