Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Birthday Blog

Almost since I began birding, I have tried to make a point of getting out and enjoying nature and birding on my birthday. Having a late April birthday makes this particularly appealing, especially as my parents, brother, and sister have birthdays in the winter ranging from December 22 to February 29. This year my birthday fell on a Sunday and Nancy joined me for an itinerary hastily put together based on what was around. Our first stop was Beaudette Park, a small park on the southwest side of Pontiac, Michigan, that was unknown to me until a friend, Christine Bommarito e-mailed me that she'd found a Bell's Vireo there on Saturday. I have not seen a Bell's Vireo in Michigan since they bred in the southwestern part of the state in the 1980s. The vireo was singing intermittently so was easy to locate, but being a very active species it was not very easy to photograph.

There were lots of other migrants in this small park, including Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warblers, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Chimney Swifts. The vireo was hanging around with a group of boisterously singing Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

Next it was on to Metro Beach Metropark where a Worm-eating Warbler had been reported. We, along with a number of other birders, spent considerable time looking for this bird without success. I managed a couple photos, including this one of a female Red-winged Blackbird giving an "obstructed view" as discussed a while back on Jochen Roeder's blog. When I repositioned myself for a better angle, she repositioned herself to the other side of the marsh.

When we returned to the Nature Center, we saw this nice Red-headed Woodpecker on the post that they coat with peanut butter to feed the birds.

It had apparently just arrived, as nobody in the Nature Center had seen it yet this spring.

Our final destination, this one for salamanders and wildflowers, was the Highland State Recreation Area. The Ecology Trails in the vicinity of Haven Hill Lake have been one of our favorite local spots for finding salamanders. And we had good luck today too, but not before enjoying some of the wildflowers of the area. There were more Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) here than anywhere else I've been this spring.

And many picturesque clumps of Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia) were also in evidence.

One of my favorite violets is the Long-spurred Violet (Viola rostrata), not only for its pale pastel purplish color, but also because it is fairly easy to identify!

We checked a patch of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) along the trail where in years past we had found the rare (in Michigan) Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla). It has a flower that is similar to that of the Bloodroot, but the leaves are quite distinctive and give the species its name. We were happy to find one plant, no longer in bloom, as we had failed to find any in our "secret" patch in recent years.

Turning over logs (and returning them carefully), we find a lot of other interesting things. At Oakwoods Metropark on Saturday an Eastern Chipmunk exploded off into the leaf litter when I uncovered his hiding place! Many insects also use rotting logs and loose bark to hide under during the day. Beetles, like this American Carrion Beetle (Silpha americana), are occasionally found.

And we had good success with the salamanders too, considering how dry the woods are this spring. Some years we have found 40-70 Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) on our two-mile "route" at this locale. This year we found seven, four of the all-gray "lead-backed" color morph and three of the "red-backed" morph.

The Red-backed is Michigan's most widespread salamander species. They lay their eggs on the underside of damp logs on the forest floor in August and September, and can be found in virtually any moist woodland with enough "litter" covering the ground during spring. The Blue-spotted Salamander (Ambystoma laterale) lays its eggs in vernal ponds, which dry up by late summer. They retreat to underground burrows after they've laid their eggs so are less frequently encountered as they are above ground for a briefer period each spring. We were happy to find three Blue-spotteds this day, one smallish one (still bigger than the small Red-backs), and two really big ones.

We returned home in late afternoon and spent some time watching our hummingbird feeders, hoping for our first arrival of the spring. But our vigil went unrewarded. Many others have already reported their first hummingbirds earlier than normal this year, but details on that will be covered in the next blog entry in a couple days.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Earth Day - April 22, 2008

In Michigan, Earth Day (April 22, 2008) sees Michigan woodlands in a state of awakening after a long period of dormance over winter. I wanted to get out and get close to the earth today, and decided that the Michigan Nature Conservancy's Nan Weston Preserve at Sharon Hollow would be a great place to do that.

Spring wildflowers were in bloom everywhere, and "getting close to the earth" means laying down on your belly in the trail in order to see them well. Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is the earliest blooming wildflower around here, often getting covered over with late snowfalls. The patches of large green leaves indicated that most of this species had bloomed weeks ago, but some of the odd flowers of this plant were still in evidence.

Another species that was forming carpets of green in certain areas was Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).

On the drier parts of the forest floor, one of the commonest wildflowers was the Rue Anemone (Anemonella thalictroides).

And many of the conspicuous "usual suspects" that are expected in a Michigan woods this time of year were in bloom, including Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)...

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)...

Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)...

Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)...

...and Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata).

A number of less conspicuous flowers were also found. Although the purplish stems of Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) are fairly conspicous, the flowers can be difficult to see unless you look closely.

Although there were leaves everywhere of the Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), only a few were in bloom.

And, even fewer Northern Blue Violets (Viola septentrionalis) were in bloom.

Even an orchid species was found, though it wasn't in bloom. The striped leaves of the Puttyroot, or Adam and Eve Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale), is very conspicuous in early spring, but will whither before the plant flowers in late May.

A familiar sight in woodlands throughout Michigan this time of year is the Spicebush shrub (Lindera benzoin) with its yellow flowers. Less familiar, because it is somewhat rare, is the Leatherwood shrub (Dirca palustris).

Among the non-flowering species, the Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), which stays green all winter, was easily found.

And a couple species of sedge, this one unidentified (I don't do sedges!), were in flower.

Other plants found in the woods today included Spring Cress (Cardamine bulbosa), Field Horsetail (Equisetum arvense), Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana,seed pod only), Wood Strawberry (Fragaria vecsa), and Harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa).

Insects were very much in evidence, not the least of which was the cloud of gnats that seemed to be everywhere I wanted to go. No biting insects were out, however. Among the butterflies seen were Mouning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), and Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon). A couple of Green Darners (Anax junius) were the only dragonflies seen.

There was much activity around the blooming flowers, many pollinators getting some of their first feedings of the spring. But few honeybees (Apis mellifera) were out, only a few Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa virginica). The main pollinator seemed to be the Large Bee Flies (Bombylius major). Here is one on a Bloodroot flower.

Brown Click Beetles (Melanotus sp.) were out doing whatever it is they do.

And this tiny jumping spider was hunting the leaf litter. I believe it is Pelegrina proterva.

Reptiles and amphibians emerge in the spring as well, and in addition to a fleeting look at a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), I managed a photo of this Northern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus septentrionalis). A Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) was sunning in the river.

Frogs and toads were heard calling, including Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata), Eastern Gray Treefrog (Hyla versicolor), and American Toads (Bufo americanus). At the breeding pond where Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) can be found, I had no luck, but at other places in the woods I did see a few Red-backed Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus). Due to the warm temperatures - it was approaching 70 degrees - most of them were much more active than they usually are on cool damp mornings, so I managed but one photo of a single individual of the "lead-backed" color morph.

And of course, there were the birds. Thirty-one species were either seen or heard. One of my favorites of the day was the Louisiana Waterthrush (Seiurus motacilla) whose song rang throughout the woods during most of the morning.

Once I located the singer and took a few photos, for nearly an hour I enjoyed its beautiful song, in this beautiful woods, on this beautiful planet.