Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Chippewa River Floods - 2014 edition

One year ago Mid-Michigan experienced its most severe flooding in nearly thirty years.  With heavy rains over the weekend, many rivers in our area are again experiencing flooding this April.  The flood waters are not as high, but are still impressive.  Here are some photos that I took over the past two days.

The first few photos were taken on Monday at Chipp-A-Waters Park in Mt. Pleasant.

Probably not the brightest idea...  Parks workers taking a Gator through 8 or more inches of water.

The Chippewa River is to the left in this photo.  The tree in the foreground in normally several feet above water on the near bank.

The canoe landing at Chipp-A-Waters Park - the end of the landing is several feet under water at this stage

Eroding riverbank at Chipp-A-Waters Park - there is a planned project to stabilize this bank over the Summer.

The next six photographs are also from Monday.  This set of pictures was taken at Mill Pond Park - downstream from Chipp-A-Waters Park.

Pedestrian bridge over the Chippewa River - If you click the link in the first paragraph you can see a photo from the same vantage point taken one year ago.

Water flowing over the weirs in Mill Pond Park

A large tree trunk stuck on a weir - the trough in the water in front of it was probably more than 2 feet deep.  A half hour after this picture was taken this tree trunk was gone, washed downstream by the strong current.

Water rushing against the dam in Mill Pond Park

It's called a "floodplain" for a reason...

Waterfowl were enjoying the flooded shorelines;  pedestrians, not so much...

The next photograph was taken on Monday at Nelson Park, the next park downstream. This was my favorite photo of the day.  Water levels continued to rise after this picture was taken. 

An American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) forages along the edge of the flooded lawn at Nelson Park
The remaining photographs were taken on Tuesday at Island Park and Pickens Field.  These parks are downstream from all the parks in the above photos.

Flooded softball field at Pickens Field

Looking across the pedestrian bridge from Pickens Field to Island Park - the Vietnam Memorial is mostly underwater

Flooding at Island Park in Mt. Pleasant - Maybe that sign should have a swimmer on it instead...

Flooding from the Chippewa River at Island Park - the line of small trees in the center for the photo shows the normal location of the riverbank.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wildflowers of 2014 - #2 Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis) and #3 Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

Continuing with my goal of photographing as many species of wildflowers as possible in 2014, yesterday I went to Mill Pond Park in Mt. Pleasant searching for a couple of Spring ephemeral wildflowers (flowers that complete their blooming cycle before the canopy trees leaf out).  I did not find what I was looking for, but did manage to find two species of trees/shrub blooming in a shrub swamp near the Chippewa River.

Wildflowers of 2014 - #2 Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

The first tree that I found blooming was a Betula (Birch) species.  After much investigation, I decided that this was most likely a Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis).  There are several species native to Eastern North America that are similar, including Sweet Birch (B. lenta) and River Birch (B. nigra), but those could be eliminated based on certain characteristics.

Yellow Birch flowers and catkins

The twigs of both Yellow and Sweet Birch smell and taste like wintergreen when crushed or scraped, River Birch does not have this smell/taste.  The twigs of this tree smell like wintergreen, eliminating River Birch as an option. 

Male flower and mature catkins of Yellow Birch

Sweet Birch can be eliminated by looking at its range.  Although it is found in 21 states and the province of Ontario, Michigan is not in its native range.  The closest it is found to Michigan is in eastern Ohio.  This leaves Yellow Birch as the most likely identification for this tree.

Male flowers of Yellow Birch (Betula aleghaniensis)

Wildflowers of 2014 - #3 Pussy Willow (Salix discolor)

The second tree that I found blooming was a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor).  Pussy Willow is native to 29 states and most of Canada (except Yukon territory and Nunavut).  This the first willow species to bloom in Mid-Michigan.  It is easily identified by the fuzzy immature catkins that resemble and feel like cat fur. 

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) branches and catkins

Pussy Willow - identifiable by the fuzzy immature catkins

Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) catkins

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mink Tracks at Mission Creek

My last post was about a trip to Mission Creek Woodland Park and my first wildflower (and butterfly, and reptile) sighting of 2014.  I like going to Mission Creek because it seems that while I may go to seek out one thing in particular, I never know what I am going to find.

Besides Skunk Cabbage flowers, Mourning Cloak butterflies, and Common Garter Snakes, I also found a large number of footprints in the mud along Mission Creek.  Almost all of the footprints belonged to Northern Raccoons, but in one location some of the tracks were much smaller.

Instead of a Raccoon, those tracks belonged to an American Mink.

A small (probably female) mink  photographed along the Chippewa River in 2005

Mink tracks can can be identified by their pointed heal and five toes that fan out into a teardrop shape.  This can be easily seen in the track to the left of the photograph below

Mink tracks - note the five toes and teardrop shape
Mink tracks are not large - most are under an inch and a half long and an inch and a half wide.  There are two clear mink tracks (and two obscured footprints) in the photo below - mink often place their hind feet in the tracks made by their front feet, blurring the front tracks.  Also shown in the lower half of the picture below are several tracks from a Northern Raccoon.  The Swiss Army knife is 3.5 inches long and is shown for scale.

Mink (top) and Raccoon (bottom) tracks - Swiss Army knife is 3.5 inches long

Friday, April 11, 2014

Wildflowers of 2014 - #1 Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus)

One of my goals for this year is to photograph as many species of wildflowers as possible. 

I am limiting myself in this goal to flowers that I find in a specific location.  I have a very long list of wildflowers that I have identified in the local parks system (over 200 native and non-native species), but I lack photos of many of them.  Many of the flowers are species that I see every year.  Other species are ones that I have only seen a few times over the course of more than 10 years.  Also, I know that some of my efforts at identification have been wrong over the years.  I want to see how many species I can find and photograph in one growing season.

The first flower on my list is the first one that I would expect to find - Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus).

Last year I was able to find this flower on March 7th as it was poking up through the snow at Mission Creek Woodland Park in Mt. Pleasant.  This year there was still a couple of feet of snow on the ground as of two weeks ago.  By yesterday, much of snow had melted down in the swamp along Mission Creek.

Cedar Swamp at Mission Creek Park

With the snow gone, there were Skunk Cabbage flowers everywhere.

Skunk Cabbage flowers emerging at a seep

A cluster of Skunk Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage bloom - these flowers were attracting honey bees

Skunk Cabbage flower emerging through the leaf litter

I had two other "firsts" on the day.  I found my first reptile of the year, a Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis).  Actually I found three of them sunning in a clear area in the woods.  Two of them can be seen in the next photo.

Common Garter Snakes sunning at Mission Creek Park

Common Garter Snake - note the red tongue
Common Garter Snake - these snakes were each about 2 feet long

I also say my first butterfly of the year, a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa).  I actually saw two Mourning Cloaks, the first one flew past me at high speed and disappeared into the distance.  The second one landed near a small pool of water and unfurled its long proboscis.  It appeared to be seeking out minerals in the mud along the pool and remained in place for many minutes.  These photographs were taken by "zooming with my feet".  this butterfly was so involved in mudpuddling that I was able to approach within two feet.  The Mourning Cloak is one of the few species of Michigan butterflies that overwinters as an adult, so it is possible to find these beautiful chocolate brown butterflies even on warm winter days.

Mourning Cloak butterfly

Mourning Cloak butterfly - this butterfly was mud-puddling (obtaining minerals from the mud)

Mourning Cloak butterfly - note the chocolate brown wings with creamy yellow margins and a row of pale blue spots

Mourning Cloak butterfly - this butterfly overwinters as an adult resulting in this slightly tattered appearance

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Native Species Profile - Red-winged Blackbird

Spring migration is in full force here in Mid-Michigan.  Many of the birds that had come down from Canada to spend their Winter here have returned north.  Other species that left Michigan laft fall for warmer climates have begun returning.  To me nothing indicates the return of Spring more than the return of the Red-Winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).

Male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing its distinctive "conk-a-ree" song
Male Red-winged Blackbirds have been back in Mid-Michigan for about two weeks.  The males always return north before the females.  This species prefers wetlands as their primary habitat.  The males come back in late-March to stake their claim on prime habitat.  All of the males seem to arrive at once - one day there are none; the next day there is one every dozen yards along the roadside ditches.  The same scene can be found around lakeshores, ponds, and especially in cattail marshes.  When the males arrive, they quickly establish a pecking order with the more dominant males getting the better territories.

Red-Winged Blackbirds are one of the many species of birds that exhibit a property called sexual dimorphism - meaning that there is a visible difference between the male and female of the species.  Male Red-winged Blackbirds are very easy to identify with their distinctive color pattern.   The majority of their body is covered with glossy, iridescent black feathers.  Their shoulders are covered with a patch of vermillion red (red-orange), underlined by a narrow band of yellow feathers. The male is also notable for his "conk-a-ree" song with its emphasis on the trilling last syllable.  During the breeding season, males spend most of their time perched atop the tallest object in their territory, continuously repeating this call.  They want to be noticed.

Male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) displaying vermillion red shoulder patches underlined by yellow

Female Red-winged Blackbirds are not nearly as noticeable.  More than anything, the females resemble a large sparrow with a pattern of light and dark brown streaks.  She does have a small red patch on her shoulder, but this is rarely seen.  This drab coloration helps the female hide in here nest.  Nests are constructed low to the ground in shrubs or shoreline vegetation such as reeds and cattails.  The nests are cup-shaped, made of vegetation and mud, and lined with fine grasses.

Female Red-Winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) - note streaked coloration
Size-wise, the Red-Winged Blackbird is a chunky, medium to large-sized songbird.  It is slightly smaller than the American Robin and averages 6 1/2 to 9 inches in length with a 12 to 12 1/2 inch wingspan.

It feeds on insects and other invertebrates, often foraging along the waterline.  It also eats seeds and grains.  Red-winged Blackbirds will sometimes visit feeders, especially early in the Spring before breeding begins.

Male Red-winged Blackbirds are very protective of their breeding areas.  The birds are polygynous - meaning that each male will often have more than one female nesting in his territory.  Any intruder, including humans, that intrudes in a male's territory will be severely scolded and often dive-bombed.  Males will often gang up to mob predators, often chasing hawks and other large birds out of their breeding areas. 

A person that strays to close to a nest may find that they too are attacked by the birds which sometimes swoop down and strike the top of the head.  This is nothing to get mad about - the birds are just doing what is natural to them when they perceive a threat.  If this happens to you, remember that you are intruding on their territory.  When you leave, they will leave you alone.

Basic Information

Red-winged Blackbird
Agelaius phoeniceus

Size:  6 ½-9” long, 12-15 ½” wingspan

Habitat:  marshes, meadows, ponds, lakes, shorelines, wooded areas near wetlands

Eats:  insects, seeds, grains

Nest:  near ground, in shrubs or reeds/cattails, cup made of vegetation and mud, lined with grass

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Native Pollinator Gardens Update - 08 April 2014

During the past year, I have posted numerous photos of four native pollinator gardens that I have helped install at local sites.

Yesterday I went around to three of those sites to do a little bit of Spring cleaning.  I think it is important to leave any dead stems and leaves in the garden during winter.  This allows birds to feed on seed heads, lets some of those seeds disperse naturally in the garden, provides hiding places for over-wintering insects and other invertebrates, and allows some of the plant matter to decay and go back into the soil.  For these reasons, I like to wait until the weather has warmed up in the Spring, stimulating new growth, before I remove any residue from the previous growing season.

If you think about it, this makes perfect sense when you are working with native plants.  In their natural habitats no one is going around tidying things up at the end of the growing season.  Even though these are "gardens" they have to be given some freedom to act as natural habitats.

So what do these sites look like as of right now?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Signs of Spring - Tree Swallows have returned

This morning (08 APR 2014) I saw my first Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) of the year.  This was exactly one week earlier than last year (15 APR 2013).  The birds were perched atop nest boxes at the Saginaw Chippewa Academy.  These are not the first Tree Swallows to return to the area - a look at eBird shows Mid-Michigan sightings as early as March 27th this year.

A pair of Tree Swallows (June 2009)

I have written several posts that included information about Tree Swallows.  Look at the links below for more information.

A singing male Tree Swallow - note the swollen throat (June 2009)

 For more information about Tree Swallows visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.