A few days ago, I visited the Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve in Mattawan, Michigan, one of our local nature areas. It’s a beautiful preserve with a well-maintained 1.5 mile trail that meanders through wild flowers, trees, ponds, and tall prairie grasses. The land is owned and maintained by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit organization.
“In 2004, this site was slated for a housing development. Topsoil had been removed, road routes had been laid out and neighborhood landscaping was being installed. The Nature Conservancy was alerted to rare wetland communities here and began negotiations to acquire the land. Today The Nature Conservancy owns 106 acres along the east branch of the Paw Paw River, including rare prairie fens, and a beautiful array of prairie plants and wildlife.” (from the descriptive sign at the entrance of the preserve)
I started my picture walk at 2:30 in the afternoon hoping to eventually catch the late afternoon sun. For the first hour and a half, I saw virtually nothing to photograph, except for a few random plants, and an untold number of autumn meadowhawk dragonflies. I had been hoping for butterflies and birds, and a much wider variety of dragonflies. I had even hoped to find a praying mantis or two. But there were only the meadowhawks, and a few interesting plants to entertain me.
Autumn meadowhawks, as the name implies, are most active from late summer through fall, and are abundant in open meadows or prairies like the one I was in. They are often the last dragonflies you will see as the colder weather sets in. If there hasn’t been a hard freeze, it’s even possible to find them in November!
At the ninety minute mark, I finally spotted something other than a meadowhawk– a praying mantis! There were probably hundreds of them hidden in the grasses all around me, but praying mantids are particularly well-camouflaged and extremely hard to find! I was thrilled that this one was out in the open and clinging to the underside of a stalk of goldenrod. The most fascinating thing about this insect is its ability to rotate its heads 180 degrees! No other insect can do this, and it’s particularly creepy to zoom in on one and find it staring back at you from over its shoulder!
While I was watching the praying mantis, a small bird flew across my peripheral field and landed in a distant tree. It wasn’t close enough for a good picture, but I took a few quick shots anyway so that I could identify it later. The bird turned out to be an Eastern Wood-Peewee; an olive-gray bird with dark wings and an off-white belly. It’s bigger than a Black-capped Chickadee but smaller than an Eastern Bluebird.
Thirty minutes later, I came across my best surprise of the day, a ruby-throated hummingbird! They are usually on the move and hard to capture, but this one landed on a branch and sat for a spell.
Once the hummingbird flew off, I continued down the path and found my first and only monarch for the day perched on a lovely stand of deep purple ironweed—the perfect plant for a monarch photo! Later, a great spangled fritillary came along and landed on the very same plant! Ironweed is an absolute butterfly magnet! The clusters of hairy purple to pink flowers are irresistible to pollinators, especially swallowtails and monarchs.
I had a hard time pulling myself away from the butterflies, but there was a small pond nearby and I had noticed cedar waxwings there earlier in my walk. They had been flying back and forth across the pond catching insects. This time of year, cedar waxwings supplement their fruity diet with protein-rich insects like mayflies, dragonflies, and stoneflies, which they often catch on the wing.
Three hours into my slow, rambling walk, I was ready to head back to my car, but there was one more surprise waiting for me– a very, very tiny American copper butterfly that only flies about two feet above the ground. The upperside of its forewings are a bright copper color with black spots and a gray border. The hindwings are grayish-brown with a copper border. It’s quite a pretty little butterfly when you can see it close-up.
All through the fen, I kept thinking about the changes that were taking place around me; all the beautiful flowers that were already fading away, all the colorful birds and insects that had already left or would soon be leaving, and all the green, leafy trees that would soon be barren.
It’s not that I dread the changing of the seasons or the coming of winter; I’ll still be traipsing about in the snow looking for a another pretty picture. But I’ll miss the rich variety of birds and insects, and the huge palette of colors that spring and summer throw across the landscape. I always have.