Wildlife of the Lower Huron Metropark, Michigan

The Lower Huron Metropark is ten miles or so west of Detroit.   I've visited it twice, the first time after the 2005 "Thunder Over Michigan" airshow, and the second after missing my flight back to Los Angeles after the 2007 "Thunder Over Michigan" airshow.   Located along a stretch of the Lower Huron river, the park is naturally a great place to find water-loving creatures like this ruby meadowhawk, a type of dragonfly.

As far as I can tell, this is another ruby meadowhawk, probably a juvenile.   Young dragonflies are often a different color from the adult, the bodies becoming richer and darker hued as the dragonfly ages, and the face and eyes changing color too.

Those dragonflies are nice, but I was even more impressed by some of their cousins, the damselflies.   This metallic red beauty is an American rubyspot, a species I've photographed in a quite different environment, the California desert of the Coachella Valley Preserve.

The male American rubyspot's body is attractive, but it's the bright red base of their wings which give them their name.   It's usually next to impossible to get a photo of the insides of their wings, since they normally sit with them closed, however I was lucky enough to observe a pair mating, and the male graciously consented to holding his wings open while holding the much more drab female.

The American rubyspot is beautiful, but I felt even luckier when I found another even more spectacular damselfly in the very same location.   This is a male ebony jewelwing, and when I saw it I decided that if it took me all day to get at least one decent photo, it would be a day well spent.

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As it turns out, it took me only 20 or 30 minutes to get a set of good photos.   It's true that the males especially were shy and flew away many times as I inched closer, standing in a foot of water with my trouser legs rolled up to keep them dry, but eventually I managed to get some nice shots of them posing, both with wings closed and open.

And here's the female ebony jewelwing.

Her metallic green body coloration isn't as bold as the male's, but she's better looking than the female American rubyspot. 

The bright white marks on her wingtips are called stigmata, different dragonflies and damselflies have stigmata of different colors.   It's thought that they might act as weights to improve the performance of the wings, just like anti-flutter weights at the ends of the wings of jet fighters.

These dragonflies and damselflies managed to outshine even the local butterflies, everyone's favorite insects.   This small butterfly is a male Northern crescent, which is in remarkably good condition, perhaps because it's fairly newly emerged from its cocoon.   Northern crescents can be found across the northern half of the United States, with particularly strong representation down the entire length of the Rocky Mountains.

The Northern crescent might be in excellent condition, but this spicebush swallowtail has seen a few hard days.   Scratched and with a few bits of wing missing, it's still in fairly good shape; butterflies have such large wings for their body weight that they can fly with large pieces of their wings gone.   One of the spicebush swallowtail's claims to fame is that it is the state butterfly of Mississippi.

Swallowtails are a diverse and very attractive family of butterflies with members distributed all around the world.   Some species are very hard to approach, so I was pleased to be able to get close to this Eastern tiger swallowtail, feasting on the same type of flowers as the spicebush swallowtail.

Where there are butterflies there must also be caterpillars, like this extraordinary-looking viceroy butterfly caterpillar.   The grey areas along its flank and over its back are supposed to make it resemble a bird dropping, which is not something that birds want to eat!   If a bird sees through this stratagem then the second line of defense comes into play - long, thick and spiny projections near the head which make the caterpillar very difficult to swallow.

The viceroy is an attractive butterfly, a very good mimic of the monarch, but in many other species the caterpillar is much better looking than the adult.   This is particularly true of moths, like this morning glory prominent moth caterpillar.   Prominent moth caterpillars are easily recognizable by the way they hold their tails up in the air when disturbed, a technique which is perhaps intended to invite a bird to strike the tail rather than the head, giving the caterpillar an opportunity to escape.

It's hard to comprehend why so many caterpillars are brightly colored and patterned, even those species which are nocturnal, but it certainly makes for interesting photographs.

The park is host to other insects which people don't normally think of as pleasing to the eye, such as this green metallic bee, flitting rapidly from flower to flower.

This wasn't the only variety of green metallic bee on these flowers.   This one has a striped abdomen reminiscent of a wasp, an insect feared by many predators.   Although this species was smaller than the previous one, they were more aggressive and chased the larger ones around.

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You might think that a bee could defend itself well enough for most predators, but they are surprisingly vulnerable to attack by other arthropods, such as spiders or the jagged ambush bugs that you see here.   The female ambush bugs are obviously totally insatiable, looking for a snack even when a gallant is intent on winning her heart.   These are "true bugs", you can see the female's sucking mouthpiece stuck into the bee's neck.   In the background you can see another ambush bug moving in on her kill.

This juvenile assassin bug is another inhabitant of the weeds along the river.   Unlike the ambush bugs it wanders around looking for something to assassinate, but the tube or "rostrum" folder under its head is there for the same purpose - to plunge into its unsuspecting victim.

Not all true bugs are carnivores, many like this scarlet and blue leafhopper stick their rostrum into plants to suck their juices.   Perhaps the best known of these herbivorous true bugs are the aphids, a family of insects which isn't known for its beauty.

There are many leafhoppers around the world and many of them are very attractive, but the treehoppers belong to a family of herbivorous true bugs which is known more for the weirdness of their shapes.   This two-marked treehopper appears to be imitating a thorn or other protruberance of the bushes and trees it lives on.   If the disguise doesn't work then the hard spike will make the bug a lot more difficult for a bird to swallow.

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True bugs are often mistaken for beetles, but the afficianado knows the difference.   These young lovers are indeed Japanese beetles, accidentally introduced from Japan to the United States, where they are now wreaking the sort of destruction you can see in the background of this photo.

I found surprisingly few spiders on my visits, perhaps because of the unkind visitations of the avian population.   This one has done its best to maintain a low profile, hiding out along the main vein underneath a leaf, colored green to be even more inconspicuous.

We mostly think of flies as being the victims of predation, but some like this robber fly are the aggressors, sitting on a leaf until something juicy passes by, then darting out to catch its prey, sticking its sturdy beak into the prey's body in order to inject saliva containing enzymes which paralyze the other insect and liquidize its flesh.   There are around 7100 species of robber fly around the world, most with the same general appearance including long spiny legs, powerful flight muscles and a moustache.

As anyway in the world, there are always more interesting insects to photograph than larger animals.   However it is possible to see some nice birds, such as one of my favorite American birds, the cedar waxwing, named after the waxy red appendages at the ends of some birds' secondary feathers.   It's an attractive bird with its yellow belly and tail-ends, as well as the crest and black mask on its head.

Cedar waxwings are very gregarious, moving around in large family groups or even in gatherings of unrelated birds.

Their behavior in these groups can be quite comical, with reports of birds picking petals or small pieces of fruit and passing them from one bird to another along a crowded branch.

Waxwings are unusual among American birds for having a diet mostly consisting of fruit, which means that they need to wait until quite late in the season before having young, since there's no fruit available until summer is well underway in northern areas like Michigan.

If you walk along the river then it's very likely that you'll see some herons.

The largest, the great blue heron, mostly don't hang around too long when people approach, but you might have more luck with this species, the green heron.

Green herons usually tuck their neck down near their body when they stand about or fly, but as you can see they're able to stretch that neck a long way when they want to.

When hunting they spend most of their time on branches above the water, slowly bending down towards the water when they see prey, and darting their beak out with that long neck when they strike.

They're said to be very intelligent, even placing feathers or leaves on the surface of the water and then picking off the fish which come to investigate.

If you enjoyed the Lower Huron Metropark then you might enjoy the Coachella Valley Preserve or Tahquitz Canyon in California, or the Valley of Fire in Nevada.