Coexisting with Coyotes: Keep Them Wild!

A coyote among wildflowers by Jonathan Schechter

The cartoons and legends about coyotes were right about one thing: coyotes truly are wily tricksters, though perhaps a better phrase is clever survivors. While their original habitat was the dry, open areas of the western half of the continent, coyotes gradually moved into every state but Hawaii and are in every county of Michigan. I imagine they might still prefer open fields, but coyotes now live successfully within suburban neighborhoods, the heat of the desert, the humidity of the tropics, the snow of Alaska,  and the hustle and traffic of huge urban areas as well. Curious but shy, these daytime (diurnal) animals have learned to be most active at night in order to avoid us loud and slightly scary humans. Their complex, coordinated howling can allow a few coyotes to sound like a sizeable pack. That’s a lot of adaptation!

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by Cam Mannino

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, has hosted two well-attended, useful coyote presentations for Oakland Township residents. The first took place in 2016 with naturalist educator Laura Zoet who founded Nature on the Go, and the second earlier this month with Jonathan Schechter, a nature education writer for Oakland County’s blog, “The Wilder Side of Oakland County.”

We’ll soon be entering the mating season for coyotes in Michigan, which runs from December through February or March. That’s when you’re most likely to see two coyotes trotting along in the distance, see two sets of single tracks in a snowy meadow or hear a pair howling and barking in the dark. The breeding and pup-raising season is when most human-coyote interactions take place. So now’s a good time to get better acquainted with coyotes.

Let’s Start with the Facts about Our Northeastern Coyotes

Their DNA: Are They Part Wolf?

You’ve probably heard the term “coywolf” applied to our Northeastern Coyotes (Canis latrans thamnos). Well, our coyotes are much more coyote than wolf. When the wolf populations in eastern Canada and New England were decimated by European settlers, western coyotes migrated east seeking abandoned territories and mates among  the few wolves that survived. As a result, according to an article published in the National Library of Medicine of the National Institues of Health, the current DNA of coyotes in our area is about 66% western coyote, 24% eastern and western wolf and 11% domestic dog. (Rarely, if ever, does a coyote mate with a dog these days. Those genes are quite far back in their genetic history.) The wolf DNA has resulted in our coyotes being somewhat larger than western coyotes. But they are still far smaller than wolves and have a different appearance and behavior. Here’s a useful link from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for comparing the appearance of wolves and coyotes.

The Size of Our Coyotes : Less Than Half of the Size of a Wolf

Though Northeastern Coyotes look large from a distance, they are mostly skin and fur and seem bigger because of their long legs. (Photo by Jonathan Schechter)

Though our Northeastern coyotes can look large from a distance, their bone structure is actually slighter than most domestic dogs. As you can see above, the size effect is created by their thick fur and long legs. People compare them to wolves, but wolves can weigh 70 to 150 lbs., whereas coyotes weigh 15-40 lbs. That means that our coyotes are slightly smaller than a German Shepherd and on average, less than half the size of a wolf.

Identification: The Tail Carried Low is a Good Clue

Yellow eyes, upright pointed ears and a tail that droops downward are distinguishing features of Northeastern Coyotes.(Photo by Jonathan Schechter)

Three of the most common field marks for coyotes are: yellow eyes; pointed and upright ears; and a bushy tail carried below the back, nearer the ground. (Coyotes do not have the muscles needed to raise their tails like dogs do.) Their long legs and narrow muzzles with a small nose pad are other distinguishing features. The coyote is known for its short, high- pitched howl which most often is mixed with yips and barking. They use it to bring their family group together during individual foraging, or to announce their territory to other coyotes.

The Coyotes’ Diet: Varied and Always Aimed at the Most Food for the Least Effort

A smaller Western Coyote probably hunting a mouse or even a grasshopper! Photo by Franco Folini (CC BY-NC-SA) at iNaturalist.org. Notice how much less fur it has than our coyotes!

Any wild animal wants to expend as little energy as possible in getting food. As a result, the main diet of our coyotes are rats, mice, and deer carrion. In summer, they also eat fruits, frogs, insects, snakes, goose eggs or goslings. Some birds and small mammals like squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks can make a meal year ’round. Coyotes will occasionally take down a fawn, but rarely an adult deer unless it’s already injured or ill. After all, dead deer along our roadsides are sadly plentiful and require little effort on the coyote’s part. Feral or outdoor cats with their twitching tails in the night are an occasional food source for coyotes; some research indicates less than 2% of their diet. Unaccompanied, unleashed small dogs are an even lower percentage. Larger dogs are generally more trouble than they’re worth to a coyote. You can prevent your small pets from becoming prey by keeping them indoors or accompanying them outside, especially at night.

Hunting Style and the Famous “Howl”

A Western coyote approaches a crow. Photo by makriverside (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org.  I’m betting on the crow to survive this encounter!

Coyotes don’t hunt in large packs like wolves, but in mated pairs. They may venture off alone for a short distance while hunting and then rejoin their mate as the hunt continues. In late summer or early fall, a family group of adults and youngsters (which can resemble a pack) may hunt together but most of the work is done by the adults. Between October and December, the young disperse, seeking new territory.

A pair or small family of coyotes can sound like a much larger group! According to Dr. Scott Henke, a researcher at Texas A&M University, coyotes use many different sounds and pitches in one howl. As a result, two yipping, barking and howling coyotes can sound like eight. Or three coyotes can sound like a dozen! Coyotes pick up scents up to a mile away, run up to 39 mph, jump 4-6 foot fences, swim and have figured out traffic patterns on our roads and highways. Coyotes, in other words, have all the skills they need to survive.

The Threat to Humans? The Animal on the Left is More Dangerous to You!

Only two human fatalities from coyotes have EVER been documented in North America.   Deer inadvertently cause 200 deaths EVERY YEAR in approximately one million car collisions. According to the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, even domestic dogs cause 19 deaths each year.  It’s wise not to take chances with any wild animal, especially in urban areas where coyotes become more habituated to humans and food sources are plentiful. Coyotes are predators, but our caution with coyotes needs to be proportional  to the actual threat.

How Do We Humans Coexist with Such a Successful Predator? Keep Them Wild!

Wild coyotes avoid humans. You’ll usually see them walking away.

Coyotes will be with us from now on, but luckily they are naturally shy around humans.   A wild coyote will take one look at a human and head the other way. It’s our job to keep them that way! We don’t want them to become accustomed to being close to us and our habitats, i.e.,  our yards, parks, playgrounds or neighborhoods. Our goals must be to  remove what attracts them to our surroundings and to scare them away when they venture too close to humans. Here are the strategies the presenters recommended.

Hunting Doesn’t Work Well to Lower the Number of Coyotes

As of 2016, coyotes can be hunted year ’round in Michigan. (See “Fur Harvesting” regulations at this link.) But as a method for reducing the population, hunting is ineffective. According to naturalist Laurie Zoet, there is some evidence that when coyote numbers begin to decline, the females produce more pups and the juveniles breed at a younger age. Other research indicates that the rebound of coyote populations after hunting is due to other coyotes simply moving into empty territories. Hunting or trapping can only temporarily decrease their numbers. So what to do? Read on!

Remove Temptation!

A Coyote sniffs for a vole near a bird feeder. Photo by Jonathan Schechter

For starters, NEVER INTENTIONALLY FEED A COYOTE! You want coyotes to avoid you and your home if you are to protect them, your family and your pets. Be careful to eliminate food sources that attract coyotes or that attract their most common prey. Don’t leave dog or cat food out in the open, especially at night. If coyotes are a problem in your yard, consider eliminating your bird feeder – which attracts mice, squirrels and chipmunks, some of the coyote’s easiest meals. If you can, put your garbage out for pick up in the morning rather than at night. If it has to go out at night, be sure it’s in a tightly sealed can. Other ideas include:

  • Wood and brush piles are good shelter for small mammals and birds and so are often attractive to coyotes.
  • Bird baths are water sources so if you’re worried, remove them, too.
  • Close off crawl spaces under decks which might look like a cozy place for a den.
  • Outdoor motion-sensor lights can also be a deterrent in some instances.

Nature lovers need to remember that you are not being heartless by keeping coyotes at a distance! You are keeping an animal wild and very likely saving its life, because coyotes that don’t fear humans usually end up dead.

If a Coyote Approaches You or Others, or is Seen Near Humans or Your Pet, Look and Sound Big and Fierce!  Don’t Retreat! And Be Consistent.

If you see a coyote on a playground, in your yard, near a school, visiting a neighborhood during the day, it shouldn’t be there. It should not approach you or engage you in any way; it should be turning to leave as soon as you appear. These behaviors mean the coyote is getting comfortable around humans. So this is your chance to act crazy and obnoxious in public – and be appreciated for it! We all need to be consistent about keeping these bright, curious canines wild, i.e., uncomfortable when close to humans. The acronym that’s been created to help us remember the most effective system in keeping coyotes wild is S.M.A.R.T.

S:  Stop, establish eye contact and perhaps make a firm stopping gesture. Don’t run.  Don’t hide.  Don’t retreat.  You want to establish that you are the scarier animal.  Running, hiding or speaking softly makes you look like prey.

M: Make yourself look big!  Spread your arms over your head.  If you have a rake, large stick or golf club at hand, wave it overhead or pop open an umbrella.  If you’re on a trail, shake a can full of pennies (great trail accessory for kids) or let off a pocket air horn.  Throw things toward the animal (not food!), but don’t try to hit it.

A:  Announce yourself. In other words, shout!  “HEY! GET OUT OF HERE”  will work – or whatever you want really – as long as its fierce, forceful and loud!

R:  Repeat the shout over and over again, while making yourself look as huge as possible until the coyote turns and leaves.

T:  Teach others to do the same, including family and friends.

This strategy makes sense to me and both presenters assured us that it will work! Check out this video to learn more. Remember, coyotes are naturally intimidated by humans.

The Exceptions:  If a Coyote is Cornered, Injured, at its Den or with Pups, Don’t Threaten It!

In the above cases, if you inadvertently come across a den or a coyote with pups and are with a pet, pull the pet close or pick it up if possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away. If alone, make yourself look as large as possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away.

Coyotes are Curious Creatures – So Are We!

Coyotes are curious who are always looking for food. Photo by Jonathan Schechter

Predator animals are hard for many of us to love and can seem frightening. But sometimes we scare ourselves simply by the language we use. As Jonathan Schechter wisely pointed out at his presentation, coyotes are not “lurking” at the edge of your property. They’re usually standing, looking, being naturally curious. I’d add, despite what a reporter might say, they are not “skulking” across a field; they’re exploring and searching for food. Are they “devouring their prey,” or simply eating a meal and thereby keeping the numbers of  rodents around you in check? Words have power to create fear or understanding.

Remember that if you see a coyote in the distance at one of our parks or natural areas and it is simply pausing to look at you from afar rather than approaching, there is no reason to frighten the animal. Remember SMART while you watch to the coyote to see if it will continue on its way. It’s probably looking for a mouse, a grasshopper, a mole, some fruit, or other easy prey – not you.

It’s sensible to be wary of coyotes as predators. After all, we’re predators from their perspective and they’re very wary of us!  They don’t like us near their young or their dens.  We don’t like them near our young or our homes either.  A certain respect and caution is called for on both sides.  All that’s required by residents is to avoid tempting this curious and hungry predator with food and  to consistently encourage it to keep its distance. Ultimately, like most animals,we need to protect our young and our territory, and by doing so we can continue to  respect and enjoy the continued existence of our wild neighbors.

Draper Twin Lake Park: The Restless Transitions of Mid-Autumn

A trembling aspen which leafed out in spring, and shed leaves in autumn,  despite having fallen across the Draper marsh in a storm at the end of last winter.  Rose hips from Swamp Rose (Rosa Palustris) in the foreground.

October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.

Photos and Text by Cam Mannino

As the month moves on,  a sharpness edges the morning air and shadows slide across the landscape more quickly in the late afternoon. The birds are agitated  – snatching up as much seed as possible, drilling holes for snug winter hideaways, or pausing for an overnight respite before catching a north wind going south.

Change is in the air.  Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.

Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly

One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto  the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!

The Common Buckeye is a lovely little butterfly that I see most often during its migration to southern climes.

In early October, afternoons were still occasionally above 50°, warm enough for the European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) to gather more winter stores. The nectar collected by these bees will be turned into honey for the hive to feed on in the winter. Having large stores of nourishment in the hive is crucial if honey bees are to survive the winter months, so this one paid no attention to me as it probed for some last sips of nectar.

A Honey Bee gathering nectar from an aster to feed the hive during the cold winter months.

The sturdy Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) emerges as the summer fades and blooms heartily in the cooler temperatures. So any warm afternoon in fall, this lovely native wildflower offers itself to foraging bees in the hope of being pollinated quickly so that seeds will be ready before the snow falls.

Heath Asters make their own white snowstorm, often blooming right up until snow falls.

Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) look a lot like their relative, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). But Brown-eyeds tend to grow multiple stems from a single root and usually grow taller than the Black-eyed variety. I see them only in late summer or fall, whereas Black-eyeds last from June to September. Nice to have some fresh yellow wildflowers just as cool weather sets in!

Brown-eyed Susans are short-lived perennials that grow on mulitple stems.

A lone, fading Black-eyed Susan hid a tiny beetle among its petals and attracted a greenish-gray caterpillar busily nibbling off the tiny yellow flowers poking from the wildflower’s composite seed head. After pouring over the guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, my best guess is that it’s the caterpillar of the Common Pug Moth (Eupithecia vulgata) whose larva has chevrons along its spine and which feeds on these flowers, among many other plants. If I’m right about the caterpillar (and remember, I’m just guessing!), the Pug Moth is a  modest gray- brown with a small dark spot on both its fore- and hindwings.

An insect caterpillar and a small beetle  as well as various windflower fibers have landed on a fading Black-eyed Susan.

In the grass, we found a Wooly Bear Caterpillar, the larva  of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). If you look carefully below, you can almost discern its projecting mandibles (jaws) about to tear off the edge of a clover leaf. (Sorry for the blur. It was chewing rather vigorously!) The Farmer’s Almanac these days does a fine job of explaining the “folklore” behind the idea that the width of the color bands predict the severity of winter. A serious scientific study has never been done; it would require too many caterpillars over too many years. According to Wikipedia, however, Wooly Bears vary a lot in their color banding and the bands also tend to widen with each molt – so it’s not likely to be an ace weatherman.

A Wooly Bear caterpillar munching on clover.

In the marsh within the eastern section of the park, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) found a sunny spot on the mud behind the dying leaf of a Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It closed its eyes, turned its head skyward and basked. Shortly it will sink to the muddy bottom and won’t emerge until spring. During winter, it actually stops breathing, but its slowed metabolism means it can survive on the oxygen that passes through its skin from the surrounding water. Hibernation is miraculous, isn’t it?

A Midland Painted Turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thin sunlight of early autumn.

One birding morning on the western side of the park, Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  introduced us to a colorful shrub off one side of Draper’s fishing dock.  It turned out to be Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)! It’s a relative of the harmless and quite beautiful Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), and a sibling to Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I’d never come across this bush with its gray bark and white berries, but the familiar red leaves of other sumacs. Luckily it grows within or at the edge of bogs, fens, marshes and other very wet places where my hiking shoes don’t often carry me. Look but don’t touch and don’t inhale its smoke are the watchwords here.  Poison Sumac is more toxic than Poison Ivy.  The Michigan Flora website has a great photo of it in bloom.

Poison Sumac looks quite glamorous in the fall with its red leaves and white berries.

A more benign plant sent a spray of red leaves across the lily pads in late September and early October. Native  Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) is not a problem like the non-native, invasive Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This native wildflower produces purple blossoms along each stem and leaves that turn red in October. In November, its seed heads make a lovely pattern against the water of the lake. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife

The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you.  But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.

Two Goldfinches eating while riding the swaying stalks of goldenrod.
Five Goldfinches ultimately enjoyed the seeds of just one clump of Stiff Goldenrod. (The fifth bird is semi-hidden at the lower right.)

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) sailed across the path far in front of us – just a swish of blue against the morning sky. Bluebirds restlessly move south a bit in the fall, but can often be seen here in the winter, even on icy days. I never got close enough for a shot during the birding walk, but I did see a flock at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple of weeks earlier. This pair seemed to be exploring the possibilities of a winter hole in a snag at Bear Creek.

The male bluebird pays close attention as a female checks out the possibilities of a hole in a snag.

In the distance, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rocked on a low branch at the far edge of the field and repeatedly darted down into the grass. At last, it found what was possibly the cocoon of a caterpillar and it rose back to the branch, tail pumping as always, with its prize in its beak.

An Eastern Phoebe with what appeared to be a caterpillar’s cocoon.

Farther down the tree line, pulses of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) flew down into the grass to feed and then back into the trees. It seems that the red heads and chests of the males are a bit paler in the fall. I know the depth of the hue depends on what they eat, so perhaps their favorite berries or seeds are not quite as available as the season wanes.

House Finches fluttering out of a tree in the distance at Draper Twin Lake Park

High overhead a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) bugled their way across the autumn skies. They were headed south but it may have just been one of their many practice runs before migrating to Florida.

Sandhill Cranes flying south over Draper Twin Lake Park

Over in the eastern section of the park, a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) added its “miaows” from the hedgerow one afternoon, possibly calling a mate or youngster to share some wild Summer Grapes (Vitis aestivalis). I hope it’s a nice change from their summer diet, since number the insects that they eat during the summer is diminishing with the colder weather. The catbirds will be leaving soon to winter in Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas or along the eastern seaboard.

A Gray Catbird calls to a companion from a wild grape vine.

Down near the water, I noticed a lot of twitching in the shrubbery and waited in the shade for what might appear. The first bird that emerged was a familiar year ’round bird, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). This tiny acrobat hung upside down, then rightside up,  twisting this way and that, to snatch as much seed as possible from Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) near the lake.

A Black-capped Chickadee eating its fill of Canada Goldenrod

Small visiting migrators often show up around chickadees. Cornell Ornithology Lab provides a possible explanation. “Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.” Good to have a reliable sentinel! I’ve also read that visiting birds find food by hanging around local chickadees who presumably know the best foraging spots. That was certainly the case at Draper Lake. A migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) popped out into the open and began stripping seeds from the goldenrod just like the local chickadee. In the fall and winter, it pays to look carefully wherever chickadees are gathering.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet joined the Chickadee in devouring goldenrod seed. A leaf cast an interesting shadow on its tiny back.

As I turned away from the Kinglet, I heard a call that I knew was a woodpecker and looked up. A large black and white bird landed on a nearby tree and began to peck at a hole. Wow! It was the closest I’ve ever been to a Pileated Woodpecker. And as an added bonus, the afternoon sun lit its crest with a scarlet glow. It may have been looking for the right tree in which to make a new hole, one lower than its nesting hole, that will serve as winter shelter.

A Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be considering whether a hole in this tree could be further excavated for a winter storm hideaway.

Near the end of the path, a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) hopped about, restlessly picking up and dropping bits of this and that. Theoretically these sparrows, plentiful in the summer, can spend the winter here, but I rarely seem them after the fall. This one may have migrated here from farther north and also chosen to explore where the chickadee was foraging.

The sparrow near the lake has the typical long tail of a Song Sparrow.  If you could see its breast, there’d be a dark spot in the middle of its striping, another field mark.

I saw several other birds at Draper Twin Lake Park with the birding group in the last two months, but only through my binoculars.  A quick flash of red or yellow high in the fall leaves, a recognizable song in the distance, or a sudden chasing flight over the prairie – none of that provided a chance for a photo. However, I wanted to share these birds here so that you can appreciate how many birds can be seen at Draper Twin Lake Park in autumn. So here’s a short slideshow of some of them as seen in photos I’ve taken at other times, or in photos from the generous photographers at inaturalist.org. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Relishing Autumn’s Transformation

Native Indian Grass swaying in an October wind

The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie:   “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”

Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season.  I appreciate that reminder.

Seed Collecting: Using Nature’s Way of Restocking

In October we’ve been collecting native plant seed in our parks. After all the work of growing, flowering, and making seed, plants have one more task for the year: dispersing the seed. Fluffy seeds ride the wind, buoyant seeds float on water, tasty seeds ride in the guts of animals, and “sticker” seeds cling to animal fur (or your favorite pair of socks!). And a few seeds ride in the paper bags of industrious humans! So it’s all hands on deck to collect seed during harvest time!

Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) just starting to form its seed. This is an example of seeds that are not quite mature enough to collect yet.

We collect native seeds to continue our natural areas restoration work throughout the parks. In 2019 we spread quite a bit of seed at Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and Bear Creek Nature Park in areas where we had removed invasive shrubs. The competition from native plants helps prevent non-native species from coming back. We also spread native plant seed after controlled burns to help increase plant diversity in an area.

We try to remove only about one-third of the available seed for any of our target species. We want to leave enough seed to maintain healthy populations of native plants, while also providing food for birds and other wildlife. If the area is large enough we collect from many different plants to ensure that our seed has lots of genetic diversity.

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We collect seed on a small scale, so we mostly harvest by hand. For some plants we simply snip the dried inflorescence from the plant, collecting the entire seed head. This method works best for species that are very tough and difficult to remove by hand (Black-eyed Susan), and for plants with seed that might shake off easily (asters). We also strip seed from the stem by hand. We use this method for many grasses when the seeds are mature and easy to remove from the stem. We place the collected seed in paper bags so that it can dry without molding or rotting.

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning in 2018.

After the seed dries we clean it so that it is easier to mix and spread. We remove the seeds from the seed heads, pods, or other “fruits,” and winnow out any excess plant material. We only need the seed clean enough to combine with other species in seed mixes. We aren’t too worried about some extra leaves, stems, and other chaff.  Our end product is a nice bag of seed packaged in plastic bag to keep extra moisture out.

Alyssa with our stock of native plant seed from 2018.

We are almost finished collecting seed for the season since most of the plants have dispersed their seeds. Keep an eye out for next year’s fall newsletter to see which days we will be collecting seed in 2020. If you are interested in helping us this year, we have a seed cleaning work day on December 3, 2019 from 12:30 – 3:30 pm at Watershed Ridge Park (1720 W. Buell Rd). If you have any questions about this work day or any questions about seed collecting don’t hesitate to ask!

Short Walk at Gallagher Creek: Grasshoppers Galore, Winged Wayfarers, and Acres of Seeds

Canada Wild Rye rolling like waves in the fields at Gallagher Creek Park

The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

On the short path that  winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.

Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping  Up Everywhere!

Grasses and sedges thriving in the cool fall air in the native gardens at Gallagher Creek Park

Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know.  After all, they’re  harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.

The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa,  when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!

The Differential Grasshopper can be brown or green, and in the fall, the female can lay up to 200 eggs in the soil where they overwinter.

The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the  lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.

The Two-striped Grasshopper, like the Differential, does not migrate so its one season  life ends after the first hard frost.

I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely”  the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis) This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.

The Narrow-winged Grasshopper moved quickly down into the grass every time it hopped!

Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.

Male grasshoppers, like this Red-legged Grasshopper, are normally smaller than the females.

Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest

Gallagher Creek runs from west to east across the park and eventually ends up in Paint Creek near the Cider Mill, near the intersection of Gallagher and Orion Roads.

Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.

My first thrill was holding my breath while a  chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring  dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet travels to Canada to mate and raise young. Kinglets are now on their way to the southern US, and may go as far as central Florida.

I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!

White-throated Sparrows breed from northern Michigan all the way to Hudson’s Bay, but they winter from here to Florida.

Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.

Sandhill Cranes calling in flight over Gallagher Creek Park. Soon they’ll be on their way to Florida for the winter.

The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.

Starlings became a problematic invasive species once they were brought to the US in the 19th century.

Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring

Black-eyed Susan and Virginia Wildrye seed heads with crimson blackberry leaves in late afternoon sun

All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite  flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.

In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park.  The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub  (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a  shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package  is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.

The slender, rangy Bladdernut shrub isn’t glamorous but produces drooping clusters of green and white blossoms in the spring and very cool seed pods in the summer and fall.

One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that  I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.

The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.

The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of  interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.

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Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking

The Chipmunk, busy storing seeds and nuts in a special chamber below ground, pauses to soak up some sunlight.

Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.

Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.

That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.

And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo  perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.

All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand  and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.

You’re Invited! Parks Master Plan Open House on October 23

Hi Folks!

I want to personally invite you to the Oakland Township Parks, Recreation, and Land Preservation Master Plan Open House on Wednesday, October 23 at the Oakland Township Hall (4393 Collins Road, Rochester, MI 48306). We will have two drop in sessions – the first is from 2-4 pm, and the second is from 6-8 pm. We will have poster-sized maps and concept plans for each park that you can view and mark up. You will also be able to view and comment on new Parks and Recreation logo concepts and draft plans the new trailhead along the Paint Creek Trail at our Paint Creek Junction park (currently an undeveloped parcel north of Adams on Orion Rd). And we’ll have snacks, of course!

2015 Oakland Twp Master Plan Open House Photo
Residents share their input at the 2015 Oakland Township Parks Master Plan open house

We really appreciate your support and input during our planning process. We have a strong culture of supporting conservation and natural areas, and we need to continue passing that vision new township residents and the next generation. I hope to see you there, whether you’re a township resident, a regular user of our parks, representing another local park system, involved with a garden club, on the faculty at a school or university, or just love our parks! We want all of our “stakeholders” to have the chance to provide input.

See you next Wednesday!

Ben VanderWeide

Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Oakland Township Parks & Recreation

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