Birds, Butterflies, A Few Blossoms and Basking Turtles: Circling the Eastern Side of Draper Twin Lake Park

Looking from the south side of Draper marsh toward the northern prairie.

The eastern side of Draper Twin Lake Park grows more inviting every year. Some of the former farm fields there had been abandoned for decades when Oakland Township Parks and Recreation acquired the property in 2005. Dense thickets of invasive shrubs crowded the shores of the marsh and began to spread within what had been a rolling prairie and oak savanna landscape in the centuries before European settlement.

But restoration is slowly changing this somewhat scruffy park back to its former beauty.  After forestry mowing, the trail by the marsh, once choked with stands of non-native shrubs, now provides open vistas.

The trail on the west side of the floating marsh is now cleared of invasive shrubs so that a stand of native White Pines (Pinus strobus) and other trees can be appreciated.

The dark water of the marsh sparkles between the scrim of trees and shrubs that surround its shores. The roots of grasses and shrubs form a floating mat at the heart of the marsh, creating nest sites for birds large and small. Migrating birds flit through the trees at the marsh edge singing spring songs. Some settle in to mate, nest and raise young; others simply forage, rest and move on.

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Photos and text by Cam Mannino

On warm days in the northern prairie, tiny spring butterflies dart and dance within the dry stalks of last year’s prairie wildflowers and grasses, while the shimmering blue wings of Tree Swallows soar and dip above them. By mid-summer, fresh prairie grasses will sway above fields mixed with the bright colors of native wildflowers and big beautiful butterflies. But even a cool spring day can be beguiling.

So just for a few minutes, escape with me. Muster your imagination as we explore Draper Twin Lake Park together. Listen to a brisk breeze hushing in your ears and feel warm sun on your shoulders as I take a turn around the marsh and then circle the field on the prairie trail loop on a bright spring morning.

In the  Spring, the Marsh is the Place to See and Be Seen!

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My Draper Twin Lake Park hiking route

Wetlands mean wildlife in every one of our parks. After parking at the building at 1181 Inwood Road, I headed left, leaving the path to enter the trees that shelter the south edge of the floating mat marsh, pictured at the top of the blog.

The clarion “wika wika” call of Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) throbbed overhead as these elegant woodpeckers whisked back and forth in the treetops, competing for mates and territory. This mustached male and his mate will spend the summer with us, nesting in a tree cavity, but foraging on the ground, unlike other woodpeckers; ants are a favored meal for flickers.

A male Northern Flicker challenging other males with his “wika wika” call

A pudgy, green-gray bird hopped about within a tangle of vines, repeatedly flicking its wings and only pausing for a few seconds each time it jumped to a new twig. The male Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was enjoying a bit of R&R before flying north, possibly as far as Hudson’s Bay. Imagine! On those tiny wings! There its mate can lay 5-12 eggs in a 4 inch nest woven with grasses, feathers, moss, cocoon or spider silk and lined with finer grass and fur. Never underestimate the little Kinglet!

My photo was a bit blurred by movement in a heavy wind, but bird enthusiasts and excellent photographers, Bob Bonin and his wife Joan, also visited Draper in the last two weeks. In fact, we chatted from a safe social distance when we came across each other at the park.  They generously offered to share some of the photos they took at Draper. So here’s Bob’s rare shot of an excited little male with his crown raised! Thanks for the loan, Bob!

An excited male Ruby-crowned Kinglet with his crest raised – a rare sight to see with this busy little bird. Photo by Bob Bonin with permission.

Joan shared two other migrating birds she saw on the east side of Draper. The Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens) sports such dramatic plumage! It has two versions of its song that has a lot of buzz and a smaller bit of  “tweet” in it. One song is directed at competing males and the other is used to attract females. Find an explanation of both, a video and some recordings here at Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website.

The Black-throated Green Warbler doesn’t come to feeders and breeds a bit farther north of us and farther into Canada. So it’s a treat to see one! Photo by Joan Bonin.

Joan also provided us with a lovely photo of a Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) at Draper. Cornell Lab reports that this modest little milk chocolate bird with the spotted breast utilizes “foot quivers,” when foraging, shaking its feet in the grass to stir up insects. I will watch for that the next time I see one!

Hermit Thrushes breed north of us where its flute-like call is more likely to be heard. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A pair of Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) skittered around me within the low bushes at the marsh. Traveling from the Caribbean to Canada, they were hungry. Their tails wagged up and down as they grazed along the ground for insects. This one thought it might have spotted something interesting in the crevices of tree bark. Note the brown crown, yellow eyeline, throat and the yellow under its tail.

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, ninety-eight percent of all Palm Warblers and thousands of other species breed in the boreal forests of northern Canada, an essential ecosystem!

Looking north, I spotted something large in the trees at the far north end of the marsh. For the second time this spring, I got a distant look at a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) surveying the landscape. I’m so used to seeing these birds wading at the edges of ponds. It always delights me to see them perching high up in a tree, though I know their big, flat nests are always situated at the top of high trees in their rookeries.

A Great Blue Heron looking out from the treetops at the far north end of Draper’s floating mat marsh.

As I moved to the west side of the marsh, I looked up into the frothy blossoms of one of my favorite native trees, the Serviceberry (Amelanchier interior).

The rippling petals of a Serviceberry in a spring wind.

This tree with its plumes of white blossoms in the early spring offers a native alternative to the non-native Callery/Bradford Pear trees (Pyrus calleryana) that flower at the same time. If shopping malls and housing developments bloomed with this native beauty each spring, the fields of our natural areas would not be invaded by groves of the invasive pears. We can hope for a change as the value of native plants is better understood by more landscapers.  Several stately serviceberry trees dot the early spring landscape at Draper Twin Lake Park. Aren’t these clouds of dancing white lovely in the sparseness of the spring landscape?

A native Serviceberry tree makes a perfect replacement for the invasive, non-native Callery/Bradford Pear.

In a shadowy pool beneath low branches on the west shore of the floating mat marsh, some movement caught my eye. A Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana) dipped its head into the water while balancing on stick, probably plucking insect larvae or small invertebrates  out of the dark water. Fortunately this sparrow is equipped with long legs for wading and doesn’t mind the cold water, if this sopping-wet bird is any indication!

This swamp sparrow stuck its head under water while fishing for insect larvae or tiny invertebrates.

Out at the edge of the floating mat, a pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) warmed their shells in faint spring sunlight. Perhaps these two will mate or perhaps they’re just basking together. These two larger turtles could be quite old; Midland Painted Turtles sometimes live over 50 years!

Our Midland Painted Turtles can mate in the spring or fall.

The “boing!” call of a Green Frog (Lithobates climatans) surprised me, so I approached to search the water until I spotted this one. Since the round ear drum or tympanum is about same size as its eye, this is a female Green frog. She may have jumped the gun a bit with the changeable spring weather. Normally, Green Frogs don’t wake from their winter somnolence until the temperature reaches 50 degrees and they don’t mate until the weather is consistently warm. So this female may need to bide her time even though there was a male singing somewhere nearby.

The skin of Green Frogs darkens on cold days so they can soak up more sun.

Back out along the trail on the west side of the marsh, I met a turtle with a ferocious visage, a snout for snorkeling air from under water and an intimidating set of claws! Here’s the steely glare of this master predator, the Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).

This Snapper must have emerged from the mud before heading out to look for companionship.

I’m kidding really. Yes, it did look fierce, but I was being stared down by a small Snapper maybe 8 inches long who probably was just curious.

This small snapper may not yet be mature enough to mate.

I have no idea of its age or what it was doing on trail. According to Wikipedia, a snapper can take 15-20 years to reach sexual maturity and mating is usually done while tumbling about in the  water. So unless this one is older than it looks and was looking for a place to lay eggs, it may have just decided to go on walkabout. Snappers sometimes move great distances to find less crowded habitat, as well as to lay eggs. After all, that carapace, an extremely long neck, powerful jaws and claws are pretty good protection for an adventurous young snapper.

As I stood at the north end of the floating mat marsh, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) flew swiftly back and forth across the pond. Its yellowish-orange feet trailed behind its bulky body as it landed in the vegetation around the shore. Luckily, Joan later spotted one out in the open in the southeast section of the marsh. One way to spot this colorful bird is to listen for its distinctive “skeow” call;  listen here under the first “calls” recording. That’s the Green Heron sound with which I’m most familiar.

A Green Heron at Draper Twin Lake Park. Photo by Joan Bonin.

Her husband, Bob, saw a bird that I’d never come across before – and neither had Bob.  The Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis) loves wetlands and according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, will even settle for a puddle if it’s near cover. It was migrating through on its way from the Caribbean to its breeding grounds in northern Canada. Bob went back to look for it again the next day, but it never appeared. I feel lucky that it “popped out of cover,” as Bob put it, at just the right moment for him to take his photo!

A rare photo of a Northern Waterthrush at Draper Twin Lake Park taken by Bob Bonin.

When I reached the southeast corner myself, a pair of Sandhill Cranes, heads down, were calmly feeding on the floating mat, looking up once a while, and then back to feeding again

This pair of Sandhill Cranes might consider the floating mat a good place for a nest since the marsh creates a kind of moat! Sandhills have nested here before.

As my camera zoomed in on that startling orange eye beneath the crimson cap on one of these huge birds, I hoped that they would choose to nest there as Sandhills did a few years ago. I’d love to see a “colt,” as their fledglings are called, join its parents at the Draper marsh.

A closer look at one of the Sandhill Cranes

That southeast corner of the marsh is full of turtles. I know that Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) live at Draper Twin Lake Park because I once helped one across the road outside of the park and Donna, the Draper bluebird monitor, has seen them, too. Last week, I thought I saw their slightly domed shells deep in the grass at the southeast corner of the marsh, but they never raised their heads. But Joan Bonin and her very long lens caught this wonderful closeup of one! Thank you, Joan!

Joan Bonin’s wonderful photo caught the yellow throat perfectly, the distinctive field mark of the Blanding’s Turtle.

As I was looking for the Blanding’s turtle,  I noticed a dark lump laying in the water behind a mud flat in the marsh. Could it be? Was that a neck stretched out to gather some sun? I think what I saw was a large Snapper, its neck partially extended along the mud flat, camouflaged as just another black lump in the landscape. Look for its pointed head and eye to the right in the grass. That looks like a large snapper to me!

A large snapper masquerading as just another lump of mud in the Draper Marsh.

Some small upland birds share the southeast corner with turtles and herons. One dark, windy day, my husband and I caught sight of a Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata) and identified it from its characteristic yellow patch above the tail. It appeared to be the more modestly dressed female. Here are the photos I got from a distance 10 days ago and a much better one from 2015.

On a snag near the edge of the trees, a House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) ignored me completely while he belted out his wonderful, bubbling trill. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, their sharp, fizzy song sallies forth from Canada, through the West Indies, all the way to the tip of South America.

A House Wren, beak wide-open in full song.

The distinctively sweet “tweeting” of an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) caused me to look up at this little splash of bright sunlight on a cloudy day. The males have donned their brightest colors and execute their rolling flight all over Draper.

A male American Goldfinch posed quite calmly near the southeast edge of the marsh.

On to the North Prairie!

Volunteer Donna Perkins has already found bluebird eggs in two of her boxes within the prairie!

Volunteer nest box monitors like Donna Perkins above are citizen scientists who are gathering data on which birds nest in the boxes, how many eggs they lay, how many days pass before hatching and fledging and how many little birds successfully leave the nest. Donna found six Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) eggs in two of her boxes. And along the prairie’s edge, male and female bluebirds surveyed the area, keeping an eye on their nests.

Don’t worry if you find a nest with eggs in your yard with no adult around. Birds take time off to forage and if scared off of their nest, will usually return. But most often, once the last egg has been laid, the adult will start incubating them most of the day, which helps ensure that they all hatch at the same time, making it easier to care for them.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) move into our township nest boxes as well. Usually, Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows will live in a neighborly way when their boxes are near each other, though occasionally there’s competition for a preferred box. Neither species, however, will tolerate another member of their own species moving nearby. So right now, the Tree Swallows are beginning to construct their nests with a mixture of grasses carefully lined with feathers. What a sight to see these shining blue beauties swooping over the field, periodically opening their beaks to snag passing insects. Joan Bonin got a fabulous shot of two of them in flight over the Draper prairie – an exciting and rare shot! Congratulations and thanks to Joan for sharing it.

Tree Swallows in flight above the Draper prairie. Photo by Joan Bonin.

A clear song rippled out from the tree line to our right. So loud! What was that? We finally located the rear end of a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) facing out of the park to the east. In the distance, we could hear his competitor singing as well.  Establishing territory is serious business, so our Towhee in the park never budged an inch, though we waited for almost 20 minutes, listening but frustrated that he kept his back turned. So the photo below was taken last year at Draper. This year’s towhee sang his “drink your teeeeeea” song much more slowly than usual, so it took longer to identify it. Maybe the song had more emphasis that way for the male in the distance!

An Eastern Towhee singing from a snag at Draper in 2019.

We came across, though, a sad sight on the prairie – an injured Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla) feeding on a path but unable to take flight. It appeared right in front of us and at first I thought it had an injured wing. But when it turned its head, its eye was swollen shut. When I asked local birding expert, Ruth Glass, she said that it had probably hit its head on a window. When that happens, the brain can swell and they lose their ability to orient themselves. It was foraging on the ground and fluttered off into the tall grass. I include this just to ask that you do what you can to prevent such window collisions. Here’s a link from Cornell to get you started.

On a happier note, some small spring butterflies floated and fluttered near the prairie trails. I always wonder what criteria make them settle on one stem rather than another; much of their frantic fluttering seems aimless, but I doubt that it really is. I clearly don’t see what they do!

An orange flash in the grass made me think I was seeing my first Pearl Crescent, a common sight on summer days in our parks. But this mid-sized butterfly was an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma). The upper (dorsal) side of both its forewings and hindwings are tawny orange with black spots. It was born last fall and is referred to as the “winter form”; it overwintered as an adult and will now mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars from those eggs will hatch around the Summer Solstice (June 21) and the offspring from that generation (referred to as the “summer form”) will still have orange forewings, but their hindwings will be much darker than this one.

An Eastern Comma sipping on an open dandelion bloom. It wintered over and will now seek a mate!

But look at the underside of this butterfly’s wings! The winter form Eastern Comma spends the cold months under tree bark or inside logs; that mottled brown design does a nice job of camouflage while they are hibernating, I would imagine.

The pattern on the underside of the Eastern Comma’s wings camouflages it during hibernation under tree bark.

A female Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) paused to sip at a dandelion, just as the Eastern Comma did. One good reason not to remove dandelions from your lawn in early spring is that native bees and butterflies benefit from the nectar of this non-native flower when few other blossoms are available. Male Cabbage Butterflies have one spot on their forewings; females have two.

A female Cabbage Butterfly benefits from the presence of dandelions.

A flash of lavender blue appeared in the grass – a Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon)! This little insect is only as big as your thumbnail. Its host plants (the ones on which it will lay eggs) include Wild Cherry, Flowering Dogwood, Gray Dogwood and Blueberries. This one didn’t stop long enough for anything but a photo of a blurry smudge of blue. So here’s the best photo I’ve ever gotten of one – only because it made the rare move of posing for a moment! If you see a blue blur flying by during July through September, that’s the Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta), a different species.

The blue open wings of the tiny Spring Azure butterfly in a photo from 2015.

A surprise on the prairie was a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina). I’ve never seen one this early in the year! Could it have rushed the season like the Green Frog? Usually the nymphs arrive when the weather is much warmer and this one appeared to have its wings which would indicate that it’s an adult. So I’m puzzled. Normally I would send this photo  to Dr. Gary Parsons, an insect specialist as Michigan State University – but I believe the university is closed during the pandemic. So if any reader has more information than I, please leave a comment to that effect. I love its beady eyes, but wonder if it survived the cold nights that followed.

The nymph of a Carolina Locust that hatched a bit earlier than it probably should have.

Restoring Complex, Nourishing, Chaotic Beauty

Draper Marsh, looking south toward Inwood Road

Farm fields can be so lovely in spring – neat rows of green as far as the eye can see taking the shape of a field’s rolling contours. But as I’ve watched the stewardship crew recreate the natural landscapes in our parks, I’ve come to love even more the glorious chaos of wild natural areas. Here at the eastern section of Draper Twin Lake Park, the fields of last year’s stalks once again host nesting Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, looking like shining bits of sky taking up residence in our midst. Turtles safely sally forth from the marsh mud to mate and warm their chilled shells in the pale spring sunlight. The dark water around the floating marsh hosts frogs, several jousting Red-winged Blackbird couples, and those ancient and elegant cranes. Weary avian travelers find respite, nourishment and for some, a place to raise their young. As years of invasive overgrowth are cleared, the old farm fields bloom with a rich array of native trees, grasses and wildflowers. Once again the marsh and the prairies take up their ancient role of providing shelter and nourishment to a whole and healthy community of wildness.  During this difficult time, restoration comforts and delights me – and many of you, too, I believe, since new visitors have recently explored our parks. Thanks for accompanying me, even at such a great social distance.

A Bevy of Migrators Discover the New Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a common sight this spring at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

While I spent late March and early April scouting out Watershed Ridge Park, the migrating birds –  and ducks especially – discovered the sparkling new wetlands at the 208 acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. As part of this park’s restoration, the tiles that had drained the field while under agriculture were broken. Water began to naturally rise to the surface, recreating the wetlands that once acted as a refuge for wildlife. (For a brief description of this process, see an earlier blog on this park.) So this spring, weary migrators of all kinds began making the most of this new place to rest and forage. Some will spend the summer here raising young. Others relax for a few days and then head north on a strong south wind.

So this blog will be a bit different than others. Thanks to Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager and Ruth Glass, a local expert birder of many years, I received a copious list of the ducks and other migrators that the two of them have already seen at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this spring before I made my visits there. Though they watch and appreciate birds, they rarely take photos of them.

Some photos and all text
by Cam Mannino

A fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, who frequents this park occasionally, was kind enough to share some of her impressive photos with me. And I’ve supplemented my recent photos and hers with photos from the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org. So now, thanks to all of those helpers, I can share some of the wild life that’s visiting our newest natural area. The number of beautiful migrators and year ’round birds spotted at this park is dazzling.

[A note:  Visiting this new section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is difficult right now, because there’s no parking lot and not much in the way of trails, just tire tracks encircling the fenced enclosure that contains the wetlands within the conservation easement held by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ.) But the Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to have a parking lot and some trails mowed by this summer. Meanwhile, consider exploring the original 60 acres that features the ravine itself and is accessible at the end of Knob Creek Drive. And if you visit the east expansion, please stay back from the wetlands so that you don’t flush the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We’ll let you know when this larger part of park is ready for prime time!]

Restore the Wetlands and They Will Come!

One of the large ponds that formed last autumn at Stony Creek Ravine when the drainage tiles installed years ago were crushed and the water rose again naturally.

It gladdens my heart to know that weary migrating ducks and shorebirds are gliding down from pale, spring skies to settle on these pools. Here are a few that Ben, Joan and Ruth saw. What a collection of special ducks!

American Wigeons floating in a restored wetland at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The ducks floating inside the conservation easement in the photo above are American Wigeons (Mareca americana). Wigeons are dabbling ducks, as are all the ducks seen at the huge new expanse of Stony Creek Ravine this spring. I imagine that ducks must be able to gauge water depth from the air since we’ve yet to see any diving ducks, which require deeper water. Dabblers tip up, tails in the air, to forage beneath the water for grasses, mollusks, small crustaceans and insects. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers have legs positioned forward, which allows them to waddle and forage on the muddy edge and sometimes on dry land. The legs of diving ducks are positioned farther back on their bodies to provide more thrust for diving,  which means that walking on land is awkward at best for them.

American Wigeons have a short bill so they can pick grains off terrestrial plants as well as aquatic ones. Here’s a closeup shot from BJ Stacey at iNaturalist. Pretty jazzy green eye patch, eh? And I like the white bill and crown, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is where they got the nickname “baldpate.” Hope I can remember that for ID purposes!

American Wigeons are dabbling ducks that can eat both under water and on land. Photo by BJ Stacey (CC BY-NC)

Ben alerted me to the presence of Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) in the newly restored wetlands, but though I’ve visited the park several times, I’ve missed them! The bills of Green-winged Teals are edged with comb-like structures called lamellae. By dipping their beaks in the water or wet mud, they can strain out tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and such. Both Ben and Ruth spotted 14-16 of these small ducks in the easement ponds at various times this April.

Green-winged Teal strain food through comb-like structures on their bills. Photo by Philip Mark Osso (CC BY-NC) .  

It’s not surprising that a duck with the Latin genus name “Spatula” has a huge spoon-shaped bill! Look at the size of that bill on the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) below! They feed by swinging it from side to side in shallow water to sieve out creatures from the shallows. The male’s bill is black and the female’s orange. These migrators don’t stick around Michigan for the summer. Maps at the Cornell Lab show them heading northwest to breed in western Canada and Alaska or northeast to breed as far north as Maine or New Brunswick. Northern Shovelers may move south for the winter, but prefer cooler summers when raising young.

The Northern Shoveler is identified by its large spoon-shaped bill. Photo by Chris Butler at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) are tiny ducks that make long migrations.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they spend the winter either in the Caribbean, a likely destination for our Michigan population, or Central and South America for western populations. They usually arrive late in the spring and leave in early fall; Ruth saw some in mid-April at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Blue-winged Teal breed and rear their young in Michigan summers. The male’s white “paint stripe” behind the bill will be a field mark I’ll look for in the future, as well as sky-blue wing patches beneath their wings when they rise into the air. (Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org)

A tiny, long distance traveler, the Blue-winged Teal can breed in Michigan. Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Champion bird spotter Ruth Glass also saw Gadwall (Mareca strepera) and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) among the flotillas at Stony Creek Ravine. Gadwall may escape notice from a distance, mistaken for your average brown female duck. But look at the beautifully intricate patterning on its breast and flank in the photo below! Cornell Lab reports that these sweet-looking ducks occasionally “snatch food from diving ducks as they surface.” Sneaky little ducks! They’ll head to northern Canada to breed. Glad they took some R&R with us!

The delicate pattern of its feathers sets the Gadwall apart from other ducks . Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)

One of the ducks that Ruth Glass saw was not a migrator American Black Ducks  (Anas rubripes), according to the Cornell Lab, live here year ’round, but they are shy ducks and often mistaken for female mallards. They actually hybridize with Mallards so some have green patches on their heads. Hope I recognize them if I see some this summer!

American Black Ducks are often seen in the company of Mallards and are mistaken for mallard females. Photo by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Ruth and Ben finally spotted some shore birds in the conservation easement wetlands as well. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) love flooded fields so the shallow ponds are perfect for them. The feathers of  this shorebird were fashionable in the 19th century so their numbers declined. They  rebounded when hunting them was outlawed in the US and Canada in the early 20th century. Sadly though, they are in decline again because of the disappearance of wetlands. So hooray for Oakland Township’s Land Preservation Fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund for enabling Parks and Recreation to acquire and protect this habitat that is so important to these birds!

Though tolerant of other shorebirds during migration, Lesser Yellowlegs fiercely defend their nests in northern Canada. (Photo by jdmanthey CC BY-NC)

Cornell Lab says that the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is known for its strident alarm calls and will perch high in trees to keep a sharp eye out for nest predators. They migrate from Central America or the Caribbean to the boreal wetlands of northern Canada in order to breed. Its beak looks about as long as its legs! Other field marks include a longer, slightly upturned bill for foraging in deeper water and barring on the flanks that go much farther toward the tail. Pretty subtle differences, aren’t they?

The Greater Yellowlegs has a much longer bill than the Lesser Yellowlegs and wades into deeper water. (Photo by jdelaneynp CC BY-NC)

After having failed to see these two Yellowlegs several times at the park, I finally saw a lone one stalking around one of the shallow ponds near Snell Road and took a long distance shot through the fence. Ben and Ruth both guess that it’s a Greater Yellowlegs.  It’s easier to judge the two types of Yellowlegs when they are wading around together and the differences in their bill size, barring on their flanks and overall body bulk are more apparent.

A Yellowlegs foraging in a shallow wetland at Stony Creek Ravine.

And of course, the nattily-dressed Killdeer, a plover who likes a bit of mud at its feet, has taken up residence within the wetlands as well. Since these birds simply scratch out a depression in the soil to lay their eggs, the sparsely vegetated soil of the wetlands provides great habitat. I took this photo between the fence wires and the Killdeer with its large orange eyes paid me no mind.

Killdeers may be happy to nest  inside the protection of the  conservation fence near the water.

Ruth Glass’ Rare Sighting

Ruth Glass reported a rare bird in Stony Creek Ravine Park this spring – the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Some experts consider it a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts identify it as a color morph of that more common hawk. Whatever, it is rare to see a Krider’s this far east in the United States! Ruth described its normal territory for me. “Krider’s breed on the northern Great Plains of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter on the southern Great Plains south to the Gulf Coast, and east into the Mississippi River Valley.” She observed it through her scope for part of an afternoon, but hasn’t seen it since, as it no doubt headed north. What a magnificent and lucky sighting! Here’s a closeup of a Krider’s by an iNaturalist photographer; Ruth said that it’s in very much the same pose and background as the one she saw.

A Krider’s Red-Tailed Hawk showed up for Ruth Glass at the park. A rare sight this far east! (Photo by Mark Greene at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

I saw two of our more common Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) riding a thermal high in the air on a sunny morning at the park. Bathed in the bright sunlight, one of them flew to the field where I was walking and  hung overhead, as if it were scoping me out. Glad I’m not a mouse or a chipmunk! Note its brown belly-band and brown head, unlike the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk above.

“Snow Birds” of the Fields Also Find Their Way Here.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park also hosts a wide variety of upland birds which, like human “snow birds,” leave us behind in the autumn and return each spring. Ruth spotted a pair of  American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) hunting from atop the fence posts at the park. One afternoon, a monumental chase occurred in which one kestrel grabbed a vole in its talons and the other screamed as it chased its compatriot over the fields trying to snatch it away. Wish I had seen that. Glad Ruth did!

The American Kestrel is our country’s smallest falcon. Photo by Pablo H. Capovilla at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) also dropped in at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Ruth loves these birds as much as I do. As she says, “They are such a fun bird! As a close cousin of the Mockingbird, the strangest noises come out of them, including: cell phone beeps and rings, car alarms, sirens, scolding noises, many other birds’ songs, etc.” She took a lovely photo of one through her scope at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

Brown Thrashers are great imitators of noises as well as other birds’ songs. Photo by Ruth Glass with permission

Ruth can identify minor differences between sparrows – and their songs! This month at Stony Creek Ravine, she came across two that are rare sightings for me. I’ve never identified the Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Though it can be heard in the early morning, its name refers to its evensong at twilight. Looking through binoculars, the field marks for this little sparrow are a thin eye ring and a tiny chocolate-colored patch at the top of its wing.

The Vesper Sparrow sings even as it gets dark, hence its lovely name. Photo by Bryan Box (CC BY-NC)

The Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) loves grassy meadows, the denser the better; they build their nests on the ground amid deep thatch left by last year’s stems. I wonder if the one Ruth saw a few weeks ago will nest at Stony Creek Ravine; a lot of the land was cleared to create the conservation area. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Savannah Sparrows are very common – but I’ve only seen this striped sparrow with the yellow patch around its eye twice. Here’s my photo from Draper Twin Lake Park in 2018.

A field mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the yellow patch in front of the eye.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I watched the flight of a returning Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who settled onto a tree limb. Herons normally nest in rookeries so I’ve no idea where this one will settle into its communal nursery. I was just glad that it had a good long look at Stony Creek Ravine from its perch at the edge of the trees north of the wetland enclosure. Amazing how such a large bird can look so tiny against that lovely dark woods!

A Great Blue Heron perched in a tree beyond the north edge of the conservation easement  

Ruth arrived high on the Outlook Point between the restored wetlands at dusk to see the mating flight of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). She tells me she’s seen three of these “timberdoodles!” I finally got a good look at one last year when Ben held his annual Earth Day Woodcock event, sadly cancelled this year due to the need for social distancing. At dusk, this oddly-shaped bird makes a buzzing beep, sounding  a bit like the cartoon Road Runner. Then it sails high up in the darkening sky, spirals down and lands right where it took off. Quite a courtship ritual! I’ve scared them up right from under my feet at least three times in various parks, but with no chance for a photo. Fortunately iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith was luckier than I was.

Woodcocks are known for their dramatic spiral mating dance performed high in the sky at dusk. (Photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC)

My trips to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month have given me a chance to welcome back a couple of my favorite sparrows. The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its pinkish beak and feet showed up for me about 10 days ago. The males sing their bouncing ball song all over the park right now. Maybe the shy, quiet one that my camera caught (left below)was a female. The male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) tirelessly repeated his courting song that ends in a quick buzz or trill. And as always, he accommodated me by sitting on a perch in the open and ignoring my presence completely. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Here’s just a sampling of the variety of birds that the four of us – Ben, Ruth, Joan and I – have enjoyed in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month. Such abundance –  and I’m sure we’ve not yet seen all there is to see!

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With Apologies to John Donne: No Creature is an Island…

Old Oak at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

I must admit that at first it felt a bit odd using so many photos by other people in this blog. Usually the observations and photos are mostly mine. But it’s occurred to me that it’s somehow fitting to be supported by others’ efforts in this season and during this hair-raising global pandemic. In early spring, the bird world is busy with all kinds of cooperation. Migrating birds often travel in large flocks for safety and to find the habitats they need. Mating birds work cooperatively in building and protecting nests. And in the human sphere, we’ve become conscious during the virus outbreak of how much we depend on the assistance of others – all the workers in hospitals, grocery stores, police and fire departments, pharmacies, research labs as well as teachers,  journalists and parents working from home. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the observant eyes and photography skills of others are central in this week’s blog. My thanks to Ruth Glass, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Joan Bonin and all the generous photographers who share their work on iNaturalist. And my gratitude, too, to the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commissioners and staff who worked for years to preserve this special natural area for the benefit of all of us – and more importantly for the wildlife and plant life that sustain us every day in so many ways.

And now to John Donne’s meditation on community written in 17th century England, another time and place of plagues:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

2019 Natural Areas Stewardship Annual Report

What can we say? With your continued support we continued to care for the land and water in our township parks. You can read the summary below and the linked report, but to really see what we did in 2019, here are a few spots to put on your hike list for this spring and summer:

  • Bear Creek Nature Parkwe cleared dense stands of invasive shrubs north of the center pond, and along Bear Marsh.
  • Charles Ilsley Park – the prairies continue to look good, and the new connector trail on the west side winds through meadows, past ponds, and through peaceful woodland.
  • Draper Twin Lake Park – the planted prairie in the northeast corner is looking good after its fourth growing season, and forestry mowing has knocked back invasive shrubs around the kettle wetland just to the south of the prairie.
  • Gallagher Creek Park – we installed a big native plant landscaping area around the new playground.
  • Stony Creek Ravine Nature Parkwe added 208 acres to the original 60 acres. Wetland restorations are already in full swing, with plans in motion to plant the farm fields to native wildflowers, grasses, and sedges in the next 3-5 years.

Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2019 Annual Stewardship Report. (Click link to view). The table of contents in the PDF is hyperlinked to help you navigate the report.

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A beautiful fall day in the wooded wetland near Cranberry Lake.

Volunteer Program

Volunteers contributed 1284 hours in 2019! Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also monitored nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and the Paint Creek Trail; monitored vernal pools at Bear Creek Nature Park; and monitored water quality at Lost Lake and Twin Lake. We had fun at summer and winter potlucks!

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Alex installs a new nest box at Bear Creek Nature Park

We continued the nest box monitoring program, expanding to Bear Creek Nature Park with six new boxes. We added predator guard to all the boxes. Thanks to our volunteers who monitor the next boxes using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch protocols!

Stewardship Blog

The stewardship blog continued to thrive, with regular posts from Cam Mannino. The seasonal technicians also wrote weekly posts about recent stewardship work. We published 47 posts (+2 from 2018) and had 8378 visitors (+2145), with 14,776 page views (+3032).

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Education Events

Stewardship talks included presentations on New Zealand Mud Snails, monarch butterfly ecology and conservation, coyotes, and bird nest box monitoring. We enjoyed a pleasant April evening at our annual Woodcock Watch at Bear Creek Nature Park. We also held weekly bird walks every Wednesday morning.

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Dr. Nate Haan from Michigan State University talks about Monarch butterfly ecology and conservation.

Phragmites Outreach Program

We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 31 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 26 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.

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Phragmites does not recognize property boundaries! Catch your Phragmites while it is small and easy to control for the best results.

Stewardship Staff

Alex Roland graduated from Michigan State University in May 2018 with a degree in environmental biology/zoology. In 2018 she completed an internship with the Student Conservation Association in Idaho doing backcountry conservation work, and she previously served as a Stewardship Coordinator Intern for the Thumb Land Conservancy. Grant Vander Laan graduated from Calvin College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He previously worked as a land management fellow for Pierce Cedar Creek Institute and as an Ecosystem Preserve Steward for Calvin College.  Marisa Kaddis has been a life-long resident of Oakland County and had just completed her first year of study in Natural Resources Management at Grand Valley State University. Marisa’s dream is to study tropical rainforest ecology and endangered species restoration.

Alyssa Winters (Radzwion) continued as the Stewardship Specialist until August, when she took a full-time position with the Blue Water Conservation District. Grant Vander Laan applied for the Stewardship Specialist position, was offered the job, and accepted the position to continue his work in October.

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The 2019 Natural Areas Stewardship Staff (L-R): Ben, Alyssa, Marisa, Grant, and Alex

All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.

Watershed Ridge Park: Virtual Hike #2 in a Pathless Park

Welcome back to Watershed Ridge Park for our second virtual hike through this as yet pathless 170 acre park.  (If you missed the first hike, click here.) This week’s exploration will take us to the western area of the park, which is a little easier to explore than the east.  Starting in 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township natural areas stewardship manager, started habitat restoration in old farm fields which had grown into thickets of invasive shrubs. Forestry mowing eliminated the standing shrubs, and follow-up treatment and brush mowing  knocked back the invasive plants and shrubs in this area of Watershed Ridge. He then sowed in some wonderful native plants, including grasses which add a golden sheen right now to the upland slopes in the west of the park, as you’ll see a bit further into our walk.

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Aerial map of Watershed Ridge in 2017. Hikes 1 in yellow. Hike 2 in red.
Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Starting from the parking lot on W. Buell Road (A), we’ll walk along the grassy edge (B) between two fields and head back into the woods to pay a visit to a pond full of singing frogs (C). Emerging from the woodland edge, we’ll enter a big, wild meadow that slopes to a small marsh (D). We’ll follow the forest stream from last week’s hike that burbles its way out of the large marsh to the park’s northeast (H).   It meanders from marsh to marsh before exiting under Lake George Road (E). Our return will take through the western farm fields (F,G) and back to the parking lot. So please, lace up your virtual boots and join me!

The Woods Filled with Frog Song!

As I headed out of the parking lot to the north one afternoon, a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) advised me from deep in a tangle of vines,  to “Cheer up! Cheer up! Cheer up!”  (Listen to the Cardinal under “Duet” at Cornell Lab.)

A Northern Cardinal amid a tangle of branches at Watershed Ridge.

Feeling even better than I did when I arrived – thanks to his greeting – I headed toward the woods north of the field to my right. Halfway there I realized that the ice had melted in the wetlands since my last visit, because I heard…frog song!

A wetland full of singing Wood Frogs at Watershed Ridge.

Arriving at the muddy edge of the pool, I spotted the concentric ripples that I was looking for. At the center of each was a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Wood Frogs spend the winter frozen solid under a log or in leaf litter. Miraculously, they thaw out as the weather warms and rush to nearby water to mate. Imagine how good it felt for this little frog to be stretched out floating at the surface on a spring day. The one below was just beginning to kick and recreate the ripples around him.

When mating, Wood Frogs float on the surface of the water and make a chuckling call to each other.

The whole throng of amorous Wood Frogs floated with their legs extended and kicked their back legs occasionally which kept the concentric circles ripping outward. Vernal pools tend to dry in warm, summer weather so the frogs start to mate quickly in early spring. They benefit from the absence of fish in vernal pools who might make a nice meal of the frogs’ eggs if they were present. Throughout the process of my observations, Wood Frogs make a throaty chuckling sound, as if they are as amused as I am by the whole spectacle.

Out of the Woods and Into the Big Meadow!

The big sloping, meadow that appears as you step out of the woods has been in the process of restoration for several years. Now in early spring, the meadow is sere, brownish gold and easy to traverse since winter snow tamped down last year’s stalks and new growth has barely begun. The marsh at the bottom of the slope (D) is edged in scarlet stands of Red Osier (Cornus sericea). This wetland is fed by the stream that runs out of the much larger marsh (H)  in the northeast section of the park.

Pano Meadow at WR (3)
The sloping Big Meadow in golden hues on a spring day.

In the summer, the Big Meadow is a challenging hike because the native grasses and wildflowers can grow waist-to-shoulder high. A view of the water is even more obscured in warm weather when the shrubs that surround the marsh leaf out. But what a glorious sight the meadow is on a summer day! Butterflies, dragonflies, and summer birds flutter, zip and soar above its changing summer palette of emerging wildflowers.

Ben’s panorama of the Big Meadow in August of 2017.

The Dry Uplands of the Big Meadow and Water Meandering Out of the Marsh

The upland slopes of the Big Meadow seeded during restoration with native Virginia Wild Rye

What’s loveliest about the uplands of the Big Meadow right now is the golden glow of large stands of Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus), a native grass that the stewardship crew seeded onto these graceful slopes.

Virginia Wild Rye , a native grass, sown by our stewardship crew as part of restoring the west side of the park.

The uplands of the Big Meadow are dotted by a variety of trees.  One of my new favorites has three different common names: Hop-hornbeam, Ironwood or Musclewood (Ostrya virginiana).  I love the latter because doesn’t the wood look like a muscular arm?

The trunk tells me why one common name for this tree is Musclewood.

I came across something in the uplands that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t initially identify. It think it was a deer rub, a spot on a tree where a deer has rubbed the area between its forehead and antlers. The sweat glands there will deposit a scent during the annual rut in order to “communicate a challenge to other male deer,” as Wikipedia puts it. The bark certainly looks like it’s been torn upward from below. If a naturalist or  hunter has any other idea about  how this shredded bark happened, though, please educate me!

What I think is a deer rub on a tree at the edge of the woods.

On a visit to the uplands on a sunny day in early March, I was surprised to find a patch of orange, gilled mushrooms. Mushrooms when the ice had barely started to clear from the marshes? My helpful friends at the Mushroom Identification Facebook page identified them for me as Flammulina velutipes, commonly called Winter Mushroom. According to the website fungusfactfriday, “it particularly likes warm spells in the winter and cold snaps during other seasons.” Though it’s theoretically edible, it’s evidently easily confused with a highly toxic mushroom called Gallerina marginata. So unless you are an expert, don’t try these if they show up on your own property.  And please don’t pick any mushrooms in our parks; they are a food source for squirrels and other animals. I found more detailed information on these fungi at a  University of Wisconsin website.

Winter Mushrooms at Watershed Ridge Park are theoretically edible but easily confused with another highly toxic one – so beware! And please don’t pick mushrooms in our parks.

Down near the marsh, the stream that found its way from the large northeast marsh moves on. It runs west at the bottom of the meadow, leaving a soft muddy surface perfect for the earliest of spring wildflowers, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). These strange,  pungent blossoms rise just above the mud; the stems remain below. This ancient and almost alien-looking flower produces temperatures from 27-63 °F, which assists the plant’s reproduction in a couple ways. The heat melts the snow around the emerging mottled hood (spathe). Early pollinators – flies and some bees – are attracted to the carrion-like smell which the heat carries out of the plant. The plant also provides them with a warm refuge from the cold – and while inside, the insects pollinate the flowers on the spike (spadix). Skunk cabbages are an ancient plant and live a long time because their roots contract each year, pulling the stems deeper into the soil. So as Wikipedia notes, ” in effect [skunk cabbage} grows downward, not upward”!  How’s that for an amazing feature!

Skunk cabbage blossoms and perhaps the emergence of their big green leaves?The stems grow underground.  Year after year the roots contract and pull them deeper into the soil.

Before long the flowers will wither, but huge green leaves will emerge, using photosynthesis to provide the energy for the underground growth. Here’s what the leaves looked like at a wetland in Bear Creek a few years ago.

As the blossom withers, the green leaves emerge to feed underground growth.

Near the edge of the marsh, a deer had met its end, probably serving to feed the coyote pups or the adults that I heard in the eastern woods last week. Not being a hunter, I’d never looked closely at deer teeth before. These were accompanied by a skull and some ribs; no doubt both the coyotes and the crows had picked them clean. A strange, melancholy sight, but then deer are so over abundant here that I don’t begrudge the coyotes a good meal at the end of a long winter.

A skull, ribs and these strange teeth tell of a coyote foraging for its family near the marsh.

The stream keeps flowing west toward Lake George Road through a drainage ditch excavated by a farmer at some point in the past. Leaving the meadow, it carves its way into the woods, creating mini-ravines that I needed to navigate in order to keep exploring. Along the edge of these ditches, trees have adapted in a variety of odd ways, like the snail-shaped tree (right below). Some of this flow, Ben says, will be strategically plugged in upcoming wetland restoration work, and in some wet parts of the western farm fields small berms will be placed to slow down water running off the fields, allowing the water to recreate the shallow ponds and saturated soil of years ago.  [Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.}

Eventually, the water finds its way into a small marsh right at the edge of Lake George Road (E on the map), between W. Buell and Stony Creek Roads. On the left is the view of the marsh from Lake George Road, the way I’ve seen it since childhood when I rode my bike past it. On the right is the view I finally got after 60 years or so – looking east from the wooded slope of  Watershed Ridge Park toward the road. A fun moment for me.

The stream runs under Lake George Road, taking a turn as it flows west toward Paint Creek. And in the shallows, multiple blossoms of Skunk Cabbage popped up like small bouquets from the muddy soil. A fine spring display!

Skunk cabbage cropping up within the stream as it flows past Lake George Road

Heading Back through Steeply Rolling Farm Fields

Wetland, farm field and woods – three basic elements of Watershed Ridge Park

Stepping out of the woods, into a farm field in the west of the park (F), I carefully negotiated my path across a small stream and around a little wetland, when I saw a small brown bird sail into some shrubs nearby. It turned out to be a returning  Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia); you can discern the spot at the center of its striped upper breast. This may have been a tired male scouting territory, since it wasn’t singing its spring song of several bouncy notes followed by a trill. Cornell Lab of Ornithology recordings demonstrate that Song Sparrows in other parts of the country sing somewhat different versions of the spring song. So I guess some birds have “dialects,” too!

A Song Sparrow’s field marks are a striped upper breast with a dark spot at the center.

This is one of the fields that the Ben hopes to slowly restore with the prairie plants that were here before European settlement. Wet areas and steep slopes that erode when tilled to expose bare soil will be planted with deep-rooted native grasses and wildflowers. Prairie plants provide food and cover for all kinds of birds and butterflies so those sloping hills will be not only a gorgeous sight,  but productive as habitat. Portions of the western fields and the big fields on the east side of the park, however, will continue to be farmed.

A beautifully shaped Eastern Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) graces the edge of this field if you walk up the tree line – or if you see it at a distance as you head north from the parking lot. I love the delicate tracery of the branches now and wonder if it will look as beautiful to me once it’s leafed out. I’ll let you know.

The beautiful architecture of a Cottonwood Tree at one edge of a farm field at Watershed Ridge.

In the field nearest the road intersection (G), a small wetland provides a good spot to look for birds.  One shiny, late afternoon,  my husband and I spotted a crouching Killdeer within the glare off the water. I think it must have been a loner without a nest  yet, since it didn’t immediately fly away, keening its high-pitched call over the fields. 

The Killdeer was hard to see amidst the glitter of late afternoon sun – which seemed fine with bird who stayed perfectly still.

After stumbling into the open through some feet-snagging brambles between fields on another day, I startled a solitary Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) who’d settled peacefully on the little pond.

A Mallard lifts off from the small vernal pool in the corner of the field at Buell and Lake George.

And farther up the hill, I missed getting a photo of two Sandhill Cranes that must have been feeding there. Frustrating! But then, overhead, a Cooper’s Hawk sailed right above me and I just managed to get my camera pointed upward in time! A lovely compensation for scaring off three beautiful birds!

And with that lovely finale, I headed back to my car.

Nature’s Uncomplicated Generosity

A daytime moon over a farmed field at Watershed Ridge Park.

Thanks for traveling with me this week and last at Watershed Ridge Park. I still want to explore the eastern woods, but I’ll probably wait until drier weather to find my way around the large wetland there. And I’m anxious to see if the deer have left any woodland wildflowers in those moist woods. So perhaps May will be a time for Virtual Hike #3 at Watershed Ridge. We’ll see.

The moon over the field seems to be taking an afternoon nap with its cheek resting on a pillow of blue sky.

A friend of many years recently wrote that lovely phrase “nature’s uncomplicated generosity” when describing the solace of the wild. She let me borrow it here because it expresses two qualities I always appreciate when under a big sky – especially one with a sleepy moon in it! Wildness exists purely in the present moment; it doesn’t regret the past or anticipate the future. It just is. When we venture into nature, it offers itself to our senses with no real effort and yet is generous enough to sustain a continuous flow of experiences. For the hours I’m out exploring, my attention is drawn from one detail to the next, crowding out all the noisy thoughts that normally push me through the day. If you can get out in the fresh air in any way during this self-enforced exile, please do. Putter in your early spring garden, let a breeze cool your cheeks near an open window or outside your back door. Or during this solitary time, hike on the path that poet Robert Frost eventually chose, the one “less traveled by.” I think you’ll find, as I do, that it can make “all the difference.”

Watershed Ridge Park: Adventures in a Pathless Park – Virtual Hike # 1

Doesn’t dealing with the possibility of a highly invasive virus in our private ecosystems sometimes feel like a pathless wood? An adventure we’d just as soon have done without? Well, maybe you could consider my favorite antidote – a real pathless wood or meadow that offers adventure all along the way.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Skirt an unexpectedly wide wetland by crunching along on any dry stalks you can find. Listen to coyotes singing in the moist shade of a spring forest. Wend your way through tall, graceful native grasses. Navigate through, or preferably around, prickly brambles that grab at your sleeve. Hop over one of many streams that flow in every direction – or use a log as a mossy bridge if you dare. It’s all available at Watershed Ridge Park.  I can guarantee that for the time you’re there,  you’re unlikely to think of anything but what’s underfoot, over the next slope or landing in the next tree.

 

My Advice:  Get Oriented First and Use the Compass in Your Phone as Necessary!

The Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) has created a fine parking lot on West Buell Road, but will not be able to create the first park trails until later this year.  They are planned to follow the edges of some of the farm fields in the southwest corner of the park. So for now,  you’ll need to ramble along muddy field edges in the spring, climb over fallen logs in the woods year ’round and hike your knees up high to navigate the meadow’s tall plants in the summer. If you visit Watershed Ridge Park now, I’d recommend sturdy boots, a high tolerance for mud, a jacket that doesn’t collect burrs or get snagged easily by thorns and a compass of some kind. This blog is the fourth I’ve written on Watershed Ridge, and I’ve gotten disoriented twice there over the years. Even our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  got turned around on an early trip to Watershed Ridge Park!

So to begin,  I want to show you an aerial map of the whole park so you can envision where I’m walking as we take two vigorous virtual hikes together this week and next.

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An aerial view of Watershed Ridge Park. The aerial photo is from 2017.

The green line on the map marks the boundaries of the park.  The little pink squares off West Buell Road mark the area around  the township’s pole barn situated at the edge of a large agricultural field. The yellow line shows the approximate route for our virtual hike!

NOTE:  It’s important when exploring Watershed Ridge Park not to tread across planted fields. For now, the Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC) rents land for farming on the big eastern fields and at the northeast and southwest corners of the park,  because they want to preserve farming in the area as a cultural feature. Farming provides the benefit of controlling invasive plants until a restoration plan is implemented.

On the west side of the park, the PRC is hoping to get some habitat restoration going in the next year! Partnering with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they are hoping to restore how the water moves (hydrology) in certain areas. In some spots, they will strategically plug some of the drainage ditches dug years ago. In other areas small berms will be built to slow down water running off the fields, recreating the shallow ponds and saturated soils that were eliminated to make way for farming years ago. Some of the farm fields will also be planted with native grasses and wildflowers, focusing on areas that are often too wet to farm, or so steep that the soil erodes easily. As a huge prairie fan, that pleases me mightily. Once you picture these rolling fields restored to waving native grasses and wildflowers, I hope you’ll agree. For now, though, please stay on the edges of the farm fields to avoid hurting the crops.  

Trodding the Edges of a Rolling Farm Field with Forays into the Forest

After walking east from the parking lot along Buell Road, my husband and I headed out one Sunday along the grass edge between the two farmed fields on the eastern edge of the park (north of the “firewood pickup area”).  The ridge after which the park is named runs roughly diagonally across the large center field; this watershed ridge means that streams on the park’s western side flow to Paint Creek and streams in the east flow toward the west branch of Stony Creek.

It appeared that a raccoon had been treading the same ground the night before.

A raccoon left a print along the muddy edge of a farm field at Watershed Ridge.

Off in the field, beyond a slope, we heard the keening cry of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), those smartly striped Plovers that wing their way here each spring. They winter in southern climes as far away as the West Indies, Central America and the northern regions of South America. There they enjoyed beaches and coastal wetlands or fields. So it must feel like a bit of a comedown to settle here in a muddy field with low vegetation – but that is their preferred breeding area. They need the insects, crayfish and worms that our area produces once warmer weather arrives in order to feed themselves and their young.

Two of the four Killdeer that were probing the mud of the big eastern field.

Near the northeast section of the field, we took a short foray into the deep woods. In the dimness, we could see the tip of a large wetland and a tall, sloped hummock that faced northwest. We suddenly heard a high, squeaking howl, which we at first took for two trees rubbing together. But the squeals were followed by soft barking! Coyotes! (Canis latrans var.) Our guess was that one of these clever canines had built their well-protected den on the south side of the large hummock handily located near water and also therefore, potential prey. What a sound in the dim light! (No photo there, I’m afraid; I was too excited and the tree density made it hard for the camera to see the sloping hill beyond – so please feel free to use your imagination!) The notes were high, keening and not as powerful as usual and we wondered if we were hearing pups. Coyote pups are born in March or April, so it’s possible, but unlikely. Perhaps a female was agitated by our scent. Impossible to know, but intriguing!

Wild coyotes avoid humans. You’ll usually see them walking away. Photo by Jonathan Schechter with permission.

Later in the week, in the far distance near another wetland, I saw the haunches of a coyote, its tail hanging low, as it loped around the edge of dry reeds near the water and disappeared. I wonder if it was one of the family we’d heard? The photo above is by Jonathan Schechter, wildlife photographer and writer of his fine blog, The Wilder Side of Oakland County, which is currently on hiatus so the county can concentrate on emergency virus information.

Coming out of the woods, we spotted dark Polypore/Shelf mushrooms decorating a snag (standing dead tree). These fungi will slowly recycle the nutrients and carbon dioxide sequestered in the wood over many years. The mushrooms do their part to slow down the release of carbon into the atmosphere caused by the death of a tree.

Polypore/shelf mushrooms proliferate on a snag, feeding on the nutrients and carbon dioxide that the tree stored for many years.

One of the delights of this hike was the sight of a Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) feeding contentedly on the bright red buds of a Silver Maple  (Acer saccharinum). Now that’s a real spring tableau!

A male Fox Squirrel savored a treat of buds from a Silver Maple.

Near the maple, a small thicket of orange-tipped Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) contributed a bit of color to the early spring landscape. They hosted galls formed by an insect called the Dogwood Club Midge (Resseliella clavula) which laid its eggs in the stems last year; the plant then obligingly grew round them to create a safe hideaway! In the fall, the larva drilled their way out of the gall and burrowed into the ground to emerge this spring. They don’t harm the wild shrubs and provide food for some other creatures, I expect. Very elegant, those Dogwood Club galls! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

The heads of some curious White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) popped up over the edge of a slope in the field. Look at that series of attentive ears!

A curious group of White-tailed Does, their ears perked!

And of course, a couple of trees were dotted with an American Crow family (Corvus brachyrhynchos). As I moved slowly toward them, they flew off as usual, leaving one family member to pass by a bit closer to execute a quick inspection of us humans below.

As we approached the northwest corner of the field, we stepped once more into the woods for a closer look at a mysterious swamp. The term “swamp,” as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is any wetland dominated by woody plants,” meaning trees and shrubs. The large wetland to the north drains into this woodland, and the water spreads out among many trees and shrubs.  Imagine the size of the tree that left that crenelated stump!

A giant tree stump at the edge of a wonderfully mysterious swamp

Exploring the Woods to the West of the Big Center Farm Field

A natural log bridge in the woods to the west of the large agricultural field.

Inside the woodland edge, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) darted from branch to branch, occasionally looking into tree holes that might make a suitable nesting spot in a few weeks.

A female Eastern Bluebird pauses while searching for a nesting site.

Once inside the wood, giants appear everywhere – large Oak trees with big mossy feet!

The mossy foot of a huge member of the Red Oak family

It occurred to me as I walked this lovely forest that I might see the butterfly that always seems to emerge first each spring, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). Shortly thereafter, one flew up behind me and sailed right above my right shoulder and off into the distance! Mourning Cloak adults spend the winter under tree bark and are well camouflaged for it. They will mate and lay eggs this spring and their offspring will spend next winter in the woods at Watershed Ridge Park. Here are photos I took in other years of  the upper (dorsal) and lower (ventral) side of their wings.

The Mourning Cloak butterfly overwinters as an adult to take advantage of less food competition in the spring.
The wood-like appearance of the underside of the Mourning Cloak’s wings makes terrific camouflage in a forest.

An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) had left behind its torpid winter state.  Chipmunks don’t exactly hibernate. This little one repeatedly slept from 1-8 days at a time this winter and woke periodically to munch on the nuts in its larder, before sleeping again. Wikipedia informs me that the word “chipmunk” is derived from an Objibwe word for “one who descends trees headlong.” And indeed that is exactly what this little one did before it paused for its portrait.

An Eastern Chipmunk paused while foraging for nuts and seeds.

Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)darted down from high in a tree and began spiraling up the bark, looking for insects or insect eggs.  If you see movement like that, a bird spiraling up one tree, and then flying down to the bottom of the next, you can be quite confident even at a distance that you’ve seen one of these tiny, well-camouflaged birds. It’s often mistaken for a White Breasted Nuthatch, but the Nuthatch hops both up and down the trunk and doesn’t usually start at the bottom of a tree. My little Creeper didn’t stick around, but  last week, the fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, caught a lovely photo of one up-close with her skill and a steady hand on her super long lens.  What a shot!

A Brown Creeper blending nicely with tree bark.  Photo by Joan Bonin used with permission.

A Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) hunting for insects appeared to be tattooing a design into the surface of a snag. As you can see, this male was very intent on foraging – or maybe he was contemplating his artwork! Males Downies drum in the spring to attract mates, but this one’s soft taps were intermittent rather than the continuous drumming or whinnying calls usually employed by a Downy male to capture a female’s attention.

A male downy leaving its mark on a snag.

On the northeast side of this woods, a stream runs out of the very large wetland in the north of the park. The stream bed was probably excavated years ago by a farmer trying to drain more land for agriculture. It runs from that huge wetland to a smaller one at the bottom of a meadow and then on to Lake George Road and ultimately Paint Creek.

A distant view of the tip of a large marsh in the north of the park and a stream flowing out of it.

On the day I visited, the ice had just begun to melt and in places where the sun hit, I could listen quietly to the glorious spring sound of bubbling water! Watch for the Skunk Cabbage shoots along the bank in my video below.

So Much to Explore, but Enough for Now…

Virtual Hike #1 comes to an end. You and I wend our way south, back to the parking lot.  We emerge from a part of the woods that we’ll explore more in Hike #2 next week.  Being careful to stay on the grassy edge of a smaller farm field, we stop to admire an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) cleverly camouflaged among the fallen stems.

A garter snake seeking the sun at the grassy edge of a field.

Our steps make the snake slide into a clump of dry grass, but then it feels the need to peek out.  Its head is striped like a barber pole by the shadows of grass stems.

The garter snake’s body is spiral striped by the grass stems. So shiny in the sunlight!

That’s the kind of beautiful little moment – the snake’s cautious peek and spiraling shadows briefly forming on those iridescent scales – that, for me, makes a lovely end to a long, challenging walk.  I hope it feels like that to you, too!. Stop back next week and we’ll explore more of big, untamed Watershed Ridge Park.  I’ll be glad to have your company!