Prairie Fen Series – Meet our Dynamic Peatland!

Take some time to learn about Southern Michigan’s most underrated ecosystem, the prairie fen! In this three-part series, we will go over what a prairie fen is, how to identify this community by its plant species, and what threats they face. This first post offers a reflection on these globally rare, but locally abundant, biological treasures by comparing them to their more well-known cousin, the bog. We will start the series by looking at the geological events that formed these unique wetlands using photos and stories from Michigan’s largest prairie fen. Stay tuned for two more posts all about our Township’s own prairie fen plant species and its history of being overlooked.

Peatlands: Bogs and Fens

Wetlands have received a lot of hype recently due to their capacity for preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. According to the International Peatland Society, the majority of our world’s freshwater wetlands are composed of peatlands. Most peatlands are classified as either fens or bogs. The saturated, anaerobic (no oxygen) soils of these special wetlands do not allow rapid decomposition of plant matter, allowing net accumulation of peat over time. As a result, peatlands are the largest terrestrial storage for carbon, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Although both peatlands are adept at producing incredible biodiversity and carbon storage, they do not receive equal attention. I’ve noticed that even among my science-driven peers, fens are not as well-known as bogs. In undergrad, I was taught more about bogs than fens. Perhaps because bogs are more widely distributed and occur more frequently in Michigan. Or possibly because the highly acidic conditions (low pH) of bogs make them a more singular group, while the fens have several different subtypes. In college, I remember briefly learning that fen wetlands were fed by alkaline (higher pH) calcium and magnesium-rich groundwater, and bogs by rainwater.

Expanding my knowledge of the wondrous prairie fen

In Michigan, the fen group is made up of five natural communities, including prairie fen (check out coastal fen, northern fen, poor fen, and patterned fen if you’d like to learn about the other fens). Prairie fen is appropriately named since it shares many plants found in nearby tallgrass prairies. Prairie fen is found only in the Midwest, thanks to our mighty glaciers.

Map of lower Michigan’s glacier lobes in the most recent glaciation. The Wisconsin glaciation ended around 11,000 years ago. Image is taken from 2015 geomorphic study of the southern Lower Peninsula.

In Michigan, prairie fens primarily occur in the two interlobate regions of the southern Lower Peninsula. We have one interlobate region on the west side of the Lower Peninsula, and other interlobate region called the Jackson Interlobate here in the southeast region. These regions have a complex array of hills and valleys caused by the consolidation and withdrawal of glacier lobes during the Wisconsin glaciation. As noted earlier, all fens are fed by spring water. In the hilly landforms of the Jackson Interlobate, gravity pulls water down through the glacial deposits rich in calcium and magnesium. The alkaline water eventually flows down to the bases of slopes, showing up as spring-fed fens.

A figure displaying fen hydrology from Exploring the Prairie Fen Wetlands of Michigan by MNFI/Michigan State University Extension.

The calcium-rich, alkaline groundwater can be a tough environment for plants. A special set of plants that we call fen “indicator species” tolerate these harsh conditions better than general wetland plants. When we find these plants we know to look closer to see if the surrounding wetland is indeed a prairie fen. Tune into the next blog post in this series to learn more!

Map showing the distribution of prairie fens in Michigan. Circled in red is a cluster of fens that includes those in our township. The northwestern part of Oakland County is where Michigan’s largest prairie fen resides in Springfield Township. Figure from the 2009 Mitchell’s Satyr Habitat Conservation Plan.

My First Fen Visit

No amount of diagrams and reading can prepare someone for what a natural community is like until you are standing in one. I finally had the chance to experience a Michigan fen during the Eastern Massassauga Survey our crew helped with earlier this summer. The survey took place in Michigan’s largest remaining prairie fen in Springfield Township! On the drive there, my unconscious bias predicted the habitat to look similarly isolated and alien as an acidic bog.

I could not have been more naïve. In stark contrast, the landscape was alive and coherent. As I stood unstably on sedge mounds, I could hear what sounded like the thirsty noise of draining a bath. Only in the plants parted could I see where the peculiar sounds were coming from. Calcareous spring water, cold from being locked in the dark earth, ran in rivulets beneath us as we walked. There were also areas where streams flowed on top and through the vegetation. Water and earth weaved in and out of each other; I quickly realized that fens are interlaced with the rest of our sculpted landscape.

This picture depicts the seamless progression from prairie fen to oak forest.

Unlike bogs, which similarly occur in depressions caused by melted glacier ice, prairie fens are not isolated pockets of water. These fens are often part of larger wetland complexes, often occurring on the edges of lakes or along streams. Prairie fen’s plant communities often also morph into surrounding environments like oak barrens and openings, even sharing the same historical need for fire disturbance.

Leaving Springfield’s fen, I rejoiced in the never-ending surprises that come with being a student of the natural world. I had no idea a peatland could feel so energetic. I had been under the impression that all peatlands were as dead as their layers of preserved organic matter.

The next post in this series will dive deeper into the dynamic life that these fens sustain using flora and fauna snapshots from our prairie fen along the paint creek trail. In the meantime, you can check out a previous blog about the Unique Wetland Communities Along the Paint Creek Trail to get some background on the work we do there.

The Fungus From Another Land

On a cool, cloudy afternoon earlier this summer, we stewards hunted for garlic mustard in the marshy woods of Charles Ilsley Park. The air was crisp, and I could feel the wind brushing my back as I walked. I kept my eyes peeled for the biennial invasive, doing my best to contribute to ecological wellness. That was when something unusual caught my eye. I stumbled upon a wet, decaying log with fungal clusters along its back. After asking some identification questions, I found that this fungus was none other than the Golden Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus citrinopileatus).

How interesting! Each individual mushroom had a slightly different cap and shape despite being in the same cluster. The subjects in each cluster proudly displayed their bright yellow caps, earning this oyster mushroom its name.

Golden oyster mushrooms feasting on a log found at Charles Ilsley Park

Mushrooms Escaped from Cultivation

The golden oyster, or yellow oyster, mushroom originated in the woodlands of Russia, Japan, and Northern China, where it enjoys cool, shady woodland areas. The golden oyster thrives on decaying wood, especially elm, but is capable of growing on several substrates. Thanks to the variety of culinary and medicinal uses, the fungi has long been cultivated across Asia, and is now widely grown in the United States.

The joys of farming golden oyster fungi had consequences, though. According to Andi Bruce, a professional mycologist, the golden oyster mushroom escaped cultivation and made its way into natural habitats, the first known cultivated fungus to do so. As far as we know, their pale, pink spores are easily spread by the longhorn beetle, Callipogon relictus.

The golden-oyster mushroom’s bright caps at Charles Ilsley Park

Learning About Golden Oyster Mushrooms

The golden oyster mushroom made its first appearance in 2012, and has now been found in several states, including Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa. What will be impacted by this nonnative fungus? Or will anything be impacted at all? Only time will tell. On a positive note, while further research is needed, the golden oyster might have use absorbing toxins in the environment such as oil spills and wastewater. Maybe some good can come out of these chewy, fragile mushrooms.

Do the unknowns of the golden oyster mushroom shake you? Do you want to unravel golden information on this record-breaking fungi? Citizen scientists can help by taking photographs of specimens they’ve come across and posting them to iNaturalist! The Osmundson Lab from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is continuing to accept samples for future research. If you want to take a step further in future research contributions, consider submitting a live sample. Instructions can be found here.

A cool, shady woodland area in Bear Creek Nature Park. The perfect habitat for golden oyster fungi

What a mystery this fungus is! It will be exciting to learn more about the golden oyster mushroom as we learn more about its spread and ecology in North America. Who knows what else will unfold? The world is such a wonderful place full of secrets waiting to be discovered, a world beyond internet and textbooks!

When taking a stroll in one of our beautiful parks, ask yourself, “What can I learn on this path today?” Perhaps on a morning walk through Bear Creek Nature Park, you might notice how beautiful bee balm splashes the fields in purple swaths. As you take in the view, a refreshing smell may hit your nose. With further exploration you may find out it was none other than bee balm itself, giving you a refreshing aroma as a “thank you” for enjoying nature’s beauty. Maybe you’ll walk on Paint Creek Trail and hear a faint rustling in the tall grasses. In the brief moment of asking yourself, “What was that sound?”, an innocent fawn may race across the wet prairie, with its spots disappearing as quickly as its sound.

Nature is so beautiful and mysterious, with so much to admire and understand. Don’t just walk in the parks. Take time to admire blue birds in the sky, or milkweed waving to monarch butterflies. Take a moment to appreciate sensitive ferns and lupines, flourishing in the soils they stand in. When exploring our parks, your observance may lead to discoveries!

Watershed Ridge Park: Aflutter with Small Wings

The large sloping meadow near the big marsh at Watershed Ridge Park with native plants, grasses and butterflies of all sizes

This summer, like the last, the western section of Watershed Ridge Park hums to the vibration of small winged creatures. So just as I did last summer, I headed first for the small restored wetland at the foot of a sloping field on the park’s western edge, because I knew it would be alive with fierce and fabulous dragonflies and their diminutive relations, the damselflies. As you’ll see, I was not disappointed!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But this summer, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has cut some temporary trails into the dense greenery north of the fields in order to allow his crew to take on the task of taming a major invasion of non-native pest plants like Oriental Bittersweet vine, Autumn Olive, Privet and more. For now, these rough, bush-hogged trails allow me much easier access to the woods and the prairie at the heart of this part of the park. So I invite you to join me as I wade through moist meadows, pick my way carefully between wooded wetlands and stumble along the trail’s stubble to explore what warm summer mornings offer in the west of Watershed Ridge.

A Wetland Habitat Always Means Life!

The restored wetland in west of Watershed Ridge Park has changed dramatically in the last year. It’s now lined with Cattails and Pickerel Weed as well as Blue Vervain and Bulrushes.

I love how the trail that leads west from the parking lot passes high above the wetlands below, then curves gracefully through the hedgerow separating two fields – the one on the right still agricultural, the one on the left planted with native seed this spring.

At the foot of the green field, lies the newly restored wetland picture above. It’s just a humble, muddy little pool surrounded by native and non-native plants. The community includes non-native Cattails and Eurasian Great Hairy Willow-herb (Epilobium hirsutum , but also clusters of native plants like glorious Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), tough little Bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens), and the wonderful spiky blooms of Hop Sedge (Carex lupulina), member of an ancient genus. Sprigs of native pink Creeping Smartweed (Persicaria longiseta) poke out of the former farm field surrounding the wetland. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, that suits the tiny Lucerne Moth (Nomophila nearctica) since its caterpillars feed avidly on it – as well as on non-native alfalfa and clover.

I waded into a small meadow behind the wetland to the west, filled with native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus) and a variety of soft grasses. Its proximity to the water and its gently swaying stems make it a good place to look for the “dragons and damsels.”

A field near a wetland is an ideal spot for discovering dragonflies and damselflies.

When I first arrived in late June, dragonflies were racing around the pond and the surrounding meadow, either in pairs, or singly, in a mad dash to mate and feed. These colorful, fierce predators with their spiked legs and powerful jaws spend their extended youth underwater. They live below the water surface, first as eggs and then as gilled nymphs, crawling or swimming around to feed on everything around them. They grow by molting into larger nymphs. The process can repeat for as little as four months to an average of one to three years! Finally they attach with their claws to an upright surface – stem, rock, bridge – and a full-fledged dragonfly extracts itself from the skin of the last nymph. The thorax emerges first, then the head and legs. Once the legs harden, the new dragonfly arches backward, thrusting the entire abdomen out of its casing. The wings fill with fluid and this creature with gills transforms into an air breather. Imagine, what it must be like to emerge from a dark pond into the bright sunlight and suddenly be able to breathe air – and fly! No wonder they frequently look so frantically excited!

But emergence is a dangerous time. According to Dragonflies of the Northern Woods by Kurt Mead, while they are emerging and before they can fly, up to 90% of these “teneral” or newly-hatched dragonflies are consumed by birds and sometimes by ants or spiders. In our northern climate, adult dragonflies may live from just a week to at most a couple of months. During their brief life in the air, they must latch onto a mate and produce eggs for the following year. So the priority is to mate quickly. Local naturalist Allen Chartier and the Facebook group, “Odonata of the Eastern United States,” both identified the dragonfly below with its shiny wings as the teneral male of some species of Meadowhawk dragonfly (genus Sympetrum.) His species won’t be clear until he fully matures. Isn’t he handsome? I watched him flutter a short distance to this grass stem, so he’s already on his way to maturity. I wish him well.

A teneral male Meadowhawk dragonfly who may have recently emerged from the casing of its nymph. The shiny wings can be an indicator of a teneral dragonfly.

Early Arrivals: Dragonflies that Appear in late May

Some dragonflies appear during the last week of May and so have an early jump on pairing up. When I arrived at the park in late June, some of these early males either stuck close to a nearby female, or rushed around, perhaps demonstrating their finer qualities to eligible females. And of course they were busy foraging for other insects.

Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) call our parks home every summer. The two below were definitely visiting the wetland with serious intentions. Whitetail males will patrol a pond trying to chase off competitors and if the female on the right has chosen our small pond, the guy on the left is likely to mate with her. He was busy discouraging another male when I saw him. The female can lay up to 1,000 eggs per day and may mate every day or two according to my dragonfly guide book. No wonder the Common Whitetail is so common!

The other common early dragonfly is the Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa.) The male’s distinguishing feature are the dark wing patches next to his thorax and abdomen and white patches farther out on his wings. The female only has the dark patches near the body, plus yellow stripes down the sides of the abdomen. They lay eggs singly when alone, but the male “hover-guards” her in crowded ponds to, as the guidebook so circumspectly phrases it, “protect his ‘genetic investment.'” Had to smile when I read that….

I also saw three early dragonflies that were either “wallflowers” thus far – or I just missed seeing their mates in all the activity! They’re a colorful bunch.

Later Arrivals: Dragonflies that Show Up the Second Week in June

When I arrived on June 28, I only saw singletons among these later dragonflies that had probably appeared at the wetland a couple of weeks earlier. Perhaps they needed a bit more time to find a mate? Who knows? But I was glad to see them in any case.

The “Damsels” of Watershed Ridge, 2022

Damselflies share the order Odonata with dragonflies, but look and behave a bit differently. Unlike dragonflies, damselflies are generally smaller, less muscular and appear more delicate – hence their name which means “young mistress” in French. But they too are effective predators. They have large compound eyes like their relatives, but have “only” five to ten thousand individual lenses in them versus the maximum of 30,000 for a dragonfly. While the dragonfly’s eyes take up most of their head, damselflies’ eyes are placed at either side of the head, often giving them a hammerhead shark appearance. Dragonflies spend time high in the air and settle with their wings open. Damselflies spend more time at knee height among grasses and often fold their wings when they’ve landed.

Like dragonflies, damselflies spend a long youth underwater. In a vernal pool monitoring event in 2016, we happened to temporarily scoop one up with a couple of fingernail clams and a water beetle. They’re not quite as glamorous as they look when their adults, eh?

While monitoring a vernal pool in 2016, we happened upon a damselfly nymph in company with three Fingernail Clams and a Water Beetle

So here’s the selection of damselflies I encountered at the newly restored wetland on a summer morning. Many thanks again to Allen Chartier for help with the identifications.

And Now, a Quick Trip Down a Woodland Path

A singing Indigo Bunting that greeted me every time I went to Watershed Ridge Park this summer

On every one of my five trips to Watershed Ridge Park in late June and July, I was welcomed to the temporary woodland trail by the bright, paired phrases of the Indigo Bunting’s song. His favored perch was high in a tree or snag near the trail’s eastern entrance. What a gift! Have a listen at this link. (Though their songs vary by location, the second song listed at the link is very similar to the male’s song at Watershed Ridge.) I never got an ideal shot of him, so here’s another one I took in 2019 that shows you the male’s dark wing and his two-tone beak!

A closer look at an Indigo Bunting, taken in 2019

The fluttering of two butterflies on both sides of the trail caught my eye. Woodland butterflies don’t sip nectar from flowers, since most woodland flowers finish once the canopy leafs out – and forest edges are the niche these butterflies fill. Instead, they seek out a generally unappealing diet (for humans) of tree sap, fermenting or rotten fruit and dung which supplies sodium, nitrogen and other nutrients. They lay their eggs on woodland grasses that their caterpillars can digest. The larger one (1.75-2.5″) with more spots, the Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) moves about erratically even on overcast days and can fly late into the evening, according to Jaret C. Daniels’ guide, Butterflies of Michigan. The smaller one on the right below with about a one inch wingspan is the Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) which often bobs at my feet at the edge of wooded trails.

Because of the dense foliage, I heard birds more than saw them. My handy Merlin app from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab identified a sharp two-note song from deep in the woods as that of the Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavirons). At Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org site, I discovered that these vireos like to stay in the interior of the canopy in deciduous woodlands, picking insects off branches. I waited several minutes but the vireo seemed content to stay right where it was. Here’s a shot of one by a generous iNaturalist photographer, Ken Butler.

The Yellow-throated Vireo offers his mate a few nest sites and once she chooses one, the nest is built 20-50 feet up in the canopy. Photo by Ken Butler (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) kept its back to me amid the branches of a tree off the trail. I think it was female because I got a quick flash of its head when it landed and noticed that it had no black “mustache” mark near its bill. But it could have been either a female or the gray head of a juvenile. Once more I waited, hoping it would move so I could get a better look. But the best I got was a glance over its shoulder as if to inquire why I was still there. That look prompted me to give up and move on.

A Northern Flicker seemed to be saying, “You’ve had a look, so could you just move on?” So I did.

Monet in the Meadow: A Colorful Field a-Flutter with Wings

Like a Monet painting, the large meadow near the big marsh was dotted with splashes of orange, yellow and white from Butterfly Milkweed, Black-Eyed Susans and Daisy Fleabane.

The temporary trail made it infinitely easier for me to get to one of my favorite spots at Watershed Ridge Park. This meadow slopes down to a large marsh that currently can be glimpsed between the trees from the trail at the bottom of the meadow.

The big marsh, formerly invisible behind a wall of shrubs can currently be seen through a break in the trees on the temporary trail.

At each visit, my camera and I were teased by a fast-moving Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) that never landed along the trail without suddenly disappearing down into tall grass. On my fourth visit, I donned my anti-tick outfit – socks over shoes, long sleeves, white clothing, a dose of Deet, etc. – and set off determined to see it land. I suspected that my quarry would eventually settle on one of the most nectar-rich flowers currently blooming, Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa.) But the largest patches were far away from the trail.

I waded into the waist-high grass. And there it was, its proboscis sunk in one of the bright orange blossoms on its composite flowerhead. Milkweed is one of its favorites, along with Bergamot/Bee Balm and thistles. This one may be the female since the base of her wings seemed dark on the upper (dorsal) side, but I can’t tell for sure. If it is a female, she may not lay her eggs until August and may still be whisking around the meadow in September.

The Great Spangled Fritillary scoped me out while sipping nectar from a Butterly Milkweed.

Another reward for being lured into the deep grass was a selection of almost inconspicuous butterflies. I’m learning to watch for these tiny wings in the meadows. They’re so wonderfully varied and have unusual colors and patterns when I can get close. But they can be a bit skittish in front of the camera!

The Chickweed Geometer (Haematopis grataria) has a wingspan of only 3/4 of inch or so and flies during the day, unlike most moths. Its caterpillar is the famous inchworm. I didn’t realize it was yellow with pink stripes and dots until my long lens caught it in the meadow! Dr. Parsons told me that its wonderful feathery antennae indicate that it’s a male; the females’, he said, were “thread-like.”

The Chickweed Geometer’s caterpillar is one of the inchworms of song fame. In fact, all Geometer moths are inchworms in their creepy, crawly youth!

I hope you can see the delicate black pattern at the edge of this very tiny creature which is another member of the Geometridae family. Dr. Parsons at Michigan State University identified it as the Large Lace Border Moth (Scopula limboundata). Large, I thought? Its wingspan is only an inch wide, but evidently there is a Smaller Lace Border moth in Eurasia, that is even a little bit smaller! The black design along the creamy edge of its wings does create the illusion of lace, doesn’t it? Such an elegant, delicate little moth!

The Large Lace Border Moth is also a Geometer Moth. So aptly named! I’m getting quite fond of the variety and beauty in the family Geometridae!

The Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a blue or brown blur when its flying and I often initially think it’s a Summer Azure (Celastrina neglecta). But once it settles, the tiny little “tails” at the bottom of its wing remind of its name. Its size varies from just under an inch to just over. The male’s upper wings are generally blue, but the female’s can vary from light blue to brown or dark gray. I’m quite sure this was a brown female, but she refused to open her wings far enough for a shot. So I’ve added photos of a brown female and a blue male from previous years so perhaps you can enjoy naming this lovely little butterfly if you come across it in your garden or field. (Click on photos to see the detail.)

The Northern Broken-Dash Skipper butterfly (Wallengrenia egeremet) looked large at 1-1.5 inches after all the tiny butterflies and moths and it’s certainly less glamorous. But I’m glad to know its name and maybe we can love it because its caterpillar eats a species of crabgrass? This female may be about to lay eggs!

This Northern Broken-dash Skipper looks like she might be about to deposit some eggs from her lowered ovipositor. Grass is the host plant for her caterpillars, particularly Hairy Crabgrass, a common non-native in southern Michigan.

My walk into the deep grass also afforded me a little insect drama taking place on two pink blossoms of native Pasture/Carolina Rose (Rosa carolina). A group of Longhorn Flower Beetles (family Cerambycidae, subfamily Lepturinae) were competing in a frenzy of activity – some were feeding, others appeared to be trying to mate. Most of my photos were blurry because of their frantic jostling which was continuous and involved 5 or 6 individuals. But Dr. Parsons could identify two species in the photo below. The ones on the left and in the middle are generally known as Banded Longhorn Beetles (Typocrus velutinus). The skinny one on the right evidently has no common name, but its scientific name is Strangalia acuminata, which ominously translates from Latin as “pointed stranglers” if the Latin Google translation is correct! I, however, didn’t witness any such nefarious behavior.

These Flower Longhorn Beetles were feeding on the nectar and pollen of Pasture Roses. Note
the long antennae that gave them their name. Some beetles in this family have antennae as long as their bodies!

I could hear a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) singing his “Witchedy witchedy” melody near the big marsh but as usual, he never came into the open. But I did see a young Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) exploring a branch with great curiosity.

Into the Pathless Woods on My Way Home

At the top of the meadow, one of the mowed trails dead-ends at the north edge of a moist woodland. The undergrowth is sparse here. My eyes take a minute to adjust to the dim light. I unfailingly find this woods delightfully spooky, full of greenish light, moss, and unidentified scurryings. Two sizable wetlands anchor the area, one covered in glowing green aquatic plants and the other full of fallen trees, both alive with frogs and turtles now.

A bright green forested wetland covered with a layer of watermeal and duckweed.

The “green pond” above is always home to frogs and turtles. What I love is how the sunlight above the water is washed green, as if I’d put a green filter on my camera. It always feel mysterious and quiet, hidden away in the trees. Other years I’ve spotted Leopard frogs here, but on this visit, I only saw small Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans). They’re often mistaken for Bullfrogs, but they’re smaller and have two ridges that run down either side of their back from behind their eyes. The “guh-loop,” plucked- banjo-string sound of its calls during the mating season is absent now. A young male posed on a moss covered log sinking slowly into the water. The circle behind his eye vibrates, functioning like an ear drum. If it’s smaller or the same size as her eye (as in the photo below), she’s a female; if it’s larger, he’s a male.

A young female Green Frog pauses on a mossy log. Note the ridge along her back, an important field mark for this frog.

Farther away in the green pond, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) had emerged from the pond onto a fallen log, its shell decorated with bits of duckweed – a common fashion statement for turtles.

A Midland Painted Turtle basks in the dim light over the green, wooded wetland

Nearby, a pure white Shelf Mushroom (genus Polyporus) glowed in the dim light. It’s the reproductive part of a fungus living within the decaying log, doing its work of slowly recycling the carbon within the rotting wood.

A shelf mushroom glowed white in the half-light over the forest wetland.

As I moved toward the second wetland, a movement caught the corner of my eye, but I couldn’t quite see what it was. I approached a tree nearby and finally spotted a Northern Pearly-Eye butterfly camouflaged against the bark. I don’t often see them this far into the woods.

A Northern Pearly-eye camouflaged on tree bark

The water in the second wetland is more open and fallen logs surround the edges. I find Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in large numbers here in the spring, but on a July day, the amphibious inhabitants were a bit different.

The second wetland has more open water and many fallen trees. One willow lying prostrate in the water keeps putting up fresh greenery each year so it must still be firmly rooted.

As I approached the wetland, something jumped beside my shoe – which made me jump! I thought I might have stepped on a creature. Luckily, I hadn’t. It was a small American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) which froze in place. It may have hatched in this forest pond and is now moving upland to feed. If it survives being bite-size, it’ll be able to breed in a couple of years. I wish I’d been there earlier in the year to hear the fast, vibrating call of a mating toad. Have a listen at this link provided by the Macauley Library which has a fine collection of animal sounds. (Be patient; it takes a few moments of listening to hear the toad!)

This small American Toad may need a couple years of maturation before he can sing and breed.

As I stepped between the muddy logs to reach the pond, a loud spattering of splashes told me I’d scared off a whole passel of small frogs. I waited in the shadows, seeing only concentric circles where they’d hit the water. At last, I spotted one on a log and was pleased to see it was a juvenile American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), a species I don’t see as often as others, for some reason. It takes about two or three years for a bullfrog to mature enough to breed and I’m guessing this one has at least another year, maybe two, before she’ll arrive at a mating site to choose from a group of chorusing males. Notice that she has just a short ridge near her eye that encompasses her tympanum, not the long ridges that extend down the body of the Green Frog. Her typanum is about the size of her eye; the male’s would be larger than his eye.

A fairly young female Bullfrog who continued staring into the distance as others leapt into the water at my approach. She looks thin and young to me, but I’m no expert on bullfrog appearance.

As I left the forest and emerged into the sunny farm field beyond, I heard the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and watched as a male Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) took on the job of keeping it far from his nest and young. He repeatedly dropped over the hawk’s back and gave it a quick peck before wheeling away. The hawk stayed in the area and the blackbird kept up his attack as I headed for the parking lot.

A Red-winged Blackbird harassing a Red-tailed Hawk, probably to drive it away from its nest and young.

This July, It Was the Little Things…

The darkest blackberry mysteriously disappeared shortly after this photo was taken…

Usually on a July walk, I’m looking for birds or their rambunctious fledglings. And I do delight in them during the weekly Oakland Township bird walks. But this month, I felt the need to look for even smaller winged beings, curious to see old acquaintances and eager to meet new ones. And luckily, Watershed Ridge Park shared lots of them once I started looking. Oh, a few birds flew or sang in the depths of the hedgerows and beyond the forested trails. But the moist meadows with their wetlands drew me and I waded in to explore the smallest of fluttering wings.

And I’m so glad I did. Getting close to a pastel Geometer moth to discover its feathery antennae, admiring a freshly hatched dragonfly settling after testing out his shiny new wings or grinning at the frantic scrambling of beetles on a pair of pale pink roses – those were the joys of July for me. I hope a taste of that joy reached you, too. Look for the little ones. You won’t be sorry.

Cow parsnip: Important Native or Nemesis?

Cow parsnip is known by many names. Scientifically it is referred to as Heracleum maximum, but for centuries it has been known by indigenous people across North America as pipigwe’wanuck, okintsomo, yazobi, gistem, sol, gwas, ggis, pushki (Journal of Ethnobiology).

All across North America cow parsnip is revered by indigenous peoples for its medicinal and edible qualities. The roots are commonly ground into a powder and applied to joints to ease pain. The Quinault word for cow parsnip, waká, means ‘kills the pain’. From April to late June, cow parsnip is harvested and eaten. The soft pith, once removed from the inner stem, is eaten.

Humans are not the only species to feed on cow parsnip! The leaves are an important food source for cow parsnip thrips and parsnip webworm moth larvae. Dozens of bee, wasp, fly, and butterfly species also visit the flowers of cow parsnip.

Pollinators on cow parsnip along the Paint Creek Trail in 2021. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Cow parsnip is also often referred to as a ‘dangerous plant.’ How did this come to be, when cow parsnip has been an important aspect of cultures for centuries? It’s often a mix up between two species: cow parsnip (Heracleum maximum) and giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum). To be fair, they are ‘siblings.’ They both come from the carrot family, Apiaceae, and within that family they belong to the same genus, Heracleum.

Why are are folks rightly concerned about giant hogweed? It is an invasive species hailing from western Caucasus. Like most plants within the genus Heracleum, and other members of the carrot family, it can cause photodermatitis, a condition in which skin will blister, swell, and scar when sap gets on the skin and is then exposed to sunlight. Giant hogweed is infamous for these effects, and causes extreme expression of these symptoms. You should also avoid the sap of wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), two other species in the carrot family that cause photodermatitis. Click here to view a a great card from the Oakland County CISMA comparing these four species.

The sap of our native cow parsnip is still phototoxic, but its effects are far milder. When handled carefully, cow parsnip has been safely consumed and appreciated for centuries. Giant hogweed, on the other hand, does not have the same rich culinary and medicinal history across the United States.

Unfortunately for our beloved cow parsnip, the two plants do look similar. Each year we receive reports of potential hogweed along the Paint Creek Trail, where it grows happily in its favored floodplain and wet meadow habitat. When a potential sighting is reported we check each one. So far we’ve only found cow parsnip. In fact, no giant hogweed has been found yet within Oakland County. There are several key differences between the two species.

Height

The most obvious difference is height. Giant hogweed is… giant! At maturity it can reach up to twenty feet high. Cow parsnip on the other hand, caps out at around seven feet.

Umbel

The flower head, or umbel, of cow parsnip is flat. Whereas the umbel of giant hogweed is rounded in appearance.

Stem

The stems of cow parsnip are a uniform shade of light green, whereas giant hogweed stems are splotched with wine colored markings.

Leaves

The leaves of cow parsnip are also more rounded in appearance than giant hogweed. Giant hogweed has deeply lobed leaves.

We worked with the Paint Creek Trail a few years ago to develop a helpful poster comparing the two species.

A Note on Poisonous Plants

When a plant is labelled poisonous, it is alarming. However you may be surprised at how well we coexist with the world of plant toxins (phytotoxins). Plants are (mostly) stationary forms of life. In order to protect themselves from predators, and from competition with each other, they had to adapt defenses. These defenses can take the physical form of spines on cacti, or waxy leaf cuticles that protect against plant pathogens. The less visually apparent defenses are the chemical defenses that lead to phytotoxicity.

A photo of swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).

The beloved milkweed is a great example of our harmony with phytotoxins. We adore milkweed. Its blooms are a fragrant addition to our plant beds, and they bring with them a host of diverse pollinators. Would you be shocked to learn that every part of milkweed is poisonous? Every part of the plant, from root to petals, contains cardiac glycosides. These compounds can cause some serious and nasty effects. In spite of this, we adore milkweed.

Another example are the twigs and pits of cherries, which are rife with a cyanide releasing compound. Foxglove, cashews, rhubarb, iris, oaks, apple and apricot seeds, kidney beans… All contain a poisonous component! When approached with care and knowledge, poisonous plants are nothing to fear. They play important roles in our ecosystems, benefitting the smallest insect to the hungriest stomach via our dinner plates.

The umbel of cow parsnip post-flower, with immature seeds beginning to grow.

So when you come across cow parsnip in the wild, take a moment to appreciate its beauty. Express caution and not fear. Admire the leaf miners munching along the large leaves, creating a mosaic of tunnels in their wake. Take notice of the huge umbel (currently setting seed) that attracted dozens of pollinators just a few short weeks ago. Recall its rich history. Fantasize about the smell of a thick stew in early spring… Bubbling with the sweet, peppery flavor of young cow parsnip shoots.

Natural Areas Stewardship Assists with Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake Surveys

Recently natural areas stewardship staff got the opportunity to take a step back from our day-to-day work to help with Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake surveys in a natural area owned by Springfield Township, in western Oakland County. The surveys were conducted by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI).

The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is Michigan’s only venomous snake and is a federally threatened species. Their populations have been in steady declining due to the rapid loss of their wetland habitats and persecution by humans. While these snakes are venomous, they rarely strike unless they believe they are truly threatened. They prefer to remain completely still and rely on their camouflage to avoid threats.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake. Photo by Andrew Hoffman CC BY-NA-ND 4.0. No changes were made to the photo.

Once we got out to the site, we learned that monitoring for the Eastern Massasauga is actually pretty simple. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment or tools, just our eyes, and ears! After MNFI scientists trained us how to conduct the surveys, we headed out to comb through targeted natural areas.

For most of the morning our group got skunked. Our morale was getting low and we were about to head back for lunch when one of the volunteers shouted, “I found one!” After we spotted the snake, we captured it with special snake tongs, placed it in a pillowcase, and checked to see if it was a recapture (caught in previous surveys).

Scott, a fellow volunteer, holding one of the two Massasaugas he spotted. The perspective of the photo makes the snake look larger than it actually is. Scott is holding the snake far from his body with the snake tongs. Photo captured by Emma Campbell.

After the snake was safely captured, it was brought back to MNFI’s pop-up lab. Once there, the snake was placed in a bin and gently pressed with a clear piece of plastic. This was done so that measurements and other data could be safely collected. They measured the length of the snake and length of the rattle, weighed the snake, and determined its sex. After all of the data was collected, the snake was returned to the exact location where it was captured.

The massasauga, back at the lab, in the bin where the necessary measurements will be taken. Photo by Emma Campbell.

All in all, being able to see Michigan’s only venomous snake up close and personal was such an amazing experience. We were truly blessed to be able to learn from the scientists from MNFI, Yu Man Lee and Reine Sovey. They generously passed along knowledge and facts about these special snakes, making the monitoring so much more interesting.

If you would like to learn more about the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, click the following link: https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/species/description/11519/Sistrurus-catenat