This week we’ll leave the sunny Old Fields and spend more time in the north of the park where there’s more water and shade. The marsh, like so much of the park, is now full of gold as fall flowers bloom along its margins. The Canada Geese are starting to emerge from the reeds with completely new sets of feathers. The Snapping Turtle still cruises just beneath the water’s surface while dragonflies hover and soar above it.
In the pond at the edge of Gunn Road, a few frogs hop between the toes of giant wet-footed trees, while others sit quietly contemplating the coming season. Squirrels and chipmunks gather acorns and nibble at colorful mushrooms that mysteriously appear and disappear in the Oak-Hickory forest. Let’s watch how the north end of Bear Creek settles gracefully into early fall.
The Marsh – All Golden and Green
The green of the marsh – its reeds, its duckweed-covered water, the backdrop of trees – is suddenly offset by the bright yellow of Nodding Beggar-ticks (Bidens cernua), another lovely native wildflower with a singularly homely name!
These sunny flowers surround the water in the marsh, lining the northern dock and the edge of the reeds in the distance. Dr. Ben tells me that they are an annual that “can grow from a seed to a big flowering plant in just a few short months or weeks after the water recedes. They are really well adapted to the changing water levels of wetlands!” Look at these flower faces which are currently full of bees!
The reeds and flowers are a great backdrop for the Canada Darner dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis), who likes to hover above the water searching for insects, just as it does above the wildflowers in the Old Fields.
The Common Cat-tails (Typha latifolia) take on all kinds of strange shapes as they produce seed for next year. The male part at the top has fertilized the brown fuzzy female part below to produce seeds. And cat-tails also grow by rhizomes, or underground stems.
Out in the water are the usual inhabitants. If you come after a rain has cleared some of the surface plant life, you might see the ridged back (or carapace) of a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Its head emerges several inches ahead of its body as it cruises leisurely across the marsh, stopping to dip down and feed on submerged vegetation.
Of course, if you come on a hot, sunny afternoon when the duckweed and other surface plants crowd the marsh surface, you’ll have to look for the trail of two slowly moving blobs of green.
If the sun is warm on a cool fall morning, you might see a small Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) sunning itself, all four legs, head and tail extended to soak up maximum warmth.
Some of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis ) have now finished their molt. This one seemed to be waiting for other family members to emerge from the reeds. When they do, they’ll get some practice flying with their completely new feathers, wheeling about the sky and calling noisily.
I’ve noticed this plant in the marsh for a while and finally learned its name. Ben tells me that it’s Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed (Persicaria lapathifolia). It’s common in moist, disturbed ground. I quite like its graceful droop!
The Pond at the North End: Mighty Trees, Their Munched Acorns and Small Frogs
If you wander away from the marsh toward Gunn Road, you’ll end up at another much quieter pond. It’s the one in which so many Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) were courting in the spring. Some of these frogs breed more than once which might explain seeing two tiny Wood Frogs near the pond at this time to year. Wood Frogs can vary their skin color from brown to green/gray but they are always in or near the trees (as their name implies) and sport a dark eye mask.
Nearby, as the sun dipped low, a male Green Frog (Rana clamitans) sat quietly on the end of a log, staring steadily into the distance. It’s rare for me to see one so still and silent.
An Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae) had rather daringly hung its web out over the water, attaching it to four different trees quite a distance away. It looks as though it managed to snag a moth.
Some creature had dug a fairly large hole, with accompanying small ones, at the roots of a gigantic Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) perhaps? Here you can see one hole beneath a Bur Oak leaf and the remainder of the tree’s acorn with its bristly cap laying nearby. Bur Oaks, a member of the White Oak family, don’t produce large acorn crops every year. Instead, they produce huge numbers of acorns some years in the hope that the squirrels and blue jays will not be able to eat them all and a few will survive to propagate new trees.
Here’s a clearer look at the acorns from a Bur Oak that’s just south of the shed near Snell Road.
But the one at the north end is very tall – and incredibly straight – with its crown so far up that you can’t see its acorns even with binoculars! Or at least, I couldn’t.
Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are certainly dashing about the park collecting nuts and seeds to put in the storage chambers of their burrows. This one started filling its pouch near the Center Pond in a previous fall.
The Oak-Hickory Forest and its Mysterious Mushrooms
The Oak-Hickory forest is blooming – with colorful mushrooms! I learned this week that there are fungi in the earth beneath those trees year ’round. Right now we can see parts of those fungi because they’re making spores above ground in what we commonly call “mushrooms.”
Some fungi break down dead materials to obtain nutrients. Other fungi form relationships with living plants, including trees, which generally are mutually beneficial. This symbiotic association between a fungus and a living plant is called a mycorrhiza. Mycorrhizal fungi feed on sugars from tree roots and trees in turn can get more minerals and water from the soil through their fungal partner. According to BBC Earth, some scientists have shown that trees use this system to share nutrients with other trees, including their own saplings, in what some scientists refer to as the “wood wide web!” This web may include both the fungal network and tree roots that are actually grafted together. I love this idea. Of course, problems can spread through this web too ( just like our internet!) which is why we published the blog on preventing the spread of Oak Wilt.
Having missed the Parks mushroom workshop last weekend, I can’t identify most of the mushrooms I’ve seen lately. (Drat!) They look so other-worldly and fascinating. Unless accompanied by a real expert who can make an absolute identification, though, please don’t try to eat them! Wild mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify and many are toxic to humans. And in any case, it’s always best to leave the park just the way you found it so we can all enjoy its beauty and surprises.
This amazing mushroom, which may or may not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dappled light of the woods.
Several of these pale orange mushrooms emerged from the wet soil near the pond at the Gunn Road entrance.
Some animal’s taken a nip out of this little one.
Someone’s been eating these red mushrooms, too.
One of the likely consumers of mushrooms in the forest is the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which can safely eat some that are toxic to humans.
Speaking of “fruits,” the Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina), seen in early summer on southern end of the western forest path, has left a lovely fruit, known as a “rose hip.”
Bear Creek offers so much variety – the buzz and sway of the meadows, the shady walnut lane, the small ponds, the big, wild marsh and the dappled light of the woods. A niche for every mood. Hope you find the time to sample some of them soon!
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.