I’ll be the first to admit that wildlife was a bit quiet this week at Bear Creek Nature Park. The early part of the week was typical of November – brown and gray. So I went searching for bright colors or interesting shapes and found a few native plants, lichens and mushrooms adding what designers call “visual interest” to the landscape. And then suddenly at the end of the week, winter arrived! I’m enough of a child to still love the first snow – and what a snowfall! Early Saturday morning, I walked through a silent Bear Creek – even my footsteps were muffled by the snow. Walking over an hour across the fields and through the woods, I heard the twitter of one Tree Sparrow and a Chickadee’s call, a Blue Jay warning the world of my presence, the soft “chip” of one Northern Cardinal and the inevitable low grumble of an American Red Squirrel annoyed by my passing – but I saw none of them as they huddled away from the swiftly falling snow. So this time our weekly virtual stroll through Bear Creek travels quickly from late autumn to early winter.
Late Autumn: A Search for Colors and Shapes
Late November is a tough season to love. The vivid colors of October drain away as the sap flows down into the tree roots and the landscape turns gray and brown. Birds are more scarce and harder to see as they twitter softly inside bushes or high in the trees. Bird nests appear in the bare branches – like this shrunken sack over the Playground Pond, the remains of the nest of a pair of Baltimore Orioles (Icterus galbula). This spring I saw the yellow/orange female’s tail protruding from the top as she fed her young in the nest below. Her brilliant orange and black mate helped out, making frequent trips to the nest. Look at that lively little home now!
So I decided I’d keep my eye out for any color or interesting shapes that I could spot in the park. Unfortunately, a lot of the color comes from invasive plants! After all, one of the reasons they escaped from people’s gardens is that they provided color late in the year. But I wanted to see what our native plants could provide.
The Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) still had bright scarlet plumes on the western slope.
And everywhere the red leaves of Common Blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) broke the tawny sameness of late autumn.
All over the park, small trees bravely waved their large leaves which they’d used to soak up as much summer sunshine as possible. This tiny Black Oak (Quercus velutina) may someday be a huge, spreading tree since it found a place in full sun on the western slope. Its crimson leaves stood out in the field of dried Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota).
A ball gall on what appeared to be another blackberry bush took on the dark reddish sheen of its host. Galls occur when insects lay their eggs in plant stems and the plant grows around it, providing a relatively safe place for the insect that will emerge in the spring.
Near one of the wetlands, the bright red and green of a moss-covered log caught my eye. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager, tells me, “Mosses are really cool … The green part that we always see and call “moss” is actually the “gametophyte generation” of mosses – the generation with one copy of DNA that produces “gametes,” sperm and egg. When it rains, the sperm swim through the film of water on the mosses to reach an egg in the tip of one of the green mosses. After fertilization of the egg, a new plant grows into the “sporophyte generation” (red filaments in the picture below), which has two copies of DNA and produces spores. The spores then spread about and germinate to grow into new carpets of green moss.”
Dr. Ben continues. “So what you see in this patch of moss is actually two generations – the green moss carpet that one has one copy of DNA, and the red filaments are the sporophyte offspring that have two copies of DNA. ” I think that’s pretty cool, too. I’ve come to appreciate these bright red and green patches of moss in the austere seasons of the year, early spring and late fall.
Near the Marsh and in the Woods, Some “Visual Interest”
When I entered the woods, color was even harder to find. A rich brown acorn with its green top and rotund shape provided some visual relief among the wrinkling surfaces of fading fallen leaves.
Though pale in color, I like the filigree of lichens and fungi that become more evident as the colorful flowers fade. Lichens are sometimes confused with moss, but they are not related. In fact, lichens aren’t plants; they are a distinct form of life! According to Wikipedia, they are composite organisms that arise when algae and/or cyanobacteria live symbiotically among fungi filaments. They don’t have roots like plants do. Like plants, however, they produce the algae or cyanobacteria partner that produces food for the lichen through photosynthesis using sunlight, water and minerals. Lichens may appear on plants, wood or rock, but they are not parasitic. Pretty mysterious life form, really! Here’s a lacy-looking one that is referred to as “foliose” because its structure looks like leaves. It’s on a railing at the southern marsh deck. And that yellow you see behind it is another lichen, a powdery one whose structure is referred to as a “leprose lichen.”
“Mushrooms,” are the fruiting bodies of fungi that emerge from wood or soil and carry the spores for reproduction. Fungi form a distinct “kingdom” in nature, not related to plants, animals, bacteria, etc. I saw two forms of one broad category on this walk, the “polypores.” Here are some polypore fungi on a snag (standing dead tree) near the southern marsh. According to Wikipedia, “Through decomposing tree trunks, they [fungi] recycle a major part of nutrients in forests.” They are the first step in a food chain: fungi process the wood cellulose, insects and invertebrates eat the mushrooms and birds and larger animals eat the insects and birds. Fungi also soften up dead wood so that woodpeckers and others can make holes for nesting or winter shelter. Nothing is wasted in a well-functioning ecosytem, eh?
I’m always intrigued by how Shelf Fungi, another kind of polypore, form ruffles on the edges of sawed logs.
So the early part of the week at Bear Creek was still brown leaves underfoot, graying blooms of summer plants dropping their spring seeds in the Old Fields and pale mushrooms and lichen taking shape on old wood throughout the Oak-Hickory forest.
And Then Suddenly, Winter!
On Saturday morning, the snow began falling fast, like rain, cloaking Bear Creek’s Eastern Old Field in white.
The plumes of Canada Goldenrod began to droop a bit under the weight of the snow.
A few red bright red leaves wore a bright cap of snow near the marsh at the southern of the eastern Oak-Hickory forest. The Common Blackberry from earlier in the week now has snowy accents.
The woods were, as poet Robert Frost put it, “lovely, dark and deep.” And so quiet. Not even a squirrel moved. Only an occasional muffled bird call reached me.
To borrow again from Frost, perhaps you too can bundle up and experience “stopping by woods on a snowy” morning during the hectic holiday season that begins this week. Caught up in the glitter and bustle of a busy season, the woods and fields offer serenity, quiet, beauty – a soothing space in which to breathe and find your bearings. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
*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);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 insect info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification;Birds of North American Online; Audubon.org, Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich