Last week, we explored nature in Bear Creek when it was a working farm 75 years ago. I thought it would be interesting to continue following its history to learn how it became our first publicly protected park. And the source for that information was the “mover and shaker” who envisioned turning this abandoned farm into Bear Creek Nature Park and helped make it a reality – Parks and Recreation Commissioner Alice Tomboulian.
Many thanks to Alice and her husband Paul for sharing their knowledge of Bear Creek 45 years ago – and their photos below that I’m using with their permission! Also thanks to Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale for great info and photos of the Grand Opening of the new park developments in 2003!
1969: Exploring an Abandoned Farm
Much had changed since the 1940’s when the Comps family lived on the farm. With no animals grazing, the grass in some Old Fields had grown tall, while rental farmers raised corn in others. The county had widened Snell Road, taking out the old sugar maples that once graced the front of the farmhouse. The county had also straightened Gunn Road, eliminating a steep curve that went around the far north of Bear Creek marsh by building a new straight crossing with a metal culvert. Sometime in the 60’s, the old farmhouse burned, leaving today only a remnant of an outdoor grill built by George Comps’ father in the 1940’s or 50’s from stones on the property. (Hover over photos for captions. Click on photos to enlarge.)
When Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their family moved to Oakland Township in 1969, the land that became Bear Creek Nature Park was abandoned farmland still owned as an investment by Mr. Devereaux of the Richard C. Devereaux Foundation in Detroit (now of Bloomfield Hills). The Tomboulians were naturalists and lived across from this lovely piece of land. Alice was a volunteer at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden and Paul headed the department of Chemistry and Environmental Health at Oakland University. They recognized the importance of those 107 acres – the marsh, the wetlands, the plants and wildlife – for conservation and preservation. In those days, children and their parents exploring empty land was common and not thought at all to be trespassing. So the Tomboulian family skated on the pond near Gunn Road and explored the woods and fields.
Early 1970s to 1977: Nature Study at Bear Creek
Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their three children used the land that would become Bear Creek as a perfect spot for nature study. Even Alice’s stepmother joined in! Exploring the marsh, for example, took some gusto in those days before the docks were available for observation. So Alice and her stepmom waded in, fully dressed in old clothes, to explore the reeds for coot nests and other denizens of the marsh. Along the way, of course, they also picked up the same kind of trash my husband and I retrieve in the park from time to time to this day!
One day Alice heard a chain saw roaring across the road and hurried over to see who was cutting down trees. It turned out to be the landowner, Mr. Devereaux. Rather than questioning her interest, Mr. Devereaux was pleased that someone was watching over and protecting his land and gave his permission to explore and later, granted permission for Baldwin School field trips for nature study. Soon school children, their parents and teachers began arriving through a narrow path from Collins Road, which today is a much wider, developed path from the Township Hall. The children below and in the photo at the top of the blog, some sporting “Ranger Rick” neckerchiefs, would be in their fifties by now.
On that field trip on a sunny June day in 1969, the children did a bit of exploring around the pond, though of course no viewing from a deck was possible since none existed. Note the difference between 1969 and now. In 1969, the northern side of the Center Pond was edged only with tall grass – most of it non-native grazing grasses and native reeds. Now the north side of the pond is surrounded by thickets of some native and many non-native invasive shrubs .
Here’s another group of Baldwin school children coming down the Eastern Path in June of 1969. Then a narrow foot path wound down through the eastern Old Field where the grass planted to feed the cows was starting to grow tall.
Now a wider, developed trail follows the same path but over the years, thanks to the stewardship of the Parks and Recreation Commission, native Canada Goldenrod and other native wildflowers have made a big comeback. Black-eyed Susans, Coneflowers, Prairie Dock and Common Milkweed, beloved by Monarch butterflies, live peaceably beside non-native wildflowers like Queen Anne’s Lace and Ox-eye Daisies.
Yellow Cone Flower is a perennial native wildflower.
Queen Anne’s Lace
In 1974, an ecological survey of Oakland Township by Paul Thompson of the Cranbrook Institute of Science confirmed the importance of the land that is now Bear Creek. He briefly described the area that is now Bear Creek. as having “an excellent cattail marsh…several dozen muskrat lodges…an oak hickory woodland of moderate sized trees, and a number of small woodland ponds.”
1977 – 2003 Bear Creek Becomes a Park, Wild and Undeveloped
In the early 70’s, Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their children continued their nature study on the land that was to become Bear Creek Nature Park. Mark, the Tomboulian’s younger son, was a born naturalist. Over the years that he explored Mr. Devereaux’s land, he kept a list of every plant, animal and bird he saw. Here Alice and her three children are doing some nature study at Bear Creek marsh in the 1970’s. (Photo from an article in the Pontiac Press, now the Oakland Press.)
In the ’70s, Alice was serving on the Oakland Township Board of Trustees. Armed with her own nature study and her son Mark’s wonderful list of the wildlife and plant life in the marsh, she proposed to the Parks Commission the creation of the township’s first park by buying Mr. Devereaux’s property. And in 1977, The Oakland Township Parks Commission purchased the 107 acres of land which is now Bear Creek Nature Park using $305,000 from the Parks Millage Fund.
At the time, township residents preferred keeping the parks with access only by footpaths. But problems needed to be solved in Bear Creek Marsh. Over the years, the metal culvert under Gunn road installed in the 1940’s had rusted and partially collapsed. The drainage became blocked with runoff and debris from roadwork and development. Water flooded the marsh, creating unnaturally high water levels, “sometimes giving the appearance of a 8 acre lake,” as Paul Tomboulian puts it. The high water was drowning a very special native habitat relied on by native wildlife. (Hover cursor over photo on right for caption.)
Alice, the PRC, and the Township worked with the Oakland County Road Commission for 16 years to correct this problem. According to Paul Tomboulian, the old culvert eventually “was replaced with a new 78-foot long pipe in 2003, new water levels were set, and erosion control measures near Gunn Road were installed.” Now, the water level has returned to more normal levels and bulrushes, cattails and marsh wildlife are returning to Bear Creek Marsh.
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) at Bear Creek Marsh
Monarch on native Beggar-tick
September 2003 – Bear Creek Becomes a Fully Developed Nature Park
Later, when the Parks Commission became the Parks and Recreation Commission, the PRC moved to make Bear Creek Nature Park even more accessible to the public. With the approval of commission members, Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale sought out and wrote the Township’s first grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The grant proposal was accepted and paid for 44% of the cost of facilities improvements at the park. They included ADA accessible limestone trails, wooden boardwalks, docks and overlooks in wetland areas, a picnic pavilion, a children’s play area, a gravel parking lot and restroom facilities. The remaining cost was matched from Parks Millage Funds.
After all the careful planning and financing was done, Bear Creek Nature Park had its Grand Opening on September 27, 2003. Visitors, like us today, enjoyed the Old Fields filled with the gorgeous orange and purple of fall’s Canada Goldenrod and New England Aster. They could hear Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes crying overhead as they headed south. Visitors watched water birds from the observation deck as they do today. Muskrats and snapping turtles swam peacefully in Bear Creek Marsh.
What a journey! We owe a debt of gratitude to the vision, consistent effort and careful study of the Tomboulians, PRC commissioners over the years, Parks Director Milos-Dale and the support of many park-loving Trustees whose foresight and careful planning protected the marshes, meadows and woodlands of Bear Creek for all of us who enjoy its very special beauties today.
The farm house at what is now Bear Creek Nature Park as it appeared in 1939.
Long before 107 acre Bear Creek Nature Park had official trails or a play area or decks at the marsh, it was a farm with chickens, ducks, cows, orchards and a garden. The Comps family rented the house on that farm from 1939 until they moved to their own home on Silver Bell Road in 1959. George Comps, a boy when the family moved there, wrote a long book called Incredible Yesterdays (published by Ravenswood Press, 1997) about his years on that piece of land. The book is available at the Rochester Hills Library in their local history room, the Oakland Township Historical Society and the Rochester Hills Historical Museum. All the quotes and black-and-white photos below are from Mr. Comps’ book, whose long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton gave me permission to use photos and quotes.
What an intriguing look Incredible Yesterdays provides of Oakland Township’s oldest publicly protected park as it existed 75 years ago! Bear Creek’s land was a source of sustenance, heat, income, play, beauty and peace for the Comps family during difficult times. So join me for a short visit to Bear Creek as it looked during the Great Depression and through the Second World War (current map of Bear Creek here). It was a very different world, but oddly familiar.
What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Warmth and Food!
In 1939, during the Great Depression, the elder Mr. Comps lost his job and the family moved from Rochester to the home you see in the photo at the top of today’s blog. The Great Depression made life challenging for the Comps family. Unlike their house in town, this house had no electricity, no running water and no central heat at that point! But the owner, Mr. Devereaux, agreed to let them stay rent free for a year if they fixed the place up. So the maple syrup buckets on the trees in the photo no doubt provided a sweet treat much appreciated by the family!
The house was heated with a wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. “We burned wood that we cut back in the woods. When we first started cutting it was fun because it was something different, but later it got to be a real chore, hard work … Most of the wood we cut was oak and it was so hard it dulled the saw in a hurry.”
The many trees on the farm provided food as well as heat. And many of those tree species survive on the farm today. “Being we had an abundance of nut trees and bushes on the farm, we kids decided to gather as many as we could. There were hickory, walnut and butternut trees and many hazel nut bushes. We gathered nuts every year and spent a lot of time shucking them so we could dry them and have nuts to crack and eat in the winter.”
Sweets are always in big demand for a family so Dad and the boys went one winter night to chop down a huge oak to get at the bees’ nest inside. “When we got to the tree, there weren’t any bees to be found on the outside. Dad rapped the tree a few times and some did crawl out but it was too cold for them to fly … He said we’d have to cut the tree down to get to the honey. We could use the wood for heat. This tree was a huge oak about six feet in diameter at the base and extremely tall … Dad carefully took out the combs of honey and put them into the washtub we had brought along for just that purpose.”
Two Italian men came to the house shortly after the family moved in asking for permission to hunt for mushrooms. Permission granted, “They did come, several days in a row, and they always had a big basket of mushrooms.” Mrs. Comps’ didn’t charge the gentlemen for their mushrooms and when they offered her some for the family, she graciously accepted them, but then decided she wasn’t quite sure they were edible and threw them away – a wise thing to do if you don’t know much about mushrooms.
Hunters also came to hunt pheasants because at that time open fields and remnants stands of native grasses, like the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in the photo below, would have provided lots of ideal cover for them.
And of course the family had a garden as well. So the land that later became Bear Creek served the family well in terms of warmth and nourishment.
What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Beauty!
Despite the hardships of the Depression, the Comps family made time for simple pleasures. When the skies were darker at night in Oakland Township than they are now, the family enjoyed the startling beauty of the Northern Lights. “It was an astounding sight when the sky would light up with all the colors from all around. The streaks of light would shoot up so strong and even from the south and make it look like you were standing under an umbrella of light. Directly overhead the shafts of light would meet but wouldn’t come together, creating a hole in the display … Just awe inspiring.” The skies in Bear Creek are still beautiful, but brighter night skies from nearby development makes seeing the northern lights a rare occurrence these days.
Mr. Comps remembered the steep hill sloping down to Gunn Road in the northern part of the Oak-Hickory forest. There he and his sister came across “hundreds” of garter snakes “curled up,” basking in the spring sunlight and named it “Snake Hill.” He said, “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium)” and the children picked some on Snake Hill to add to their Mother’s Day gift bouquet. Alas, deer eat trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and other native woodland plants – and now trillium are found only in a few spots in the park. And in 20 years, I’ve never seen that many garter snakes! On a high hill on the east of the farm, probably where houses stand today, George found “wild columbine on a big hill” and transplanted some to his mother’s garden. (Hover cursor over photos for captions. Click on photos to enlarge.)
What Nature Provided in the 1940s: Pocket Money
Lots of animals that we’ve come to appreciate now were just considered “varmints” by farmers when the Comps children lived on the farm. Ridding the neighborhood of these “pests” was a way to earn a bit of pocket money. Crows were disliked by farmers because as Mr. Comps put it, they “would follow behind the farmer’s corn planter and dig up the kernels, eating them as fast as he planted them.” So in those days, Oakland Township paid a bounty that could be collected at the little store in Goodison. “They paid a dime for a rat tail, a dime for baby rats, a dime for a crow’s head and a quarter for a pair of groundhog ears.”
Muskrats pelts had value too. George’s older brother, Bud, trapped muskrats in the pond and the swamps. At first, he didn’t have the knack. But “After talking to the Old Timers at the Goodison store, he gained valuable information about where to put the traps and how to secure them … On his second trip to gather his loot he did very well.” Skinning and preparing the pelts for drying was “more than he bargained for” but he did it for two winters and “gave the money to mom to help alleviate the strain on the budget.” So nature provided a little assistance in a hard time for many families – but I’m glad now these creatures can live peacefully in their native homes.
What Nature Provided in the 1940s: Fun! Excitement!
Some of the fun in those days was a bit tough on nature. George Comps remembered “… frog hunting late at night and using barrel staves for hitting the frogs.”
But those barrel staves also made skis for sailing down the western slope on a snowy day. “The big hill was too steep to cultivate and the grass was short from the cattle grazing, thus making it a good place to go skiing and with deep snow, it could be excellent.” The western slope also provided a great place for constructing snowmen. “… this was the spot we started the snowball and by the time we got to the bottom the ball was so big we couldn’t move it … It kept on rolling, getting larger as it went down hill.” The children sensibly started the second snowball only halfway down the hill to make the snowman’s head! Nowadays I see evidence of kids sledding on that hill and still see the occasional remains of much smaller snowmen.
Kids weren’t quite as squeamish about nature adventures in the 1940s. One day the children went swimming in the Center Pond (which they called “Our Little Lake”) and came out with leeches on their legs (turtles show up with them these days!). After that they just brought a salt shaker with them because salting the “bloodsuckers” made them fall off! They actually built an earthen dam to make the pond a bit deeper. It became their place “to go ice skating in the winter and in summer we played on a homemade raft.”
When summer dried Bear Creek marsh (which they called Bear/Bare Swamp), “we could walk all over the swamp. The grass was so tall we couldn’t see out.” They came across various snakes, “mostly blue racers. We were never afraid of them because they were so fast and afraid of humans so they always went slithering on ahead of us.” The marsh no longer dries completely in the summer but the grasses and reed do get tall!
They’d “go to the stone pile by the swamp [Bear Creek Marsh] and find a soft rock that we used for chalk…we’d take it to the house and break it up so we could handle it.”
Nearer to the house, was “Whistle Swamp” so named because “… Dad took us there and showed us how to make whistles from the willow branches. This could be done only in the early spring when the bark…was loose and we could slip it off very easily.” “Whistle Swamp” seems to be the wetland west of the Walnut Lane, about halfway down.
Grass fires – which children find very exciting and terrify adults – have always been a part of Oakland Township’s “Oak Savanna” landscape – some natural, some used by Native Americans to clear and fertilize land. Later, after European settlers arrived and began to develop the area, the Comps family experienced fires in the prairies along that railroad, sparked by trains that passed through Goodison. “Spring was always a time when there were lots of grass fires, especially along the railroad tracks in the valley.”
Current Parks Commissioner Barkham also remembers seeing smoke repeatedly during the summers when she was a girl years later, as sparks from the trains made tall grass along the tracks catch fire. And imagine, no township fire department, just locals with brooms and shovels! That’s one reason we still have so many beautiful native plants growing along the Paint Creek Trail now! Many of our native plant communities depend on fire, whereas some invasive plants do not. The Parks and Recreation Commission now depends on safe, controlled prescribed burns instead of wildfires to hold onto our natural heritage, the amazing diversity of native plant and animals in Oakland Township.
What Nature Provided in 1940s : The Under-appreciated “Swamp”
In the 1940s wetlands were often seen as a problem and drained. Now we know they are crucial and beneficial for erosion control, fisheries, wildlife habitat, flood control, ground water filtering, native and rare species habitat and much more. The Comps affectionately named lots of “swamps” on the farm. True swamps are forested wetlands with standing water at least part of the year, while wet meadow and marsh more accurately describe other wetlands that Mr. Comps explored at Bear Creek. I can’t be sure I’ve located all these correctly, but what follows are a few of George Comps’ “swamps” today.
West of the house was the hay barn, where the cows that grazed the western slope presumably were kept. That area now is the playground field near Snell Road; the road is much wider now than it was in the 1940s. Behind the barn in the center photo below you can see the tops of two giant oaks that are still there. Those giants stand over the marsh that the Comps’ children called “the barn swamp.” Mr. Comps mentions that Michigan Holly, a native bush, grew in the middle of that area, so I’ll look for it in the spring!
“On the east side of the swamp…were two big oak trees. They grew about half way down the bank and their branches hung just a few feet above the ground at the top of the hill. We used to hang on the branches and bounce up and down.” Seventy-five more years have taken a toll as you’ll see at left below. I’m guessing that what Mr. Comps refers to as “the lane” was somewhere near the path that starts north of the playground and goes all the way to Center Pond. Our Playground Pond on the right is likely what he refers to as the “Lane Swamp.”
“Across from it was The Duck Swamp where all Mike’s ducks would go when they wanted to take to water.” Since this one’s so close to the house location, I’m thinking that his younger brother’s domestic ducks took off to the wetland just west of the Snell path into the park where Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) were singing lustily this week.
Or perhaps he meant the wetland, just north of there, where today woodpeckers are constantly drilling in the trees. Not much open water for ducks now, though. It’s filled in with native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).
One thing we do know is that the “Walnut Lane” I refer to was “the lane” when the Comps children played on the farm. Mr. Comps describes going out on a moonlight walk with his sister when they were young. “We started out and went down the lane because it was easier walking. When we got to the lake, we heard an owl hoot and it sounded very close. At the end of the lane was a big huge oak tree and we stopped and listened. It hooted again and we spotted it sitting on the edge of a low branch.”
The “Little Lake,” our Center Pond now, shows how different the landscape looked when Bear Creek was farmed 75 years ago. Here’s another view of “The Little Lake” in 1940 and a closer shot of it today. Now the pond is surrounded by trees and thickets of dense bushes, some native ones and many invasive shrubs. The cultivated fields, once grazed by cattle or mowed for hay, are now full of wildflowers, again some native, many non-native, and some invasive.
When the Comps children took the moonlit walk to the Little Lake, George Comps waited on the south side of the lake while his sister found her favorite place on “the Big Rock” on the north side of the pond. Today, that rock, I’m quite sure, is still here, a short distance up the northern loop and surrounded by invasive bushes. George’s sister sat there to watch the water. Today, it can’t be sat upon and the view is obscured by woody shrubs. Eventually, stewardship will bring back some of openness that the Comps children enjoyed, though rather than simply grazed fields, we hope for widely spaced trees and native wildflowers with their faces to the sun.
What Bear Creek Provides Today: Peaceful Beauty
We, of course, don’t rely on Bear Creek Nature Park in the same way the Comps family had to, for food, warmth and pocket money. But it still provides its bounty for us by filtering and slowing stormwater, housing bees and other native pollinators to tend our crops, providing us with a healthy respite from our busy lives and many other ways. We leave the flowers and nuts to seed again and the bees, muskrats, crows and ground hogs live undisturbed within its boundaries. But they and all of the nature at Bear Creek still share the same beauty and peace that the Comps family treasured 75 years ago. “Mom liked to go wandering down to the woods. She was a decidedly observant person and never missed a thing when it came to nature. This was her way to relax and get away from the trials and tribulations of the day to day problems…” All of us who enjoy Bear Creek benefit in just the same way today.
My thanks to Mr. Comps for writing down such a lively and frank account of life on a plot of land much beloved by our citizens – and to his long-time friend, Janet Potton, who gave me permission to use photos and quotes from the book.
As we look forward to our natural areas stewardship goals for 2016, we look back at what we accomplished in 2015. It was an exciting year! Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2015 Annual Stewardship Report (click the link).
Seasonal Technicians: We had another outstanding crew in 2015. David Vecellio was just finishing his degree at Oakland University and used the position as his required internship. Andrea Nadjarian came to us from Grand Valley State University where she is pursuing a degree in natural resources. Weston Hillier graduated from Western Michigan University in 2014. He has interests in pollinators. We also shared Zach Peklo with Six Rivers Land Conservancy to implement outreach activities for neighbors of parks with conservation easements.
US Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Grants: We completed site preparation and planting for the 20 acres at Draper Twin Lake Park and 18 acres at Charles Ilsley Park. Jerry Stewart with Native Connections did the planting. We also obtained a second Partners grant to continue restoration on 30 additional acres at Charles Ilsley Park and begin restoration on 5 acres of Gallagher Creek Park uplands.
USDA Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) grant: Work continued on the 2008 WHIP grant, controlling woody invasives on a 5 acre area adjacent to the Gallagher Road parking lot along the Paint Creek Trail. A nice prairie remnant is located at this parking lot, so restoration on adjacent private lands should provide a nice buffer.
Prescribed Burns: We completed spring burns at Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Lost Lake Nature Park, Gallagher Creek Park, O’Connor Nature Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area—Fen and Watershed Ridge Park. A primary objective of burns was removal of Phragmites thatch from areas treated in 2014. After years of planning, we also began implementation of the volunteer prescribed burn crew. We met with folks at Ann Arbor Natural Areas Preservation to learn about their program. We also held our first volunteer training on December 12.
Stewardship Blog: The stewardship blog took a big leap forward when Cam Mannino came on board in February. She regularly contributed her “This Week at Bear Creek” posts, with excellent writing and photographs – check out the slideshow of her pictures below. The blog also continued to serve as an up-to-date source of information about stewardship volunteer opportunities and events. We published 76 posts and had 3747 visitors, with 7673 page views. Natural Areas Notebook, oaklandnaturalareas.com
Volunteer Program: The volunteer program continued to mature. Weekly bird walks allowed the Stewardship Manager to regularly meet interested residents and recruit volunteers. We began to implement the Park Stewards program to work with highly motivated volunteers who will help look after natural areas in parks. Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October).
Education Events: Stewardship hosted education events in early 2015. Topics included a presentation on the role of fire in natural communities, and a second presentation about prairies, oak barrens, and other grasslands in Oakland Township.
Phragmites Outreach Program: We launched the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 20 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 12 properties with a contractor.
You can find this report and the 2014 report on the “About” page.
Ah, late winter – mud one day, snowfall the next. My first walk this week featured returning geese honking unseen among the marsh reeds, two Mallard pairs, muskrats feeding in open water, flocks of robins flitting among the trees. Later in the week, I arrived in a steady snowfall, crows calling overhead, and a titmouse leaning into the wind. Nothing that remarkable, really, just nature doing its between-season adaptations. In the snowy quiet, I began noticing details – a fancy willow gall, a strange beaded plant in the marsh, a fallen log cracked open to show the galleries created by carpenter ants. So here are bits and pieces of an late winter/early spring week at Bear Creek.
Seduced by Signs of Spring
The weather warmed in the first half of the week. A Muskrat family (Ondatra zibethicus) emerged in the marsh as soon as the ice broke. They must have been famished for both food and sunlight after swimming and eating under the ice for months. These furry marsh dwellers went bottoms-up in the icy water, pulling up vegetation, holding it between their paws and nibbling a mile a minute! Perhaps you can see that this adult has a long stem of greenery in its clawed front foot.
Two adults seemed to be accompanied by two young muskrats. One came steaming across the water, touched noses with its parent and then swam away as the adult ducked under for food.
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, young muskrats born at the end of the summer usually spend the winter with their parents. In spring, they establish their own territories within 300 feet of the adults. A close-knit family! The small muskrat above swam off to sit at the edge of the marsh, finding food at the shore on its own.
Overhead, snow clouds gathered. A single American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) called an alarm and a small group of returning Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) winged their way high against a gray sky, calling to each other. (Click photos to enlarge; hove cursor over photos for captions.)
While I was there, the geese hidden in the marsh honked vigorously at them, but stayed out of sight among the reeds. So here’s a goose last March settling into the cold, snowy landscape.
In the trees on the way into the park, a flock of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) darted back forth and across the path, some just clucking, others trying out a few notes of spring song as snow began to fall again.
Male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the marsh below our house landed in the bushes near our feeder at home again this week – but for some reason, I have yet to see them in Bear Creek’s marsh. The females haven’t arrived yet so the males at our house aren’t showing off their red epaulets much and only sing a shortened version of their well-known spring trill.
Update! As of a warm Tuesday morning, the Blackbirds were all over the southern end of Bear Creek and around the Center Pond, trilling in the trees! I didn’t go to the marsh today, but I’m betting they are there now too. So good to hear them on a beautiful morning!
Winter Moves Back In
Big, beautiful snowflakes fell quickly on my next walk at Bear Creek. The brown leaves still rustled on the Pin Oaks (Quercus palustris) that encircle the snowy playground .
When I asked Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide why their leaves didn’t drop in the fall, he explained that this phenomenon is called “marescence.” Deer (and in some regions, moose) nibble off twigs and bark from young trees during the winter. Young Oaks, particularly Pin Oaks, being closer to the ground, retain their leaves as a way of discouraging nibblers! According to Wikipedia, “Dead, dry leaves make the twigs less nutritious and less palatable” so large herbivores are less interested. Good survival strategy for young trees!
All over the park, the snow and wind had flattened last year’s Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), perhaps helping in the process of returning their nutrients to the soil.
Along the Eastern Path, an elegantly tufted Pinecone Willow Gall caught my eye. These little “pinecones” at the tips of branches, formed by the plant’s reaction to Gall Midges (Rabdophaga strobiloides) laying their eggs, can house over 30 insects eggs and larvae that are overwintering and will hatch in the spring.
According to Nature in Winter, by Donald Stokes, a study found that 23 willow galls yielded 564 insects of different species! Birds must be appreciative of such abundance in the spring!
Ben informs me that the beaded plants standing like little sentinels in the southern part of the marsh are the dark brown fertile fronds of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), so called because early settlers noticed how quickly they react to frost. Those brown beads are called sori which according to Wikipedia are clusters of structures that produce and contain spores. Hence its other name, Bead Fern.
Back in the woods, birds were coping with the wind and the snow. I missed a shot in the park but here’s a shot of a Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) from home doing the same thing.
A crow took off from a tree in the snow as well. Aren’t their finger-like wings impressive?
A fallen log caught my eye because its sheared end revealed the galleries left by Carpenter Ants (Camponotus pennsylvanicus).
These galleries are used to keep the ants’ eggs, larvae and pupae at the proper temperature and moisture during the summer. At the same time, they contribute to the wood’s decay which recycles the nutrients of dead trees back into the earth. According to Stokes’ book, Nature in Winter, “As winter approaches, the colony “heads for the center of a log or to the underground part of their nest in order to minimize the rigors of the winter.” Stokes says that Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) peck “huge holes in trees in order to feed on the [Carpenter]ants” during the winter.
Late in the week, after another snowfall or two, two pairs of Mallards (Anasplatyrhynchos), having found partners in the late autumn, landed near the Muskrat who was again foraging in the marsh.
Sharp Snow Shadows and then… Spring?
Who knows how many snows remain before spring really arrives? But in a month or so, the brown, white, and grey shades of winter with its sharp shadows on the snow will give way to the green haze, birdsong and trembling puddle reflections of spring. Nature brings us different kinds of beauties in different seasons. That never fails to surprise and delight me. I hope it does you too.
Footnote: My sources for information 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 America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown,; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.