From early autumn until the first really cold weather, nature is busy preparing for winter – and so is the Parks Commission. While plants disperse seed and mushrooms release spores for next spring’s growth, our stewardship manager, Ben VanderWeide, is sowing native seed as well. As the trees drop leaves to prepare for spring growth, Ben and his contractors clear away invasive shrubs to provide spring sunlight for native grasses, bushes and wildflowers. So this week, please join me for some short visits to several parks to see how nature and the Parks Commission work together to prepare for winter snow and the spring to come.
Bear Creek Nature Park: Seeding, Feeding and Choosing a Mate
Bear Creek made a glorious exit from autumn. In late October, it burned with autumn gold and red.
As usual, the Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) “fell asleep” before the other trees; they “wake up” late in the spring, too. I like to think they need more rest than other trees!
The Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were busy with two kinds of preparation: finding a mate for the spring and eating to store up fat for the winter. Happily, both could be accomplished at once. Males, now in courting colors, cruised the Center Pond with females, going “up tails all” while feeding below the surface.
Mallards choose partners in the fall and then mate in the spring. So eventually they begin to pair off like these two did as the setting sun gilded the pond.
Plants, of course, are dropping seeds and fruits. The white fruits of Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) have either been eaten by birds or dropped to the ground to produce a dense thicket of more dogwood next year. On the right are the bare red pedicels in November. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At the edge of the wood, I spotted a Gilled Mushroom (order Agaricales) within a dead stump. It will drop its spores from the gills beneath the cap to produce more mushrooms next year.
Lost Lake Nature Park: Shedding Leaves and Seeds
Fall is a time when trees shed their summer leaves. The apparent path of the sun lowers toward the horizon from September to Winter Solstice (December 21). So, the days grow shorter. Less daylight means that leaves lose the chlorophyll that makes them green and allows them to photosynthesize. This process of photosynthesis stores energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of sugars. Trees use these sugars to grow during spring and summer, and many times sugars are stored for the future as starch. In the fall leaves change color as the chlorophyll recedes, their job completed for the season. Eventually lower light signals the trees to create “abscission cells” which grow between the stem and the branch, separating them. Down come the leaves. (“Abscission,” by the way, has the same root as the word “scissors!”)
Leaf carpets are useful as well as beautiful. As they decompose, leaves release nutrients back into the soil and provide the spongy humus that helps the soil hold water. And of course, they can act as protective mulch for the roots of forest plants and trees. Here’s a colorful carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake.
Out in Lost Lake, the big flat leaves of Fragrant Water Lilies are fading for all the same reasons as other leaves. Their graceful simplicity against the dark water was eye-catching.
In the forest, near the top of the sledding hill, some native plants were still preparing to drop their seeds. Showy Goldenrod’s (Solidago speciosa) seeding plumes still stood tall in the forest light under the trees. And a stem of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) had yet to let go of its awn-tipped seeds. The grass fruit flies through the air and lands on the ground like tiny arrows, carrying their cargo of next year’s seed.
A flock of restless American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) swooped and dove near the western edge of the lake and foraged over the grassy area near the former stable. Tree Sparrows, summer residents of the Arctic, are experienced foragers. They spend the winter here finding edible seeds, fruits, insect larvae – whatever they can find in a snowy Michigan winter.
At the end of the walk, human prep for winter becomes apparent. Jeff Johnson, the Parks Commission’s Maintenance Tech, spent about a day and a half preparing the sledding hills for winter use. He marked off the big hill, the kiddie’s hill and the boundaries of the upward trek. Just in time for the big snowfall!
Cranberry Lake Park: Pond Ice and Puffballs
In the center of Cranberry Lake Park is a large pond where I’d seen herons and mallards feeding together one early fall afternoon. When I went back to explore in late fall, the pond was beautifully still and silent. A light skim of ice had formed on one end.
Near the pond, a large colony of tiny Puffball Mushrooms (genus Bovista) had finished releasing their spores. These tiny puffballs tend to grow in groups like this.
A few years ago, I saw these little mushrooms covering a stump at Bear Creek. They were plump in early autumn, filled with spores. When the spores are mature and are tapped by falling raindrops, small creatures or the occasional curious human – poof! – the spores pop out of the open center to be carried on the air so more mushrooms appear the following year.
The little mushrooms at Cranberry Lake were spent; their center holes had opened, releasing the spores. Quite a come-down in appearance, I’m afraid.
Stewardship: Lending a Helping Hand to Nature’s Winter Prep
The Wet Prarie on the Paint Creek Trail: Birds Gather Seeds and So Do We
The Tree Sparrow at Lost Lake is not the only creature foraging for wild seed this autumn. Ben and a crew of volunteers spent a peaceful morning at the Wet Prairie off the Paint Creek Trail gathering native grass and wildflower seeds for planting in other areas of the township.
Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks: Seeds Sown by Plants and People
While the native plants are dropping seeds to prepare for spring abundance, so our Township Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide is busy sowing native seed around the township. During the first week of December, parts of two parks, Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks, were planted with native seed that Ben had gotten through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. The land had earlier been prepared in Gallagher Creek’s west section by clearing invasive shrubs and plants through selective treatment, mowing, and prescribed burns. Now a no-till native seed drill, designed to handle the varying sizes of native seeds, went to work. Discs cut a thin furrow in the ground to a pre-determined depth and simultaneously, seeds were dropped into the thin furrows.
At Charles Ilsey Park, the machine sowed more native seed after last year’s more extensive prairie planting. Here’s a YouTube video of the native seed drill at work.
Watershed Ridge Park, the Wet Prairie and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Trees and Humans Prepare for New Growth
Just as trees prepare for spring by discarding their old leaves in the autumn, Ben and his contractors are working on ridding our parks of shrubs and underbrush to encourage new native growth. After cutting invasive woody shrub sprouts on the Wet Prairie, Ben carefully treated stumps to prevent them from re-sprouting next year. Invasives are persistent, so Ben has to be too!
At Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Ben brought in a contractor with a forestry mower to clear invasive shrubs from the current entrance. What a difference! Though not taken at exactly the same place, the photo just below will give you an idea of the density of the invasive shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine before removal – and below that is the wonderfully open look it has now. A lovely view from the beautiful stone bench in the distance.
But the biggest, most impressive “clearing the decks” project this fall was the beginning of habitat restoration process at Watershed Ridge Park. Just a month ago, the rolling slopes of this park were tangled with invasive shrubs that in many places were impenetrable. However, Ben noticed sun-loving native grasses and wildflowers struggling to survive under the heavy cover of overhanging limbs and vines – plants like the delicate orchid Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species), Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and three kinds of native Goldenrod.
So the first week in December, restoration began. A contractor’s forestry mower cleared 10.5 acres of invasive shrubs from among the trees. Now the contours of the land can be seen, dotted with oak, ash, elm and cherry trees.
The land slopes down from east to west to a marsh and a pond, both fed by a stream running from the large marsh that’s to the north of the park.
Now the stream, the marsh and the pond, which extends as far as Lake George Road, can be approached easily without fighting through dense, invasive shrubbery and vines. Once trails are created, this will be a lovely spot to watch for water wildlife!
In the forest at the edges of the cleared area are Red, Black and White Oaks. Here’s an old White Oak (Quercus alba) within the cleared area. Probably because of the crowding from shrubs and small trees, it never had the chance to spread its limbs wide in the sunlight, like the White Oak we all enjoy near Bear Creek’s Center Pond. But it’s still pretty impressive!
I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the orange Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) Ben spotted sprouting from a fallen long nearby. Turkey-tails come in a wide variety of colors!
In case you’re interested, this is the contractor’s forestry mower that cleared the shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine and also at Watershed Ridge.
What an exciting beginning to restoring this piece of land and creating a park that the community can enjoy! It will take time to develop trails and any other amenities that are appropriate to this beautiful land with its woods, slopes and wetlands. We’ll try to keep you posted on developments.
Nature and Parks Stewardship: Partners in Fostering Our Natural Heritage
I’ve come to see that stewardship supports nature by mimicking it in so many ways. Seeds that create new growth each year drop to the ground or sail away on the wind to take root and grow into more life. And we gather native seed and carefully sow it in narrow furrows to do the same. Trees drop their leaves to make way for new ones next spring. We too clear away invasive plants and shrubs to make way for new life. Native seed, lying dormant in the underground seed bank for years, will now sense exposure to sunlight and moisture on the earth above, crack open and begin to sprout. And with those plants, eventually will come butterflies, other insects, and birds that eat or nest in those native plants, restoring the diverse habitat that is part of our area’s natural history. So much life from simply giving nature a helping hand!
Footnote: My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager 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 and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; 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.