Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Busy, Sunlit Meadows and Moist, Mysterious Shade

The west branch of Stony Creek runs through a steep ravine visible. You can see the creek from the trail that runs along a ridge high above the creek.

If you’d like a short, quiet walk all alone (I do occasionally), consider wandering for an hour or so in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. This 60 acre park is a bit  farther off the beaten path than our other township parks; I seldom see another hiker when I’m there. For now, it’s only accessible from a single parking space at the end of Knob Creek Trail which is off of East Buell Road. It’s an in-and-out trail (no loop) that begins in sloping, glacial meadows. Follow the trail into an oak forest overlooking a deep ravine in which Stony Creek burbles and flows around fallen trees and rocks far below. The Parks Commission has been awarded a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund to join this little park to 208 spectacular acres along Snell Road. But for now, it’s a quiet little getaway.

Exiting a small woods at the start, the trail winds up through sunny meadows to the dark oak forest.

Sunny Meadows:  Illusive Birds and a Big, Beautiful Butterfly!

The meadows along the first part of the trail are alive with morning birdsong – but seeing the birds is a bit tricky, especially in July. Many adults are hidden high in leafy branches and the recently fledged young huddle deep in the lower greenery, staying out of sight as they wait to be fed. My first sighting was a small flock of tiny brown birds moving quickly back and forth between a leafy bush and a small, dense tree. Suddenly I became aware that my camera and I were being scolded by an annoyed adult House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) perched behind me. (For a perfect replication of its chatter, listen to the second “Calls Northern” recording at this Cornell Lab link.)

An adult wren scolds its young into hiding and scolds me as well!

No doubt its chatter also served as a warning to the fledglings to hide. But eventually a curious fledgling popped into the open and had a look around. It looked like a plush toy with tiny wings! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Far out in the meadow in a tall, bare tree against a gray sky, the Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) threw back his head and sang. He abbreviated his spring song from “Drink your Teeeeeea” to simply “Your Teeeeea.” Just a reminder to other towhees, I imagine, that he was on his territory.

An Eastern Towhee belts out his song high in a bare tree above the meadow.

Wherever Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) grace a meadow, it seems the butterflies gather to sip their nectar.

In the same meadow in which it appeared last year, the Giant Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio cresphontes) floated above the flowers. The largest butterfly species in Canada or the United States (4-6 inch wingspread!), the Giant Swallowtail can beat its wings once and sail on gracefully for a long distance. However, it flutters constantly as it feeds, rather than landing to sip at blossoms. These swallowtails migrate like Monarch butterflies do – going south each winter. The females are larger than the males, so the one below must be a female. Perhaps her wings against the Queen Anne’s Lace give you a sense of how large – and how striking – she is!   

Male and female Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are choosing both mates and tasty flowers as they dip and rise among the Bee-balm at Stony Creek.  The male has a slight bulge in one vein of each hindwing.  The female doesn’t.

A female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) soared high overhead, landing in a Wild Black Cherry tree  (Prunus serotina), a host plant on which her caterpillars can feed. She may have landed to lay her eggs on a leaf or she could be displaying her beauty and availability against the green leaves  for any interested mate. Tiger Swallowtails in our area mate once or twice each summer and their pupae overwinter in their chrysalises until next spring.

A female Tiger Swallowtail lands on a Wild Black Cherry tree that could act as a host plant for her caterpillars.

Far below, deep in the grass, a Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae) landed on a grass stem. For the first time, I noticed the delicate architecture of the underside of its wings – and its long elegant antennae. Males have only a single spot on the fore and hind wing, so I think this is a male.

A Cabbage butterfly displays the intricate architecture on the ventral (lower) side of its forewing.

A curious predator, a female Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), watched me from a grass stem with great interest. Humans, after all, are so good at stirring up prey – easy pickings!  Love that face!

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly looks eagerly for prey stirred up by my passage.

The Moist Woods:  A Fungus Fatale, a Pretty but Perilous Plant and A Mysterious Song in the Trees

Water Hemlock where the forest ends at the bottom of Stony Creek Ravine

Entering the cooler shade of the oak forest at Stony Creek Ravine, you begin to feel the moisture rising from the creek as it tumbles along far below. On my first park visit, it had rained the previous day so the ground seemed to exhale moisture as well. A perfect environment for mushrooms – and some very interesting ones! [Caution:  Please Never Eat a Wild Mushroom Unless a Trained Person Identifies It Definitively for You.  I Am Not a Trained Person.}

I first came across some fungi fatale – Amanita mushrooms (family Amanitaceae). Though squirrels nibble on them, they are highly toxic to humans. They are sometimes (not always!) recognizable by little warts on their surface and a collar that forms on the stem. Here are two just beginning to emerge from the soil on the path and a lovely mature white one, slipping out of a crack in the earth.

A maturing toxic Amanita mushroom

Small red mushrooms appeared along the woodland trail as well. Joshua Aaron on the  “Mushroom Identification” Facebook page identified these as members of a large worldwide genus of red mushrooms called Russula. Some are toxic, some not, so again caution is required.  Clearly some creatures gave these a nibble and decided to leave the rest.

Both Amanita and Russula mushrooms are fruiting bodies of those fabulous mycorrhizal fungi which help the trees reach and process nutrients from the soil while the tree feeds them its sugars created by photosynthesis. Helping a healthy forest along is another good reason to let them stay where they are and reproduce!

It turns out that a nearby plant, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora),  which appears to be a mushroom, isn’t one. It’s more unusual –  a parasitic plant. Indian Pipes have no chlorophyll to use in photosynthesis like green plants do. Instead they tap into fungi, like Russula mushrooms, beneath the soil, feeding on the same sugars that the trees share with the fungi. It’s not too different from the way we tap maples for their sweet sap, is it?

Indian Pipe is a parasitic plant that feeds off fungi beneath the soil.

Nearby grew what folks at the Facebook page identified as Chanterelle mushrooms (genus Chantarellus), which, assuming that’s correct, would make them edible. I left them to disperse their spores undisturbed in the interests of both safety and respecting the natural state of our parks. One had fallen over so I got a good look at its fake gills, which are one of the signs of Chanterelles.

A Chanterelle mushroom with its fake gills on the stalk.

A couple of Bolete mushrooms had emerged among the oak leaves along the trail. These mushrooms (family Boletaceae) have pores below their caps instead of gills. They also belong to  a big mushroom group that includes both inedible and edible ones. Porcini mushrooms, for example, are boletes.

A bolete mushroom with pores beneath its cap rather than gills.

Walking along the ridge above the creek, I could hear a lone bird singing in the canopy of the oak forest – but it made no appearance.  I recorded its incessantly repeated song which reminded Ben and I of the rising and falling song of the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) – but we’re not sure. Anyone able to give us a more confident identification? (Turn up your volume; it sings about three times.) [Second Edit:  Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire, now says definitively that this is the song of a Scarlet Tanager.  So I’ve again replaced the photo to show you a Scarlet Tanager. Thank you once again Ruth Glass!]

Although its song accompanied me for over an hour, the bird never emerged from the leafy treetops. So here’s what I missed – a photo of a Scarlet Tanager that I took at Bear Creek.

The Scarlet Tanager that I evidently heard but didn’t see. This is a photo from Bear Creek in previous years.

A plaintive song haunted the shady forest one morning – the questioning call of the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I could see this small bird in the high branches of a distant tree, but as soon as I moved closer, it moved farther off. So here’s a photo I took of one at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple years ago.

The Eastern Wood-Pewee sounds like it’s asking a question: “Pee-weeeeee?”

What seemed to be a juvenile Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolorhung from a vertically suspended branch in the forest. Its forehead patch (between the eyes)  was gray rather than black (hard to see in the photo) and its buff sides were less pronounced – field marks of a fledgling according to Stokes’ Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). With its crest a bit ruffled, it looked as though it was not quite sure what to do next.

A young Tufted Titmouse considers its next move at the edge of the woods.

On one warm morning, I noticed two Mourning Cloak Butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) dancing through the green dimness of the woods. Last fall, Morning Cloaks went into hibernation within hollow logs or under loose bark. There they freeze nearly solid during the winter, their cells protected by self-produced anti-freeze. Very early in the spring, often before the snow melts, they emerge, looking pretty ragged. They mate and reproduce so that by mid-summer, their young emerge. I’m guessing that’s why the ones I saw at Stony Creek Ravine appeared to have just wriggled out of their chrysalises. They were near perfect specimens. One landed, wings open, on a fallen log.

A fresh-from-the-chrysalis Mourning Cloak butterfly on a fallen log.

The other folded its wings, showing the underside  which closely resembles the tree bark under which they hide in the winter, camouflaging them with protective coloration. Quite a difference from the dorsal (upper) side of those wings, eh?

The underside of the wings of the Mourning Cloak provide great camouflage against tree bark.

Native grasses and plants thrive in the light, drier shade along the edge of the forest. I’m particularly fond of the arrow-like spikelets of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix). Carrying their seeds inside, the spikelets eventually shoot along on the wind and then pierce the ground, giving the seeds a chance to spread and then be neatly planted.

Bottlebrush Grass has spikelets neatly arranged along its stem, giving the impression of a bottle brush.

Native Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) is everywhere in shady areas. Some still believe it has medicinal value. I  like it for two reasons – the way its purple flowers protrude from its barrel-shaped calyx and the fact that when a raindrop hits the plant, the calyx flexes and flings out the seed.  I hope to see that someday!

Each little flower of Heal-all makes four tiny seeds that are flung away from the plant when hit by a raindrop.

Where the forest ends and the wetlands begin at the bottom of the ravine, a flower fatale flourishes – Water Hemlock (g. Circuta). Every part of this plant is toxic to humans and other mammals (but as I’ve said before, who would eat it?) – so avoid the fate of Socrates and just admire its big, umbrella-shaped blossoms nodding in the breeze. Many insects, however, feed on Water Hemlock, and it hosts the caterpillars of Black Swallowtail butterflies!

Water Hemlock grows in the ravine with big umbrella-shaped blossoms. While toxic to mammals, this plants helps us enjoy more Black Swallowtail butterflies!

An iridescent cloud of male and female Ebony Jewelwing Damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) darted in and out of the shadows near the creek. These predators of many species are also the prey of many. So thank goodness these beautiful creatures lay lots of eggs!

Nearby in patches of sunlight grew golden stands of a lovely wetland flower called Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). This native wildflower modestly bows its blossoms toward the wet soil waiting for a Melittid bee to come along. These native bees specialize on this flower, feeding its oils and pollens to its larvae. Fringed Loosestrife can also spread by rhizomes beneath the soil.

Fringed Loosestrife loves “wet feet” and partial shade. It blooms in sunnier patches near the edge of Stony Creek.

If you turn up your volume, perhaps you can hear the babble of Stony Creek as it finds it way over stones in the ravine. Such a soothing sound. But you don’t need to traverse the steep sides of the ravine and get wet feet. You can simply rest on the high ridge where the trail ends and watch the water sparkle as the creek rounds a graceful curve right below you. Combined with the birdsong in the treetops, the whispering of summer leaves, and the flutter of butterfly wings, you should walk back out of this little park feeling a bit more mellow than when you walked in.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.

2 thoughts on “Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Busy, Sunlit Meadows and Moist, Mysterious Shade

  1. I loved this article. It has even more meaning since I have a Geocaching Earth Cache there. Thanks for the all the photos and observations.

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