Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park has always been amazing. Its original 60 acres feature open meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and a shady woods plunging down into a deep ravine with the West Branch of Stony Creek sparkling below. Now, thanks to our township Land Preservation millage, a willing owner and a grant from the Michigan Nature Resources Trust Fund, the Parks Commission added 208 more spectacular acres to the park in late September this year.
The first time I saw this land in 2016, I stood on the Overlook Hill and looked down on a huge, flat field encircled on three sides by deep mature forest. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!
But what I didn’t appreciate then is abundantly apparent now. Long ago large ponds at the heart of this land had been tiled and drained for a farmer’s crops, a common occurrence in the 19th and 20th century. Beneath the soil, the water flowed away rather than rising to the surface. Water waited to emerge, water that could restore the wetlands that fed plants, dragonflies, frogs, turtles, butterflies, abundant bird life and thirsty mammals that once had gathered there.
Restoring the Land: First Steps
Now that the purchase is complete, wetland restoration has begun. The former landowner is creating wetland mitigation banks, which are restored wetlands that help somewhat to offset wetland losses due to development in other places. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ) holds wetland “conservation easements” on these wetland restoration areas. The folks designing the wetlands determined that they needed to fence off these areas for 5-10 years to make sure that the native trees and shrubs they plant are able to grow. Otherwise our abundant deer would kill them by browsing. As a start to restoration, low berms were created to capture and hold the water, “habitat structures” were placed throughout the fields, and the drainage tiles purposely broken so that water could once again flow to the surface. And wow! Big beautiful ponds have already begun to form in both areas!
Within the wetland restoration areas, 4,000 tiny wetland plants were sown this autumn. You’ll notice stumps, logs and branches left within these areas for now. Those are the habitat structures which allow wildlife to find cover or perch while the trees and native plants grow back.
Birds Already Flock to the Renewing Wetland Areas
One of the huge benefits of this expansion’s location is that its directly across from Stony Creek Metropark. That helps create a larger “wildlife corridor” where local creatures can spread out and find more habitat in which to stay and raise their young. Migrating birds and insects will also find a larger area to rest and replenish themselves in spring and fall. On my two visits to the park in late November, birds were everywhere! Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) ratcheted out their prehistoric cries as flock after flock soared above me.
Some, of course, settled to feed at the edge of the forming ponds.
A flock of 20-30 Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) cruised back and forth in the shallow pond forming at the north end of the field.
And of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) found their way to the rising waters as well!
Outside the easement fence, other birds also found plenty of sustenance. A flock of winter visitors, American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea), had arrived from the Arctic tundra to spend the winter here. Their call-and-response twittering keeps them in contact with the group as they dash into the grass to feed and then back into the trees to look around. [Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A dozen Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) poked along at the outside edge of the wetland fence, their red and blue heads pumping with every step. One of them repeatedly showed off her impressive wingspan as she walked. Not quite as impressive as the male’s dramatic display of tail feathers, but still quite a show!
The Farmer’s Woodlot to the East
On the east side of the field, some wise farmer left a large tract of beautiful woods as a woodlot. Woodlots provided a source of lumber or firewood, if sensibly managed over the years. They also provided habitat for wildlife that could be hunted for sport or for the dinner table in hard times. The woodlot at the Stony Creek Ravine expansion is a beautiful example.
The small woodlot is different from the larger western woods. Its trees are mostly oak and maples and its understory is less tangled and bushy than the woods on the west. Perhaps that’s because for years it was managed by the farmer who left it next to the field. It’s a peaceful, open woods where you can see from the shade out into the sunlight. I like to imagine that the farmer or his wife also just enjoyed having a quiet place nearby to listen to the birds and where the children could play within earshot of the dinner bell.
The sensible farmer also had the good sense to leave a beautiful old White Oak (Quercus alba) on the west edge of the field. It must have been a great place for a picnic on a warm day. Now it’s also wonderful habitat. According to Douglas Tallamy’s useful book, Bringing Nature Home, oaks are unmatched in their ability to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Blue Jays, deer, turkeys, squirrels consume large amounts of acorns. Cavities in giant oaks make nesting sites and winter shelter for chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, bluebirds and others. They support a huge number of species of butterflies and moths, their caterpillars providing soft, nutritious food for hungry little birds all summer long. I’m glad these giants are our national tree!
The Deeper Forests on the West and North Host Some Less Familiar Trees (to me anyway…)
I’d already seen a beautiful American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) at the edge of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in the original 60 acre parcel. What a beauty with its smooth gray bark that looks almost unreal! And those graceful, toothed leaves!
When Ben showed me the northern woods that connects to the high ridge of the in the original park, I began to see more beeches. These trees favor moist air and germinate well in the shade. They host even more species of butterflies and moths than the oak. And like oaks, beech nuts are high protein food for lots of wildlife. We came across a big one in a group with two other mighty trees. Look at the size of this one’s “foot!”
A tall wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) stood nearby, with its dry flowers still clinging to the topmost branches! Tulip Trees are fast growing and can reach 80-120 feet here in Michigan, nearly 200 feet in the South! Their yellow flowers always bask in the sunlight in the crowns of the trees, making them difficult to see for everyone but the birds!
Between the Beech and the Tulip Tree stood a big Red Oak (Quercus rubra) – three large, beautiful hardwoods standing in just one small area of the forest. The red oaks are distinguished from the white oaks by having leaves with pointed tips with bristles, rather than the rounded lobes of the white oak. Their acorns, unfortunately, are not particularly tasty to wildlife like the ones on the white oaks are. (The yellow leaves in the foreground below are probably from small beech saplings.)
The forest is full of little wetlands like the vernal pool below. You can see that the forest floor in the woods is a bit more wild than the woodlot; saplings, bushes, fallen logs and snags (standing dead trees) provide a diverse habitat for all kinds of wildlife.
Even though Ben and I visited in November, green plants still flourished in the forest. A trailing vine of Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax hispida) was a new plant to me. It drapes over bushes and low branches of trees in moist thickets and attaches itself with tendrils. The dark blue/black berries provide food for game birds, song birds and many mammals during fall and winter. Luckily, it’s not a killer like non-native Oriental Bittersweet; Greenbrier climbs over shrubs but doesn’t wind around trunks and choke its hosts like Bittersweet .
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) added a lovely spray of green beneath our feet. This pretty evergreen plant can be identified through its scaly stalk and its leathery leaves. It’s also a new plant for me. Who knows what else I’ll see for the first time when spring and summer arrive in this 268 acres?
So Much More to Explore, but Patience is Required For Now
This is just a first taste of what this new 208 acre parcel has to offer. In 2020 park staff plan to add a small parking lot and a few rustic trails following existing two-tracks that wind through the park. More investigation will be required, though, to know where to locate additional paths and other improvements without harming valuable wetlands or special stands of fragile, protected plants. Inventories of plant life will need to be taken, drainage issues dealt with, prescribed burns conducted and perhaps thousands of native plants need a chance to mature and spread without disturbance. The Parks Commission and staff have years of work to do on any piece of land to add improvements that work with nature – and this park expansion is a huge one! Plans are in the works to restore native habitats to the remaining farm fields throughout the park.
I’m already dreaming of how magnificent this park will be when the fences come down and trails lead you and I from one spectacular habitat to the next. Imagine those ponds reflecting a blue sky surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers bowing and dancing in a summer breeze. Imagine animals slipping through the surrounding greenery at the pond’s edge for a drink, while dragonflies zip through the air and turtles bask on logs. Envision those 4000 native plants and trees becoming tall and full enough to create nesting spots for birds we now rarely see. Some day we may wander along a winding path through the beech and maple forest to the tap-tap of woodpeckers or the burbling spring song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
I feel a deep sense of contentment and gratitude that this land is being restored rather than “developed.” Now, after decades of producing crops, it can return to its first assignment – providing food, shelter and comfort for wildlife. And that restoration of our natural heritage will eventually result in a beautiful and peaceful retreat for us and future generations as well. It’ll be worth waiting for. I’m sure of that.