Watershed Ridge: Changes Afoot!

The field above the western marsh at Water Ridge in late autumn

Until now, Watershed Ridge Park’s 170 acres have been a challenge to explore. A visitor needed to be ready for waist-high fields and of course our township’s wonderful wetlands in all their wet-footed glory. But in early November, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the Oakland Township stewardship manager, laid out its first trails which were created by the maintenance crew. The new trail skirts the edges of fields still sown and harvested by local farmers who keep invasive species at bay until this rolling landscape can be restored to the wildflowers and grasses that are part of our historical legacy. But even in the autumn, the hedgerows and woods that edge the fields provide shelter and sustenance to a variety of birds and this November, even one special migrator, as you’ll see below. And in summer, birds sing and nest, wildflowers bloom in profusion and butterflies, moths, bees and other insects enjoy the bounty.

Text & Photos by Cam Mannino

So come take a walk with me along the edges of the newly created path which starts from the parking lot. It’s a very muddy path right now, so I recommend wearing old shoes! Or maybe you can walk just off the edges in the tall grass to save the grass seed planted on the paths in anticipation of next spring. Follow along on the map that Ben’s provided to show you the route.

I’ll introduce you to a few creatures that make their home here and some that are just passing through. But mostly, I want to give you the “lay of the land,” and show you some stewardship projects underway that will make this park even more beautiful for us and nourishing for wildlife as the years go on.

Follow along by looking for the letters in the blog post indicating spots of interest on my hike.

The Path West to (what I’m calling) Southwest Field 1 (A on map)

The new trail crossing Southwest Field 1 to the hedgerow cut

This trail begins in the parking lot, follows Buell Road west and then gently curves north. The parking lot on Buell can be a great place to stand quietly and look for birds in the tall trees and in the tangle of vines that weave through them. On my first November visit, I watched European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) wheeling down into the treetops. Eventually one moved close enough for a photo. Its iridescent breast glowed emerald in late afternoon sun, accenting the white dots of its winter plumage. Despite being aggressive birds, their swooping flocks, called “murmurations, ” that rise, fall, flow and ripple through the sky are truly mesmerizing.

A solitary European Starling in its winter garb. Quite a beak, eh?

A House Finch pair (Haemorhous mexicanus) peered out from the vine-covered shrubbery. The male’s cherry red head and breast gets its color from the pigments in the food it eats. For that reason, red fruits are particularly favored since the brown and white striped females prefer the males whose red is most vivid. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

I followed the curving path to where it cut between Southwest Field 1 and the next one north, which for now, I’m calling Southwest Field 2.

Creating a Wetland Extension (B) in Southwest Field Two (C)
The hedgerow cut between Southwest Fields 1 and 2

As I stepped between the two fields, a small bird landed on a shriveled wildflower lined with seeds. At first, the red patch above its eyes made me think it was an oddly colored House Finch – but, no. I knew that scarlet crown, pinkish breast and dramatic striping had to be some unfamiliar bird – one I’d never seen before. It turned out to be the Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), a winter finch that rarely comes this far south in Michigan; this little guy flew all the way from the Arctic, the boreal forests of Canada’s far north or Hudson’s Bay! In fact, Cornell Ornithology Lab says a Redpoll banded in Michigan once showed up in Siberia! (Check out the link for other amazing facts about these little birds!) Redpolls are unpredictable, erratic migrators. This year significant numbers of them chose to land in our area, according to Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire. I feel very lucky to have seen this one!

A Common Redpoll which is not so common in southeast Michigan which is the extreme southern edge of its winter range.

Once past the hedgerow, I walked over to the edge of the slope to look down on one of Watershed Ridge’s new wetlands. Ben, our Stewardship Manager, wanted to restore wetlands in some of the fields that have been agricultural for so long, often in areas that had been tiled or ditched to drain wetlands when the area was first farmed. The restored wetlands will capture and filter nutrients and sediment from the water before it enters creeks, streams and lakes downstream. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) helped design the grade of the slope around the new wetland to gather the rain water that runs down from the fields above. They also provided the crew and equipment to insure that the grades of the slopes were created accurately according to their design so that they would hold water. The construction took place in October and seems to have worked beautifully; the pool was beginning to fill nicely after late autumn rain.

The expansion of the wetland in Southwest Field 2

Now the stewardship team will wait to see how the wetland works over the next year. For example, will it dry like a vernal pool or have some standing water all year? Then Ben can decide which plants will thrive in or around this new water feature. It may look like a modest pool at the moment, but in time, we can hope it will flourish with aquatic and wetland plants that will feed and protect wildlife.

A flock of other winter visitors, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), fluttered from one corner of this huge field to the other. A solitary Junco let me capture its portrait at the shadowy edge of the woods to the north. In contrast to the Common Redpoll, this sleek, black-and-white sparrow with its white outer tail feathers is a regular winter visitor from the Canadian forests.

Dark-eyed Juncos are often the first winter migrants to arrive from northern Canada.

Nearby a year ’round resident of the area, a male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) spiraled around a branch searching for food beneath the loose bark. It looks like it’s given this perch a good going-over! These little woodpeckers often like to hang out with mixed flocks of birds for protection from predators.

A Downy Woodpecker drilling for insects or insect eggs on a dead branch

When I visited Watershed Ridge Park in early November, some insects still kept me company. At the muddy edge of a tilled field, a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) crept slowly over the furrows, perhaps looking for the soy beans left after the harvest. The least destructive of locusts, these insects do eat grasses but sometimes beans are their preferred diet, according to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station.

A Carolina Locust may have been looking for soybeans left behind after the farmer harvested them.

The Field Two trail turns back east and heads for Field Three (E) just east of the parking lot by cutting through a hedgerow (D).

Cut through the hedgerow from Southwest Field 2 to Field 3
Following the Trail into Field Three (E), Then Off Trail Through the Forest (F)
Trail from Field 2 through the hedgerow to Field 3

From the hedgerow cut, the trail runs alongside the forest and then circles the field to return to the parking lot. But my choice one November afternoon was to go off trail through the woods. This moist woods is alive with frog song in the spring months. But now it’s almost silent, so that the crackle of my footsteps on the deep layers of Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and White Oak (Quercus alba) leaves sounded loud and a bit intrusive.

Red Oak leaves have pointed lobes tipped with bristles and White Oak leaves have rounded lobes.

Among the leaf litter, I noticed a Northern Red Oak leaf with a peach-colored pom-pom attached. With help from Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Entomology Department, I learned that it was a Woolly Oak Leaf Gall, the winter abode of a very tiny insect larva called a gall wasp. Callirhytis lanata, this particular gall wasp, would look like a dot on your finger tip; it’s only 1-8 mm long, about a third of an inch! When the wasp lays her egg on a Red Oak leaf, either she or the larva which hatches from egg secretes a substance that stimulates the leaf to create these gall tissues that form the pom-pom. Inside the gall, the larva eats those tissues, pupates, and a tiny new adult wasp emerges in the spring. If the gall isn’t invaded by a predator, the fuzzy little pom-pom is a safe, cozy spot to spend the winter!

A Woolly Oak Leaf gall forms a warm, enclosed getaway where the larva of tiny wasp can spend the winter.

Farther east in this woods, I was confronted by what appears to be the deadly effects of invasive species, those life forms that may be relatively harmless in their native lands, but become destructive where they are not native. I came across a graveyard of large trees (G) that had died and fallen rather than been cut by humans. Ben’s best guess was that they were likely Ash trees (genus Fraxinus) decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis). Ash trees in the native range of Emerald Ash Borer in northeast Asia share evolutionary history with this insect and can protect against damage; trees in North America and Europe are naive to this insect and not yet resistant. Since it was discovered in our area in 2002, Emerald Ash Borer has killed millions of ash trees just in southeast Michigan. Ben tells me that this insect infestation continues to be a problem in our township. In the same way that Dutch Elm Disease affected elms years ago, it is still killing small ash trees before they get a chance to mature. So please don’t transport firewood from our area which can further spread this kind of devastation!

A large area of fallen ash trees killed by the Emerald Ash Borer between 2002 and the present.

Lichens and moss appear on fallen logs throughout this forest, but I tend to notice them most in the austerity of autumn. Wikipedia describes lichens as “self-contained mini-ecosystems” or composite organisms made up of a variety of fungi and either cyanobacteria or green algae along with other tiny microorganisms. (Their scientific names vary based on the fungi species within them.) These tiny ecosystems survive on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of habitats, all over the world. Though they are not plants, the algae or cyanobacteria in lichens can produce sugars through photosynthesis to feed the fungi and the fungi in turn create a protective structure that gathers in the water and minerals needed for the photosynthesis, a symbiotic relationship. Some lichens are thought to be the oldest living organisms, settling in on the bare rock of the early planet.

This may be a “cructose” lichen with flakes on the surface that Wikipedia describes as “a bit like peeling paint.”

In November, the mosses (Bryophyta) at Watershed Ridge Park were thinning and less lush. But when I took a moment to focus on them, I could imagine the small community they host on each log. In her book, Gathering Moss, bryologist (a botanist specializing in mosses) and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes moss as “the most ancient of land plants.” These tiny plants inhabit nooks and crevices worldwide and in doing so, Kimmerer compares their roles in the forest to the roles corals play in oceans – removing water impurities and hosting within their structures a myriad of tiny creatures necessary to the larger ecosystem in which they exist. Mosses also slowly help process logs into soil over decades and even rocks into sand over eons. I’d love to see the tiny creatures moving within these land-based “reefs” of moss, in the same way fish and eels inhabit an ocean reef. But I’ll need a magnification loupe and a lot more training before I can do that!

Mosses purify water and host tiny invertebrates that play their role within the life of a forest.

Off in the distance, at the eastern edge of this forest, a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) huddled over, apparently eating prey on the forest floor. Suddenly it flew up, skimmed quickly along the tree line and then headed out for the larger forest beyond the field.

A Red-tailed Hawk foraging just beyond the forest at the edge of the Eastern Field.

Years ago a farmer had dredged a ditch to drain the eastern wetland that stretches behind the eastern fields. To this day, the ditch carries water to another wetland. I turned to follow that stream back west to explore the area around and beyond that western marsh.

Water running through an old drainage ditch from the eastern to the west marsh.
Exploring the Meadow (H) Above the Western Marsh (I)
The slope above the eastern marsh, now covered with Showy Goldenrod

Walking back west, I arrive at a restored meadow that slopes down to the Western Marsh. During the summer, this lovely hill is covered in grasses and wildflowers. In this season, the field becomes an expanse of burnt golds and browns with the dried flower heads of various goldenrods. I’m learning to recognize wildflowers during their seeding season and this autumn, I mastered a few more. So here are four goldenrods in the sloping meadow as they appeared in the summer and as they look now, for those of you who share my interest in knowing the names of the plants and animals that share our local habitat with us.

As I stepped from the forest, a small orange butterfly popped up from among the goldenrods and sailed off into the distance. I pursued it, of course, but it never settled again. Luckily, I think I recognized it from its pattern, size and color. The small, orange and brown Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) produces two generations each year and they look slightly different. The adults that emerge from logs or tree hollows in early summer have orange forewings, but much darker hindwings like this one:

The summer form of the Eastern Comma

The summer adults produce the winter adult that I saw at Watershed Ridge Park, which has similar patterning, but the hindwings are more orange. I think what I saw was a member of the winter generation which either overwinters or sometimes migrates. These butterflies feed on rotting fruit, tree sap or sometimes dung or carrion (!). So it’s not entirely surprising that I saw one fluttering above the goldenrod on a cool November day. Here’s a photo taken in November of a winter form Eastern Comma by a photographer just named “thoughton” at iNaturalist.org.

Winter form of the Eastern Comma by iNaturalist photographer “thoughton” (CC BY-NC)

A few days later I was treated to a sight that I’m learning to anticipate in autumn – the dance of the Winter Crane Flies (genus Trichocera). These fragile little insects rise from dead grasses in cool weather and bob up and down in small mating swarms of mostly males. Females evidently only join in to find a quick mate and then lay eggs in the ground. The adults overwinter in logs or under leaf litter and emerge in the late afternoon of warm spring, fall and occasionally even winter days.

The blurred wings of Winter Crane flies dancing in a swarm in the the meadow above the marsh

With some persistence, I was able to follow one of these crane flies to where it rested for a few moments on a blade of grass. Now I could see the delicate legs and body of this cool weather dancer. Winter crane flies are harmless and completely ignore humans. In fact, as I walked on, I strolled right through a troupe of them that just continued bobbing up and down around me. Such a light-hearted performance to a human eye!

A closeup of the Winter Crane Fly as it rests on a plant stem
Extending the Western Marsh

The farmer who built the ditch running from the eastern marsh to the western hoped, I imagine, to drain both to gain more tillable ground. So the drainage ditch water used to quickly run on beyond the western marsh – but not anymore.

Back in October, the Fish and Wildlife Service helped Ben created an elegant plug for the ditch (J) which will keep water in the western marsh and let it rise to the level it likely obtained before the farmer’s ditch lowered the water level. The Wildlife Service also scooped out a shallow spillway that will allow the water to flow around the plug and slowly re-enter the ditch beyond the plug. That will keep the plug from being eroded if the water rises too high in the marsh. Look how attractive and useful this new barrier is! (Marsh to the right, ditch to the left.)

The large plug created to hold more water in the marsh also makes a path between two fields.
The Northern Field and Its Newly Created Wetland (K)

Until recently, I didn’t know this huge agricultural field was part of Watershed Ridge Park!

The long agricultural field off Lake George Road constitutes the northern section of Watershed Ridge Park

One afternoon in early October, my husband and I walked the long length of the north field to see if we could catch a glimpse of the north edge of the familiar western marsh. We walked carefully along the edge of the farmer’s field in order to preserve his crop and then headed into the woods. Just a few steps from the field, we were immersed in a lush, green area of the park that neither of us had never seen.

My husband, Reg, in the woods above the western marsh

A little more sorting our way through the undergrowth and we were rewarded by a lovely sight – the north side of the marsh with abundant tall reeds and surrounded by large trees. I can’t wait to see this area in the spring and summer!

The northern side of the western marsh in October

Ben thought of a third water project for this park. As part of the October work, he asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to design a new wetland in the northern field, near the ditch plug. By mid-November, it had already begun to collect runoff from the slopes above. Like the other projects, the goal of this hydrological restoration is to regain wetlands that were lost to tiling farm fields and ditching streams. The restored wetlands will capture runoff from the adjacent fields and filter the water. What a sight to see this wetland full enough to reflect an autumn sky!

New wetland in the northern meadow at Watershed Ridge Park

It appears that wildlife is already taking advantage of a new water source. Deer tracks encircled the water’s edge. No doubt other smaller animals and birds will make their way here once the wetland is surrounded by plant life, rather than the wide open agricultural field. But that change won’t take place for a few more years.

Deer tracks surrounding the new northern field wetland.
Making Watershed Ridge Park More Welcoming – for Us and Other Species!
Acres of wetland surrounded by natural berm in the forest at the far eastern edge of Watershed Ridge Park.

Stewardship is a multi-faceted effort in our township: removing invasive species, mapping and surveying natural areas, monitoring vernal pools, sowing native seed, restoring native landscape, educating the public so they can more fully enjoy the nature around them, and so much more. And now Ben, our Stewardship Manager, has added the restoration of degraded wetlands to that list of tasks.

These pools, though relatively small now, will be a welcome addition to the parks, enriching the diversity of plants and animals around us. Water is just as crucial for other creatures as it is for humans. That’s why I always seek it out, muddy shoes and all, when I explore our parks. If they function as we hope they will, in the future butterflies, dragonflies and other insects will flutter and dash above these wetlands, courting, mating and producing young. Birds will dip their beaks on a hot summer day and the deer at the water’s edge will be joined by more nighttime creatures eager to slake their thirst in the darkness. Nature will find a warm welcome once the rolling landscapes sway and dance again with a rich assortment of native flowers and grasses .

And of course, with our new trails (and more to come), we humans can more easily be there too, enjoying that diverse natural world. Once the trails turn green, I hope you’ll find the time to follow these very accessible, gentle trails and perhaps venture beyond them to see all this remarkable park offers. It will grow only more beautiful in the years to come.

A solo dance by one Winter Crane Fly near the western marsh

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