Little Wonders in Our Natural Areas

As my time at Oakland Township Parks comes to a close, I have been reflecting on all that I learned as a Land Stewardship Technician. Since I’ve always been on the research side of ecology, I learned a ton about what goes into the hands-on part of conservation and restoration. Through being in the field every day, I have had the opportunity to observe the natural world around me and all the little processes happening. I like to tell people this job has almost been meditative for me because every day, week, and month you notice something new in a landscape you have seen all the time. Having lived in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Minnesota for the past 5 years, I have never observed all the diversity that occurs in prairies. Every week I would discover a new wildflower blooming, and I would become in awe all over again. Therefore, I wanted to share with you some of the wonders in Oakland Township Parks’ natural areas that I had the delight of coming across during my time here as a Land Stewardship Technician.

April

The Land Stewardship Technicians and I started our journey at Oakland Township in mid-April. It was still chilly most days we worked in April (though not nearly as cold and snowy as April in the UP). When we started, the leaves on the trees were barely starting to bud, so we had the opportunity to view spring from almost the very beginning. April was burn season for us because most of the vegetation was still dormant. Prescribed burns were an awesome experience that I had never witnessed or participated in before.

In early spring, the first plants up and flowering are called spring ephemerals (plants that complete their entire growth cycle in the spring). Because of the lack of other vegetation, they are easy to observe and see on the forest floor. Spring ephemerals bloom early in spring, and by the time the other vegetation on the forest floor and canopy fills in their growing season is already done (think of daffodils or tulips).

My favorite plant of April was Jack-in-the-pulpit. I had never noticed these before in the spring, so they fascinated me. We found these everywhere in the forests throughout the Township. Each one was just a little bit different. Max did a whole blog post about Jack-in-the-Pulpit if you haven’t read it already!

May

May concluded burn season for us, and then we were on to garlic mustard removal throughout the parks. This meant we were walking every inch of the parks we manage throughout the Township looking for pesky garlic mustard. By covering so much ground every day (I was averaging between 15,000 and 20,000 steps per day in May), we had the opportunity to discover all sorts of little wonders in our parks. The days were getting longer, and the weather was getting very warm. If you remember back, May was a particularly hot and dry month in southern Michigan. Spring fully erupted in May, with the trees budding out and blossoming and the bird migration ramping up. Not only did we discover plants, but we also listened and watched all the birds migrating back or through to their summer residencies. We also started up our lake monitoring program in May to monitor the health of Lost Lake and Twin Lake.

My favorite plant I found in May was yellow the lady’s slipper. I have never found so many naturally growing, which was awing to see! I particularly enjoy lady’s slippers because the yellow lady’s slippers cousin, the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule), is the state flower of Minnesota. Also, the yellow lady’s slipper rocks maroon and gold, which are the colors of the University of Minnesota.

Huge shout out to everyone that was able to come to help out and pull Garlic Mustard on our volunteer workdays! You guys are terrific and very helpful!

June

June wrapped up garlic mustard season for us, and then we were on to crown vetch (Securigera varia) and pale swallow-wort (Vincetoxicum rossicum) control. Both are very invasive and take over landscapes, so we are trying to keep them at bay in our parks. Max and I did a lot of surveying in our newly acquired parkland for crown vetch and pale swallow-wort, allowing us to continue to see many different parts of our natural areas. The start of June was unseasonably hot and dry and felt like we were already in the heat of the summer.

In June we also helped Ben with plant inventories in a few of our parks. This entails recording every species of plant in a specific habitat in a specific park, which means there are a ton of plants to be recorded! I thought I knew a few plant species, but by helping with those plant inventories, I was humbled at just how many plant species there are and just how many I don’t know at all. Hopefully, I at least retained a handful of plants from that survey.

June had some of my favorite plants I found of the season. The butterfly milkweed was blooming everywhere, and I could not get over its vibrant orange color. I could spot it from hundreds of yards away because color seemed to radiate from it! The pollinators loved it too, and I never saw butterfly milkweed without some kind of bee or butterfly. Wild ginger was also a cool find. They grow very low on the forest floor, and their flowers are hidden, so you have to look closely to see them. The flowers of wild ginger have an interesting adaptation in that they smell like dead carrion to attract gnats and flies to pollinate them. The purple pitcher plant is another amazing plant I found that grows in bogs. The purple pitcher plant is a carnivorous plant species (one of only a few in North America) that in early summer produces a fascinating flower (shown below).

July

In July, we started working on the control of invasive woody shrubs. This includes plants such as Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), glossy buckthorn (Frangula alnus), common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), common privet (Ligustrum vulgare), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), and autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). In very disturbed areas, these woody invasives create a thicket that is nearly impenetrable that chokes out anything native that is trying to grow. Most of the summer was spent trying to combat these invasives using different methods depending on the park and the habitat. We also spent a decent amount of time at Lost Lake girdling trees to let more sunlight down to the forest floor.

July was also hot (theme of the summer), and this is when we started receiving crazy amounts of rain. We spent more time at Charles Ilsley Park this month because we started to help monitor some nest boxes there. This allowed us to see the beautiful fields of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), also commonly called bee balm. Hopefully, you had a chance to walk through Charles Ilsley Park in July because it was a fabulous sight to see!

Another interesting plant I found in July was the Michigan lily. It is a beautiful plant that is found in higher-quality natural areas. I also enjoyed seeing Culver’s root. It has such a unique flower that is quite gorgeous to see. It also is an indicator of higher-quality natural areas, so to be able to observe both of these flowers in the township was very exciting.

August

August tasks included continuing to control woody invasives in our natural areas. They are prolific and everywhere! One of my favorite days in August was when we attended the pollinator event at Gallagher Creek Park hosted by Dr. Mary Jamieson from Oakland University. She studies pollinators such as butterflies and bees and taught us how to begin to identify different butterflies and bees. It was awesome to learn how to identify some of the pollinators we see every day while out in our natural areas. August was very similar to July weather-wise: hot and rainy! We would walk through wetlands that were virtually dry in the spring but now were quite wet from all the rain. Even Paint Creek was fuller than it was in the spring.

One of my favorite processes to watch during August was how the fields of bee balm at Charles Ilsley Park slowly turned to fields of goldenrod. For about a week, the fields were a mix of the late bee balm and the early goldenrod plants, and then it all transitioned to a fiery sea of goldenrod.

September

September meant the start of controlling common reed or invasive Phragmites australis. Phragmites is an aquatic invasive plant that if left to its own devices will take over wetland habitats. I’m sure many people have seen dense stands of Phragmites, especially along roadsides. Since Phragmites is a wetland species, we have spent most of our time in wetland areas this September. Wetlands have many amazing plants and also some fine plants such as poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which are great for wildlife but can be unpleasant for us!

One of the cool parts about wetlands is they are much more complex than they originally appear. There are many different types of wetlands, including lesser-known examples like fens, bogs, and wet prairies. Oakland Township is lucky that it has several different wetland types within its natural areas. September, like July and August, has also been quite hot (with a few cooler days mixed in) and rainy (I thought I had moved to Michigan, not Seattle).

One of my favorite plants I found in September was closed bottle gentian. The flower looks like a bud about to open, but oddly enough it never opens. That is just the way the flower is. Therefore the only way it is pollinated is by pollinators (like bumblebees or hummingbirds) that are strong enough to force the flower open to get to its nectar.

Little Wonders Each Month

As you can see, every month brought a new little wonder. Each month I learned new flowers and what made them unique and special. To me, that was the most exciting part of this job. I was able to notice little changes taking place out in our natural areas since I was out in them every day for the last six months. I hope the next time you visit one of Oakland Townships parks, you too can notice something that you haven’t before, and that sparks your curiosity! The world is a glorious and mysterious place, and with lots to be discovered if we take the time to slow down and observe!

I also wanted to say thank you to all the marvelous people I have met while working for Oakland Township Parks & Recreation! I have greatly enjoyed getting to know you through working with you and through our outreach events such as the bird walks and volunteer days! Thank you so much for making my time here so enjoyable! šŸ™‚

Pictures taken by Katri Studtmann, Parker Maynard, Max Dunn, and Cam Mannino.

2 thoughts on “Little Wonders in Our Natural Areas

  1. Katri, what a super summary of your work as an intern – great writing and a thoughtful, lovely selection of photos. The calendar of events will help me understand and remember what kinds of plants you and the rest of Ben’s crew were both removing and appreciating each month. I’ll use it as a guide on our own property next year as well as during my park walks. Thank you for all your hard work, your excellent blogs and your cheerful disposition. I’m sure you’ll be a success at whatever you tackle next. Hope we cross paths in the future!

    • Thanks so much, Cam! It was delightful getting to know you! Don’t worry I’ll be back for some bird walks too!:)

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