Field Note: Ta-Da!!! The Big Oak Stands Free!

The Big Oak at Bear Creek Nature Park after the stewardship crew removed the trees growing beneath its canopy.

Once again, as in its younger years, the big white oak (Quercus alba) near the Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park is drenched with sunlight, its roots able to reach more water and benefit from more nutrients. As I explained in a February blog , this winter Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his stewardship crew worked to remove the many smaller trees that had grown up inside the oak’s canopy, causing the lower limbs to weaken and die. A few trees had to be left for now, because they lean toward the viewing platform and will require a frozen pond and careful work to remove at a future date. It took weeks of felling, sawing logs into manageable sizes, chipping branches and hauling it all away to get to this point. But look at it now!

Next summer, the Big Oak will gather in more of the sun’s rays, increasing the strength and health of a tree that may have hundreds more years to live. This magnificent specimen will remove and store even more carbon and breathe out more oxygen. It can host more species of caterpillars high in its greenery in the summer and beneath its leaf litter in the fall and winter, feeding the birds, their young and many other creatures. More birds may find homes on or within it giant limbs. And we humans can more easily appreciate its grandeur on our Bear Creek hikes.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So let’s take a minute for a couple of cyber-toasts, shall we? “Long Life to the Big Oak!” And “Cheers for Our Stewardship Crew!” for its care of this glorious, landmark tree!

Stewardship “Spring Training Season”: Prepare for Nest Peeking and Pool Dipping!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Is winter gray beginning to get to you? Despite our state’s many charms, late winter blahs can be a quintessential element of living in Michigan. So if you can’t browse one more seed catalog, have exhausted the good stuff on all those streaming channels, cleaned out enough drawers and almost reached the end of your winter reading list, I’ve got a couple of recommendations to juice things up a bit!

For the last several years, I’ve become a citizen scientist through opportunities provided by two great stewardship training programs at Oakland Township’s Parks and Recreation Commission. March is the month to prepare for some spring wildlife explorations that provide important data for scientists studying our wild neighbors. Let me take a few minutes to “show and tell” about the enjoyment and discovery I’ve experienced being a local citizen scientist.

“Spring Training” Schedule

  • Vernal Pool Patrol Training: Wednesday evenings in March, and local field training on April 6. Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) offers an online 3-part Vernal Pool Patrol training program on Wednesday evenings in March for folks interested in exploring vernal pools. Learn more and register here: Vernal Pool Patrol volunteers MUST attend these three online sessions at home before joining in our local in-person field training event on April 6.
  • NestWatch Training, 2:00 to 3:30 pm on March 23 at the Paint Creek Cider Mill. Become a citizen scientist and make a difference!  Learn how to safely and properly monitor bird nests, both in nest boxes and other nest types. By monitoring a nearby nest, you can help scientists study the biology of North America’s birds and how it might be changing over time. Register online at

Dipping into the Mystery of Vernal Pools

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

If you’ve lived here very long, I’m sure you’ve noticed vernal pools – those small woodland pools that fill from snowmelt and rain in the spring and then dry up and disappear during the summer. But it never occurred to me, and maybe not to you either, that special creatures were living in there! It turns out that these shallow temporary wetlands teem with life for just a brief time each year. A quickly drying body of water is perfect for many wetland species that want to avoid having their young eaten by the fish or birds that frequent streams or larger ponds and lakes. So these species mate and lay their eggs in vernal pools and the young develop very quickly to reach adulthood before the water disappears. Let me introduce you to a few.

Some of the Curious Inhabitants of Vernal Pools

Bet you never believed you’d see wild shrimp wriggling sideways in a Michigan pond. But tiny ones, called Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca), thrive and reproduce in vernal pools each spring. I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I saw one of these wee shrimp as I emptied my net into the clear collection box! I even to got to see one carrying its eggs in a sack! (See right photo below. Click on photos to enlarge.)

How about finding Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) which are smaller than your baby fingernail? Or a chunky, bumbling Water Beetle (order Coleoptera) rowing its way around your collection box? Maybe the thin, developing nymph of a damselfly?

A developing Damselfly (suborder Zygoptera, order Ondonata). Could those be proto-wings at the back end?

Or how about coming across the egg sack of a Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)? During one monitoring event, Dr. Ben Vanderweide, our township Stewardship Manager, gently lifted a stick loaded with them. The tiny salamanders hatch in the pools and then scramble up on the soil to hide under logs and fallen bark as they grow.

And then there are the tiny amphibians who fill our ears with frog choruses each spring while mating – the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) or the Spring Peeper ((Pseudacris crucifer). Their eggs hatch in the shallow water to be counted with other inhabitants of the vernal pool.

March Training for Vernal Pool Monitoring

Vernal pools are fragile habitats so it’s essential to learn how to treat them and their inhabitants safely and carefully. Training is required and very important! The Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) offers an online 3-part Vernal Pool Patrol training program from 6 – 8 pm on March 15, 22, and 29 for folks interested in exploring vernal pools. Learn more and register for the online here:

Our township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide requires vernal pool monitoring volunteers to attend these three online sessions at home before joining in our local in-person field training event on April 6. On that day, Ben will provide the clear collection boxes of various sizes and nets. All you need to do is take the MNFI training and then pull on some knee-high boots and join us! You’ll be learning about a whole new world! And believe me, it’s like being a kid again to wade around in shallow water dipping and discovering what’s under the surface. The data we collect each year help MNFI and the Michigan Vernal Pool Partnership protect these very special, fragile habitats. If you can’t attend our field training day, other opportunities will be offered around the state, so check the Vernal Pool Patrol website in March as those dates become available.

After you complete the online “classroom” training and field training day, you’ll be ready to monitor vernal pools independently. We can help you find vernal pools in our parks to monitor, or you can visit pools in other parks (with permission of course) or on own property. Every bit of data helps!

Or Maybe You’re a Bird Lover; How About Getting Trained as a Nest Box Monitor?

I took this short training session a few years ago. After I spent a few summer months in our parks watching and recording the growth of baby Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon), I just had to set up a nest box at home. And now we are gifted with a nesting pair each summer. I’ll be participating this summer in our parks as a substitute for vacationing monitors. Maybe this slideshow of what I’ve enjoyed in this program will whet your appetite!

We check our nest boxes twice each week so we can accurately report first egg laid, first egg hatched and fledge date. Then we submit our data to Cornell University’s NestWatch program which tracks the nesting success of birds all over the country. Cornell provides instruction on how to monitor nests without disturbing the birds; it’s available online whenever it’s convenient for you. On March 23 from 2-3:30 PM at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, Grant VanderLaan, our township stewardship specialist review these NestWatch monitoring protocols and explain how nest box monitoring works in our township parks.

Here’s some of what I’ve enjoyed seeing during the years I’ve monitored nest boxes both in the parks and at home. Baby birds couldn’t be more endearing and the dedication of the adults in caring for them is truly impressive. It’s exciting to see new life emerge and grow each spring and to watch the population of beautiful native birds increasing in our parks and natural areas as we provide safe, monitored nest boxes for their young.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis): A Source of Happiness, Indeed!

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) Also Raise Families in Our Nest Boxes

And the Ebullient House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) Do as Well

So I hope that I’ve convinced you to consider taking part in Stewardship Spring Training. As a citizen scientist, you’ll experience nature in a very personal and meaningful way. Dipping tiny creatures from a shady pool or peeking into a nest box full of life are great ways to get closer to the natural world in a very tangible and meaningful way. So if you want to better understand and support wildlife, here are a couple of fun ways to do that – and really make a difference!

Saving Our Big Oak: A Matter of Life and Death

I need to make one thing clear before I begin: I’m a HUGE fan of trees and immediately become deeply suspicious at the sound of a chainsaw.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So when our township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide proposed clearing trees around the Big Oak at Bear Creek Nature Park’s Center Pond, I needed to know why! Ben took the time (as usual) to explain that the trees under and near its canopy were affecting the health of the Big Oak, a wonderful open-grown white oak (Quercus alba). Its lower branches were either dying or looking very unhealthy. Huge, mature trees like this provide habitat in ways that younger trees cannot, and once they die they can’t be replaced.

Specimen oaks that are lucky enough to grow without competition benefit mightily from plentiful light, rain and the earth’s nutrition around them. And in fact, widely spaced oaks in grasslands were the rule in our area until European colonization began in the early 19th century. Look at this fortunate oak at the crest of a rolling prairie in Charles Ilsley Park. Quite a contrast to the crowded conditions for Bear Creek’s Big Oak!

An oak with minimal competition at Charles Ilsley Park in spring. Notice that most of the large lower limbs are still healthy and sprouting new leaves.

Once Ben pointed out the Big Oak’s difficulty, I looked forward to seeing the work begin. But with 1500 acres for the crew to care for, I had to be patient (not a quality I’m known for, actually.) This winter Ben, our Stewardship Specialist Grant Vander Laan, and stalwart stewardship volunteers, George Hartsig and Jon Reed, found the time on a series of cold winter days to take on the job.

For at least two hundred years, the Big Oak had spent its youth putting on weight and height near the shore of Bear Creek’s Center Pond. Below is a photo of the almost tree-less Center Pond taken around 1940 by George Comps who lived on the Bear Creek property from 1939 to 1959. He wrote a book about his time on this land called Incredible Yesterdays, which is available at the Rochester Hills Library. Though we can’t be sure that the photo shows what Mr. Comps reported as “a big huge oak tree” at “the end of the lane,” we can tell that there weren’t many other trees around the pond, or “our little lake,” as he called it. The Big Oak then must have benefited from lots of sunlight!

Our Center Pond 80 years ago with few trees or shrubs. Photo taken by George Comps circa 1940 from his book, Incredible Yesterdays. Permission from the author’s long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton.

Since the growth stage of an oak is about 300 years, the Big Oak may have another 100 years or so of growth before it reaches stasis. At that point, it can live its mature life for another two or three centuries before it begins to “senesce,” i.e., grow old like us. But for an oak, even aging can take two or three hundred more years!

Through all those centuries, the Big Oak has fed and sheltered the birds, insects and animals of its surroundings. Last summer we watch a pair of Red-bellied woodpeckers nest in a cavity on a “small” dead branch on the Big Oak, right over the deck. Even a “small” dead branch on this tree can be quite large! Several hundred species of caterpillars, the anchor of any healthy habitat, live high in the canopy of oaks or winter in their leaf litter – and don’t forget autumn’s acorns, a winter source of nutrition for countless birds and mammals.

This could be the winter cache of an American Red Squirrel, or the result of acorns dropping from the nearby oaks during a mast year when oaks produce unusually large amounts of nuts.

No other tree feeds North America’s varied habitats as generously as the oaks. That’s why it’s a keystone species nationwide and here in Oakland Township. Imagine! Centuries after every one of us has left this world, our Big Oak could still be standing tall, feeding and sheltering the creatures around it as well as storing the immense amount of carbon it pulled from the air to build and maintain its enormous structure. To learn more about the life-support system that oaks provide, check out last spring’s blog about them.

So I’m glad that Ben noticed that the Big Oak needed help and made the decision to remove the trees that had taken root beneath it. They had begun starving that magnificent tree of sunlight, rain and nutrition. And growing under its canopy, the other trees had little chance of surviving to full, healthy growth in any case. So work began on the west side of the oak.

As the crew completed their work on the tree’s west side in the late afternoon, the Big Oak became bathed in sunlight as the shadows grew long.

On the following day, the crew took down several larger trees, the biggest one being a Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) probably planted there by a squirrel with a nut many years ago. Ben used a carefully planned notch, back cut, and felling wedges to control the direction of the fall. The other crew members and I stepped far back from Ben and the tree, where Grant got this excellent video of the tree as it fell. It’s interesting to me that I felt real sorrow for the fallen Walnut as it made its tremendous shaking “Thud!” on the ground – and at the same time, I looked behind the devastation and there was the Big Oak standing free.

The felling of the largest tree removed in order to save the Big Oak. Video by Grant Vander Laan.

In the following weeks, Ben and his crew spent several days removing trees from the south and east sides of the tree. Some work remains. They will remove several trees from the north side of the Big Oak yet this winter to open up the area near the pond. Then, for the first time in decades, it will begin to be flooded with light! Rain will soak down to it roots in all directions, helping it reach out in every direction to find the nutrition it needs to complete its long natural life.

All Over Bear Creek, Nature is Breathing Easier

You’ll notice a lot of other transformations going on at Bear Creek Nature Park this winter. Ben hired a contractor to mow invasive shrubs along the edges of many trails, eliminating huge thickets of non-native shrubs and the deadly Oriental Bittersweet vines. Then Grant and volunteers spread wild grass seed to hold the areas until more restoration could be done. Visitors to the park will remember the stunning process that took place in the fields north of the Center Pond through invasive shrub mowing!

Ben’s team and many volunteers have also been clearing an area west and north of the southern viewing platform at Bear Creek Marsh that had been heavily invaded by non-native shrubs and trees. The beautiful oak grove on the peninsula extending into the marsh was hidden behind dense glossy buckthorn, as you can see in the “before” photo below when work began in this particular area in 2019. The stewardship crew and volunteers finished clearing the last mature buckthorn on the peninsula this summer, and the giant buckthorn piles were stacked, waiting for burning as of early January this year.

Volunteers and stewardship staff remove and stack invasive shrubs at Bear Creek Marsh in fall 2019. This is about the same location as the “after” photo below. (Photo by Ben VanderWeide)
Some of the large stacks of invasive shrubs and vines near Bear Creek marsh this January.

And here is my video of the piles burning on the snow on February 1. Quite a sight!

Burning piles of invasive and non-native shrubs near the Bear Creek Marsh with lots of helpers to tend them.

You’ll see there were several volunteers along with Ben and Grant to keep an eye on the burning piles – and to gather around them on a verrrry cold day. I think a few roasted sausages and baked potatoes were on the menu at lunchtime! Here’s Ben’s photo of the burn crew that day.

The burn pile crew: (L to R) Ben Vanderweide, Ethan Teranes (Six Rivers Conservancy), David Klionsky, Dave Kramer, Jon Reed, Rita Ski,George Hartsig and Grant VanderLaan

So when you see areas where invasive shrubs were mowed like the ones below at Bear Creek, don’t panic like I did years ago. Everyone on the stewardship crew and the volunteers are tree lovers like me. They are simply weeding as you would in your garden, but on a much larger scale. Eventually the areas shown below will bloom with native grasses, some native shrubs and hopefully many wildflowers. And for now, enjoy the graceful rolling of the landscape that nature created and which had been hidden from us for decades. What a gift!

So let’s celebrate with the Big Oak. Stewardship has come to its rescue. Let’s see what the future holds for this magnificent specimen!

The Big Oak soaking up the sunlight on the south side as restoration continues at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Field Note: Restoring the Past and Preserving the Future in the Wet Prairie Woodlands

On a gray day in mid-December, while buzzing about trying to complete a myriad of Christmas errands, a message appeared on my phone from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager. He wanted me to know that he and a small crew were working in the woods at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Aha! Ben knows that restoration of that particular woods is of special interest to me! So when a free moment appeared, I grabbed my camera and headed north on the trail from Silver Bell Road to see the transformations taking place in one of my favorite restoration projects.

A Reminder about an Historic Change in Paint Creek

As I’ve explained in a previous blog, for eons Paint Creek wandered through the floodplain west of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road. But in the late 19th century, the stream bed was moved to accommodate the railroad that ran along what is now the Trail. Since then, the water in the original bed comes from rain, snow melt, and some groundwater. After human intervention dramatically altered the water flow (or hydrology) of the area, non-native bushes, vines and trees invaded the wet meadows and moist open woodland along the former stream bed.

The new, non-natives had distinct advantages. Their predators – insects, fungi, animals – were left behind in their countries of origin. They could easily compete with native plants whose predators are also native. The open tree canopy closed, and the woodland floor darkened. And over the next century, invasive shrubs and vines gradually choked off or shaded out most of the native plants that had bloomed for millennia in the woodland and wet meadows and along the former creek bed.

A 1963 aerial photo showing the old bed of Paint Creek (blue), the core wet-mesic prairie area (green), and the current active restoration area outlined in red.

The Restoration Process Begins to Unfold

Most of the work at the Wet Prairie since its acquisition in 2003 had concentrated on the core wet-mesic prairie and the wet meadows to the south. In 2018, a parks prescribed burn contractor conducted a controlled burn in the north half of the park which top-killed huge thickets of non-native brush. Restoration was off and running! But much more was needed, of course, and heavy equipment was impractical in a delicate, very moist area.

So in late 2020, Ben, stewardship specialist Grant VanderLaan, staff from Six Rivers Land Conservancy, and volunteers took on the monumental task of cutting and carefully burning as many non-native bushes and vines as possible in the northern wet meadows and woodland. In some areas, careful application of herbicides to stumps and small re-sprouts followed in order to eliminate invasive species while doing as little harm as possible to any native plants still struggling to survive beneath the non-native thickets. It was an exhausting, laborious process, but what a transformation was taking shape!

This past autumn, the crew’s goal was to continue to increase light reaching the woodland floor to help the special mix of woodland wildflowers, grasses, and sedges return. To do this they reduced the number of fallen ash trees caused by emerald ash borer damage, removed any last invasive shrubs, and thinned trees that were choking out the remaining oaks in the area. As they’ve done annually for several years, volunteers also collected and cleaned a record amount of native wildflower and grass seed from local populations. The Wet Prairie woodlands were an ideal location for sowing some of it once this fall’s work was completed.

Small Winter Fires of Brush and Fallen Logs Release Nutrients Back to the Soil

Piles of branches and logs from old dead falls piled where the canopy is tall and open.

In mid-December, Ben’s message appeared on my phone with a photo of a small part of the work area. Amazed at what I saw, I left Christmas prep behind and headed to the Wet Prairie. The work crew was small by then – just Ben, Grant and hard-working volunteers George Hartsig and Jon Reed. They had removed a remarkable amount of non-native shrubs and vines and piled them along with the ash deadfalls and thinned saplings in open areas where low fires on moist ground could not reach the canopy. Then they’d set the piles ablaze on the wet soil and tended the fires until they had turned to ash. Wet winter days are ideal for this work and I was happy to see plumes of white smoke rising in multiple spots throughout the woodland when I arrived.

Multiple fires burned in the moist woodland, tended by Dr. Ben, stewardship specialist Grant VanderLaan and volunteer George Hartsig.
A section of the woodland restoration area with burn piles smoking in the distance in the current work area.

I was delighted to see the woods opening further with the restoration work. Now patches of sunlight and rain could nurture the woodland floor, and struggling wet meadow plants could grow. Another part of the moist woodland could breathe again.

The “Comeback Kids”: Native Plants Return and an Iconic Bird Responds to Restoration

Though invasive plants had decimated many of the native species that once bloomed on the forest floor and along the banks of the stream bed, a few hardy survivors appear each year as restoration continues. Last year, in an area along the Paint Creek Trail formerly blanked by thickets of bittersweet, privet, glossy buckthorn and autumn olive, a gorgeous carpet of native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) emerged on its own! Imagine how long those native wildflowers had waited for the sun and the rain!

Last summer, the stewardship crew spotted a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) exploring a possible nesting cavity on a dead tree at the Wet Prairie. These birds prefer woodlands with open canopies and plenty of standing dead trees, just the conditions that restoration work had provided over the years (with some help from the emerald ash borer, in this case.) A hopeful sign that restoration will encourage the return of other species!

A Red-Headed Woodpecker at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie in summer 2022.

During my December visit, Ben pointed out some of the remaining green leaves or dry stems of sturdy native plants that have emerged since restoration granted them their days in the sunshine and rain.

A Final Step for this Year: Sowing Native Seed

Sadly, few native plants survived the long years of domination by non-native species. Ben would like to return more native wildflowers and grasses to this special woodland. So as the fires burned low this winter, Grant used a leaf blower to open patches around the cleared area to allow native seed to reach the soil. And George spread the collected seed mixes in the woods – a mesic savanna mix for consistently moist areas and a sunny wet meadow mix for wetter spots.

Isn’t it cheering that native seed prefers to be sown in the coldest months? It’s so counter-intuitive and I love that! In fact, many native seeds need the cold to germinate. Then these hardy native plants spend about three years growing deep roots until they fully bloom, ready for Michigan’s unpredictable weather. We’ll have to be patient, but with luck, the wait will be worth it. Here are a few of the plants we can hope to see taking up residence in the woodland at the Wet Prairie once they’ve established their deep root systems. (Click on black boxes at the edge of the frame to move through the slideshow below.)

Looking to the Past to Help the Future Flourish

Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) under the open canopy in a restored area within the Wet Prairie Woodland in 2021

As I watched the fires on that gray December day, I felt that Ben and his stewardship plans were not only restoring an ancient ecosystem that nature had developed over thousands of years. Restoration will also make it possible for nature, with a bit of help from us, to once more determine what will develop and thrive there in the future. At an online workshop I attended in November, Gregory Nowicki of the US Department of Agriculture summed up restoration with a quote he found that perfectly captured what I felt as I watched those fires slowly burning down in the Wet Prairie Woods.

Restoration uses the past not as a goal but as a reference point for the future. If we seek to recreate the temperate forests, tall grass savannas, or desert communities of centuries past, it is not to turn back the evolutionary clock but to set it ticking again.” (Falk 1990)

Yes! Nature knows best and humans, even with the best intentions, have interfered with ancient processes that supported a healthy, highly varied habitat. Those carpets of invasive plants appeared in our parks because humans moved them here from distant lands. But in Oakland Township, we are lending nature a helping hand, letting it get back to work at filling our parks and natural areas with healthy habitat that supports the birds, animals, and insects that share the benefits of nature’s bounty with us. What a Christmas gift Ben gave me when he sent me that text!