Winter walks can yield odd – and quite amazing – surprises. For example, how about seeing large tadpoles wriggling just under the ice at Bear Creek Nature Park’s playground pond? My husband and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing at first and neither could members of the birding group last Wednesday – but there they were.
About a half dozen of them cork-screwed up to the surface, snatched tiny bits of green Water Meal(Wolffiacolumbiana) floating within a hole in the ice and quickly wriggled back into the depths. Tadpoles in the dead of winter? A first for us and for many of you readers too, I imagine!
After doing a little research, I discovered that this is not as strange as it first appeared. Evidently, Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) lay their eggs from April until autumn. So some tadpoles hatch from their eggs late in the year and overwinter under the ice. It’s not easy. The water under the ice is low in oxygen since no air reaches the surface, and currents can’t mix oxygen into the still water.
When ice forms on a pond, the adult Green Frogs, which is the most common frog at in the Playground Pond, spend the winter resting on the mud below the pond. During hibernation, they can absorb sufficient oxygen through their skin. Their tadpoles, however, can swim and feed during the winter, provided it is not too severe. I immediately wondered, “Why don’t they freeze when the temperature drops?” Well, the North Woodlands website of the North Woodlands Association in New Hampshire explains that it all depends on the harshness of the winter. Tadpoles can move and feed because they have more skin surface related to their body size, or a “higher surface area to volume ratio.” As a result, they absorb enough available oxygen through their skin to power their winter activity.
Also, though the temperature may be 32° near the ice, as the tadpoles scurry back down into the pond, the temperature rises to 38 or 39° and may be 40° on the bottom. Perhaps that’s why I never got a perfect shot of one wriggling at the surface; it’s just too cold to stay there for long. Or at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
By the way, it’s possible that the tadpoles are Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) too. They can often take 2 years to metamorphose into adult frogs. But Green Frogs, like the one below, are the ones I most commonly see at the Playground Pond.
If those tough, wriggly tadpoles survive winter under the ice, they may be getting a jump on the tadpoles that hatch in the spring by being bigger at an earlier date. When the weather warms, the winter tadpoles are ready to metamorphose sooner and grow into bigger frogs. And bigger frogs are better at defending their food territories and finding mates. Maybe we should take that as inspiration for all of us to keep moving in cold weather!
Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by producing their colorful blooms. Then the humans – volunteers and Parks staff – take over the work in the other three seasons by harvesting, cleaning and sowing the seed.
Since we’ve just completed the cycle for 2018, I thought we’d share how this ancient cycle of work, organized each year by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship manager, happens throughout the year.
Winter and Spring: Spreading Seed
Readers may remember the blog from last April, when Ben, his stewardship tech Alex Kreibel and I spread wildflower seed in Bear Creek Nature Park. We spent a cool spring morning sowing seed by hand as it’s been done for thousands of years.
For larger projects we might spread seed with a special native seed drill or broadcast spreader attached to a tractor.
The seeds we spread take their time for the next few years, sprouting a bit of greenery to catch the sunlight as they grow deep roots. Those roots help them survive drought like all prairie plants. In a few years, when the roots have grown deep, the plants we sow finally bloom and produce more seed. Luckily, nature has also dispersed seeds for countless years. With a little help from us humans through prescribed fire or invasive plant control, native seeds already in the soil will also find their way to the sunlight and grow!
Summer: Blossoms Attract Pollinators
Plants mostly rely on wind and insects – beetles, flies, butterflies – to move pollen from one plant to the next. Pollination is the process by which male genetic material (in the pollen) is transferred from the anther of one plant to the female pistil of another plant (or in self-pollinating plants to pistils on the same plant). If the pollen lands on a compatible plant, it will germinate grow a pollen tube to conduct the sperm to the potential seeds (ovules) in the ovary of the second plant.
Wind-pollinated plants like grasses and some trees produce lots of pollen and cast it to the wind, taking a chance that a few grains will land in a receptive flower on another plant. But our insect-pollinated plants use a more targeted method to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. These plants create tempting blossoms full of color, scent, nectar and, of course, pollen to attract and reward pollinators, ensuring that some will be transported to another flower on the insect courier.
We’ll follow the three insect-pollinated plants below, from various parks, through our seed collecting cycle: Joe Pye (Euthrochium maculatum), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Autumn: Voilà! Fertile Seeds Ready for Harvesting
Here are the same three wildflowers in their seeding phase in the early autumn. (Please note that two of the three photos below were generously provided by iNaturalist photographers, Ken Potter and mikaelamazzeo94.)
And again, some readers will remember from a November blog that while nature was dispersing seed through wind, water and gravity this autumn, we humans were out among them, snipping selectively. Good stewardship requires gathering some native seed so that 1) the seeds get to spots that need native seed, often our active restoration areas where seeds might not reach on their own; and 2) so that the township can save a bit of money on expensive native wildflower seed!
Winnowing Out the Seed by Hand – and Foot!
On December 6, 2018 the final stage of our seed collecting came to fruition as Ben taught us techniques for separating the seed from the plants to get them ready to spread. Volunteers and staff gathered at the Parks Department pole barn on Buell Road on a cold winter morning to push the dry stalks through various sizes of screening.
For some plants, that meant wearing leather gloves to rub the stalks against the screen so that the seed would fall into the tub underneath, as we did with White Snakeroot(Ageratinaaltissima) shown below.
For plants with sturdy structures, like the round heads of Bee Balm(Monarda fistulosa) below, it meant putting a screened box on a plastic sheet on the floor and actually treading on the seed heads to help loosen the seed!
Once the seeds were separated, they were turned over to Ben’s current stewardship specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, and volunteer Dena Scher who poured the seeds into bags, labeled them with their scientific names and recorded the information.
So here is our haul for this year!
If we have more volunteers to gather seed (hint, hint…), we could harvest even more in 2019! So consider the ancient pleasure of sowing seed in the spring, gathering seed on an autumn day, and cleaning seed at a good old fashioned work bee next December. The hum of voices, the laughter, the earthy fragrances of different seeds – it’s a fun way to meet neighbors and help nature grow more of those beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to carpet our restored prairies. And to top it all off, you get to feel like a kid again as you rub, stomp and get covered in tiny silk parachutes!
Well, the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, is behind us, but the nights are still long, aren’t they? We pull the curtains against the blank, black windows as the sun sets, click on a lamp and if we’re lucky, light a fire. Porch lights suddenly glow along our streets. We escape from the dark, fending it off with relief, as if we are warding off danger.
But what if we welcomed the darkness? What if we paused before pulling the curtains and just looked at night coming on? Sunsets around here can be quite dramatic this time of year. Winter is a time to look for “sun pillars,” when vertical beams of light occasionally appear near the sunset, caused by light reflecting on tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere – like this one at our home one winter evening.
And although I’ve never caught “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,” I have caught geese flying splashed with the pink of a sunset.
Even a stray chunk of ice can look quite magical when it catches a ray of orange light as dusk settles.
Perhaps we could learn to stand in the dark on a snowy night and listen for the low hooting of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 3, they mate during the winter. But it’s difficult to hear their plaintive, long distance courting through tightly closed windows and doors. Maybe open the door a crack now and then, set your ear to it and listen.
It’s mating season for White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) as well; unfortunately we are aware of that from all the heedless deer on the roads. But on foot, it’s magical to see a young doe covered in snow beneath your bird feeder in the evening…
or smile at a pine tree topped by the full moon like the star on a Christmas tree!
The intriguing thing about being out in the darkness is that it’s often not as dark as it seems from inside those black windows. The moon and the stars do shine, after all, and anything white – flowers in summer, snow in winter – catches that silver light and reflects it, creating patterns we miss if we aren’t looking.
So this winter, perhaps we should consider venturing out into the dark – maybe with a friend to feel more comfortable at first. Or perhaps parents can take children out “owling” on a snowy night – and if you’re considering it, have a look at the gorgeous picture book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen for inspiration. Or just take them on a stroll around the lawn while scouting out Orion overhead or other constellations. Even a walk down a long driveway can be exciting on a moonlit night. You can sing to yourself for courage if the possible presence of nocturnal animals makes you nervous; they most often run away at the sound of a human voice. Or if you are intrigued by them, follow fox tracks in the moonlight.
Maybe you could make it a personal or family ritual to just take a few minutes once a week to sit with a cup of cocoa, turn off the lights and stare through a darkened window. Watch the moon as it changes; perhaps record its phases on a calendar with your children or grandchildren. Open your door and listen to the song of wind in the pines and how it differs from songs “sung” through bare limbs. If you hear a coyote outside, consider calling your children to the door to listen to their song – and then howl along!
Perhaps if we can become familiar with the velvet black of a winter night, its sounds and sights, we’ll be more comfortable with it. Let’s befriend the night and see the beauty that lies out there in the winter darkness.
On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!
Feasting on Seeds
Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.
That made some of the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.
And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.
They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.
In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.
Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”
A male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobatespubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside. The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Later I saw a female – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?
In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.
So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting. Nice how nature works like that…
(Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Notice something odd about the three photos above? Right. They all show dead trees. And it turns out they are all Michigan oaks – in a neighborhood, in a park and in a natural area. Oak Wilt, an invasive fungus deadly to oaks, has killed these mighty giants in Minnesota, Wisconsin and throughout Michigan, including Oakland County. Researchers like Dr. Monique Sakalidis at Michigan State are working to more thoroughly understand oak wilt and how to prevent it because at the moment, there is no cure once a red oak is infected. The good news is that most new infections can be prevented by not damaging or pruning oaks during warm weather (April to October). So we all need to know how to protect our oaks!
The Oakland County CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area) arranged a workshop with Oak Wilt specialist, Julie Stachecki, who is also an ISA certified arborist (International Society of Arboriculture) and President of the Arboriculture Society of Michigan. She packed a lot of information into her two hour presentation! We learned how this dangerous fungus is spread and how to protect the oaks of Oakland Township. Here are some important basics and links to more detailed information. (All of the photos in this blog were taken by Julie Stachecki, except the one on the left above by Dr. Dave Roberts and two photos of oak leaves below by Cam Mannino.)
The Danger is Real…and Some of the Photos Aren’t Pretty
Oak wilt is caused by an exotic fungus (Bretziella fagacearum) that likely arrived in North America around 1900. Oak wilt can kill a tree in the Red Oak group (northern red oak, pin oak, black oak, and scarlet oak) in 6-8 weeks! Species in the White Oak group (bur oak, post oak, white oak, and swamp white oak) can also be infected but may survive, or just die more slowly. Red oaks have bristles at the tips of the leaf lobes, while white oaks have rounded lobes with no bristle. There is currently no cure for oak wilt, so prevention is crucial! Don’t injure your oak trees between March and October!
Overland Spread by Beetles
The oak wilt fungus is spread by native sap beetles (fam. Nitidulidae) that are attracted by the scent of any wound on an oak tree – for example, those caused by lawnmowers, pruning or broken limbs. These beetles can spread the fungus several miles in one year!
The beetles can arrive within 10 minutes of wounding! So prevention is critical. When wounds occur, sealing them with a pruning sealant or latex paint needs to happen quickly. The beetles are active from mid-March through October, but there are greater numbers of them from mid-March to July.
If the beetles have been feeding on the oak wilt fungus in an infected tree, they can carry the fungal spores to nearby healthy but wounded trees. Once they land on a wound with the spores on their bodies, a red oak tree will die in 6-8 weeks.
Local Spread through the Roots
Oak wilt can also spread to healthy trees through the roots of infected oaks. Oak trees, particularly red oaks, are connected underground by root grafts even if they are as much as 100 feet apart. The fungus will keep spreading throughout the root systems and can kill every oak tree in a neighborhood, park or forest until the root connections run out or are professionally severed
How to Protect Your Trees
Prevention is the key to protecting your oak trees. Don’t prune or injure your oak trees between March and October! Only prune oak trees between November and February (late fall or winter).
If the bark of your oak tree is injured in any way (e.g. by lawnmower, pruning in the growing season, wind damage) from March to October, immediately seal the wound with tree wound paint, latex paint, or clear shellac. That should keep beetles from landing on exposed tissue and protect your trees. If you can’t reach the area, call an Oak Wilt specialist. (See below.)
DO NOT MOVE FIREWOOD. It’s one of the significant ways in which oak wilt spreads.
Avoid using tree crews that are not qualified as oak wilt specialists. Confirm any diagnosis of oak wilt with an expert. Many different stresses and less lethal pests can cause symptoms of concern on oak trees. You don’t want to make treatments or cut down a tree unnecessarily.
Signs of Oak Wilt Infection
In June, July or August, leaves discolor to a dull olive green or turn partially brown, often near the top of the tree first. Discolored leaves then wilt from the top of the tree downward and additional leaves become brown or bronzed. Rapid leaf drop occurs as the disease progresses. Fallen leaves are usually brown at the tips and margins and sometimes green at the base. (See photo above.)
The year after a tree is killed by oak wilt (but sometimes that fall), fungal pressure pads may form beneath the bark of the tree. The growing pressure pad pushes on the bark above it, often forming small cracks that allow beetles to access the fungus.
If You Think You Have an Oak Wilt Infected Tree:
Confirm any suspicion of oak wilt with an expert. Dead leaves aren’t enough since other diseases can cause similar symptoms.
Don’t Cut it Down Yourself! You may make the problem worse by forcing the fungus more quickly into the roots, infecting nearby oak trees with the oak wilt fungus.
Again, contact an Oak Wilt Qualified Specialist. Don’t be tempted to use just any arborist or tree service. Specialists have passed an exam on identification and management of Oak Wilt and are required to be either an ISA Certified Arborist, Certified Forester or have a 4 year degree in a related field. They can provide you with the best way to protect other oaks in your yard, your neighbors’ yards, or a forest or park nearby from this deadly fungus. Management options may include tree removal, tightly covering infected firewood piles, preventative injections of nearby non-symptomatic trees, and trenching around infected trees to prevent spread through the roots to nearby trees.
Keeping the “Oak” in “Oakland”
We all know that we want to preserve the oaks for which Oakland Township and Oakland County were named. To do so, we need to take the Oak Wilt threat seriously and work as a community to prevent its spread. Even one infected tree with oaks nearby can spread and kill all the trees connected to its roots. That could potentially affect whole neighborhoods, whole parks, whole forests. So the first step is to educate ourselves and our neighbors so that we can act quickly. First, prevent any injury to oak trees between March and October. Second, immediately seal any wounds that do occur between March to October. Finally, if you suspect a tree with oak wilt, quickly hire experts to confirm the oak wilt diagnosis and to keep the infection from spreading. So please read the information on the Michigan Oak Wilt website and tell your neighbors about how to prevent the spread of oak wilt! We can do this!
Many thanks to Julie Stachecki of the Michigan Oak Wilt Coalition for generously sharing her photos and her time.
Resources for More Information and Help:
Website of the Michigan Oak Wilt Coalition for more detailed information and to find an Oak Wilt certified specialist arborist: michiganoakwilt.org
For reporting suspected cases of Oak Wilt: email DNR-FRD-Forest-Health@michigan.gov