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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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
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!
It often happens that shortly after I publish a blog about a particular park, something interesting pops up there that I wish I could have included.
So to solve that issue, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager and I decided that it might be fun to slip in a short piece, a “field note,” now and then about these intriguing and/or surprising discoveries. And wouldn’t you know, one cropped up last week!
A Young Blue Heron Discovers a New Challenge: Ice!
Readers may remember that in the recent Bear Creek Nature Park blog, my photographer friend Paul Birtwhistle introduced us to a voracious juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who for weeks spent its mornings snapping up green frogs and fish from the drought-depleted Center Pond at Bear Creek.
Well, after one frigid night last week, the pond froze with a thin sheet of ice. And of course, the Heron returned in the morning to continue its feast. But to its apparent dismay, the water had changed drastically since the day before. The heron stepped out cautiously on this oddly slick surface and looked about. In the short video below, you’ll hear that Paul was amazed at what he was filming. And the young Heron was just as surprised at finding the pond surface inaccessible after weeks of dipping into it to find a rich trove of food. [Note: Vimeo, which formats our videos, attributes everything on Ben’s Vimeo account to Ben. But this week, all of the photos and videos were generously shared with us by Paul Birtwhistle.]
This youngster didn’t give up easily! It stared at the surface repeatedly. Paul guessed that he was seeing movement under the thin ice.
I wonder if perhaps the juvenile thought something was wrong with its eyesight, as it tried to bend down and get closer to the ice. Or perhaps it still thought it could snag its prey if it crouched down a bit…
Hmmm…maybe I just need to get a little bit closer.That usually works. No? Drat! Photo by Paul Birtwhistle
The heron tread verrrry cautiously on the thin, icy surface but – Yikes! Suddenly its feet slipped from under it and up went those dramatic wings to help it find its balance.
Whoops! Wings up! What’s the deal with this weird pond? Photo by Paul Birtwhistle
Trying to keep its hopes up, the bird spent about a half hour stepping carefully on the slippery surface and peering down at the ice-blurred surface of the pond. The youngster appears to warm one foot by bringing it to its feathers – or maybe it’s simply scratching an itch. In any case, this young bird looks pretty frustrated at this puzzling new experience.
After more than a half hour of exploration, the young heron took flight. Let’s hope it found its way to deeper water and the society of older herons who would show this young ‘un how to fish from the icy edge of open water.
Paul was surprised and delighted to see a heron on ice! And so was I when I received his photos! We thought Great Blue Herons would already have migrated. But when I contacted experienced naturalist and bird bander, Allen Chartier, he explained that, in his experience, though many migrate further, some herons just keep moving south to find open water. He sees them where warm water thaws the ice near power plants, for example. He believes most of them depart by January when even large bodies of water freeze over. Cornell University’s subscription website, Birds of the World, indicates that those mighty wings carry many of them as far south as the Caribbean. So bon voyage to our young puzzled friend. Hope you found a belly-full of food before nightfall!
Meanwhile, Nearby, More Experienced Neighbors Also Coped with the Icy Pond
Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) have created a “push-up” or lodge on the Center Pond this year, probably because Bear Creek marsh, where they more often spend the winter, has less open water than usual. Muskrats spend the winter mostly under water. Their metabolism drops and they efficiently utilize oxygen stored in their muscles. They slowly swim about, foraging for aquatic plants, though their diet can also include frogs, snails, small fish, occasionally even small turtles – if any remained after our hungry young heron departed! Since muskrats are mammals, however, they need to come up for air. Their push-ups have a platform inside where they can enter from underwater and then eat and rest comfortably in the air. Nice arrangement, eh?
The first time Paul noticed a muskrat, it was near the heron, gnawing its way through the thin ice to keep its channels open. In the photo below, note the ice being pushed up onto the muskrat’s muzzle as it acts like an icebreaker. Its long fur helps keep it warm and it can close its ears when under water. But as you’ll hear Paul say in the video, “It looks ever so cold!”
The next morning two muskrats fed at the pond. The first one in the short video below seems to be eating frozen plant material pulled up from the shallow water. Watch ’til the end of the video to see the second muskrat emerge from the push-up, gnaw on some ice and then decide to make a beeline underwater toward the first one – probably its mate.
It turns out that this affectionate pair is sharing its home with 3-4 other muskrats that Paul saw a few days later. They may be a family, though muskrats are known to hole up with unrelated muskrats in the winter. I suppose that more muskrats inside means more warmth. But the shallow water and the depleted amount of prey may turn out to be a challenge to these animals this winter. Drought like we’ve had lately can be a hazard to semi-aquatic animals. It’s much easier for predators like foxes and coyotes to reach the muskrats if the shallow water freezes solid.
Amazingly enough, a savvy potential predator did indeed show up on Paul’s next visit – an American mink (Neogale vison)! I’ve been hiking Bear Creek Nature Park for many years and never seen one there. But late one morning, this powerful, beautiful animal appeared on the north bank of the pond right behind the muskrats’ push up. Hmmm…. Various sources report that though minks eat several different small mammals, their favorite food is, you guessed it, muskrat! Well, winter’s a challenging time and the mink may have a mate to feed as well since minks breed during the winter. Everyone has to eat, right? Look at the magnificent specimen Paul saw! Its size, white chin patch and small white chest spot are good field marks for this impressive creature.
What a drama played out at the Center Pond this November! Will the young heron learn quickly how to find food on an icy morning? Will the muskrats find enough prey in the shallow water after the heron’s weeks of feeding? Will they successfully fend off the hungry mink or will this elegant, potentially lethal predator find a meal for itself at the pond? We’ll probably never know the conclusion to this series of events. But thanks to Paul, you and I had front row seats for this adventure in three acts, each featuring a creature coping with the vicissitudes of the season.
The Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park was a hub of avian activity during early fall. After a very dry summer, the water level fell significantly, exposing the muddy bottom in some areas and bringing underwater prey closer to the surface. And the birds came! Summer visitors who raised young here and birds migrating south clearly saw the remaining open water and muddy edges as an oasis. After the vernal pools dried up and even Bear Creek marsh filled with plants in the dry summer heat, the Center Pond provided an ideal place to find food!
I, sadly, wasn’t able to use my long lens much for birds in the last few weeks after a minor fiasco with my back – but never fear!
Two of my brilliant photographer friends, Bob Bonin and Paul Birtwhistle, generously filled my inbox with glorious shots of all kinds of birds they saw there! Through their eyes, you and I can witness what Bear Creek had to offer our avian friends in early fall. And I’ll add in a few extras from my October trips through Bear Creek’s fields and its oak-hickory forest. So let’s head out together on another virtual hike, this time with two other nature-loving photographers.
Off Toward the Slopes of the Western Meadow
The gardens near the parking lot on Snell Road are shedding their seed now. They currently look a bit chaotic, but all those seed heads will be a nourishing boon to birds this winter. But one hardy species, Cut-leaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), contributed its bright yellow rays to the fall colors until mid-October. What a heartening native addition to a late-summer/fall garden!
Paul Birtwhistle and I both stopped by the Playground Pond this fall. In September, Paul came across a female Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) banging away on one of the many snags (standing dead trees) in the pond. (Females have a black “mustache”; males have a red one.) At this time of year, she was probably seeking out wood-boring beetle larvae, though in general, carpenter ants are her preference.
When I arrived at the Playground Pond in October with the Wednesday morning birding group, a gang of juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were socializing in a dead tree. The juveniles are much less colorful than their parents – mostly gray instead of cedar brown and lemon yellow – but even at a distance, we could see the bright yellow tips on their tails and their developing black masks. (Click on photos to enlarge.)
In September, Paul ventured further west to the steeply sloping path of the western meadow where tiny migrators foraged at the edge of the woods. And what a group of golden beauties! The Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia) nests in conifers at the tip of Michigan’s “mitten,” the Upper Peninsula or in Canada. This female or immature male with its complete white eye ring, vivid yellow breast and gray head stopped by Bear Creek to rest and feed on its way to bask in Caribbean sun for the winter.
Another migrator, the Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla), also breeds in “up north” Michigan and in Canada. It drops by in fall and spring when it’s migrating to and from its wintering grounds in Mexico. That’s quite a trip twice a year! Paul caught it pausing as it too sought out Bear Creek’s rich supply of insects for its long journey.
The other little bird Paul glimpsed in the west of the park was an immature male Common Yellow-throat (Geothlypis trichas). (Adult males have a white-banded black mask, and in immature males this mask is very faint; females have a warm brown head, yellow undersides, and olive back.) This young male might have hatched from an egg right at Bear Creek Nature Park since Paul and I repeatedly saw Yellowthroats or heard their “witchedy, witchedy” call near the marsh this summer. Or perhaps this one arrived from further north. In either case, he too stocked up on insects here before winging off to the southeast toward Florida or the Caribbean.
Strolling Along the Walnut Lane
The Walnut Lane which runs between two meadows serves as a favorite perusing perch for birds. When Paul arrived there on October 1, he spotted migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) gazing out among the golden leaves along the trail. After raising young in the Upper Peninsula or even Canada’s boreal forests, these striking birds stop by each fall on their way to Florida or the Caribbean to partake of our parks’ bounty.
The same day, down near north end of the Lane, Paul spotted a Chinese Praying Mantis (Tenodera sinensis). We have two species of non-native Mantises in Michigan. This larger one, at 3-5 inches, is a highly successful predator also on the hunt for insects. Its orange back with green edges is distinctive, though sometimes Chinese Mantises are solid green like the smaller species, the European Mantis (Mantis religiosa), which is no more than 3 inches long. These two may have out-competed the only native mantis in our country, the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) which now exists only in the southeast. This one clearly focused on Paul. Maybe she was flirting?
In the late summer and fall, Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) frequently perch on the Walnut Lane. I saw a pensive female there on October 2. On October 5, Paul and I both saw a pair exploring the possibilities of a snag for insects now or perhaps next year’s cavity nest. In fact, the Lane area was full of their fluttering that day! The nesting boxes placed by the stewardship crew and tended by volunteers have added a lot of bluebirds to Bear Creek – and other parks with boxes – so keep an eye out for them!
A Ruby-Crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) also flitted about within the branches along the Lane. Paul caught this tiny bird between dashes from limb to limb (left below), while I just caught the blur of another one’s flight during the bird walk.
The Center Pond Feeding the Multitudes – and a Rare Visitor
Both of my photographer friends hung out at the Center Pond, a hub of activity in the fall at Bear Creek Nature Park. On each of his visits, Paul Birtwhistle snapped his photos quickly to catch in action two large, very successful foragers. In early September, he came upon a very excited Green Heron (Butorides virescens) with a crest that literally stood on end like a “punk” hairstyle. Maybe just the thought of all those “easy pickings” in the shallow water had a huge effect on this skillful fisher! Here’s a brief slideshow of Paul’s shots of its hunting techniques.
Paul watched a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) feed day after day at the Center Pond. The first time, on October 9, he witnessed one snagging two different prey. Its first prize was a little Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)! Some flying bird must have dropped Bass eggs into the pond earlier in the summer since this pond is spring-fed. Each prey caught, Paul reports, was dipped in the water and then shaken vigorously. Cornell University’s website explains that this process may quickly break the spine before the heron swallows it whole. Gulp!
Its second catch was a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans). The heron came back the next day for another frog. In fact, Paul’s seen a heron fishing repeatedly for two weeks! Evidently, the shallower water after the summer drought made fishing much more profitable for the water birds this year! The pond may have fewer frogs next summer but we’re sending well-fed herons south during the migration. Here’s a small sampling of Paul’s amazing photos of this impressive bird, with its 6 to 7 foot wingspan and its skillful fishing.
The Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) have also been bottoms-up feeding at the Center Pond during October. Paul got a wonderful shot of a pair surveying the pond from the edge. They’re probably here for a variety of aquatic plants, including the bright green Duckweed (aptly named!) (Lemna minor) and Common Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) that they scoop up with their bills when they’re cruising along.
Male Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) molt into eclipse plumage in later summer/early fall that makes them look more like the females. Later in the fall, they molt again into their breeding colors in order to attract a mate for the next season. I think this male, with its head bejeweled with water droplets, has excellent mating prospects! What a glamor shot! Thanks, Paul!
Of course, not all the foraging was going on in the water at the Center Pond. An unusual migrator appeared at the Wednesday bird walk. A Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus) settled down on the muddy shoals exposed by the drought and spent several hours flipping over leaves to see what insects, seeds or fallen fruit might be hiding there. My other patient photographer buddy, Bob Bonin, stayed at the pond for hours and caught his beautiful shot (below left). Rusty Blackbirds only pass through during fall and spring migration and their numbers are rapidly declining. I last saw them in 2015 when a small flock in their breeding colors (below right) landed in a wetland near the Center Pond. Researchers think their decline is caused by the usual suspects – agriculture, logging, development, soil contamination. So I’m glad our parks provided a rich source of sustenance for even this single Rusty in its fall plumage.
Bob’s patience paid off again. In those extra hours, he also tracked the quick, short flights of a variety of small migrating birds foraging at the Center Pond. Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata) eat a wide variety of foods during migration – insects when they can find them, seeds, berries of all kinds, including poison ivy berries! The field mark to look for, winter or spring, is the bright yellow patch between the wings on the top of its rump, though their plumage is much more dramatic in the spring, like most birds.
White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) can be seen under my feeder during the fall and winter – maybe yours too? These hardy sparrows flooded into Bear Creek Nature Park early in October after breeding farther north. Their striped heads can sometimes be confused with the White-crowned Sparrow, but the White Throats have that nifty white patch under the beak and bright yellow spots (called “lores”) just above their eyes. Check out the pattern differences when you see a “little brown bird” pecking in the grass! It’s not “just a sparrow!” Try thinking “Which sparrow is it?” Thanks to Bob for this great identification shot!
Down on the dock, the birding group saw an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) doing what flycatchers do best – quickly sallying out over water to snitch insects from the air. These grayish-brown songbirds sing a steeply descending “Pheeee-buzz” song in the summer and are easily identified by an almost continuous pumping or twitching of their tails when perched.
A Short Walk Through Alice’s Woods, aka the Oak-Hickory Forest
Let’s wind up our virtual hike with a quick walk through the oak-hickory forest, which is now named “Alice’s Woods,” in honor of the incredible Alice Tomboulian who inspired, helped found and served Oakland Township Parks for so many years. Alice was an intrepid lover of the natural world who understood the importance of both preservation and the urgent requirements of restoring that land with native species. She was an inspiration to so many, including me, and is greatly missed.
The quiet of a forest always soothes me, and that’s especially true in autumn light. Fewer birds, other than woodpeckers, regularly appear for me in the woods. I come across Titmice, a summer Wood-Pewee, once a Sharp-shinned Hawk, the occasional migrating warbler, the Brown Creeper and two or three times a Great Horned Owl, among others. But this October, I felt surrounded only by what I call “leaf talk.” The spinning descent of dry leaves accompanied the tree shadows slipping across my husband’s shoulders in the dappled light. In the woods, we tried to notice the small forest details that tend to show themselves when we aren’t peering up into the canopy for birds.
First, we came across an array of fallen logs, each one heavily filigreed with Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). These polypore mushrooms help break down dead wood into sugars and carbon dioxide by loosening the bonds of lignin that made the wood and bark rigid. In other words, these fungi are gradual wood recyclers – and they’re beautiful while doing it!
The concentric geometry of a web spun by an Orb-weaver Spider (genus Araneus) caught our eye in a spot of fall sunlight. The spider may have expired on a chilly night, but she left behind evidence of her skill. According to Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House, the mating process in this genus can be a bit fraught. “Males …usually need to perform some kind of species-specific signal (usually by plucking the web in a specific pattern) as they approach the female to let them know they are not prey and wish to mate. If the female is overly hungry or not ready to mate, she might turn on the male and eat him if he gets too close. If she is ready to mate, she probably will leave him alone during the act, after which the male beats a hasty retreat.” Don’t mess with an unwilling female Orb-weaver!
Emerging from the woods to head back to the car, we were greeted by the charmingly bug-eyed Spotted Spreadwing damselfly (Lestes congener). This little creature survives longer than most other damselflies, into October and even November. Its eggs overwinter and can tolerate temperatures as low as -17 degrees, according to my cherished guide, Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan by Robert Dubois and Mike Reese. So glad this hardy little insect posed for me.
Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) accompanied us along every path, springing away under our feet. In our colder latitudes, these grasshoppers are smaller and have to mature more quickly since this species only reproduces once in a season. Females will lay eggs in the soil to overwinter. The nymphs will dig their way out next spring and molt 5-7 times before being ready to mate.
I hope you’ve noticed the sweet, buzzing song of crickets – and probably some katydids and grasshoppers too – this time of year. My sharp-eyed husband spotted one of the tiny Ground Crickets (family Trigonidiidae) whose males sing so wonderfully this time of year just by pulling the scraper-like edge of one forewing against the other. Dr. Parsons would have needed to have this tiny (maybe 3/4 inch?) creature in hand to identify it among the seven species in three genera in Michigan. He did tell me that they can survive quite cold temperatures down in the grass as long as they don’t freeze. So when the weather warms back up in the fall, the males “sing” again, hoping to mate before winter sets in.
Ensuring Autumn’s Richness Continues to Feed the Future
I like to think of autumn as a time of rich harvest in our parks. Yes, it’s true that the leaves are falling and flowers and grasses are withering – but that means seeds can feed hungry migrators before they fly further south on a north wind under the stars. Those dry seed heads in our parks, or left for the winter (we hope) in your drying garden, can nourish our avian neighbors who tough out the winter with us. Insects have left behind chrysalises, cocoons, and galls, where their young will gradually transform next spring into dancing butterflies, fluttering moths in a summer night, and the millions of caterpillars and adult insects needed to feed next summer’s frogs, flycatchers, soaring swallows and thousands of baby birds. It means seeds and nuts will rest on or in the cooling earth, ready to crack open and thrust out new life when the soil warms again. While we humans sip our sweet cider and bite into crisp apples, nature is serving up food for the multitudes and sowing new life in its endless cycle of abundance.
If we continue to preserve natural areas and restore them to the health that nature designed through millennia, we can hope that endless fruitful autumns stretch ahead on our planet home. Here in Oakland Township, we’re doing our best to do just that in our parks. It isn’t enough to simply preserve open land, as crucial as that is. Through the yearly cycles of restoration work performed by our stewardship crew and volunteers under Dr. VanderWeide’s expert guidance, we are continuously caring for the land. We are slowly restoring as much of its historic diversity, richness and beauty as we possibly can after years of human use or neglect. And that transformation, that commitment to nurturing the land, sustains my commitment to the future, to a healthier world for the young, even when the nights grow longer and bare trees sketch black tracery against the autumn sky. I hope it does that for you, too.
Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and volunteers gathering native seed to enrich other township parks.
Summer’s slow demise in late August/early September urged me to acknowledge the need for letting go. Tiny warblers seem to suddenly disappear as they head south. Canada geese begin their practice runs, forming loose “V’s” while trumpeting across the sky. Hummingbirds feed ravenously at any available nectar, gaining 25-40% of their body weight before the long journey to Mexico. Some fledglings still flutter, cry and pursue their parents for a meal; others hone their newly acquired foraging skills. Spiraling through the trees, they seek out the feast of eggs or caterpillars that the pollinators left behind. The meadows quiet down as molting birds hide their bare heads in the greenery hoping to be unseen. Wasps buzz above our outdoor meals, struggling to supplement diminished sources of food.
I spent quiet hours at the newer, eastern section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park during these waning days of summer. Come join me in the thinning sunlight and share the ebullience of young birds, the sprays of grasshoppers beneath my feet, and the persistence of butterflies on late summer blossoms that are hallmarks of this transitional season of the year.
Birds, Experienced and Not-so-experienced, Forage and Flutter
I spent my days at Stony Creek Ravine exploring the open fields visible from the top of the Outlook Hill in the eastern section of the park. Much of this area is fenced in to protect small shrubs and trees planted in the re-emerging wetlands. Thousands of native plants were sown there when the old drainage tiles from previous owners were broken to allow water to flow again to the surface. In the spring, pools form and migrating waterbirds glide in for a bit of R&R.
Right now, though, the fenced-in sections are moist but little standing water remains after a hot summer. Social birds flock to the fences to chatter together. Solitary birds, some unusual ones this season, forage within the fence boundaries. Other just need a place to periodically perch while scouting for seeds among the tall grass and flowers within or around the fencing. My photographer friend, Bob Bonin, generously shared some of his excellent photos of birds he came across while patiently waiting near the fence line. It was the right place to be, as you’ll see below!
Young Fledglings Practice Their Foraging, Flying and Landing Skills
One of my mornings at Stony Creek Ravine was in the company of Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s Wednesday bird walks. As we entered the park, we spotted several young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) whisking in and out of the shrubbery, bits of blue on their wings shining in the sunlight. Three of them spent a remarkable amount of time exploring a hole in a distant snag. We wondered if, being cavity nesters, they were just curious about holes in general or if this hole might have been the one from which they fledged only weeks before.
On another visit, an adult Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) regally surveyed the area from the tallest branch of a bare tree. Perhaps the adult I saw (below left) was keeping its eye out for its offspring, a juvenile that Bob Bonin saw a few days earlier (below right.) Both birds will shortly be heading to forests in South America where they will feast on fruit during the winter. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Bob also spotted a female Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps one of her offspring. Like their bright orange relatives, the Baltimore Oriole, these birds build pouch-like nests. They breed in our parks each year but are less noticeable to most of us. The male is a dark russet orange and black and the female is yellow. Orchard Orioles depart for their overwintering grounds earlier than many other birds, so by now they’re on their way to Central America.
I fell instantly in love with this little puffball. Local bird expert, Allen Chartier, tells me it’s a juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). This young bird can relax a bit longer than the distance migrators. Song Sparrows travel around just enough during the winter to keep themselves out of the worst of Michigan’s cold season.
A few other small birds appeared for me along the fence line. A little Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) sings one of the most recognizable calls of a summer day– the rising “Pee – weeeee?” that sounds like an oft-repeated question. Birdsong beginners, like me, appreciate a song that identifies this little flycatcher who can be difficult to spot otherwise. Bob Bonin spotted a little Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) who’ll be heading off to Florida before long. And he also saw a young Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its telltale pink/orange beak and feet.
Breeding Season Over, Adult Summer Visitors Relax Before Migration
My friend Bob brings patience as well as skill to his photography. He caught sight of two birds at the park that people rarely see and waited until he got the shot he wanted. One was a “leucistic” Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) which means that it had partial pigmentation loss. Unlike the complete loss of pigmentation of albinos which also causes white, pink or red eyes, leucistic animals have partial pigmentation loss and their eyes are dark. Bob also waited over two hours for a closeup of another unusual bird, a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) as it foraged for spiders and insects down in the dense grass, sedges and small shrubs within the fence. This is ideal habitat for Sedge Wrens, but since they are unpredictable nomads, we can’t count on seeing them every year.
Stony Creek Ravine hosts some more common summer residents as well – and we’re always glad to see them as well.
The plaintive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fell from the trees around a marshy area filled with sedges (genus Carex), ancient, grass-like plants that thrive in moist ground. When it suddenly appeared overhead, I caught it twice with my camera, once like a magnificent arrow streaking across the sky, and once in mid-scream from a prey’s eye view. Glad I’m too big to be carried away for dinner!
Down Below, Butterflies, Bees and Late-Season Grasshoppers Harvested the Last of Summer’s Bounty
One of late summer’s most glamorous residents appeared in August, the glorious Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), North America’s biggest butterfly. If you’d like to attract some to your garden, two of its favorite native plants are Rose/Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and all of the goldenrods, both of which bloom in late summer and early fall If you can also tolerate thistles, they seem to favor them quite a lot more than we do!
At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the black and gold-spotted dorsal ( upper) sides of the Giant Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes,) especially if they’re flying. But compare the ventral (lower) side of the wings. The underside of the Giant Swallowtail’s wings are yellow and the Eastern Black’s (below) are black. I was lucky to see both feeding at thistles during my visits to Stony Creek Ravine.
Smaller butterflies and moths float and flutter in the grass as well, of course – and one well-fed caterpillar just chews its way along.
As regular readers know, I’m intrigued by insects of many kinds and want to convince all comers to just enjoy them. So here are some of my other favorites during late summer at Stony Creek Ravine.
Hardy Native Wildflowers Mix with Plentiful Non-natives until Restoration Advances.
Though the fields in the eastern section of the park have been cleared of many non-native shrubs, native wildflowers are not plentiful yet in the fields at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The long stretch of native wetland Black-eyed Susans in the photo above is a glorious exception. Restoration of a healthy habitat with more diversity has begun with seed planting at this large park, but it will take several years to come to fruition. So I have to smile seeing sturdy native blooms holding their own amidst the non-native plants on the Outlook Hill, in the surrounding fields and near the wetlands. Here are some of the other stalwart native competitors declaring their presence at this amazing 268 acre park.
One native plant that’s rampant at the park this year may not please everyone – Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia.) So if you suffer from hay fever, now is not a good time for your visit! Please remember, though, ragweed pollen is dispersed by the wind; that’s why it ends up in noses. So please don’t blame your sneezing on innocent goldenrods that bloom at much the same time. Their pollen is heavy and falls right to the ground, far from sensitive noses!
Oh! And One Creepy Fungus that I Just Have to Share!
One of the benefits of being in a birding group is having more eyes and ears seeking out interesting details in the landscape, plus access to other people’s areas of expertise. For example, the energetic, hardworking summer natural areas stewardship technicains each year provide me, at least, with younger eyes and ears, youthful enthusiasm and a knowledge base more updated than mine!
In late July, while walking up the path to the ravine, Emma Campbell, one of this summer’s technicians, stopped to comment on a spiky bump in the trail that most of us stepped around, assuming that it was just a sharp piece of root. But Emma carefully broke off one small portion and finding it white inside, correctly identified as a fungus spookily called Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). Evidently it’s a common fungus that grows from rotting wood; as you can see below, this one emerged around the remains of a stump. What a Halloween-ish discovery! Thank you, Emma! Wish I could have creeped out some friends with this one when I was a kid!
The “Oohs” and the “Ughs” of Nature’s Impulse to Keep Fostering Life
Unless you are a hopeless romantic, every close observer of the natural world knows that nature is not all “sweetness and light.” The lives around us in nature can be both big and beautiful like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) or small and homely like the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea). It can be full of tenderness, like birds tirelessly feeding their young or ruthless in its need to survive, like a hawk tearing the flesh of its prey. It can be inspiring like a flight of fall geese or macabre like the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus. But whatever qualities it has for us humans, nature itself doesn’t judge and never despairs. Against all odds, nature just proceeds eon after eon in service of sustaining life, whatever that takes. The “nature of nature,” as it were, is to adapt, survive and assure the existence of the next generation.
We humans, as just another species, would do well to take a lesson from the creatures and plants that surround us. We cannot afford to despair as our behavior changes the climate, threatening life on this special blue planet. Generations could stretch on into the future indefinitely if we would do as all other creatures have evolved to do – adapt, change, survive and above all, work hard to ensure that long after we’re gone, life continues on a healthier path than we’re on right now. If we do, our grandchildren and their descendants will honor our efforts and that honor will be well deserved. Let’s not disappoint them.