All posts by Cam Mannino

Bare Feet and Feathers? How Do Birds Survive Winter Weather?

Tufted Titmouse in a snow fall, feathers puffed up against the cold

I’m guessing lots of us who love nature have wondered the same thing in the last few weeks. “As the temperature drops below zero, how do those small birds with bare feet survive out there?”

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Well, it turns out that although our avian winter neighbors share a similar technique for keeping their feet from freezing, their strategies for dealing with cold, snowy days can differ.

 

First Rule:  Use Those Feathers!

Female Cardinal looking lovely in her puffed feathers on a frigid morning

We humans love down jackets on cold winter days and snuggle beneath down comforters on winter nights. Well, birds like the female Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) above, or the Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) pictured at the top of the blog, use the same technique. When birds fluff up their feathers in the cold, they trap a layer of air between the feathers. Their body temperature – in small birds more than 100˚ F –  warms the air layer just as it does in our jackets.  According to Peter Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoo, “Birds’ feathers provide remarkable insulation against the cold, and the oil that coats feathers also provides waterproofing, which is important since the only thing worse than being cold, is being cold and wet.” Here are a few of birds making the most of their feathers on a recent cold morning. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

What About Those Bare Feet, Though?

A Goldfinch last summer at Lost Lake, checking out its “bare feet.”

Last summer I caught this American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) staring at its feet in a tree near Lost Lake. I laughed to think that perhaps it was worrying about how they’d feel on a snowy day! Birds really do have very cold feet in the winter. According to scientist and professor Bernd Heinrich on the Cornell website, the feet of chickadees stay just above freezing even while their body temperatures are very high. Presumably, they don’t feel it much. Their feet are mostly tendons and bones with very few muscles or nerves. If you look at those three birds with feather puffed that are pictured above, you can see they’ve hunched over their feet, covering them with their body feathers. Or sometimes birds simply tuck one leg at a time against their breast. Also, the arteries and veins in birds’ feet are close together. As Heinrich explains it, a bird’s feet are provided with continuous blood flow which keeps them from freezing.  Since the arteries pass close to the veins in a bird’s legs, the cooled blood from the feet gets warmed on the way back to the heart to keep the bird’s body warm. And the warm blood from the heart is cooled down as it moves out to the legs, reducing heat loss. Pretty efficient system!

Second Rule: Eat as Much as Possible!

A White Breasted Nuthatch preparing to tuck a seed into the bark of a tree

On cold days, small birds really need to stuff themselves every few minutes to keep warm. When you see a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillusdashing from your feeder to nearby trees, it’s eating some seeds and storing others in the trees’ bark. Amazingly, the brains of Chickadees expand in the fall to improve their memory so that they can later find those seeds or nuts. According to Cornell’s Birdsleuth website, “neurons are added to the Chickadee’s hippocampus in the fall, increasing its volume by about 30%.”  As a result, Chickadees can remember up to a thousand places in which they’ve tucked their winter provisions! (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before in the blog, but it’s so amazing that it bears repeating!)

But What Do They Eat in Winter?

Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and American Goldfinches can be gluttonous at feeders during the winter because they are vegetarians; no insects or caterpillars for them! On most winter days, they can find seeds or fruits, but  your feeder helps to supplement the wild supply. Mourning Doves can eat 12-20% of their body weight per day! They store seed in their crops, a muscular pouch near the throat, and digest it later to help keep themselves warm at night.

Mourning Doves eat 12-20% of their body weight in seeds each day.

I’ve seen Cedar Waxwings (Bombycillia cedrorum) eating frozen vine fruits or leaf buds that overwinter on the branches of trees.

Cedar waxwings will eat leaf buds on trees during the winter as well as frozen berries.

But many local birds, including Waxwings, are omnivores who can eat a wide range of foods. The Tufted Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, Chickadees and all kinds of Woodpeckers (family Picidae) spend winter days probing loose bark or hopping along branches looking for frozen dinners;  insects, insect eggs, pupae or perhaps a frozen caterpillar will do just fine as sources of protein on a cold day.

A male downy searching for frozen bugs or larvae on a winter morning

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), being bigger birds, will eat almost anything to “stoke their furnaces” during the winter. In our area, the carcasses of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) provide lots of good protein. And if a crow finds one, it notifies its family and friends to join the feast. (No fair being squeamish. We all have to eat!)

Crows find deer carcasses a great source of protein in cold weather.

Where Do Birds Spend Cold Winter Nights?

According to the Smithsonian’s Peter Marra, “Many small birds, like Black-Capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and House Wrens, will gather in large groups at night and crowd together in a small, tight space to share body heat.” Sharing body heat keeps down fat loss during the night to preserve energy for the next day’s foraging.  In his article for Cornell’s All About Birds, Bernd Heinrich describes finding a group of tiny Golden- Crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) huddled in a circle on the branch of a pine tree, beaks in, tails out, sharing their body heat on a winter night. These tiny birds, which overwinter in our area, are about half the weight of a Chickadee! This lovely winter photo of a Golden-crowned Kinglet was taken by a photographer named cedimaria at the website inaturalist.org.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet by photographer cedimaria (CC BY-NC)

Bernd Heinrich reports in his essay collection, Winter’s World, that woodpeckers provide some cozy winter housing for other birds as well as themselves. Every spring, woodpeckers make a fresh hole for raising their young, but they tend to use them for only one year. So small birds can often find an abandoned woodpecker hole to get out of the wind and snow on a winter night. In the autumn, Dr. Heinrich has also spotted both Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus) constructing special overnight shelters just for winter use. I spotted a Downy doing just that in Gallagher Creek Park one November day.  Note the flying wood chips!

A Downy woodpecker in November excavating a hole, chips flying.

Special Winter Strategies Can Be Helpful…

Even though Chickadees can excavate their own holes, in extreme cold they require a few extra tricks at night. According to the Audubon society, these little birds can lower their body temperature at night by as much as 22 degrees, minimizing the difference between their body temperature and the bitterly cold air. They also keep warmer by shivering, which activates opposing muscle groups and produces heat. Luckily, they can even shiver while sleeping, which is something I can’t quite  imagine doing! And of course once settled, like many birds, they can tuck their beaks and feet into their feathers to preserve heat as well.

Though Chickadees can excavate their own holes , sometimes they explore an available cranny in a snag as a possible place to spend a cold night.

Though they don’t appear in our parks these days, Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) survive days of light fluffy snow in a surprising way. They burrow into the snow, creating a long tunnel with a chamber on the end. These one-day burrows not only provide insulation, according to Bernd Heinrich, but they also provide protection from predators. Large dark birds are very visible against the snow! (This photo was generously shared at iNaturalist.org by photographer Brian Murphy.)

Ruffed Grouse make tunnels under the snow for insulation and protection from predators. Photo by Brian Murphy (CC BY-NC)

Thank Goodness for Our Adaptable Winter Birds!

A Chickadee plumped up and ready for a winter day.

Aren’t you glad that some birds stay with us all winter?  And that some actually arrive for an extended stay just as the snow begins to fall? The constant flutter of a busy Chickadee, the “yank yank” call of a Nuthatch as it circles a branch or the friendly chirping of a flock of foraging Tree Sparrows in dry grass are so companionable on gray winter days. And what could be more heartening on a frigid morning than the sight of scarlet Northern Cardinals or azure Blue Jays in a snowy bush? I’m so thankful that some birds have figured out how to survive the cold along with us. By taking shelter, shivering, eating heartily, and snuggling into down comforters very much like we do, they keep us company as we make our way towards spring.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; A Field Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, A Naturalist at Large by Bernd Heinrich and others as cited in the text.

 

Attention Anglers! A Menace to Rivers May Be Hitching a Ride!

nz mudsnail by kate mccombs cc by-nc (1)
The very tiny and very invasive New Zealand Mud Snail, photo by Kate MCCombs (CC BY-NC)

Meet the New Zealand Mud Snail (Potamopyrgus antipodarum), a very problematic, tiny snail (up to  only 1/8th of an inch!) which is one of the latest invasive species to begin changing the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Cam in red winter coat BC
Text by Cam Mannino

At a recent Oakland Township Stewardship Presentation, Emily Bovee and Kennedy Phillips of the Aquatic Ecology Lab at Oakland University shared their extensive knowledge and research on this hitchhiking snail that’s begun infesting Michigan rivers and lakes. The program was quite an education! Here’s a brief overview of some of the information they presented.

Please note that the photos in this blog were generously shared by photographers from iNaturalist.org and by the researchers at Oakland University. Names and permissions are listed in the captions on their photos. 

Michigan’s Problem with Invasive Species

Our state is surrounded by the Great Lakes, which hold 20% of the world’s freshwater. Unfortunately, it is also now home to 180 non-native species.  How do these species get here?

  • Waterway connections, e.g., the Sea Lamprey arrived through the St. Lawrence Seaway.
  • Released pets and aquarium water.
  • Aquaculture – the movement of fish or eggs from commercial fisheries may have brought the mud snail originally. The transport of exotic water plants can do it, too.
  • Ballast water in ships can harbor them. For example, the invasive Zebra Mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) arrived this way and perhaps the New Zealand Mud Snail as well.
  • Boats, other watercraft and recreational activity can spread the unwelcome New Zealand Mud Snail from river to river, river to lake.

The problem with invasive species is that, once established, they alter the very environment in which our native creatures have lived for thousands of years. Often, for instance, they eat the food on which on our native species depend. By doing that, they can cause local extinctions and generally make the ecosystem less healthy, less able to adapt. Some, like the Quagga (Dreissena bugensis) and Zebra Mussels contribute to the creation of toxic dead zones caused by  huge algae blooms that use up all the available oxygen in the water. What a mess!

Now We’re Dealing with the New Zealand Mud Snail

Benson, A.J., R.M. Kipp, J. Larson, and A. Fusaro, 2019, Potamopyrgus antipodarum: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL

This very tiny menace is called a “mud snail” because it hides buried in the mud during the day and emerges at night to feed. It feeds on algae, decomposing leaves, or wood that falls into the water. As a result, mud snails live in areas where the current slows and plant material is deposited. That, of course, is also a place where anglers frequently find the fish they are seeking!

Mud Snails Reproduce by Cloning Like Crazy!

sea-kangaroo cc by-nc-nd (1)
New Zealand Mud Snails are tiny and clone themselves into huge densities. Photo by sea-kangaroo (CC BY-NC-ND)

Although New Zealand Mud Snails are both male and female in their native range, the ones here in North America are all females – and they can clone like crazy! In fact, DNA analysis indicates that the millions of mud snails already in the U.S. originated from as few as three females! These snails produce live young about every 2-4 months and can produce over 200 hundred in one year, and each of those can produce 200 more – and well, you see the problem. The Oakland University researchers have found colonies of 30,000 in a square meter (about 10 square feet) in the Au Sable River, Michigan’s internationally known trout stream. In the western United States, where the snails have existed since 1987, researchers find 500,000 in a square meter!

Tough Competitors Who Can Survive Almost Anything!

These are tough little females! New Zealand Mud Snails are fresh water snails, but can tolerate salty water, and survive excessive heat and winter ice. They thrive in disturbed areas and survive floods better than other snails by burrowing into the mud. They attach themselves quickly to boats, anchors, waders, and fishing equipment for transportation to other lakes – as well using pets and wildlife like the legs of wading birds.  Mud snails can live out of water for up to two weeks by closing their shells. And they can even survive traveling through the innards of fish or birds and make it out alive 50-80% of the time! We are talking about a tough competitor here in our waterways!

And Mud Snails Can Be Devastating

Emily Bovee and Kennedy Phillips studying New Zealand Mud Snails in the Au Sable River, photo by Jeremy Geist
Emily Bovee and Kennedy Phillips, researchers from Oakland University,  studying the presence of New Zealand Mud Snails in the Au Sable River

There’s evidence that trout in the Au Sable River eat New Zealand Mud Snails, but they can’t get much nourishment from them. Their shells are too hard for most fish to crush or digest. Hence the nutrients in them don’t nourish fish like native snails or other macroinvertebrates in a river would. And to add more injury, these snails eat the very organic matter on which our native species depend, the species which efficiently nourish fish and other creatures.  New Zealand Mud Snails, for example, eat the most tender parts of algae, but leave the less palatable parts for other aquatic creatures. Thanks a lot!

What to Do? Practical Steps to Prevent Hitchhikers

nz mudsnail tiny 2 by tim quinnel cc by-nc
The size of New Zealand Mud Snails means they can be easily missed on equipment! Photo by Tim Quinnell (CC-BY-NC)

Sadly, as is often the case with invasive species, there is no hope of ever eliminating these minute snails. They have no natural predators in North America. And if we tried to physically remove them but missed even one, we’d have hundreds of thousands again in a matter of years as the creatures clone and clone again.

So the goal now is to all pull together and STOP THEIR SPREAD! Here’s where you come in. The Oakland University researchers made these recommendations:

  • Clean, Drain and Dry All Boats, Watercraft and their Trailers – You’ll need to drain them for 24 hours before you go to another water system. Drain your live well, your bilge and dry your motor. Remember! These snails are tiny and easily missed! Look carefully!
  • Clean Your Waders, Nets, etc.  Go away from the water’s edge (near your car for instance) and spray your gear liberally with Formula 409, which right now is the only substance found to kill 100 % of these little critters. Don’t get any 409 in the water system! The surfactant that makes it work on the snails is lethal to many creatures. Be sure to brush/scour the soles of your boots or waders. Rinse the equipment with water, dry them, and wait 24 hours before going into another stream. Again, remember to check carefully for these tiny snails!
  • Educate Others about These Procedures – Spread the word to other people in your life who fish. These snails prefer rivers where sunlight can reach the mud and grow algae. But they have been found in lakes as well, since rivers, of course, empty into lakes. Anglers can’t protect our waterways if they don’t really understand the dangers associated with these snails.
  • Volunteer to Help – You can provide a water sample from a river in which you fish and submit it easily to the Aquatic Ecology Lab.  Find out how by emailing Emily Bovee, one of the researchers from O. (See the researchers’ emails below.)  A DNA test can discover whether mud snails are present in the waterways where you fish or boat. That helps researchers know where to do their work and allows conservationists to offer information on local signage and to strategically locate cleaning kiosks for fishing gear.

It’s Not Fun to Think about Invasive Species…but We Really Need To Do It. 

Ausable River by Jeremy Geist
Au Sable River, photo by Jeremy Geist

I will readily admit that learning about invasive species is not as uplifting as learning about the restoration of forests, prairies and native species in general.   Non-native species often end up dominating the landscape and thereby diminishing the rich diversity of our natural areas.  And often the story of invasives does not have a clear ending, much less a happy one.  For though we can work at controlling them, in many cases, we will never be entirely rid of them.  

It seems that our best hope is to get educated about  invasive species and then pass on that understanding to others in the hope that we can dramatically limit the damage that they  do.   We can participate in citizen science projects.  We can choose to be informed and careful about inadvertently spreading invasive plants, fungi or creatures when we garden, fish, hike or choose our pets.  We can plant and nurture native flowers, grasses and trees. Seems do-able, doesn’t it?  In fact, we’re already doing it here in Oakland Township through our stewardship program.  And really,  it seems like the least we can do to honor the diverse beauty and generosity of the natural areas which have supported us for thousands of years.  

Need More Information?

Water sample kit, photo by Emily Bovee, OU researcher
A water sample kit to determine whether NZ Mud Snails are in the rivers you fish. Photo by Jeremy Geist.

To participate in DNA water sampling, contact the research team at Oakland University’s Aquatic Ecology Lab by contacting Oakland University researcher Emily Bovee  at this email address:  enbovee@oakland.edu.

As well as attending the excellent workshop, I found these two websites very useful.

A Beaver in Residence at Cranberry Lake Park

Beaver lodge at Cranberry Lake, February 2017

Two years ago, the birding group stepped onto the ice at the edge of Cranberry Lake to see a beaver lodge (above). Pretty cool! But since then, we hadn’t seen much activity around the lodge – no felled or gnawed trees, for example.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Well, an American beaver (Castor canadensis) is definitely in residence this winter! During the first week of January, one appears to have swum through the canal near the end of the lake trail. A good-sized hole had been broken in the ice, leaving large shards on either side. (See below.) And nearby there were definite signs of a foraging beaver!

 

An open spot in the ice with large plates of broken ice around it.

The beaver must have gone right to work gathering some bark to feed on this winter. Beavers eat leaves during the summer, but in winter they feed on the soft inner bark of trees. As my husband and I looked around, we spotted several examples of this accomplished lumberjack’s work! One was only partially gnawed; perhaps a predator or a curious human interrupted its work – or maybe it just decided it had enough fodder and retired to its lodge. [Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Beavers have huge, self-sharpening, iron-fortified incisors that they use for this work. The iron makes those big buck teeth very strong and bright orange, as you can see in this taxidermy beaver on display at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden.

A taxidermy beaver on display at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden.

My guess is that our Cranberry Lake beaver (it’s usually a male that gathers food during the winter) came up through the ice and felled a few trees. He then grabbed each log with his powerful jaws, dragging it under the ice and swimming with it out to his lodge. At that early time in January, it was impossible for me to get out on the thin ice to see his cache. What beavers usually do, according to the PBS Nature documentary “Leave It to Beavers” is to  sink a few trees  in the mud beneath the lodge with some of the branches left above the surface.  That allows the beaver to feed under the ice, safe from predators like coyotes. The dark limbs above the surface also help to bring some warmth below on sunny days, keeping the ice near the cache less solid and acting as a marker for their stash of food. Clever little animals! Here’s the lodge two years ago with some trees sticking out of the ice in just that way.

Young branches stuck in the mud near the beaver lodge provide winter food under the ice.

Some of the trunks and branches may just be placed on the lodge for future use. That’s what this year’s beaver appears to have done – though looking through the trees made it difficult to see.

Right now, some of the felled trees seemed to be resting on top of the lodge for future use.

A couple of weeks later, when we’d had some colder weather, I ventured out to the lake edge again to see if any more trees had been felled. None had, but I noticed a long trail of frozen bubbles under the ice. Normally these are methane bubbles released by the bacteria that feed on plants decomposing under the ice. Perhaps this marks some leaves or twigs from the felled trees that the beaver hauled out to his lodge. But of course, the air bubbles could also be coming from the beaver, right? I wondered if this new lodge tenant had ventured out again, but found the ice too thick to break through. Muskrats, which are much smaller than beavers, also swim under the ice in winter, so I’m not sure who or what left this trail.

What appeared to be a trail of bubbles left by the beaver under the ice as few weeks later when the ice was thicker.

Two year old beavers, I learned from the Nature documentary, leave their home lodge and venture out to find an empty lodge that they can rebuild or to build a new one. On a cold day last March, I spotted what I at first assumed was a small beaver swimming toward the shore opposite the lodge. Because of its size, though, I decided it was a muskrat – but now I wonder if my first guess was correct.  No way of knowing really, but I like to think so!

What seems to be a young beaver last March at Cranberry Lake

Young beavers sometimes need to venture out of their lodges more in the winter, because they didn’t fill their larders quite full enough in the autumn. So perhaps the swimmer I saw last March is the new tenant and local lumberjack – and perhaps not.

But if this hydro engineer sticks around, he may be making a few spots in Cranberry Lake a bit deeper each year. Beavers dig deep channels beneath their ponds because the deeper the water, the safer beavers are from predators.  According to the documentary, out west during the 2002 droughts, farmers and ranchers with beavers in their ponds had the only water available for livestock – and of course wildlife gathered at those ponds as well. Beavers keep a lot of water on the landscape by deepening streams and creating ponds with their dams. Of course beavers can also cause trouble with their architectural abilities, flooding roads and human housing, but luckily the documentary explains how clever stewards in Canada are using the beavers’ natural attraction to the sound of trickling water to encourage them to build in safer places.

A fine beaver photo by Blake A. Mann at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Usually young beavers don’t mate until their third year. If the beaver who felled the trees this January sticks around and is lucky enough to come across a mate, maybe we’ll discover a whole family of beavers one of these days! I’d just love to photograph a beaver sitting out of the water, but since they usually appear just before dawn or after sunset, no luck so far. Fortunately, a photographer named Blake A. Mann got a lovely photo of one chewing contently on a stick and graciously shared it through iNaturalist.org. He’s definitely inspired me to keep looking!

What’s Under the Ice? Wow! Winter Tadpoles!

The creamy white belly of a tadpole as it feeds at the icy surface of the playground pond.

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.

Text and photos Cam Mannino

About a half dozen of them cork-screwed up to the surface, snatched tiny bits of green Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) 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!

A Green Frog tadpole feeding within a hole in the ice  at the playground pond in Bear Creek Nature Park in late December of this year.

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.

Winter tadpoles breathe more efficiently because they have more skin surface and less body size than hibernating adult frogs.

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.

An adult Green Frog surrounded by Water Meal plants in the summer months as 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!

A Year in the Life of Wildflower Seeds

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.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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

Ben spreading seed at Bear Creek Nature Park after a prescribed burn in spring 2018.

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.

loading the seed
When we seed our first prairie plantings at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park, we hired Jerry Stewart with Native Connections to do the planting. Here he is filling the machine with seed in 2015.

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.

Big Bluestem blooms LL
Big Bluestem (Adropogon gerardii) shown here is a wind-pollinated plant. This pictures shows its anthers that produce pollen (bright yellow) and the stigmas that catch pollen (purple and fuzzy).

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!

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

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.

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning.

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 (Ageratina altissima) 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!

Ben treading on Menarda seed heads

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.

Each species of seeds is weighed, labeled and readied for storage.

So here is our haul for this year!

Stewardship specialist Alyssa Radzwion with our stock of wild seed from 2018.

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!

Dr. Ben covered in the silky parachutes of common milkweed.