On a cold April morning, a monumental figure appeared on the roof ridge of an empty house we can see through our woods.
We’d noticed a pair of vultures over the field next door, circling together, diving and turning, sculpting patterns in the cold morning air. Then a few minutes later, a monumental shape appeared on the roof ridge of an empty house through the woods. A Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) had landed and spread its powerful 5-6 foot wingspan. But where was the other bird? Ah, peering through the trees, I spied a somewhat smaller vulture perched on top of the chimney, keeping its partner company.
Of course, I ran off to consult the Cornell Ornithology Lab website and found this: “Often, especially in the morning, they can be seen standing erect, wings spread in the sun, presumably to warm up, cool off, or dry off.”
Wikipedia added to that list the possibility of “baking off bacteria” which would have made more sense on a warm summer morning. I suspected they might be a mating pair, though the breeding season can run a bit later in their northern ranges.
Since turkey vultures form long term bonds after a group courting ritual, perhaps I was seeing an established couple – or possibly an older bird with a younger one, since the smaller bird seemed to have more of the immature’s gray around its eyes than the typical fully red head of an adult. I wasn’t sure.
Eventually, the larger bird joined its partner on the flat surface of the chimney cap. Vultures evidently like to perch on abandoned buildings or any surface which is slightly cooler than its surroundings.
They stood together for a short time. The smaller bird lowered its head, perhaps recognizing an elder bird or signaling a willingness for a partnership.
They then spent a long time preening, which could have been a precursor to mating, but most likely is also important for any bird that eats carrion.
Turkey vultures, unlike Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus), rarely, if ever, kill anything. Instead they cruise using their excellent eyesight and keen sense of smell to spot a freshly dead animal. Their bare heads and sturdy digestive systems make them virtually invulnerable to contracting anthrax, botulism or other diseases in decomposing meat. Vultures and other carrion eaters function in our habitat as a constantly vigilant clean up crew. For all my park visits, I rarely see or smell the remains of a dead animal – which I appreciate.
Predators don’t mess much with adult vultures. But when owls, hawks, or eagles do occasionally attack them, they aren’t agile enough to be good fighters. Their defense is to hiss or just vomit nasty, acid stomach contents on their attackers – and baby vultures do the same when attacked by raccoons or possums. I bet no predator tries that twice!
Vultures are admittedly homely, awkward birds on the ground. They hop and waddle with their wings akimbo and struggle to take flight. But once lift off occurs, they are masters of the sky!
They rise swiftly, riding warm air thermals, circling high into the sky in a teetering, V-shaped flight. Rarely flapping those huge wings, they soar gracefully across and above the landscape. Light shines through the tapered tips of their primary (flight) feathers, creating what appears to be a wide silver-gray band edging their dark wings. I see them that way on almost every hike.
So I felt very lucky to have been gifted – on my birthday no less! – with a glimpse of these impressive birds in a more restful, and even intimate moment. No mating occurred, though. Before long, they both flexed those dark wings, took a few beats, and sailed back into the sky.
In March, I spent two glorious days at the 32nd annual convention of the Wildflower Association of Michigan. Having worked with Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for four years, I’m still absorbing information on native plants at a ferocious pace.
Like many of us, I’d never given much thought to the sources of plants surrounding my house. The lovely family that built our house no doubt thought of landscaping and gardening more as a decorative exercise than as a crucial way to establish beautiful and healthy habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife. As a result, the small woods on one side of our property is full of non-native plants, shrubs and trees which do little or nothing to create habitat that supports wildlife. Luckily, the other side was left largely in native trees and our small slice of field carries an assortment of prairie plants and grasses.
Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, gave the keynote at this sold-out conference. He shared the science behind native plants in a completely engaging and easily understandable presentation. Dr. Tallamy and the other presenters opened my mind and put a hopeful smile on my face. Can our lawns and gardens really make a difference in preserving the natural world? Their answer was an emphatic “Yes!” And I’m already envisioning a transformation outside my front door!
Why Bother with Native Plants, Anyway?
Dr. Tallamy began by pointing out that it isn’t really a matter of native vs. non-native. Plants from other parts of the world aren’t “bad,” but as Lois B. Robbins, author of Lawn Wars, puts it “A plant that is well-behaved in its hometown will often lose its inhibitions in another locale and trash the place.” Alien plants can be aggressive in a new environment, crowding out native plants since the restraints present in their native lands are not there to stop them. They can require more watering and fertilizing because they aren’t used to foreign soil. And as you’ll see below, they are not able to feed most of our wildlife. The value of native plants is that they are perfectly suited to their habitat; they have evolved over millions of years to survive in their home environment.
As I discussed in an earlier blog, plants pass along the sun’s energy (and the earth’s nutrients and water) to all the creatures around them, humans included. Some are eaten both by us and by the other creatures in our local habitat. And some in each generation successfully reproduce, providing food for a next generation. But for that process to continue functioning, we specifically need… brace yourself… more insects!
Is It Possible to Be Welcoming to Insects???
We’ve all grown up in a world where insects are referred to as “pests” and routinely swatted, sprayed with deadly chemicals or fried in “bug zappers.” But the famous biologist E.O.Wilson calls them “The Little Things that Run the World.” Why? We first think of them as important for pollination, and they are. They pollinate 80% of all plants and 90% of all flowering plants. Without insects, most plants can’t reproduce.
But there’s more to insects than pollination. Insects form the next ring out from plants in nature’s food web. They eat plants and when eaten themselves, they pass along the sun’s energy to fish, amphibians, reptiles, and of course, birds. According to Dr. Tallamy, insects and spiders “are essential dietary components for 96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species.” They eat them all year, even in winter, seeking out frozen or hibernating insects (or their eggs and larvae) for the protein they need to stay warm. They also need insects in order to raise their young in the spring and summer.
Insect caterpillars are birds’ favorite food for offspring. Caterpillars, the larval stage of insects, pass along the most energy from plants to other animals. Bird feed them to their nestlings because they’re soft for tiny throats. Plus, they’re loaded with both fat and protein for little birds, and caterpillars are large. One fat caterpillar is easier for an adult bird to pluck up and ferry back to the nest than gathering up and delivering hundreds of tiny aphids, for instance. By the way, insects are 25% of a Red Fox’s diet and 23% of a bear’s. So mammals (including in many cultures, humans!) eat them as well.
So, How Does the Importance of Insects Relate to Native Plants?
It turns out that insects vastly prefer the plants with which they evolved. In fact, research shows that 90% of insects are specialists; they will only eat or lay their eggs on certain native plants. The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is, of course, an extreme example. Out of the 2,137 genera of plants in North America, the Monarch’s caterpillar can eat exactly one – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias).
The very reason butterflies and hundreds of thousands of birds go to the trouble of migrating north is the huge pulse of food produced each spring by our native plants and the insects that feed on them. Butterflies and other insects may lay their eggs on non-native leaves and stems if that’s all that is available, but once the caterpillars hatch, they often can’t eat them or can’t get enough nutrition to finish developing into reproductive adults. With fewer caterpillars, 90% of birds have less to eat – and on it goes throughout the food web.
Dr. Tallamy compared native trees and non-native trees on his property and at the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio where he does his research. He marked out areas of native and non-native plants and recorded the number of caterpillars found on them over a set period of time. Here are results:
Native Oak – 419 caterpillars from 19 species
Native Wild Cherry – 239 caterpillars from 14 species
Non-native and invasive Callery/Bradford Pear – 1 caterpillar (a common tree in subdivisions and office parks)
Non-native Burning Bush – 4 caterpillars from 1 species
Dr. Tallamy shared the results of a study on CarolinaChickadees (Poecile carolinensis), which need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars in a season to rear one clutch of fledglings! His student, Desirée Narango, compared chickadee breeding success in home landscapes with native plants vs. landscapes filled with non-natives.
The results were pretty dismal for lawns like mine. Non-native areas, like most of my current yard (and maybe yours):
produced 75% fewer caterpillars
were 65% less likely to have breeding chickadees
the nests contained 1.5 fewer eggs
the nestlings were 29% less likely to survive (not enough food!)
nests produced 1.2 fewer fledglings
the maturation of nestlings was slower by 1.5 days
Have a look at Just a few of the many species I’ve seen on one of our common native wildflower, Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa). (Use pause button for captions.)
Have a look in your yard this summer. At the end of the summer, if I bother to look, I’ll find many more signs of insect munching on the big, leafy Black Oaks (Quercus velutina) in our front yard, for instance, than I will on our non-native Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum) or invasive Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia).
“No holes, no chewed leaves, no damage – sounds good to me!” you might be thinking. After all, that’s one reason that you and I have always liked non-native species and why nurseries like to sell them! If you want plants that are just decorative, that might work for you, but not for the nature around you. But step back a few paces and the chewed leaves of natives are hardly noticeable. I’m hoping my yard can be beautiful while also being more productive, filled with life and energy, more a working part of the natural world.
Some Questions You Might Be Asking Yourself
Dr. Tallamy respectfully described some of the questions and challenges other scientists have raised about native plants and their importance. Here’s what his research and the research of others have shown that answered their concerns and maybe yours.
But I’ve seen birds and butterflies feeding on non-native plants! Ten percent of insects are generalists who can eat a wide variety of plants, but even their populations are lower on non-native plants than on natives. Adult butterflies and other native insects can often sip nectar or spread pollen from non-native flowers, thereby helping them take over fields! But unfortunately their caterpillars cannot grow to adults by eating non-native plants. As a result, insects in landscapes with few native plants don’t reproduce effectively, their numbers decline, and the loss is felt throughout the food web.
Birds will also feed on non-native plants, but they often can’t get the nutrition they need. For example, our native plants produce berries in the summer that have low fat and high sugar content, which is great for fledgling birds. In the fall, native berries are high in protein which is just what migrating birds and birds that spend the winter require. Non-native berries in the fall and winter are very low in fat and high in sugar, which won’t sustain birds on migration or in cold weather.
Isn’t this just some romantic notion about returning to an imagined pre-European settlement, pristine world – or even worse, a kind of horticultural prejudice against alien plants? Again, the issue isn’t good plants or bad plants. If we want to restore habitat, we need plants that feed our local food web, that provide insects for food, and that provide shelter and nest sites for birds and other local wildlife. Native plants are just much more efficient and productive at doing that than non-native plants.
When does a non-native plant become native? How long does it have to be here?If non-natives acted in the food web like natives, we wouldn’t care how long it had been here. But they just don’t, because insects don’t adapt to new foods quickly. The invasive, non-native grass Phragmites (Phragmites australissubspecies australis) feeds 170 plant-eating insects in its native Europe. But it’s been in North America for 300 years and only feeds 5 insect species here. Eucalyptus trees (genus Eucalyptus) feed 48 species in their native Australia. They’ve been in North America for a 100 years and feed only one!
How about planting cultivars of native trees bred for special colors or flowers, for example? In general, when nursery-developed cultivars of native trees are planted, caterpillar abundance drops 65%. Bees too are very particular about flower shape. When native flowers or trees are bred for double flowers instead of single ones, it can have a big impact on pollinators. Or if the leaf color is changed to red or purple instead of green, insect numbers drop. Changing to variegated leaves, changing height or berry size, however, may not be a problem.
Aren’t There Still Plenty of Native Insects in Wild Areas if Not Our Yards? Well, no, in fact, there aren’t. Here in the Midwest, 50% of our native bees have disappeared from their historic ranges in the last century. Four bumblebee species declined 96% in the last 20 years. 25% of our bumblebees are already at risk for extinction. 50% of our mid- western native bee species have disappeared in the last 100 years. Globally, there’s been a 45% decline in insects since 1975 – almost half of the insects in the world gone in about 45 years! Germany has experienced a 79% decrease in insects! (On the bright side, Amsterdam has seen a 45% increase in bee populations since developing a policy of using native plants throughout the city.)
Many natural areas in our region (and yours too, probably) are heavily infested with aggressive non-native plants just like the woods on my property. That’s why our township stewardship program is always working to eliminate aggressive non-native plants and restore abandoned fields and forests to a healthy, diverse assortment of native plants. Many non-native plants have historically been promoted by nurseries and landscapers and then escaped into the wild. The seed of others arrived here in livestock feed or grazing grasses.
Some of you older readers may remember moths dancing in the headlights when your parents drove the car at night. Some people affixed bug screens to the fronts of cars to prevent insects from smashing regularly into the grill, hood or windshield. But no more. Unfortunately, every generation thinks the number of insects around them is “normal” when it’s actually been steadily declining for decades.
Major Causes of Insect Decline
We usually think of insecticides first when we hear about the decline in bee, butterfly or other insect populations – and they do have a powerful effect. And climate change is no doubt taking a toll as well.
But the fact is that we just don’t have enough natural areas full of native plants left on our planet to feed insects and hence other wildlife. Researchers estimate that half of the arable land on earth is now covered by agriculture or ranching. Corn and soy bean seeds, the most common agricultural plants in America these days, are often treated with insecticides which are designed to kill some insects. These plants are also wind-pollinated and so don’t provide nectar or pollen for insects.We have 770 million acres of rangeland in the US, an area 12 times larger than the state of Michigan! Ranchers are just now being encouraged to integrate native grasses after decades of growing largely non-native grasses. And our non-native lawns are actually the largest irrigated “crop” in the United States.
Commercial areas are built on former grasslands and prairies, then covered with asphalt. The Denver airport alone, for example, covers an area the size of Manhattan in asphalt. We have built housing in field after field, forest after forest and covered millions of miles in roads. That’s where we home owners come in…
Property Owners Can Now Play a Crucial Role in Restoring Natural Habitat
Non-native plants hold the upper hand in most natural areas that are not managed carefully. Luckily, our township’s stewardship program here is restoring native habitat in our parks every day. Former farm fields choked with non-native shrubs and plants are being restored to diverse and beautiful prairies like the one above, full of the color and insect hum of native plant communities. And we can do the same on a smaller scale right out our front doors.
Property owners – home owners, businesses or towns – are now our best hope for restoring native habitat for the benefit of wildlife and ultimately for ourselves as well. Currently, our yards are largely “green deserts” in the sense that they just don’t provide enough food, protection or nesting sites to support the food web and create healthy habitat for wildlife. At most American homes, like mine, the lawn is a stretch of non-native turf grass (the standard lawn grasses) and the gardens are still largely filled with non-native trees, bushes and flowers.
So what do you think? Can we declare a ceasefire with more of our insects? After all, only about 1% of all insects are even interested in us – and proper clothing, screens, and repellent can keep most of them at bay. Can we begin to add beautiful native plants to our non-native gardens, gradually turning them into beautiful habitats that flutter and hum with life? Perhaps some of us will even be adventurous enough to replace our sod carpets with a well-maintained variety of native grasses or interesting green sedges. Perhaps we can ask more companies and towns to install native plant landscapes. I’m so hopeful that we’ll see a new garden ethic, a renaissance of native plants, come to fruition in my lifetime. The visionary conservationist John Muir made the best case for preserving our native habitats:
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Suggestions and Resources for Introducing Native Plants to Your Yard and/or Garden
Get a copy of Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy. The whole book is great. Chapters 8-12 are specifically targeted toward getting started with native plants in your lawn or garden.
Look for native plants sales in your community. This year the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission sponsored a sale, for instance (orders are already in for this year). I’m aware also of yearly native plants sales in our area: North Oakland Headwaters Land Conservancy hosts a sale in Clarkston, and Cranbrook sells plants rescued from developments. If you look, you’ll find some near you if you live further afield.
The best native plant sources provide genotypes from your state or local area. Here is a lists of plant suppliers in southern Michigan that we know. (Let us know if we missed any!)
Hidden Savanna Nursery near Kalamazoo grows Michigan native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees sold in containers and plugs. Specializing in Southwest Michigan genotypes. They have several retail sale dates on weekends in spring and late summer.
Wildtype in Mason, Michigan. Largely a wholesaler but have three weekends in May and one in August for those of us buying retail and in smaller quantities. The retail catalog has helpful information about each plant.
Michigan Wildflower Farm near Portland, MI grows Michigan native wildflower and grass seed, and provides design, consultation, installation, and management.
Native Connections near Three Rivers, MI grows Michigan genotype wildflower and grass seed, design, consultation, installation, and management.
Go Grow Plant Natives near Charlotte, MI is a native plant nursery specializing in Michigan native shrubs, trees, and wildflowers.
Designs By Nature, LLC. near Laingsburg, MI. A native plant nursery and native landscape consulting company. 517.230.2923, email@example.com
The Native Plant Nursery in Ann Arbor grows only local native plant species from Michigan seed sources and produces a diverse selection of native perennials and a few species of native trees and shrubs. Often has a booth at the Ann Arbor farmer’s market.
She Is Growing Wild in Ada, MI grows and sells over 80 Michigan native species. 616.450.7407, firstname.lastname@example.org.
DISCLAIMER: Oakland Township Parks & Recreation does not endorse or promote any business entity which produces or markets native plants or seeds, or which provides landscape design or installation services. The list of vendors is provided for informational purposes only. Information above is from the websites of the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association, River City WildOnes, and the Native Plant Guild. Links to websites included when available, otherwise phone numbers and email addresses.
Beware of buying any plants or seeds treated with insecticides, specifically neonicitinoids, as they are harmful to insects despite what the label says about it being approved for human health. Also avoid seed mixes that say something very general like “prairie seeds.” You may get a glorious bloom the first year, but many of the plants are not local and could introduce invasive plants that you and your neighbors will battle later on.
Get comfortable with bees and other pollinators as well as insects and their valuable caterpillars on your property. Dr. Tallamy made 400 of us laugh when he suggested “a ten step process. Step back 10 steps and you won’t notice the caterpillars!”
Many native plants don’t need or like fertilizers or other soil amendments. Some do better without them. Some will take off too enthusiastically and try to take over your garden. Learn a bit ahead of time about which ones re-seed avidly and which tend to stay put. Be prepared to pull some out if they get too rambunctious.
Start small and consider the neighbors. Native gardens can function as an advertisement to your neighborhood of the benefits of native gardening. Keep the edges trimmed or even decoratively fenced for a tidy look. Plant informally or formally; native plants need communities of other plants, but that can include massing colors and other popular approaches to garden design.
Create mowed paths through your yard if you decide to try a native lawn, which is a larger undertaking. You want a native lawn to look tended and purposeful, not neglected.
Be patient. Remember that native prairie plants here in Michigan, for example, need deep roots to handle drought. It can take up to 3 years for your new plants to reach full bloom. Learn which plants work in your soil ahead of time but also be prepared to switch things out that don’t work, if necessary.
J.R.R. Tolkien provided the ideal words to describe the in-between season in which we’re suspended right now: “… a morning of pale Spring still clinging to Winter’s chill.” Spring is officially here with the Spring Equinox, but mornings in the prairies and forests of the township can still feel as though we’re caught in the last weak grip of winter.
So this week, I thought I’d be on the lookout for sure signs of spring’s arrival and naturally, once I started looking, they were everywhere!
Birds Herald Longer Days with Song and Some Fancy Posturing
Arriving at Draper Twin Lake Park one cold, gray Sunday, my husband and I heard a very loud, clear rendition of the entire spring song of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). (Cardinals have a lot of calls. Listen to the second call listed at this Cornell link – that’s the one we heard.) This fellow seemed confident that he could woo the ladies and establish his territory at the same time with his full-throated singing! Look at that beak!
Male American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at our feeder are changing out of their modest winter attire into their breeding feathers. In a month or so, they’ll be bright yellow in the hope of interesting a female with an eye for color. Here’s a male on the bottom right perch of our thistle feeder who started changing his wardrobe in March. Perhaps the female on the bottom left perch will be interested? (The other birds are Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) who will migrate north before long.)
The buzzing trill of the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaiusphoeniceus), which is accompanied by raising his red shoulder patches, is a common and beloved sign of spring here in Michigan. But last week I saw a male who was taking display to a whole new level. While calling, he also began awkwardly dancing along a branch, keeping his scarlet “epaulets” raised, occasionally fanning his tail, all in the interest of establishing a territory and showing off for some lucky female. What a guy! (Click through the slide show below to see the progression of his dance!)
Other birds establish dominance over other males with creative use of their necks! Below two newly arrived Common Grackles (Quiscalusquiscula) appear to be trying to “out-snoot” each other with their beaks tilted skyward! I think the one on the right is probably the winner here, don’t you? Or else the one the left is an uninterested female. It’s hard to tell.
Mark, a birding friend, told me that the Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) at Stoney Creek Metropark were doing their dramatic neck displays as well. According to Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website, Goldeneyes spend December to April in courtship groups where they form mating pairs by performing a lot of energetic neck movements. The male bends his neck backwards until his head lays on his back and then he snaps it forward, splashing water with his feet at the same time! The female responds by lowering her head and swinging it forward. Pretty dramatic courtship! I wasn’t able to get to the Metropark this week, but a kindly photographer from iNaturalist, who goes by Mike B, allowed us the use of this photo of a male taken near Chicago. These diving ducks are headed to their breeding grounds in northern Canada and Alaska, just south of the Arctic.
Flocks of Birds – Large Ones and Small Ones – Fly Overhead and Forage in Our Parks
The birding group had an exciting Wednesday at Charles Ilsley Park when two huge flocks of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) flew overhead! Cornell says that these huge, all white swans with black beaks spent the winter on the Atlantic coast and are now headed to the Arctic tundra to build their nests and breed. Aren’t we lucky to be on their flyway?
Another birding friend, Mike Kent, took the photo below, because, wouldn’t you know, that was the day I decided to leave my camera at home!!! Look carefully at Mike’s photo because he caught a fascinating detail. We saw one lone Canada Goose (Brantacanadensis) traveling along with this huge flock of swans! You can just see its dark body in the upper left of the photo, third bird down. Hope this adventurous goose doesn’t plan to go all the way to the Arctic with its new-found friends!
That Wednesday was great for seeing big birds at Ilsley Park. Mike also caught for us a nice photo of a family of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) who settled at the bottom of a slope to rest and feed. The larger, darker birds to the right are probably the adults, while the two smaller gray ones on the left are probably last year’s young ones.
At Bear Creek Nature Park, smaller flocks were chatting in trees and foraging along the paths. A noisy group of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) were snatching berries from a tree infested with invasive Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). Some robins overwinter here and some migrate to southern Ohio and Kentucky. Some move back and forth all winter long. Though these non-native berries attract them during the winter, they unfortunately don’t provide much nutrition for the birds since thawing and freezing makes them very sugary. So migrating, in their case, might be a better choice!
On a path from the playground to the Walnut Lane at Bear Creek Nature Park, I saw my first flock of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). I love to listen to these tuneful birds in the spring, but have never before seen a flock of them in one area, as I did this week. They were “chicken-scratching” by scooting backwards with their feet in a ferocious attempt to get at some food beneath the surface -probably small seeds or insect eggs. The flock was so busy that the ground along the trail looked torn as they scraped their way down to the frozen surface, looking for food.
Buds are Swelling from Bare Branches – a Welcome Sign of Spring’s Arrival
Every year as spring approaches, I watch the Silver Maple (Acersaccharinum) to the right of the deck at Bear Creek’s Center Pond. It’s always one of the first trees to signal spring for me, its robust, red buds hanging gracefully from drooping branches over the water.
A small Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) near the pond has just barely thrust its leaf bud from the woody protection it had during the winter (left). In May, it will be a huge glorious bud (center), and in June, the green leaves will unfold into the sunlight (right). (Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Yes, It’s Muddy…but It’s S’posed to Be, Right?
It’s the end of March. Most of the ice on the surface is gone (at least for the moment!), but the ground is still frozen beneath. So rain and melting snow have nowhere to go. That makes for muddy shoes, smeared pant legs and cars decorated in various shades of brown. But hey, those signs announce that full-fledged, glorious spring is almost here! Birds are beginning to sing, dance, do a bit of neck gymnastics, don spring colors and wing their way north overhead in huge numbers. And trees are slowly waking from their roots, sending sugary sap up through their vascular systems, ripening their leaves for another summer of sun-gathering. All of nature, including us humans, have survived a very challenging, deep-freeze winter. Now’s the time to celebrate just being alive on a mudluscious walk in the pale sunshine of an early spring morning.
Like many of you, I suspect, I have always had great admiration and even a special affection for trees. As a child in a sometimes chaotic family, I found peace and solace sitting high in a hundred year old sugar maple on Lake George Road with my book and a snack. But more recently, writing this blog has brought me time and again to startling new revelations about these giants of the plant world. So I thought in these lingering winter-ish days of early spring, we might take a few minutes to marvel at trees – and plants in general.
Cool Things about Trees that I’ve Explored Before
In February of 2017, I shared what I’d learned about the recent scientific work that shows how endless miles of mycorrhizal fungi create a “wood-wide web” beneath forests. Trees benefit from allowing these underground thread-like fungi to pierce or wrap around their roots because the fungi provide them with more nutrients and water than is available through their roots. In fact, the web created by these fungi can reach a soil area up to 700 times larger than a plant’s roots can reach on their own – a huge benefit! Trees in turn feed these fungi the sugars created by photosynthesis that the fungi need to grow – symbiotic teamwork that benefits both species. Check out this short video for a visual representation of how this relationship takes place. Trees also use this web to feed other trees, including, it is now reported, their own saplings and other trees.
In March of 2017, I explored the many similarities between humans and trees. For example, I marveled that oak, hickory and other trees in a forest somehow coordinate their production of nuts by periodically but irregularly creating huge amounts of them. We call these abundant years “mast years.” One of the hypotheses on mast years is that predators like deer, blue jays, squirrels and such can only eat and store so many nuts in any season. So during mast years when trees produce an abundance, many more nuts are left to start young trees either through being left behind or being “planted” and forgotten by the animals that store them. Tree teamwork! Scientists have several hypotheses about this phenomenon, but have not yet reached a consensus on why and how mast years occur.
Some New Insights on the Ancient History of Trees
Just lately, though, I’ve been exploring some other remarkable aspects of trees, their fungal partners beneath the soil and their relationship with us, the human population. I began by thinking about the evolution of plants in general. According to Scientific American, “The world’s lush profusion of photosynthesizers …owe their existence to a tiny alga eons ago that swallowed a cyanobacteria and turned it into an internal solar power plant.” Voilà, about one billion years ago, algae on the ocean surface could use sunlight and nutrients from the water to grow through photosynthesis. And in the process, they released unneeded oxygen, though not yet enough to change the earth’s atmosphere significantly. Oxygen was still a rare commodity. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
According to Wikipedia’s Evolutionary History of Plants, the first land plants may have evolved about 850 million years ago at the edge of those ancient bodies of water. These early mat-forming plants had no vascular system or roots so it was impossible for them to find a reliable source of water and nutrients on land which was still solid rock. Soil, after all, was created later by decaying plants. So they were either restricted to moist settings as mosses are today, until they developed a waterproof outer layer (or “cuticle”) and other adaptations that allowed them to survive until water was available again.
According to Plantae, a website founded by the American Society of Plant Biologists, primitive forms of those mycorrhizal fungi may have helped out by attaching themselves to plants and bringing them the inorganic nutrients and water they needed to photosynthesize in their rocky new environment. So the relationship between plants of all kinds and these weblike fungi goes back hundreds of millions of years! Perhaps our very existence, then, is owed to mycorrhizal fungi! Hooray for those ancient mushrooms!
The highly toxic mushrooms on the left below are the reproductive fruiting bodies of Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus), one of the thousands of species of mycorrhizal fungi worldwide, some toxic and some not. On the right, is a photo of one of the fungi from the genus Cortinarius with structural filaments, or hyphae, beginning to grow out from the roots of a beech or oak to seek out nutrients. [The Deadly Webcap photo was shared by iNaturalist photographer, Andrea Aiardi. The photo on the right of the mycorrhizal association between plants roots and fungal hyphae was taken through a microscope and kindly provided by Dr. David Burke of Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio and is posted with his permission.]
Ancient Plants Living and Dying Made Life Possible for Oxygen-dependent Creatures like Us!
During warm periods, newly developed roots allowed prehistoric plants to take in water and nutrients from the earth, while newly evolved leaves took in carbon dioxide from the air through their stomata, the little mouth-like holes in leaves.
Through photosynthesis, plants converted light energy to chemical energy stored in sugars. They used the sugars to grow larger and reproduce. Oxygen is the other byproduct of photosynthesis, so as leafy trees got larger, they began putting greater amounts of oxygen into the atmosphere and removing larger amounts of carbon. Eons of land-based plant material changed the earth’s atmosphere, making life possible for the oxygen-breathing creatures that evolved millions of years later – including us, of course!
Thank goodness for that algae and cyanobacteria combo a billion years ago! Because of photosynthesis and the new abundance of oxygen in the atmosphere, organisms like mammals and birds with fast metabolisms evolved. A rich diversity of oxygen-loving organisms occupied the earth for millions of years before humans and their predecessors came on the scene.
Trees Still Supporting Life on Earth – including Ours!
The trees we know, love and rely on today – oaks, maples, walnuts and such – first appeared on earth about 65 to 144 million years ago. They blanketed the earth long before modern humans arrived about 30-50,000 years ago. Their leaves, like the ancestral leaves of early plants and trees, are still supplied with chloroplasts stocked with chlorophyll and other light-absorbing pigments from those ancient cyanobacteria; in fact they turn the leaves green by absorbing reds and blues while reflecting the green part of the spectrum. So trees are still busy storing carbon and sugars while releasing the very oxygen we need to survive.
I learned from a National Geographic article that during northern hemisphere winters, carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere. Once deciduous trees drop their leaves, they temporarily cease their photosynthesis. Check out the fascinating month-by-month NASA video down the page in this article to see the red areas of carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere during the winter months, December through March. When springs arrives, leaves sprout and a huge number of trees in the northern hemisphere go back to absorbing carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Watch the months June through September on the NASA video and see what I mean!
Sadly, trees can’t remove enough carbon dioxide from earth’s atmosphere these days due to human use of fossil fuels, which is releasing huge amounts of stored, compressed carbon from the remains of ancient living organisms, including trees.
Trees as “Kin” We Count on for Survival
In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses tells Achilles, “One touch of Nature makes the whole world kin.” Though Shakespeare meant something quite different, the line occurred to me as I came to a deeper understanding of our intimate, essential connection to trees and other plants as well as our fellow humans. We share the double helix of DNA, after all, with all living organisms – plants as well as animals.
And though it’s the small number of genes that are unique to humans that make us what we are, genome experts say we share a large portion of our DNA with plants. So in a way, trees and plants truly are our “kin!”
What we don’t share is the ability of plants to turn sunlight into sugars, fiber, fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, etc. Every single thing that we eat to stay alive comes originally from plants (although algae and some other organisms also photosynthesize). Even the meat in our diet comes from animals who survive by eating plants or by eating other animals that eat plants. We depend on plants to feed us and we depend on them for the very oxygen we breathe. Up until the 20th century, trees and other plants could also effectively use or store all the carbon dioxide we and our activities exhaled into the earth’s atmosphere. They still contribute to that process.
Respecting Our Elders…
We can’t survive without plants. Yet they survived for millions of years without us. So that encourages me to think that caring for nature isn’t just a matter of loving and enjoying nature or being a good-hearted steward of our “natural resources.” It’s really a matter of enlightened self-interest for our species. Caring for and respecting our “kin” in the natural world that support us and nurture us is simply a matter of our survival, as well as a joyful activity.
I’m willing to admit that winter walks are a bit more demanding for me. Though I love being out in the open with red cheeks and the glitter of sunlight on snow, breaking through an icy snow crust with every step can be a bit arduous. And as a writer who loves taking photos, well, wildlife is simply a bit more scarce and plant life is a lot less colorful. So the blog creates an interesting challenge. Luckily, I’m all for a good challenge! So this week, in a way, I’m writing about what I didn’t see in February at Charles Ilsley Park. Bear with me…
One February morning, I pursued the paw prints of an unseen coyote who had left a trail in the ice-encrusted snow on the previous moonlit night. And I spent part of an afternoon just noticing the brown and gray architecture of the dry seed heads of some favorite summer wildflowers, now ghosts of their colorful summer selves. Their pleasing shapes provided some inspiration about the native garden I’m dreaming about for next summer. But I’ll start this blog with the handful of birds that I did see, that kept me company on frigid days, just to remind myself that I had sturdy companions on the grayest and coldest days of the year.
Who’s That Twittering in the Tall Grass?
One late afternoon as I approached the Eastern Prairie at Ilsley, I heard the cheerful “chatting” (see first “call” heading at this link) of a small group of winter visitors from the Arctic, American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea). One of them paused long enough for a good look at its two-tone bill. This little bird had puffed up its down jacket to deal with a frigid morning!
Two days later, the birding group heard more “chatting.” We spotted a large flock of Tree Sparrows flowing like a river from the trees, down into the tall prairie grass. These social flocks keep in contact with short calls back and forth – “I’m here! I’m over here!” – as they forage. I managed to catch a group of them in a vine-laden bush at the edge of prairie.
It was wonderful to watch so many migratory birds feeding enthusiastically on the native seeds of our restored prairie. We were curious to see which plants they were enjoying. That morning they were finding bent Black-eyed Susan stems (Rudbeckia hirta) and plucking out the seeds. Here’s the bent stem at almost ground level, the seeds on the snow and the area trampled by the flock’s small feet.
Actually, this large flock of birds had a few fellow travelers. Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) joined the Tree Sparrows’ feast. Larger flocks increase the odds that birds can survive against predators in winter, when birds show up well against the snow. They also mean more eyes spotting good food. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
On a Sunday walk in the Western Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, my husband and I spotted Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) diving in and out of the grass. Finally, a pair of them settled on some brush and fallen logs along the tree line. The male ignored me completely while he preened vigorously. Since bluebirds often use the abandoned nests of woodpeckers in the winter, I wondered if he’d picked up some mites from an old nest, poor fellow. I managed to get one quick shot when he rested for just a moment.
The female nearby was keeping an eye on me and as I approached she sent the male a little “chit-chit-chit” call (second “call” heading at this link) that warns of ground predators – me, in this case! Then they both flew off again.
At the far edge of the western prairie, we heard the “ank-ank-ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). (Under “Eastern calls” at this link.) It was hopping quickly from branch to dead branch above our heads, searching out anything it could eat , like frozen insect eggs or caterpillars.
Now, About Those Tracks Here, There and Everywhere…
As I started out one Thursday morning, I was presented with some pretty impressive tracks. I recognized them immediately, because one of them was mine! The last four birders on the Wednesday morning bird walk had trekked along chatting as we went back to our cars. As a former bookseller, I had to smile remembering Pooh and Piglet tracking a “heffalump” around a bush, which of course turned out to be their own footprints, too. A fun beginning to my search for animal tracks.
I left the trail and headed diagonally across the field following a nice straight line of canine prints – and readers of my previous winter blogs probably know what that means – a Coyote! Coyotes (Canis latrans) trot along at night making a straight trail of prints. Being wild animals, coyotes want to use as little energy as necessary between meals, so they never run around in the snow like dogs do. They place their back feet inside the print of their front feet to use less energy and move directly where they want to go.
Because a crust covered the snow after freezing rain, it was clear that this coyote had to break through the snow with each step, leaving a pointed top to the track it left behind.
I followed the prints as it became apparent that this coyote was headed for the farthest west section of the park, where Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide had hired a forestry mower to remove invasive shrubs and create a path to the nearby subdivision for residents’ use. Two trees nicely frame the opening to this newly renovated area.
This western section with its rolling, glacial landscape, wetlands and wooded areas is very different from the open prairies of Ilsley. It seems our coyote thought this might be a better place to rest on an icy, windy night. Coyotes are not really nocturnal animals, but they have learned that night is a good time to hunt and not be bothered by humans and their activities. So I imagine this coyote had been out hunting mice on the prairie and was heading back to the woods to get out of the wind.
After passing into the western area, the coyote turned sharply south into the woods. So I followed its tracks, imagining it trotting between the trees, slipping in and out of the shadows made by the full moon the night before.
It’s easy to see that among the glacially-formed slopes of this rolling landscape, a coyote would be out of the sharp wind that blew across the prairie. The landscape in this area of the park is suddenly so different, as the slopes rise and then descend to one wetland after another. I kept following the coyote deeper into the woods as the line of prints flowed over the slopes.
At last the coyote’s tracks came down to a small pond where they seemed to end in a flattened area under some vines and branches at the right which would have provided a bit of cover.
Beyond that pond was another lovely little pond covered in snow and embraced by the hills around it – but not a track in sight.
I lost the coyote’s trail after that and wandered up to Ben’s path again. I stopped to admire a very tall, wonderfully straight native Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipfera) with its closely furrowed bark.
Its yellow blossoms were now dried but still quivering in the wind at the very top of the tree. Ben pointed it out on an earlier walk and told us he thought our area is at the northern edge of this lovely tree’s range. It’s the first wild tulip tree I’ve ever seen.
Nearby stood a tall Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), its red buds just waiting to expand and bring us one of the first really vivid colors of early spring.
As I left the western wooded area and headed back onto the western prairie, I came across a flattened place in the trail that looked like a major crossroads for critters. The tracks around it were hard to read . I thought I recognized squirrel and possible rabbit tracks, but I have no idea who was there and what was going on, really. Since there are coyote tracks above this flattened area, I wondered if one slept here; as top predators, they do sleep in the open at times. Its warmth would have melted the snow and allowed smaller creatures to get to the ground underneath the crusted surface once the coyote left the scene. Just a guess.
One possible hint was a hole in the snow nearby where a squirrel may have tried to dig up a nut in the frozen soil. Or perhaps our coyote dug up a Meadow Mouse (Microtus pennsylvanicus) before heading off to sleep? I’m not sure because the tracks around it were not fresh; they had been trampled, rained on and frozen.
The coyote tracks did lead away from area toward the private property on the west side of the park.
If the open hole was that of a captured mouse, the birders saw evidence that some mice are luckier than others. Here are some mouse tracks that we spotted near the edge of the western prairie. It looks like this mouse made it safely under the snow’s insulation – safe from the icy wind and out of sight. I love the “stitching” look of mouse tracks in the snow.
On the last leg of my tracking trip to the park, as I approached the central section from the north, I saw one of the spring-fed ponds covered with lots of tracks, making neat, straight lines across the snow-covered surface. What was going on? And then it occurred to me. These were stewardship tracks! Ben had told us at the end of the bird walk that he’d brought a native wetland seed mix to spread on the ponds before it rained later that day. He and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion put the seed right on the frozen surface. Native seeds needs to be exposed to the cold before they will germinate properly. Once warm weather comes, the seeds will drop down into the shallow water or moist edge habitat and with luck, begin bringing some color and native plant life to these special areas of the park.
The Ghosts of Summers Past Provide Inspiration for Spring
I’ve begun learning to recognize and appreciate the winter forms of some favorite wildflowers. Their subtle shades of brown or gray as well as their patterns and geometry have started me wondering if I could create a native garden next summer that the birds and I could enjoy all year ’round. It’s clear that birds need the seeds that cling to native plants despite snow and wind. And I could appreciate the architecture of winter plants. So which shapes provide what landscapers like to call “visual interest” and also provide winter food for wildlife?
Perhaps some of you remember how beautiful the Eastern Prairie looked when filled with Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) in the summer. This hardy native has always had a special place in my life. When I was a teenager, the first song I ever wrote included the “wide-eyed stare” of this sunny flower. So it definitely needs to be in my garden. I’m taken with its winter fringed cap in winter and would be happy to let it hang out in my garden.
Black-eyed Susans in bloom
Black-eyed Susan in winter – a lovely cone of seeds for the birds
Mixed in with these bright yellow beauties were the lavender fireworks of Bee-balm (Monarda fistulosa) and they create appealing geometry in a winter landscape.
For contrast, I’d need some white in my summer garden – and maybe good old Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) would be a possibility – if I could keep it from spreading too much. I like its chocolate brown against the white snow.
I love how Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) sway in a summer breeze so I hope they’ll be included somehow too. The plump, oblong seed heads obviously provide forage for the birds and silvery, pointed spears would be a graceful accent in a winter garden.
I may plant Asters in our field rather than in the garden. They grow in such profusion! I’m not sure which of the many Asters is represented in the winter photo below because so many kinds of asters bloom in late summer and fall! They are such a boon to all kinds of butterflies and bees who can feed on them before winter arrives. Here’s just a sampling. (Use pause button for captions.)
Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), which also bloom late in late summer and fall, might be another good choice for the field, since they grow so tall (compared to Black-eyed Susans) and have a branching form with multiple blooms at the same time.
Well, that’s a start. I want to search out some other favorites, like Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis) and see what it looks like after bloom – though I doubt I can resist it for the garden. That little Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) makes me impatient for spring!
See? Wasn’t that a clever way to get to get some color into an early March blog, when everything is still brown, gray and white? I knew you’d appreciate it…
Finding Delight in a Late Winter Walk
It takes a bit more effort to get out on a frosty morning. There’s all that layered clothing and boots and gloves and scarves. And the early March landscape is getting just a bit tiresome — too much brown and white out our windows. But once I’m out the door and into the landscape, nature offers me a few treats to keep me coming back. Tracking a coyote’s tracks to a secluded pond in the woods feels like a little adventure. The friendly chatting of winter birds keeps me company and the sight of bluebirds in the stark landscape nourishes my color-starved eyes. And how lucky that noticing the winter geometry of last summer’s blooms sets me off dreaming about a new native garden! So all that makes crunching step-by-step through the snow crust worth the effort when the thermometer encourages me to stay home.
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, and Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela.