Nourish Nature Around You: Plant an Oak!

Oak at Charles Ilsley Park in spring

We aren’t called Oakland Township in Oakland County for no reason. For thousands of years, oaks have been a keystone tree sustaining our local habitat and the people who live here. When Europeans arrived in the early 1800’s, they marveled at rolling grasslands filled with wildflowers and large oaks scattered here and there or standing in groves. An article in the Michigan Botanist journal quotes C.F. Hoffman from 1835:

Clumps of the noblest oaks, with not a twig of underwood, extending over a gently undulating grassy surface as far as the eye can reach: here clustered together in a grove of tall stems supporting one broad canopy of interlacing branches, and there rearing their gigantic trunks in solitary grandeur from the plain . . . .

C.F. Hoffman 1835
Text and most photos by Cam Mannino

What a vision, eh? If you want a taste of that landscape, visit the restored prairies at Charles Ilsley Park this spring or summer!

I decided I’d better get to know this giant among local plants. I came away impressed! My hope is that what I found will encourage you to take special care of the oaks on your own property – and if you’re without any oaks (heaven forbid!), find a corner for one this year!

What Makes Oaks So Special?

Well, of course, most of the oaks near us are big – which means that they extract huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their bark, branches and roots for years. How many years? White Oaks (Quercus alba), the elders of the plant family here, can keep that carbon stored for 900 years! Doug Tallamy, Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware and author of The Nature of Oaks, explains that given the right conditions, oaks have a life cycle of 300 years growing, 300 years in stasis (just living!) and 300 years of decline.

During their long lifetimes, they stabilize the soil around them with huge root systems, producing ten times more biomass underground than they produce above ground! They need those roots to support them for all those long years. Their large canopies and ridged bark prevent erosion by controlling runoff in heavy rains, maintaining nearby watersheds for centuries. Their shade cools the air. Many native trees provide these services of course, but the oaks do it all on a grander scale. And that’s only the beginning of the services they provide to their surroundings.

Oaks Generously Feed the World Around Them

White Oak near the Center Pond at Bear Creek Nature Park

Throughout the centuries, and even after death, oaks literally make life possible for hundreds of species, untold thousands of individual creatures. I’m imagining that what comes first to your mind is acorns. And you’re right, but there’s more to the story.

Acorns and the Creatures that Love ’em

A single oak tree can provide three million acorns in a lifetime which feed a wide range of mammals, bird and insects. Tallamy cites squirrels, deer, mice, possums, rabbits, raccoons and foxes among our local mammals, plus many birds, including turkeys, woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice, towhees, flickers, even wood ducks! Acorns provide them with protein and fat before and during the cold winter months – just when food is scarce and hungry creatures need to bulk up to cope with frigid temperatures.

Blue Jays and Oaks: A Match Made in Heaven

Blue Jays spread oaks by caching them and then forgetting where most of them are!

Oaks have a special friend in the crow family (Corvidae), the jays, including of course, our noisy neighbor, the Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata). All over the world wherever oaks shade the ground, some species of jays are planting their acorns far and wide. Our Blue Jays cache them for winter by tapping them into open soil one by one. According to Professor Tallamy, one Blue Jay can bury up to 4,500 acorns a year! Luckily, they only remember the location of about 25% of their acorns. The rest are free to grow into trees, if they germinate or aren’t eaten by other creatures. Jays can carry acorns up to a mile away which means that oaks move out into the landscape faster and farther than other trees. What a great tradeoff – food for the jays, dispersal for the oaks. (Scientists call this “mutualism”)

Oak Strategies for Outfoxing the Fox Squirrels (and other nibblers)

“Mast Years” – Overdoing It With a Purpose

Oaks have evolved a strategy for preventing those plentiful acorn-eaters from gobbling up every acorn. At random intervals, all the oaks in a given location cooperate in producing a giant crop of acorns – more than all those local munchers, like squirrels and deer, could possible eat in a season. It’s called a “mast year.” That way, chances improve for some acorns growing into oak saplings.

The population of acorn consumers increases as well-fed animals produce more young. Ah, but the next year and for several years after, the oaks somehow coordinate again in producing very few acorns, reducing the population of acorn consumers. By doing this together, but unpredictably, the oaks make it impossible for acorn lovers to plan for a mast year. They never know when a good acorn year is coming. And neither do the researchers who have yet to discover how oaks coordinate with other oaks to create a mast year! A mystery, yet to be solved! I love a good mystery…

Fending Off Bud Nibblers – A Yucky Mouthful

Four sapling oaks at Charles Ilsley Park kept their lower leaves this winter perhaps to discourage browsing deer.

You may have noticed that oaks, young oaks especially, keep their dead leaves on their lower limbs until spring. It’s called “marcescence.” One hypothesis is that since oaks evolved with huge, browsing mammals, like mastodons and other megafauna, they needed to protect their tasty, nutritious buds for next year’s growth. That might explain why oak leaves as far as 18 feet up don’t drop in the autumn; that’s about as far as a mastodon could reach! Today’s browsers, like deer and moose, may be put off by a mouthful of distasteful, nutrition-poor dead leaves, just as the mastodons may have been. Or it could be that the dry leaves protect the buds from cold, maintain moisture by holding snow longer or create nutritious leaf litter in spring when most tree growth occurs. Or it may be a combination of all those factors. No one’s quite sure but it’s a distinctive feature of oaks, beeches, hornbeams and a few willows.

But Oaks Sustain Life with an Even More Plentiful Food Source than Acorns!

Oaks provide another much more impactful way of feeding a park, a forest or my yard (which is surrounded by Black Oaks.) It all centers around the creatures that the famous entomologist E.O. Wilson once called “the little things that run the world” – insects! Insects are a basic food group for countless creatures. Stop a second and think of all the creatures around us that eat insects: fish, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, and especially birds!

Some mammals also include insects in their diet, like possums, raccoons, bears, bats, and moles to name a few. Plants eat insects, too. Here are three local species: Sundew (Drosera anglica), Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) and Common Bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaris).

Even insects eat other insects! My list includes dragonflies, praying mantises, ladybugs, and crickets, but no doubt there are many more.

An Autumn dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum) eating a damselfly

Insects also pollinate about 80 to 90 percent of all plants on the earth. What a huge service for life! Without pollinated plants, we’d all go hungry since even human meat-eaters dine on plant-eating creatures. Insects also act as essential decomposers of dead plants and animals.

But what’s just as crucial about insects is their young – those squiggly caterpillars. As the largest class of animals on earth, they feed countless creatures. The massive number of caterpillars in any given area feed a greater number and wider variety of creatures than any other animal that eats plants – more than deer or even elephants!

E.O. Wilson once observed, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” See what he meant when he said they “run the world”?

And What Makes Oaks So Special When It Comes to Insects?

Well, wherever oaks grace the landscape, they are the undisputed champions at housing and feeding caterpillars. They support over 900 species in North America. Here’s just a tiny selection among the more than 500 species that oaks support around here in Michigan. Aren’t they amazing?

We don’t even know most of these small caterpillars exist (at least, I didn’t!), because most of them are so small and live high in the trees. Caterpillars largely eat at night in order to avoid birds and other daytime predators. Many adult moths, which make up a huge percentage of the more than 500 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) in our oaks, pollinate at night as well. No wonder we don’t see them! Their presence generally presents no problem for oaks and the leaf damage is not really noticeable to us from the ground. So even if we don’t see them, they’re up there, along with the young of other insects like katydids, beetles, and praying mantises among many others.

According to Jim McCormac, former field botanist at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, only a tiny percentage of insect eggs, caterpillars and pupae survive to produce the next generation. The vast majority become food for other creatures. Doug Tallamy uses our friendly Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) to demonstrate the gigantic quantity of insect offspring needed each year.

A Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) gathering seed on a windy day but seeds make up only 50% of their diet. The rest is insects and their caterpillars.

To feed a clutch of their young, two Chickadee adults must catch 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars each season to feed their young just while they’re in the nest! Then they feed their fledglings outside the nest for another 21 days. And those numbers don’t include the frozen insect eggs and caterpillars that Chickadees rely on to survive the winter.

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center watching a Blue-headed Vireo, another insect-eater, at Charles Ilsley Park.

Migrating birds flock here each spring because our native trees and plants produce such a flush of nutritious caterpillars. Imagine the numbers of caterpillars required to just feed the birds in your yard. Then imagine the number required in one of our parks, or in a national forest – in every season, all over the country and the world! Insect numbers are in drastic decline worldwide due to insecticides and habitat loss. But we can help by planting and preserving oaks, the trees that host the largest number of caterpillars in their leaves, their bark and their roots – even in their leaf litter!

One of the many litter moth species in the forest at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park emerges onto a patch of moss.

Most caterpillars native to North America can’t eat the leaves of non-native plants, or if they do, they can’t reach maturity by eating those leaves. They didn’t evolve with plants from far away, so they can’t properly digest the leaves. That’s why native flowers, shrubs and plants are so crucial to preserving life everywhere. Pollinator gardens are wonderful at feeding adult insects, but unless they also have a significant percentage of native plants, even they can be a desert for butterfly offspring.

Would You Consider Planting One? Hmmm?

My first year attempt at starting a bed of soft sedges and spring flowers beneath a tall Black Oak in our yard.

Now I know what you’re thinking, or at least I think I do. See if I’m right and if I can give you a somewhat acceptable answer.

  1. You believe that they grow too slowly? They don’t really. The first few years they develop slowly above ground because they’re developing the root system that has to support and feed them for hundreds of years. In one of his presentations (cited below), Tallamy shows yearly photos of a White Oak that he planted from an acorn that grew to 45 feet tall in 20 years with a canopy spread of 30 feet! That’s a lot of cooling shade! Of course, that amount of growth assumes: a) the oak is planted where its roots can grow deep, i.e. no interference from sewer lines, foundations, compacted soil; b) that it’s not fertilized. North American trees grow best on the nutrient poor soils left by glaciation. Weird, eh?
  2. Looking for a somewhat smaller oak? Yes, we have some! Dwarf Chinkapin Oaks and Pin Oaks might work in your yard here in the township. Across the state and the country, there are other smaller varieties. Ask a native nursery or landscaper.
  3. You’re worried that they’re expensive? Get the smallest oak sapling you can find. Small oaks won’t have such heavily pruned root systems. Large nursery saplings need to spend many years re-growing their previously cut roots, but a small sapling can establish and start growing right away. Or simply pick up an acorn right after they fall. There’s a section at the back of Tallamy’s book, The Nature of Oaks, called “How to Plant an Oak.”
  4. Too many leaves? It’s best if you can find a spot where the leaf litter can just be left below the oak tree – no raking or mowing. Leaf litter keeps the soil moist, slowly returns nutrients to the soil and nurtures many moth caterpillars. Some moth caterpillars stick their cocoons to the bark of a branch or trunk. But others drop to the ground, burrow into the soil and pupate there – or spin a cocoon in the fallen leaves to overwinter there. But if leaving fallen oak leaves is impossible in your yard, consider planting ferns, sedges and/or wildflowers beneath your tree. They’ll make for a soft, safe landing for little caterpillars.
  5. Too many acorns? Remember that mast years occur periodically but not every year. And you can handle the acorns from one or two trees. Oaks in the Red Oak group have mast years less often than White Oaks do. Maybe consider sharing some acorns with neighbors along with planting instructions?
  6. You’re afraid a tree might fall on your house? If you have room, plant a grove of oaks, or a mix of oaks and other species, so that their roots interconnect and support each other. And by the way, oaks don’t lift sidewalks or driveways because they grow deep enough not to bother hardscape on the surface. The pavers near our black oaks do just fine. Also, don’t panic about old, hollow oaks. Like a pipe, all the strength of any tree is in its outer ring; the interior is softer, dead material. So unless it poses a danger to structures or you often walk beneath it, don’t cut it down. It’ll survive for a long time and continue feeding the habitat around you.

How’d I do? Are you persuaded? If you still have other concerns about planting an oak in your location, consider leaving me a question in the comments and I will try to find an answer.

Protect Your Oaks!

It’s important that you don’t prune your oaks or damage their bark in any way from mid-March to November. Wait until late fall or winter to trim your oak trees, and avoid attaching signs, bird houses, or anything else to your trees. In warmer weather, a deadly, non-native fungus called Oak Wilt can be carried by native beetles that adore the smell of broken oak bark. They can arrive at your damaged tree within 20 minutes! Keep a can of clear shellac around; if damage happens, quickly spray it on the wound. Currently there’s no reliable cure for oak wilt. Trees in the Red Oak group can spread the disease to other oaks through their interconnected roots. We don’t have much oak wilt in our area yet. Let’s keep it that way!

Also be aware that occasional infestations of non-native Spongy/Gypsy Moths (Lymantria dispar) can severely defoliate oaks and other trees. The trees usually survive and re-sprout, even if defoliated for repeated years. But if you’re concerned, here’s Michigan State University’s web page on identifying and dealing with them. Please don’t confuse them with the native silk web caterpillars, Eastern Tent Caterpillars or Fall Web Worms, which cause only minimal damage. Remember, spraying an oak can kill over 500 species!

A Brief Guide to Oak Identification

I’ve only included leaf shapes here. I’m trying to learn bark patterns for winter ID’s but have a long way to go before I master it. Consult a tree ID app or guide book for more complete information. Lots of acorns look very much alike, but I love the distinctive fringed, stocking-cap-look of Bur Oak acorns that make identifying them so easy!

The bristly caps of Bur Oak acorns

Our oaks fall into two groups, White Oaks and Red Oaks. Here’s a quick look at leaves of the most common species in our area.

The leaves of the White Oak group have rounded lobes. This group includes species such as White Oak, Swamp White Oak, Chinkapin Oak, and Bur Oak. The leaves of Swamp White Oaks and Chinkapin Oaks are slight more pointed but don’t have bristles at the tips like the Red Oak family.

Each lobe on the leaves of the Red Oak group has a sharply pointed tip ending in a bristle. The Red Oak group in our area includes species such as Northern Red Oak, Pin Oak, Red Oak, and Black Oak.

So, What Do You Think? Can You Host an Oak in Your Yard?

A very old oak at Stony Creek Nature Park extension off Snell Road

I know not everyone can plant an oak, but I’m hoping many of you can. More than any other native tree, the mighty oaks provide life support for the whole, intricate web of life that surrounds each of us. All of our native trees host some native caterpillars; our insects evolved with them after all. But if we want to make a big difference with just one tree, the oak’s our best bet. And just think, it will be standing right where you planted it for hundreds of years after you and I are gone. Such a great legacy to leave for the future!

Primary Sources:

  1. Michigan Botanist, 2008, Vol 47 “PRAIRIE AND SAVANNA IN SOUTHERN LOWER MICHIGAN: HISTORY, CLASSIFICATION, ECOLOGY” by Kim Alan Chapman and Richard Brewer. Quote from Hoffman, C.F. (1835). A winter in the west. Michigan History Magazine 9:221–228; 9:413–437 (1925)
  2. Bringing Nature Home and The Nature of Oaks by Professor Doug Tallamy
  3. Doug Tallamy’s online presentation for the Washtenaw Conservation District. The first section is an interesting piece on how to help oaks regenerate in forests. Doug’s section on the nature of oaks begins 27 minutes in.

Listen! Owls are Out Courting!

A male Great Horned Owl winking at the photographer, my friend Bob Bonin. Male owls are generally smaller than their mates.

My husband called me to the kitchen door. Putting my ear to the storm door, I heard the low, resonant “hoo, huh-hoooo, hoo, hoo” of a Great Horned Owl. That haunting sound marks the beginning of the courting season for owls around here. The breeding season for the Great Horned Owl begins earlier than other owls, mating and nesting in January and February. Others will be heard courting from March through May.

Text by Cam Mannino

The one we heard sounded as though it was nearby and I worried that if I opened the door, its sensitive ears would register the sound, making it fly off. We strained to see the shadowy shape silhouetted against the limbs outside the dark window. But this time, no luck. I opened the door just a crack, heard a few hoots and off it went.

By happy chance, the next day I learned about a course on owls from Cornell University Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy. What luck! I spent some quiet, snowy hours learning about these highly skilled, powerful predators. I thought you might be interested, too. I’ll only be able to offer the highlights here, or course. If owls intrigue you, The Cornell Bird Academy class, “The Wonderful World of Owls,” is thorough and is packed with helpful recordings, photos and videos of owls all over the world.

I’ve only succeeded in photographing one owl in the wild, but luckily, my friend Bob Bonin from our Wednesday bird group generously shared many of his impressive owl photos. So you’re in for a visual treat. Thank you, Bob! I’ve supplemented with photos from generous inaturalist.org photographers and included links to owl calls from Cornell’s All About Birds website, because we’re all more likely to hear owls than see them!

The Special Abilities Owls Use to Rule the Night

Owls live on every continent except Antarctica and in a variety of habitats – deserts, the arctic, the tropics, grasslands, and forests. Though some hunt in daylight or as the sun is rising or setting, owls are best known for hunting at night. Owls may nest in tree cavities, nesting boxes, on the surface of the tundra, in former nests of other birds, and some even burrow underground. Here I’m just exploring the five of the most common ones we might see, or more likely hear, in our region. However, most of the 234 species of owls share some special gifts that allow them all to be formidable hunters.

Amazingly Accurate Binocular and Peripheral Vision in Low Light

The head of a captive Great Horned Owl that I photographed at a hawk festival. Doesn’t look too happy does it?

Owls are the only birds that can catch their prey in the dark. They can’t see when it’s completely dark, but they can in very little light. How? Well, their eyes are large to begin with and in the dark, the pupils expand to fill almost the whole eye surface. Like other nocturnal creatures, owls have the advantage of “eye shine” (tapetum lucidum) which you’ve probably noticed in the eyes of your cat, dog, local raccoon or possum. If light hits them in the dark, their eyes look like glowing red or green circles. Light hits the rods in their retinas (the cells for low light) on the way into the eye, is reflected back by special cells behind the retina and hits the rods again on the way out. That bounce amplifies the light for better night vision.

A Barred Owl demonstrating the flexible neck hidden beneath its feathers. Photo by Owen Strickland (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Feathers make owls’ eyes seem to be staring forward like ours, but their eyes are actually set very slightly to the side, allowing them more peripheral vision than we humans have with our straight forward eyes. But because their eyes are only slightly off to the side, the visual fields from each eye can overlap, providing them with accurate binocular vision and depth perception when catching prey.

Our eyes, of course, move in their sockets, so we get more peripheral vision than the birds with eyes on the sides of their heads. But owls can’t move their eyes; they’re fitted tightly into bony sockets. To look around, owls need to rotate their heads. Luckily, that’s easy for them, as it is for most birds. I’m sure you’ve seen geese turn their heads backwards when snoozing or preening. Owls have longer, flexible necks, too, having 14 vertebrae instead of ours with a measly 7. I can hear you exclaiming, “What? Owls don’t have long necks!” Aha! That longer, flexible neck is just hidden under a thick, rounded cloak of feathers beneath their large heads. They can’t turn their heads 360°, of course, even though it sometimes looks like they can. But they can easily reach 180° to look behind them as in the photo of the Barred Owl above – and a bit further at times to almost 270°!

Exceptional Ears Where You’d Least Expect Them!

Like most of us, you might have assumed those tufts on the head of some owls are ears. The host of the Cornell course, ornithologist Dr. Kevin McGowan, explained that the tufts on the Great Horned Owl, for instance, are just used for display during courting or confrontations.

Like us, owls do have an outer and inner ear. Have a look at this photo of a Barn Owl’s face (Tyto alba) taken by photographer Mark Greene at inaturalist.org.

The Barn Owl’s facial disk functions as an outer ear! Photo by Mark Greene (CC BY-ND-NC) at inaturalist.org

That lovely heart-shaped disk is the Barn Owl’s outer ear. Our outer ears on each side of our head funnel sound to our inner ears, located inside our head. The owl’s facial disk does the same, functioning somewhat like a satellite dish bringing in a signal. The stiff, interlocking feathers of the ruff at the outer edge direct sound toward the openings of the inner ears. The inner ear openings are hidden under soft, feathers near the outside edge of each eye. What’s more, in most owls the inner ears are offset, one slightly higher on one side of the head than the other. This allows most owls (see the Saw-whet and Screech owls below) to more accurately locate sounds from above (avoiding predators) and below (finding prey). This elaborate arrangement permits owls to hunt in the dark by both sound and sight.

Those Powerful Talons!

The powerful talons, 2 front, 2 back, of the captive Great Horned Owl that I saw at the hawk festival

All owls have four toes, two forward, two back, unlike most other perching birds who grip a branch with three forward and one back. The Great Horned Owl’s large feet end in large, sturdy talons that can close around prey which is generally rabbit-sized animals, like chickens, ducks, house cats, skunks, ducks, possums and the occasional rodent or frog. Owls that choose smaller prey have smaller feet and thinner talons. Owls usually eat the entire animal and a couple of hours later, regurgitate a pellet that contains the fur, bones and other indigestible bits. Pellets at the bottom of trees are a good sign that owls nest or perch there.

Almost Silent Wings in Flight

The impressive, very quiet wings of a Snowy Owl. Photo by Bob Bonin

Owls navigate the landscape on wings that make almost no sound. What a great advantage for a hunter! The prey can’t hear them coming, and they can more clearly hear the prey. They accomplish this feat in several ways. Cornell’s Dr. McGowan explained that “Owls have relatively large, broad, rounded wings that produce a lot of lift for the size of the bird … This allows for slow flight, and slow flight is quieter than fast flight.” Think of the quick, noisy beats of a duck on takeoff. Secondly, owls evolved special feathers that keep the noise down. “The front edges of the outer wing feathers have a comb-like structure” which creates “a smooth flow of air over the wing, reducing turbulence and therefore noise.” The back edge of these feathers are fringed to do the same thing. Plus, the fine filaments on the velvety surface of an owl’s wings dampen the sound of feathers rubbing against each other. Wow! A flying predator with excellent sight and hearing maneuvering silently through the trees. That’s a formidable hunter!

Now, Let’s Meet – and Listen to – Some Local Owls

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

Great Horned Owl by iNaturalist.org photographer akidd13b (CC BY-NC)

Listen for the Hoot!: The Great Horned Owl Turn up your volume and click on this blue link from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab. The clearest recording of this owl’s courting “song,” I think, is the first one, labeled “Song.” You’ll hear a call in the distance at first but at about 13 seconds, the louder ones begin. Great Horned Owls vocalize from mid-September to early April, but now is an excellent time to start listening because they’re in the breeding season.

The Great Horned Owl beyond our dark window hooted for the same reasons all owls call – to defend its territory or to court a mate. Great Horned Owls nest during January and February, the earliest of the local owls; others generally mate from March through May. Like most owls, they don’t build their own nests. Great Horned Owls nest in natural tree cavities and tall broken-off tree trunks, but they also take over big, flat nests high in trees constructed with bare sticks. As a result, they prefer last year’s hawk, crow, eagle or heron nests which are built just the way they like them.

Courtship by Great Horned Owls is quick and short on romance – a bit of bowing, hopping, occasional beak snapping, fluffing feathers, a mouse or some other bit of food given by the male to the female, some reciprocal hooting and that’s about it. Cornell’s allaboutbirds.org website has an excellent video of the brief mating of two Great Horned Owls. As you’ll see, it can be pretty perfunctory.

Generally, the female incubates during the day, the male at night for about a month. Like most birds, both adults must defend their eggs and nestlings from snakes, squirrels, chipmunks and other birds. Of course, these owls themselves can prey upon these creatures, as any harassing crow could testify!

The nestlings grow quickly, gaining weight and mobility within the nest for about 6 weeks. Adults spend arduous months feeding hungry owlets like the ones below that Bob Bonin saw peeking from the top of a broken tree. Such a great photo!

Two young Great Horned Owls peeking from a nest in a broken tree. Photo by Bob Bonin

Between the sixth to eighth week, the fledglings come out of the nest and simply sit on branches waiting to be fed. It’s called “branching.” Bob caught this Great Horned Owl fledgling who looks like it’s waiting for its meal to arrive. What a glare, eh?

A young Great Horned Owl who could be thinking about venturing onto a nearby branch or is simply waiting for food to be brought by its parents.

According to Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol 3, the fledglings start attempting to fly at about 9-10 weeks. They practice flying and hunting and at about 5 months are ready to be on their own.

Barred Owl (Strix varia)

Bob Bonin’s springtime shot of a Barred Owl adult

Listen for the Hoot!: Barred Owls The Barred Owl courts in February or March but its hooting can be heard from January to mid-April. Its distinctive call described by Cornell Ornithology as “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” is a memory aid that makes me smile. Its hoot is said to carry easily in the forest and I can believe that from the “song” recording at this link.

I’ll probably never hear a Barred Owl hoot in my neighborhood; they stay clear of the territory of any Great Horned Owl, their most dangerous predator. Barred Owls are year ’round residents, though, and most of them stay in the same area year after year, sometimes re-using the same nest. In winter, females in rural areas may stay on their territory while the males venture into cities and suburban areas seeking more food. So you might get lucky at your house or local park!

Barred Owls do most of their hunting during the night, but often they’re seen roosting during the day as well. They have smaller legs and finer talons than the Great Horned Owls (see photo below) because they generally eat smaller prey like mice, chipmunks, squirrels, sometimes frogs or other birds. Mates tend to roost together and Bob Bonin caught a fine photo of a pair doing just that. As is common in large birds, the female is the larger of the two.

A pair of Barred Owls, the smaller male on the left, the larger female on the right. Photo by Bob Bonin

Barred Owls move into the same sorts of nest that Great Horned Owls prefer. They are prey for larger owls and hawks, especially their eggs or nestlings. Sometimes the prey turns on them; small songbirds, crows and woodpeckers occasionally mob and harass them in order to protect their own nest or young. Once hatched, the Barred Owl nestlings remain in the nest for about 4-5 weeks before fledging, but young Barred Owls like the one below may not be fully on their own until the following fall. If this little owl fell from its perch, it would grasp rough bark with its beak and talons, flap its wings and walk up the tree!

The soulful eyes of a young Barred Owl just venturing out onto a branch and waiting to be fed. Photo by Bob Bonin

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Aegolius acadicus)

The little Northern Saw-whet Owl’s hoot is a staccato series of short beeps. Photo by Bob Bonin

Listen for the Hoot: Saw-whet Owls The Saw-whet Owl’s song sounds very much like a truck backing up, a long series of short beeps! Starting in late January, they can be heard “beeping” at the edge of a woods. Of course, they also use a variety of calls to communicate with mates, young and other owls. Some of those calls are very high and piercing! It’s been suggested that the owl’s name refers to the sound of a saw being sharpened on a whetstone. Check out the “calls” at the blue link above and you’ll see why that might be correct!

Saw-Whets are tiny, only 7-9 inches high and very fetching with their over-sized heads and yellow eyes. To avoid becoming prey from larger owls and hawks, they spend daylight hours in dense foliage, most often in evergreens, just as in Bob’s photo above. At night, though, they are efficient hunters. Their diet is mostly mice, especially deer mice, which carry the dreaded ticks that now infest our summers. So the Saw-whet’s diet has my approval. Saw-whets that migrate north to breed, however, may eat songbirds along the way. The slightly offset ear openings of Saw-whets allow them to accurately locate prey even in deep snow.  They’ve been known to plunge into 18 inches of snow and emerge with a mouse! I’d love to witness that!

A great nighttime shot of a Saw-Whet Owl taken by iNaturalist photographer Elliot S. (CC BY-NC)

Saw-whets nest in tree cavities, most often those created by woodpeckers and flickers. The females incubate, while the males bring food. When the owlets reach about 18 days old and produce feathers, the female departs to roost elsewhere. The male continues feeding the young alone, though the older nestlings sometimes help feed their younger siblings. The female may mate again if the opportunity arises. Since these small owls are prey for so many creatures – squirrels, starlings, crows, hawks and larger owls, among others – producing more young is important for their survival as a species.

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

The gray morph of the Eastern Screech Owl can camouflage beautifully with the tree bark around its hole. That’s why they’re so hard to spot! Photo by inaturalist photographer Matthew McPhee (CC BY-NC)

Listen for the Hoot … or rather Screech! The most famous song of an Eastern Screech Owl sounds to me like a spooky, descending whinny. It’s the first recording at the link and is used most to defend territory. When communicating with mates or young, Screech Owls use a monotone of pulsing notes which you can also hear at the link. The “screech” is a shriek used when defending the nest or their young. Cornell provides no recording of that sound; maybe if you hear it, you’re running away! Screech owls fly at predators – and occasionally curious humans – who venture too close to their nests. Listen for Screech Owls from mid-January to the end of March.

The Eastern Screech Owl is a cosmopolitan bird in two respects. It can be found on farmland, in suburbs or in cities anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. And its menu is cosmopolitan too. In summer, they feast on large insects like beetles, moths, crickets and grasshoppers along with mammals. In winter, they tend to exclusively choose animals, some as small as rodents, moles and finches, others as large as Bluejays, woodpeckers, rabbits and squirrels. They even snag an occasional bat as it flies by! They use a “perch and pounce” strategy, waiting for prey in their hole and then dropping down or swooping out at them.

Screech Owls also come in two “morphs.” The gray one above is most common, but lucky for us, Bob Bonin caught a photo of the red morph which makes up only about 15% of the population, according to Wikipedia.

Bob Bonin’s amazing photo of the red morph of an Eastern Screech Owl

In late winter, Screech Owl males tempt a mate by leaving food in a tree cavity, a natural one or one excavated by woodpeckers. Unlike most bird species, their holes are not just used for raising young. Screech Owls sleep and sun in their nest cavities during the day, feed in them to avoid predators and retreat to them in bad weather. Egg laying commonly begins in mid-April. Though Screech Owls are generally monogamous, males do occasionally have a second mate. According to Cornell’s allaboutbirds website, “The second female may evict the first female, lay her own eggs in the nest, and incubate both clutches.” Hmmph! The first female may look for another (ideally more faithful?) mate, since screech owls generally produce two clutches a year. About four weeks after hatching, the fledglings climb out of the hole using their beaks, feet and wings. A week or so later, they begin following the adults, but won’t disperse until late summer and generally move less than a mile way.

Snowy Owl (Bubo scandiacus)

Bob Bonin’s delightful photo of a sunning, perhaps snoozing, Snowy Owl

Snowy Owls (Bubo scandiacus)

No hoots with this owl! Snowy Owls breed beyond the Arctic Circle so we don’t hear their courting or territorial voices beyond perhaps an occasional irritated clack of the beak. They do, however, show up in our area periodically in the winter looking for food. A common misperception, according to Cornell’s Dr. MacArthur, is that they arrive starving because of insufficient food in northern Canada and the Arctic. Oddly, it’s just the opposite!

Snowys eat lots of lemmings, their favorite arctic rodent that makes up about 90% of their diet when available. Somehow Snowy Owls adjust the number of eggs they lay according to the natural fluctuations in the abundance of lemmings. In years when lemmings are plentiful, the owls produce more young. With larger numbers of young, competition for prime feeding territory can get intense. When that occurs, some young owls with less ability to compete move down into Canada or Michigan to more easily find food in the winter. So these periodic “irruptions” as they’re called are caused by an abundance rather than a scarcity of food in the Arctic.

[A note: Contrary to popular myth, lemmings do not “commit suicide.” Some lemmings erratically migrate en masse when their population density gets too extreme. They can end up in dangerous situations if deep water or other obstacles are in their path.]

The Brown Lemming (L. trimucronatus) is one of the two lemming species that supply most of the diet of Snowy Owls in arctic Canada and Alaska.

Snowy Owls are truly remarkable birds. They scrape their earthen nests out of the Arctic’s frozen tundra. And scientists are learning that, for reasons unknown, a Snowy Owl may breed one year in Canada and the next year in Siberia. They’ve evolved beautifully to cope with frigid temperatures. Their breasts, heads, faces and even legs and feet are heavily insulated with white feathers which camouflage them in their snowy landscape.

And think of this – in the deep, 24-hour darkness of an arctic winter, these birds forage in openings in the endless ice for seabirds. They plunge into the snow, or run across it to capture lemmings. Very few animals survive in such dark, frigid conditions and many of those that do are prey for magnificent snowy owls. So if you can, seek out these beautiful birds when they descend from the top of the world to feed before returning to their icebound homes.

Other Owls You Might Find in Our Region

I’ve only covered five owls that appear in our immediate area. Here are four others that live in Michigan year ’round or come here periodically: 1) The Long-eared Owl (Asio otus) spends most of its time farther north and breeds at the tip of Michigan’s “mitten” or in the Upper Peninsula. It camouflages during the day in dense foliage, so I’m so glad Bob Bonin spotted one! 2) The Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus) lives here year ’round and generally breeds in the upper half of the “mitten.” It can be seen at dawn and dusk flying low over fields or grasslands. 3) The Barn Owl (Tyto alba) seems to be less common in Michigan than it once was, probably caused by loss of habitat. We don’t have the barns and haystacks of the past. It can eat 3-10 mice per day and can catch them in very low light. 4) The Great Gray Owl (Strix nebulosa) lives year ’round in Canada and Alaska, but occasionally ventures into northern Michigan during the winter months. I love its shocked expression. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Tips for Seeing Owls

Cornell’s excellent class, The Wonderful World of Owls, ended with some useful tips that I hope to use before the winter ends.

  1. Learn Their Sounds – Our odds of identifying a nearby owl with our ears are much greater than our odds of seeing one.
  2. Know Owl Habitats – I’ve provided some info on the habitats of common owls in our area. If you live elsewhere, consider taking Cornell’s course; they cover owls all over the country and world. Or consider exploring Cornell Ornithology’s ebird.org/hotspots to find out which owls – or other birds – have recently been spotted near your area or wherever you’re traveling. Citizen scientists around the globe regularly report to eBird on the birds they see.
  3. Learn the Time of Day When the Owl You’re Seeking is Most Active – For instance, Short-eared Owls are most often seen at dusk, which is the beginning of the day for them.
  4. Go Owling When the Moon is Full or Nearly Full – We increase our chances of seeing an owl when the moon is full on a clear night, especially if snow is reflecting the moonlight. Also there’s some evidence that owls hoot more in bright moonlight.
  5. Avoid Windy Nights – Owls don’t call much if the wind is blowing. Possibly they’ve learned over the eons that their hoots are more difficult to hear in a stiff wind.
  6. Winter is a Great Time for Owling – Owls often roost on branches in the weeks before and after their nesting season. So now is a great time. Seize the day!
  7. Look for Pellets Below Trees or “Whitewash” on Tree Trunks – Those are good signs that owls roost or nest there.
  8. Listen for the Frantic Calls of Mobbing Birds – If you hear a whole group of birds screeching at one time, look around. There’s a good chance that an owl in the area has set them off.

Our Fear of and Fascination with Predators

A Great Horned Owl who may have awoken as our Wednesday morning group passed by.

Few things are more intriguing on a winter night than the haunting song of an owl. They sound like something wild, something alien. Our instincts sometimes are to tame that wildness, to reassure ourselves that these fierce predators of the night are harmless, at least to us. In ancient mythologies or in children’s stories, owls are often associated with wisdom and intelligence. As a child, my younger brother played with an owl puppet and a child I’m fond of now keeps company with two toy owls. We learn early to love owls.

But as an adult, I’m glad to learn of the skillful fierceness and lethal power of a hunting owl, too. I want to remember that death in nature is rarely random violence. Nature accepts death as necessary to survival. Owls kill to eat or to defend the next generation of owls. Wild predators – the ones humans fear like snakes, coyote, wolves or sharks and the ones we admire like dolphins and whales – all must kill to eat and raise their young. And of course, we humans do pretty much the same, except that most of us rely on other humans to do the necessary ending of another life.

I’m trying to deepen my understanding of nature’s undeniable linkage between death and life. Its network of intricate relationships, worked out over eons, requires death to protect and sustain life. Maybe because I’m aging, I’m trying to integrate that acceptance of death into my love for nature, so as not to romanticize it. I want to love all of it, the glorious and the grim, as part of the natural order. Maybe that way, I can better accept that in my own human life as well.

Stewardship Volunteering: An Invitation to Befriend Our Native Landscape

The native grass that I wandered through as a child which I later learned was native Big Bluestem.

As happens so often in life, I sort of backed into being a stewardship volunteer. I spent my childhood in Oakland Township forging paths through abandoned farm fields filled with tall grass. On a flannel blanket scented by the warm earth beneath, I settled beside a small wetland to read. My father knew where wild asparagus grew on Collins Road and rushed back home one afternoon to report seeing a trumpeter swan. We watched birds on a simple feeder in a bush outside the kitchen window. My brother and I could be gone all morning in the fields as long as we returned when the dinner bell rang. Being outside meant disappearing from adult supervision for hours on end, and we loved it.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

When my husband I moved back to this area, we began Sunday walks in Bear Creek Nature Park, just an abandoned farm when I was child. At a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in 2015, I took the opportunity to ask the Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, about a giant tuft of stiff grass that jutted out at the edge of a field at Bear Creek. Did someone plant some exotic grass in our park? It looked very odd and ungainly. Ben explained that it was Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native grass that had once covered large areas of our township – part of our ancient natural landscape. Really? He suggested coming to a presentation that he’d planned to describe that pre-settlement landscape and the role of periodic prescribed fire in restoring and preserving it. Fire as a preservation technique? I took the bait and arrived home from that event bubbling with ideas about Michigan’s prairies and how they might be restored to us. That huge tuft of grass at Bear Creek Nature Park, it turned out, was probably a remnant of the grasses through which I’d roamed years ago, grasses which had emerged after field fires during my childhood.

That eye-opening presentation marked the starting point of what is now my seven-year journey into deepening my relationship with the natural world. I continue to appreciate nature in ever more intimate detail – and it never fails to simultaneously fascinate and soothe me. Through volunteering in a variety of ways, I’ve come to understand that I have a part to play in healing the landscape that nurtured me as child and still does. And in doing so, I experience a bit of healing myself.

So here’s my invitation to join us in this reciprocal process of enriching the native diversity of our natural areas while enriching ourselves. Perhaps you’ll discover an activity that suits your gifts or interests. For details on monthly events, click on a date on the calendar page at this link. [See the blue bar at the top of the linked calendar page.]

Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”

If our feathered neighbors intrigue you, perhaps these activities are for you!

Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group

Birders at Cranberry Lake Park watching several different migrating warblers in a nearby tree. Photo by Tom Korb, a member of the group

Every Wednesday year ’round (with a few weeks off in December), a group of us gather at one of the township parks. We come with binoculars (or Ben can loan us a pair) and head out on the trails. Some of the birding group members are amateurs. Others have birded for years and can recognize a bird by its song or its pattern in flight overhead. Learn, laugh, hang out with kindly people in all kinds of weather and be a citizen scientist at the same time! The data collected each week by Ben and stewardship specialist, Grant Vanderlaan, is reported to the Cornell University Ornithology Department’s ebird website where it can be used by researchers to learn more about our feathered neighbors.

Get “Upclose and Personal” with Birds by Monitoring Nest Boxes

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box.

We volunteers participate in another citizen science project, Cornell University’s NestWatch Project. Each volunteer takes responsibility for monitoring a set of bird boxes in one of our parks. After a yearly session on the do’s and don’ts of monitoring, we visit our boxes once or twice each week. I’ve peeked within the nest boxes of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia Sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to record the date of the first egg laid, the hatch date, the fledge date and other data. As a result, I’ve seen baby birds hatch, feed from their parents’ beaks and sail out into the big bright world on their first solo flight! What fun! I recommend it to you.

Need A Little Excitement in Your Life? Volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Crew!

Two trained burn crew volunteers, a woman dripping low flame, a man carrying water for dowsing when required

Many of our native plants are “fire-adapted,” which means they benefit from fire or actually require it to germinate! After a low burn, the nutrients of dry plants nourish the soil, the blackened fields absorb sun for a longer growing season and room is created for native plants and the creatures which need sun and rain. So although Ben hires contractors for complicated burns, he also provides training each year for members of a volunteer fire crew. All adults are welcome, regardless of gender. The volunteers don protective equipment provided by the Parks and Recreation Commission and that, plus training and on-site supervision by Ben, makes for a dramatic, interesting and safe experience. So add a bit of adventure to your life and provide our stewardship team and nature itself with some badly needed help!

This could be you! Trained and ready to help restore our natural areas with prescribed fire.

Share an Ancient Tradition: The Gathering and Preparing of Native Seed

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Gathering the Seed

On a lovely autumn afternoon, Ben invites us to gather in a prairie to collect native seed, something humans have done for thousands of years. I love these autumn events; they’re so incredibly peaceful , relaxing and so easily productive. Ben chooses the site where desirable seeds are plentiful and gives us brief instructions on how much we can harvest. We then move out into the fields and slip seeds from their stalks, dropping them into a labeled bag later to be cleaned and sown where needed in our parks.

Former Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa, gathering coneflower seeds among the Big Bluestem at Charles Ilsley Park.

Preparing the Seed for Sowing

Volunteers cleaning seed and Stewardship Specialist Grant VanderLaan weighing it on the right.

Early in December, volunteers and staff gather at the township’s pole barn on Buell Road to separate the seed from its pods or seed heads. We dress warmly, snacks are on hand and we set to work pushing the seeds through screens into tubs, bagging the stalks and stems for compost. Some seeds need to be rubbed through a coarser screen while standing in order to break them off sturdy seed heads. The seed for each species is individually weighed, its origin and collection date recorded and then stored away for sowing. We chat while we work and the whole feeling of the event is a bit like an old-fashioned barn raising or quilting bee!

Sowing the Seed

Native seeds need to be sown in late fall or early spring, when nature drops many of its seeds; wild seeds usually require cold temperatures in order to germinate. It lands on the soil surface and moves into the soil by the force of rain or snow during freeze/thaw periods. Many are tiny, almost dust-like, and ignored by the birds. Some seeds are carried below ground by animals or insects.

Our collected native seeds are most often sown by hand or occasionally with a hand-cranked seed spreader. Ben and his crew recreate nature’s process in our parks by spreading it on the surface of prairie sites prepared by burns or mowing, on the edges of wetlands or for aquatic plants, even on pond ice. Natives may need three or more years to reach full bloom because they first establish deep roots. Unlike non-native nursery plants, they’re tough survivors who’ve evolved to grow without fertilizer or much other human intervention in Michigan’s unpredictable weather!

The stewardship crew planting in early spring, 2021

Scoop Up Tiny Shrimp and Other Tiny Aquatic Critters: Vernal Pool Monitoring

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that form in low areas in the spring. They fill with snow melt and rain water, and then dry up in warm weather. As a consequence, these pools don’t support fish, which makes them a safe place for many creatures to breed and lay eggs. Tiny orange Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) and appropriately named Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) are indicator species in these freshwater pools. Who knew shrimp and clams live and breed right in our parks? Likewise, our Wood Frogs (Lithobates syvaticus) and some species of Salamanders court and lay eggs here after overwintering in the uplands. Periodically Ben trains volunteers to record data from the vernal pools so that it can be reported to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory – a third kind of citizen science! Ben provides small nets and clear boxes and we don our high boots and wade in, learning first hand how to identify what dwells in these temporary pools that team with life that most of us have never seen before!

Enjoy Taking on the “Bad Guys?” Try Invasive Species Management!

Invasive species – like Bradford/Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and many others – are a big problem because they didn’t evolve here. In their original habitats in Eurasia and elsewhere, they did what our native plants do here, providing food and shelter for native species. But of course here, they are not among their native species. Consequently, they’re much less productive for our habitat. Their seeds may last longer in the fall, but offer little useful nutrition to our migrating birds – too much sugar, not enough fat. Butterflies may sip at non-native blossoms, but their young (the caterpillars) generally can’t/won’t eat non-native leaves, or if they do, fail to thrive into adulthood. Most caterpillars only feed on plants they’ve evolved with for centuries. Since caterpillars and their native plant hosts anchor the food web that feeds our birds and other creatures, the lack of caterpillars means a less healthy, more hungry habitat. Also, the predators that kept invasive species in check in their original habitats (insects, animals, fungi) aren’t present here – so invasives can quickly spread across the landscape with little opposition – robbing our native plants of the sunlight, rain, soil nutrients and pollination they need.

So here are a couple of examples to show how you might help preserve the rich diversity of our natural areas by eliminating non-native, invasive species:

Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines

Volunteers and stewardship staff took on clearing a large area of invasive shrubs and vines at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail in late 2020. Forestry mowing would have damaged the fragile ecosystem there. After weeks of work, clearing was complete and the resulting piles were burned on the winter snow. See the transformation process in the slideshow below.

Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning

No, garlic pulls are not at all like taffy pulls, unfortunately. Just nice folks who go out into woodlands with Ben and Grant to remove the nefarious, invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This introduced European plant crowds out many species of our native woodland wildflowers like Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Garlic Mustard, named for its scent, is easy to pull! A four-year-old delighted in helping me pull some near my home and did a fine job. The following year, a native wildflower emerged from the seed bank – the kind of reward we hope to see again in our natural areas! (Notice the historical photo below of the forest floor at Bear Creek in 1979!)

Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in full bloom in July after wildflower seeding

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. We volunteer because we want to be of use and what we discover is that the greatest benefit has been to ourselves! Working with Ben and the other stewardship folk, I have learned to be of use to nature. I’m happy to provide data to researchers learning to protect nesting and migrating birds or tiny shrimp. And it’s such a thrill to see a diverse tapestry of native plants emerge from the soil after decades of being buried beneath a heavy load of invasive shrubs or grasses. It invariably feels like I’m privileged to witness a small resurrection.

But what I’ve experienced is that the benefits for me often outweigh the relatively small part I play in the process. I’ve made bright, interesting friends both in person and here on the blog. What a delight to enjoy and learn from kindred spirits! I’ve stimulated my aging brain with new information that matters to me. I’ve exercised both my mind and my muscles as I head out in the fields to see what nature is ready to show me. This kind of volunteering makes me feel more alive!

But most importantly, through stewardship work, I’ve come closer to the natural world. In fact, I’ve come to feel embedded in it. We humans aren’t just walking on the earth, after all. We are an integral part of a vast and intricate system that feeds us daily, quenches our thirst, supplies our oxygen, clothes us, heats our homes, provides materials for the very roof over our heads and the tools we use every day – and nature does all that while gifting us with beauty! A field full of wildflowers, sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds, bird song and the whisper of leaves, the dance of tall grass in a summer breeze – all of that glorious art is gratis once we step out our door.

So I hope you’ll find a way to join us. More than 1500 acres of preserved natural areas in Oakland Township could use your attention and if possible, your helping hands. I guarantee that nature will richly reward your efforts.

Letting Nature Breathe Again: Restoration at Cranberry Lake Park

North meadow at Cranberry Lake Park after forestry mowing

Ah, at last! The native trees and plants can breathe again! Many of the invasive shrubs that had crept across open areas at Cranberry Lake Park are gone. Now the sun washes across the landscape, rain sluices into the ground, nourishing the roots of native trees, grasses and wildflowers waiting for spring. As the carpet of mowed stems and branches decompose, the nutrition previously taken up by autumn olive, privet, glossy buckthorn and other non-native shrubs can gradually re-nourish the soil. The diverse wildlife that evolved with our native plants will once again benefit from the food and shelter that they’ve depended on for thousands of years. With the help of careful stewardship – treatment of non-native re-sprouts and the spreading of native seed – a habitat will be reborn.

So come have a a look at the new vistas in the park. I can’t show it all, but maybe I can give you taste of it. Along the way, we’ll see a few creatures that shared my walks during the mostly gray days of November and early December.

Miraculous Transformation Along the Hickory Lane

To appreciate the dramatic changes made by forestry mowing, here to the left is a typical view of most paths at Cranberry Lake Park before the restoration work began – and it’s not too scenic, I must say. A tangle of invasive shrubs and vines created very little nutrition for wildlife, left only a narrow edge along the path for native wildflowers and had spread thickly into the fields beyond the trails. The almost impenetrable density of the shrubs blocked views of wetlands and the open vistas of large trees that had existed before the invasive plants took over. The invasives also took up nutrients and shaded out native plants all over the park.

As I headed north from the parking lot at West Predmore Road and stepped into the Hickory Lane, I first noticed that I could see into a wetland that I’d struggled to reach from the opposite side last summer when a group of volunteers and staff monitored a vernal pool there. How nice to see it so clearly from this direction! Perhaps you can see the density of shrubs on the far side, which is what used to exist along the Hickory Lane.

A wetland along the Hickory Lane, now visible after the removal of invasive shrubs

The mature trees along the Hickory Lane, of course, were not touched and only a scrim of shrubs remain between them. Look at the contrast between the un-mowed left side and the open area in the distance on the right! I was immediately tempted out into that cleared meadow.

The Hickory Lane with recently mowed meadow on the right and dense shrubbery remaining on the left

I found a place to slip between the trees and look at the landscape that had appeared. I’d never seen this sight before!

Once dense with shrubs, this beautiful meadow with mature trees opened up before me.

I was elated! The large trees, once shrouded with thickets of invasive shrubs, now stood clear in the November light. I wandered across the shredded trunks and branches of the former thicket, looking down for any signs of native plants which had survived beneath that carpet of invasives. And even though it was early November then, I found two. The tiny evergreen plant popping out in the photo on the left below is named Haircap Moss (a Polytrichum species). These plants thrive in moist, partial shade so they may eventually disappear in this location and be replaced by more sun-friendly species. And on the right below is native Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) which does well in the sun. Its flowers provide sustenance for butterflies and moths in spring and its tiny berries do the same for wildlife in the summer.

This sprawling meadow is divided by a tree line and in the northern section, a huge Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) stood tall in the sunlight, freed at last from the tangle of invasives. It still had one intruder, though. One of the least welcome invasives, Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), hung in its branches. Though the mower had chopped it off near the ground, it will try to make a comeback since its seeds will drop to the ground or be carried all over the park by birds.

A huge Shagbark Hickory in the newly mowed field with a few strands of Oriental Bittersweet clinging to its branches.

This invasive vine spirals up tree trunks, choking them while climbing to the sunlight. It shades out growth below and since it accumulates in the canopy can make trees vulnerable to being toppled in high winds. I saw a smaller tree felled in just this way farther east in the park. (See below left.)The hickory will survive, but a nearby tree in the restored meadow (below right) was heavily infested with Bittersweet. Look at the number of berries that can be spread from one vine!

Now that the field has been forestry mowed, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his crew will take on the extensive follow-up processes to prevent re-sprouting by carefully applying herbicides to invasive shrubs like Bittersweet, or by girdling the trunks of non-native trees. Once that’s completed, native plant seeding can begin. We can do our part by not using Oriental Bittersweet for fall decorating and by cutting and treating any stems that appear near our homes.

The clearing of this wonderful meadow also brought the beauty of the Long Pond into view – a series of linked ponds that runs north and south on the eastern side of the restored meadow. What a treat to get close like this! I look forward to seeing the water glinting through the trees next summer and seeing the water fowl that drop in to forage or rest during migration.

The Long Pond from the eastern edge of the restored meadow beyond the Hickory Lanea vista not seen until the forestry mowing was completed.

Blue sky days were rare in November. Most of the time, the sun struggled to get through heavy cloud cover.

The sun was dimmed by dark clouds on three of my four trips to Cranberry Lake Park.

On one of those cold, dark days, when most birds were silent, I heard a gruff squeak repeated incessantly by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who fled from one tree near the Hickory Lane to another. (Click here and choose the December call recorded in New York near the bottom of the list for a sample.) I thought it might be issuing a warning but I couldn’t see a threat. Later however, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) eyeing me from high in a distant tree and wondered if it prompted the Red-belly’s call.

On one of the snowy, quiet days on the Hickory Lane, it cheered me to see the tracks of little animals who’d visited the lane just after the snow fell the previous night or early that morning. I wasn’t alone! I followed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) for quite a distance, a squirrel, probably the tiny Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), had bounded across the lane and a White-footed Deer Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had left its stitching tracks as it scurried diagonally across the spot where two paths met.

Opening Up the Path to Cranberry Lake

Like the Hickory Lane, the path to the lake had been crowded with non-native invasives. Once the forestry mower got to work, though, the lake could actually be glimpsed from far up the trail.

Along the trail in November and early December, birds were more heard than seen on dark cold days. Of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) still trumpeted overhead. I love it when they get close enough to hear the snap of their wings!

A squadron of Canada Geese honking their way to warmer climes.

Along with the usual year ’round inhabitants, I did get to see two more unusual birds , migrators that I’d missed earlier in the autumn. Early in November, the birding group spotted a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) high up in trees near the lake. The numbers of these pale-eyed blackbirds have “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years,” according to Cornell University’s website allaboutbirds.org. The ones near Cranberry Lake were too high for my lens to reach that day, but luckily I’d gotten a closer look back in 2017 at Bear Creek.

Rusty blackbird female at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2017. Note the pale eyes on these close relatives of the Grackle.

On one late November visit, a speckled Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) surprised me by stopping by so late in the season. Since they are known to like open areas in woods, maybe this one found Cranberry Lake Park a good stopover after a late start at migration.

A late-migrating Hermit Thrush

When the birding group reached Cranberry Lake early in the month, a bobbing flotilla of ducks floated in the distance.

Hundreds of ducks floated, fluttered and cruised along Cranberry Lake in early November

The ducks stayed out of the reach of even our binoculars. But some of the more expert birders were able to discern three species by the patterns and colors on their wings or heads: Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks. Later in the week, I was able to get a bit closer to the Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) when a friend let me cross his lawn on the far side of Cranberry Lake. (Thanks, George!)

Bufflehead ducks spend the winter with us wherever they can find open water.

My photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, shared his photos of a variety of ducks on open water at Stony Creek Metropark one January. Here are Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) hanging out with a larger group of Redheads (Aythya americana) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on a cold winter day. For Ring-necked ducks the white swoop on the flanks and the stripe at the base of the bill are good field marks for this black-and-white diving duck. Some Redheads spend the winter here, but most migrate to the Gulf coast.

Ring-necked ducks (the black-and-white ones) hanging out at Stony Creek Metropark with Redheads and Mallards.

Paul also shared some fine photos of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) who frequent Cranberry Lake as well as the lake in Stony Creek Metropark during the winter. Here’s a male and female Hooded Merganser and one of a lucky male who snagged a crayfish!

I found a photo of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) by a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org. These ducks may have been migrating through when the birding group saw them in early November. They tend to spend the winter along the Gulf Coast. The ruffled “cap” on the back of its head is what separates it from the very similar Greater Scaup.

That fuzzy little ridge at the top of the head makes this a Lesser Scaup instead of a Greater one! Photo by Robert Pyle (CC BY-NC)

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with their bulbous orange and black bills fed actively on the far side of Cranberry Lake. The Cornell All About Birds website describes the difficulties presented by these beautiful, but non-native birds. “Their aggressive behavior and voracious appetites often disturb local ecosystems, displace native species, and even pose a hazard to humans.” Our native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) were once endangered, and though Cornell Ornithology says they are “recovering,” they still have a hard time competing with Mute Swans. Trumpeters, which have solid black bills, breed in our area, but winter farther south.

A Quiet Walk Back Wakes Me to the Small Details of a Winter Walk

The last of autumn on Cranberry Lake Park’s eastern meadow in late November

On these four quiet days in the park, I didn’t see much wildlife on my way back through the park’s eastern section. When that happened, I looked more carefully downward and as usual I was rewarded by paying attention. Below a wooden walkway over a small wetland on the trail, leaves made a mosaic under a skim of ice. That’s the kind of detail I can miss when looking up.

The dry Showy Goldenrod plumes (Solidago speciosa) drew my attention to bands of late autumn color at the edge of the Eastern Meadow. Along the paths, fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), clad in their bead-like sori, contain the spores for next year’s crop.

Dry Wild Cucumber Vines (Echinocystis lobata) were draped like garlands across bushes here and there in the park. In summer, the vines look delicate and airy. In autumn, they produce the prickly seed capsules that give this plant its name. Each capsule opens in the fall, dropping four seeds from within its two chambers.

Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone Cylindrica) is a favorite of mine in early winter. I often miss its modest flowers in the spring. I begin to notice it when its small green center begins to extend into a cylinder as it forms its thimble-like fruit. I appreciate it most when colder weather prompts its seed head to burst forth in a cottony tuft filled with tiny black seeds.

So Exactly What is Being Restored at Cranberry Lake?

A thicket of native Gray Dogwood on the path back to the parking lot

At times, I’ve thought of restoration projects as similar to the restoration of an historic home. The work that Dr. Ben VanderWeide and our stewardship crew perform restores natural vistas that thrived here for thousands of years before European colonization. At Cranberry Lake Park we’re removing invasive shrubs and vines so that native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers can reestablish a mosaic of forest and meadows. That’s historic preservation, for sure!

But what’s essential to understand about the work being done in our parks is that it’s about much more.

One presenter at a Michigan Wildflower Conference compared nature’s intricate systems to the thousands of lines of code in your cellphone, each one of which depends on the performance of thousands of others to make the system work. Imagine, the presenter said, randomly removing just one line of code from your cellphone. You wouldn’t do it! The system might crash!

Nature spent eons perfecting its “coding,” creating a delicate balance that fed and sheltered a huge variety of life forms. Sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly, humans have removed one “line of code” after another from nature’s finely-tuned system. It’s happened everywhere on our small, blue planet, even right here in our yards and parks. Non-native plants introduced into our parks, fields, and gardens can act like an aggressive computer virus, spreading quickly, damaging nature’s finely balanced systems with destructive force.

So as we begin a new year, let’s celebrate that in our little spot on the globe, we’ve chosen to support stewardship and restoration in our natural areas. As the native wildflowers, trees and grasses that nature fostered for eons return to their rightful places, they provide a healthy foundation for the rebirth of our meadows, forests and wetlands. We can justifiably hope that with time and effort, some small part of nature’s intricate and carefully balanced “lines of code” can be restored to our ecosystem. If so, the myriad of complex relationships that once thrived here will again sustain the rich variety of life that nature planned for us.