Well, the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, is behind us, but the nights are still long, aren’t they? We pull the curtains against the blank, black windows as the sun sets, click on a lamp and if we’re lucky, light a fire. Porch lights suddenly glow along our streets. We escape from the dark, fending it off with relief, as if we are warding off danger.
But what if we welcomed the darkness? What if we paused before pulling the curtains and just looked at night coming on? Sunsets around here can be quite dramatic this time of year. Winter is a time to look for “sun pillars,” when vertical beams of light occasionally appear near the sunset, caused by light reflecting on tiny ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere – like this one at our home one winter evening.
And although I’ve never caught “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings,” I have caught geese flying splashed with the pink of a sunset.
Even a stray chunk of ice can look quite magical when it catches a ray of orange light as dusk settles.
Perhaps we could learn to stand in the dark on a snowy night and listen for the low hooting of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior Vol. 3, they mate during the winter. But it’s difficult to hear their plaintive, long distance courting through tightly closed windows and doors. Maybe open the door a crack now and then, set your ear to it and listen.
It’s mating season for White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) as well; unfortunately we are aware of that from all the heedless deer on the roads. But on foot, it’s magical to see a young doe covered in snow beneath your bird feeder in the evening…
or smile at a pine tree topped by the full moon like the star on a Christmas tree!
The intriguing thing about being out in the darkness is that it’s often not as dark as it seems from inside those black windows. The moon and the stars do shine, after all, and anything white – flowers in summer, snow in winter – catches that silver light and reflects it, creating patterns we miss if we aren’t looking.
So this winter, perhaps we should consider venturing out into the dark – maybe with a friend to feel more comfortable at first. Or perhaps parents can take children out “owling” on a snowy night – and if you’re considering it, have a look at the gorgeous picture book Owl Moon by Jane Yolen for inspiration. Or just take them on a stroll around the lawn while scouting out Orion overhead or other constellations. Even a walk down a long driveway can be exciting on a moonlit night. You can sing to yourself for courage if the possible presence of nocturnal animals makes you nervous; they most often run away at the sound of a human voice. Or if you are intrigued by them, follow fox tracks in the moonlight.
Maybe you could make it a personal or family ritual to just take a few minutes once a week to sit with a cup of cocoa, turn off the lights and stare through a darkened window. Watch the moon as it changes; perhaps record its phases on a calendar with your children or grandchildren. Open your door and listen to the song of wind in the pines and how it differs from songs “sung” through bare limbs. If you hear a coyote outside, consider calling your children to the door to listen to their song – and then howl along!
Perhaps if we can become familiar with the velvet black of a winter night, its sounds and sights, we’ll be more comfortable with it. Let’s befriend the night and see the beauty that lies out there in the winter darkness.
On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!
Feasting on Seeds
Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.
That made some of the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.
And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.
They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.
In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.
Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”
A male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobatespubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside. The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Later I saw a female – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?
In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.
So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting. Nice how nature works like that…
(Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Notice something odd about the three photos above? Right. They all show dead trees. And it turns out they are all Michigan oaks – in a neighborhood, in a park and in a natural area. Oak Wilt, an invasive fungus deadly to oaks, has killed these mighty giants in Minnesota, Wisconsin and throughout Michigan, including Oakland County. Researchers like Dr. Monique Sakalidis at Michigan State are working to more thoroughly understand oak wilt and how to prevent it because at the moment, there is no cure once a red oak is infected. The good news is that most new infections can be prevented by not damaging or pruning oaks during warm weather (April to October). So we all need to know how to protect our oaks!
The Oakland County CISMA (Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area) arranged a workshop with Oak Wilt specialist, Julie Stachecki, who is also an ISA certified arborist (International Society of Arboriculture) and President of the Arboriculture Society of Michigan. She packed a lot of information into her two hour presentation! We learned how this dangerous fungus is spread and how to protect the oaks of Oakland Township. Here are some important basics and links to more detailed information. (All of the photos in this blog were taken by Julie Stachecki, except the one on the left above by Dr. Dave Roberts and two photos of oak leaves below by Cam Mannino.)
The Danger is Real…and Some of the Photos Aren’t Pretty
Oak wilt is caused by an exotic fungus (Bretziella fagacearum) that likely arrived in North America around 1900. Oak wilt can kill a tree in the Red Oak group (northern red oak, pin oak, black oak, and scarlet oak) in 6-8 weeks! Species in the White Oak group (bur oak, post oak, white oak, and swamp white oak) can also be infected but may survive, or just die more slowly. Red oaks have bristles at the tips of the leaf lobes, while white oaks have rounded lobes with no bristle. There is currently no cure for oak wilt, so prevention is crucial! Don’t injure your oak trees between March and October!
Overland Spread by Beetles
The oak wilt fungus is spread by native sap beetles (fam. Nitidulidae) that are attracted by the scent of any wound on an oak tree – for example, those caused by lawnmowers, pruning or broken limbs. These beetles can spread the fungus several miles in one year!
The beetles can arrive within 10 minutes of wounding! So prevention is critical. When wounds occur, sealing them with a pruning sealant or latex paint needs to happen quickly. The beetles are active from mid-March through October, but there are greater numbers of them from mid-March to July.
If the beetles have been feeding on the oak wilt fungus in an infected tree, they can carry the fungal spores to nearby healthy but wounded trees. Once they land on a wound with the spores on their bodies, a red oak tree will die in 6-8 weeks.
Local Spread through the Roots
Oak wilt can also spread to healthy trees through the roots of infected oaks. Oak trees, particularly red oaks, are connected underground by root grafts even if they are as much as 100 feet apart. The fungus will keep spreading throughout the root systems and can kill every oak tree in a neighborhood, park or forest until the root connections run out or are professionally severed
How to Protect Your Trees
Prevention is the key to protecting your oak trees. Don’t prune or injure your oak trees between March and October! Only prune oak trees between November and February (late fall or winter).
If the bark of your oak tree is injured in any way (e.g. by lawnmower, pruning in the growing season, wind damage) from March to October, immediately seal the wound with tree wound paint, latex paint, or clear shellac. That should keep beetles from landing on exposed tissue and protect your trees. If you can’t reach the area, call an Oak Wilt specialist. (See below.)
DO NOT MOVE FIREWOOD. It’s one of the significant ways in which oak wilt spreads.
Avoid using tree crews that are not qualified as oak wilt specialists. Confirm any diagnosis of oak wilt with an expert. Many different stresses and less lethal pests can cause symptoms of concern on oak trees. You don’t want to make treatments or cut down a tree unnecessarily.
Signs of Oak Wilt Infection
In June, July or August, leaves discolor to a dull olive green or turn partially brown, often near the top of the tree first. Discolored leaves then wilt from the top of the tree downward and additional leaves become brown or bronzed. Rapid leaf drop occurs as the disease progresses. Fallen leaves are usually brown at the tips and margins and sometimes green at the base. (See photo above.)
The year after a tree is killed by oak wilt (but sometimes that fall), fungal pressure pads may form beneath the bark of the tree. The growing pressure pad pushes on the bark above it, often forming small cracks that allow beetles to access the fungus.
If You Think You Have an Oak Wilt Infected Tree:
Confirm any suspicion of oak wilt with an expert. Dead leaves aren’t enough since other diseases can cause similar symptoms.
Don’t Cut it Down Yourself! You may make the problem worse by forcing the fungus more quickly into the roots, infecting nearby oak trees with the oak wilt fungus.
Again, contact an Oak Wilt Qualified Specialist. Don’t be tempted to use just any arborist or tree service. Specialists have passed an exam on identification and management of Oak Wilt and are required to be either an ISA Certified Arborist, Certified Forester or have a 4 year degree in a related field. They can provide you with the best way to protect other oaks in your yard, your neighbors’ yards, or a forest or park nearby from this deadly fungus. Management options may include tree removal, tightly covering infected firewood piles, preventative injections of nearby non-symptomatic trees, and trenching around infected trees to prevent spread through the roots to nearby trees.
Keeping the “Oak” in “Oakland”
We all know that we want to preserve the oaks for which Oakland Township and Oakland County were named. To do so, we need to take the Oak Wilt threat seriously and work as a community to prevent its spread. Even one infected tree with oaks nearby can spread and kill all the trees connected to its roots. That could potentially affect whole neighborhoods, whole parks, whole forests. So the first step is to educate ourselves and our neighbors so that we can act quickly. First, prevent any injury to oak trees between March and October. Second, immediately seal any wounds that do occur between March to October. Finally, if you suspect a tree with oak wilt, quickly hire experts to confirm the oak wilt diagnosis and to keep the infection from spreading. So please read the information on the Michigan Oak Wilt website and tell your neighbors about how to prevent the spread of oak wilt! We can do this!
Many thanks to Julie Stachecki of the Michigan Oak Wilt Coalition for generously sharing her photos and her time.
Resources for More Information and Help:
Website of the Michigan Oak Wilt Coalition for more detailed information and to find an Oak Wilt certified specialist arborist: michiganoakwilt.org
For reporting suspected cases of Oak Wilt: email DNR-FRD-Forest-Health@michigan.gov
Bear Creek Nature Park can be surprisingly busy on a late autumn afternoon. Couples sit chatting on a bench, while pairs of other species are gliding together on the Center Pond or cozying up in the hollow of a tree. Birds soar overhead or chatter from distant branches.
And meanwhile on the north side of Bear Creek, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, along with hard-working volunteers and a forestry mower, are ridding the park of invasive shrubbery. And what emerges from their efforts is a beautiful, rolling oak savanna landscape! You may be a bit shocked at first by the change – but trust me, you’re going to love it!
Pairing Up in Autumn
Spring may be for lovers but autumn’s got its own appeal. One late afternoon, a young couple came wandering down a forest path toward me, the girl giving me a shy hello. And shortly thereafter, as I approached the north platform of the marsh, a slightly older pair of friends relaxed on the bench, just enjoying together the golden light of an autumn day.
Nearby at the Center Pond, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were paired up as well. Mallards choose their mates in the autumn once they’ve finished their molt. They won’t mate until the spring, but they spend the winter hanging out together. Kind of nice, really….
A third couple showed up in the comfortable, big hole in a White Oak (Quercus alba) where I’ve often seen Raccoons (Procyon lotor). They were looking pretty cozy as the sun went down. You may see only one in the photo below at first, but note that there’s a third ear showing! The second raccoon, sleepier or less curious than its companion, stayed hidden behind the first. Raccoons are generally solitary but they occasionally den up together and sleep through cold snaps, especially in December and January. They don’t actually hibernate, which would involve slowing down their metabolism for a continuous period. This sleepy-eyed raccoon could be a female and its kit; the young generally stay with their parent for close to year. But from their size, I’m guessing it’s two young raccoons of the same sex – they den that way too – just waking up as the night comes on.
More Birds and a “Bear” of Sorts…
As I approached the pond one afternoon, a flash of slate blue and a ratcheting call alerted me to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Though Cornell tells me I should see them year ’round, I only seem to spot them in the spring and the fall. Again this time it was a noisy, solitary male; kingfisher mating pairs only associate in the breeding season. He stayed off in the distance but I could tell it was a male from the single blue band on his chest. Females have two bands, one blue and one chestnut brown.
A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) circled high above the eastern meadow, scouting for a snack before nightfall.
On a snag near the marsh, a female Downy Woodpecker(Picoides pubescens) drilled for her evening meal. Downys look a lot like Hairy Woodpeckers, but are smaller and have shorter, sharper beaks and dark dots on their outer white tail feathers. Hairy Woodpeckers have a longer, heavier, spike-like beak and clear white feathers on the outside of their tails.
During the bird walk at Bear Creek Nature Park two weeks ago, we were treated to the sight of a good-sized flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). At first we saw just one of two.
And then Ben spotted a whole flock on the western slope where they eventually landed in a single tree, as if decorating it for the holiday season!
A couple of migrants had arrived as well. The Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) had just arrived from Alaska or Hudson’s Bay where it raised its young this summer. This bird loves cold weather but the far north is too extreme even for Tree Sparrows at this time of year, so it traveled south to relax in a balmly Michigan winter!
Another migrator was just passing through. I didn’t catch a photo two weeks ago, but here’s a photo of the White-throated Sparrow (Zonothrichia albicollis) from a previous autumn. Notice the yellow lores above its eyes! Handsome bird!
And About that Bear…
As you know, there are no actual bears in Bear Creek Nature Park. But there is, of course, the Wooly Bear, the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). I have a particular fondness for these little creatures because they so often introduce children to the pleasures of nature. Wooly Bears, as you may recall, curl into a ball if handled as a defensive move. So placing one in a child’s hand often elicits surprise and laughter as the bristles of its brown and black hair tickles a youngster’s palm. In fact, I recently saw this happen to little children at Gallagher Creek Park. So here’s Bear Creek’s only bear, at last.
Volunteers Open New Vistas at the Marsh
When farm fields were abandoned in the township decades ago, aggressive non-native shrubs quickly took over the fields and surrounded wet areas. Bear Creek Marsh has been surrounded by these non-native shrubs for many years. But in late October, Six Rivers Land Conservancy and a group of industrious volunteers from Fiat-Chrysler helped Ben VanderWeide and stewardship specialist Alyssa clear huge thickets of glossy buckthorn from the edges of the marsh at the eastern edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
FCA volunteers worked with great enthusiasm to cut buckthorn at Bear Creek Nature Park.
FCA volunteers cleared invasive glossy buckthorn at Bear Creek Nature Park on October 19, 2018.
A pile of invasive Buckthorn which will eventually be burned.
Stumps of Glossy Buckthorn dyed with a treatment that will help prevent resprouting.
The crew created huge piles of the invasive shrubs which Ben plans to burn during the winter months. The stumps of the buckthorn shrubs were carefully treated. As you can see above he uses a blue dye with the treatment to be sure he’s covered the stumps completely in order to prevent re-sprouting.
The end result of their remarkable effort is that we have wonderful new views of the marsh which we could never enjoy before! And, of course, other native plants can thrive at the edge of the marsh!
An Oak Savanna Emerges from a Tangle of Invasive Shrubs
Before farming came to Oakland Township, the landscape was defined by tall native grasses, native wildflowers and widely spaced oak trees – what is called an “oak savanna.” That grassy, open landscape is just beginning to be restored at the north end of Bear Creek Nature Park – and it is just spectacularly beautiful!
Until last week, invasive Glossy Buckthorn shrubs filled the entire area surrounding the Center Pond, just as it had surrounded the marsh. Starting at the edge of the forest, the Buckthorn and a few other invasive shrubs formed super dense thickets filling the entire loop trail and the trail edges up to the forest. The photo below, taken the first day that the major restoration began, shows just how densely the Buckthorn had grown!
Because of those shrubs, the trails had become tunnels between non-native vegetation. Here are the two arms of the Big Northern Loop and the trail behind the pond as they looked before restoration began and how they look now after we started the restoration process.
Eastern Trail on the Big Loop
Western Trail on the Big Loop
Trail Behind the Center Pond
Before the forestry mower arrived, Ben carefully marked the trees to be saved and the areas filled with invasive shrubs that required removal. The operator of the mower, an employee of the Ruffed Grouse Society that owns the machine, carefully avoided the trees Ben had marked and even preserved other young oaks that he found buried in the thickets. As the mowing proceeded, what gradually appeared behind it was an oak savanna – oaks and a few other trees sprinkled across a plain – the very type of landscape that thrived here hundreds of years ago! All that’s needed are tall native grasses and wildflowers.
When Ben took me last week to see what had begun, I was astonished and delighted to discover vistas that I’d never known were hidden beneath all those shrubs! Here’s the western loop trail stretching south toward the pond. Now I could see a cleared meadow dotted with young oaks and other trees with the edge of the forest on the perimeter. What a difference from walking through a tunnel of buckthorn!
I could stand in the center of the loop which had been an impassible tangle of shrubs and look south down an undulating slope to the whole expanse of the Center Pond, a viewpoint I’d never had before!
When Ben and I left the western loop heading back up the trail toward the south, the forest stood tall beyond the newly cleared field. We could now see the forest, a dark wall of hickories and oaks, that embraced the new landscape. We were no longer inside a tunnel of shrubs that blocked everything but the treetops beyond. Ben looks pretty pleased with the work after the first day of restoration, doesn’t he? He should be!
A Landscape Resurrecting
When I followed that path around to stand again on the observation deck at the Center Pond, I realized the scope of the transformation emerging at Bear Creek. Now the graceful, flowing curves of the landscape began to dip and rise in graceful curves beyond the pond. These three photos together can give you some idea of what I saw standing there, looking north from west to east across the pond.
I’m guessing that you can tell I was thrilled at the transformation taking place at Bear Creek. I have walked this park for over 25 years and at one point, I walked it every day for 3 years. It’s essentially my “home park,” and I know it intimately. So when Ben first talked of changing it, I was skeptical. When I came to see the first day’s restoration work last week, I actually stopped in my tracks as I came to the pond and gasped – and then I began to smile. That smile never left my face as I wandered through a vastly changed Bear Creek that for me had suddenly become even more beautiful. The feeling of “rightness” was so powerful. This, I felt, was the way this land was meant to be. It seemed as if the earth could take a deep breath, that the oaks that had been hidden among the tangle of shrubs were now stretching to the sky, ready to grow taller and stronger in the sun and the wind.
It will take years of hard work to complete this transformation. Buckthorns don’t give up easily. This winter Ben will plant native grass seed among the shards left from the shrubs, the broken wood eventually returning its nutrients to the earth. In the spring, the buckthorn will vigorously produce sprouts again and Ben and his crew will have to persist in keeping the ground that they gained for the oaks, the native plants and the wildlife.
Eventually, when the shrubs have subsided, Ben can plant the area with native wildflowers. Turtles will emerge from the wetlands to find soft soil in which to dig their nests and lay their eggs. The native plants will slowly sink their roots deep enough to survive fire and drought. And if we’re patient and lucky, they will finally come to full bloom. And that’s when we’ll be able to see birds and butterflies fluttering and floating between and above the oak trees, over the rolling grassland – some perhaps that we haven’t seen in a long time. And won’t that be a sight to see?
Standing hip-deep in native grasses and wildflowers is a pretty terrific way to spend a few hours on a cool autumn afternoon. Every fall our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, plans a few days for harvesting the seeds of native wildflowers to plant in our parks over the winter and the following spring.
So this October, volunteers gathered, clippers in hand, paper bags at the ready, to chat quietly as we snipped the seed heads from native prairie flowers. Can you see two of our seed-gathering volunteers in this Where’sWaldo-style photo?
It always makes me feel like a child again to stand in a field with friends and have native grasses towering over us. Here’s our township Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, smiling through a scrim of native grass.
On the day pictured above, we harvested seeds from Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Gray-headed Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), and several other native plants.
Harvesting native seeds is good stewardship. Ben instructs us volunteers to collect an appropriate amount for each species, leaving lots of seeds where they are to feed wildlife and renew our prairies so they look as glorious next spring as they did this year! The seeds we harvest, along with purchased wildflower seed, can then help restore more of our natural areas to their former glory. All that and peaceful autumn afternoons among wildflowers and kindred spirits. Maybe you’d like to join us next year as we lend nature a helping hand?