Recently natural areas stewardship staff got the opportunity to take a step back from our day-to-day work to help with Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake surveys in a natural area owned by Springfield Township, in western Oakland County. The surveys were conducted by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI).
The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is Michigan’s only venomous snake and is a federally threatened species. Their populations have been in steady declining due to the rapid loss of their wetland habitats and persecution by humans. While these snakes are venomous, they rarely strike unless they believe they are truly threatened. They prefer to remain completely still and rely on their camouflage to avoid threats.
Once we got out to the site, we learned that monitoring for the Eastern Massasauga is actually pretty simple. It doesn’t require any fancy equipment or tools, just our eyes, and ears! After MNFI scientists trained us how to conduct the surveys, we headed out to comb through targeted natural areas.
For most of the morning our group got skunked. Our morale was getting low and we were about to head back for lunch when one of the volunteers shouted, “I found one!” After we spotted the snake, we captured it with special snake tongs, placed it in a pillowcase, and checked to see if it was a recapture (caught in previous surveys).
Scott, a fellow volunteer, holding one of the two Massasaugas he spotted.The perspective of the photo makes the snake look larger than it actually is. Scott is holding the snake far from his body with the snake tongs.Photo captured by Emma Campbell.
After the snake was safely captured, it was brought back to MNFI’s pop-up lab. Once there, the snake was placed in a bin and gently pressed with a clear piece of plastic. This was done so that measurements and other data could be safely collected. They measured the length of the snake and length of the rattle, weighed the snake, and determined its sex. After all of the data was collected, the snake was returned to the exact location where it was captured.
The massasauga, back at the lab, in the bin where the necessary measurements will be taken. Photo by Emma Campbell.
All in all, being able to see Michigan’s only venomous snake up close and personal was such an amazing experience. We were truly blessed to be able to learn from the scientists from MNFI, Yu Man Lee and Reine Sovey. They generously passed along knowledge and facts about these special snakes, making the monitoring so much more interesting.
As the fall winds down and winter begins to show, I’ve had time to reflect on my time here at Oakland Township Parks & Recreation. So many things have changed during my three years here: crews have come and gone, invasive species have been removed only to pop up in other places, and areas once degraded are being restored to beautiful natural areas. I would love to tell stories of all the big projects we have completed, but I won’t be able to fit them all in one post. So I’d like to show you how several of our projects have changed over time. Check back to learn more about the other projects we have going on!
Bear Creek Nature Park
Bear Creek Nature Park has consistently been one of my favorite parks to both work in and hike in. The variety of ecosystems that can be seen there means there is always something interesting to see. During my time here one of the biggest changes that have happened is the restoration of the park’s northern area. When I started it had just been forestry mowed, so it was very bare and (I’ll admit) rather ugly. However, through several years of spot treating invasive shrubs and spreading native seeds, this once ugly area has been restored to native plants, with lush sedges, grasses, and native forbs (wildflowers) sprinkled throughout. We hope that the diversity of plants and animals in this area continues to increase over the next couple of years.
We control woody invasive shrubs throughout our parks. One of our highest priorities over the past few years has been the northern wetland at Bear Creek. A few years ago the perimeter of this wetland was a dense thicket of glossy buckthorn and autumn olive. After numerous workdays in partnership with Six Rivers Land Conservancy, we have managed to take out a good chunk of the shrubs. While this project is not yet complete, the progress that has been made will allow native species to start to retake the area lost to the invasive shrubs. Our goal over the next few years is to finish removing invasive shrubs along the wetland perimeter and continue the process of re-introducing native plants.
Draper Twin Lake Park
If you frequent Draper Twin Lake Park, you would have noticed that behind the parking lot on the west side last year was nothing more than a dense patch of bittersweet and other invasive woody shrubs, so thick one could only see in about 10 feet. After some intense forestry mowing last fall and winter, seeding native grasses, and spot treating invasive shrubs this summer, what was once a dense thicket is now an open field with scattered trees. You can now see the lake from the top of the hill on the trail, something unheard of two years ago! This project is still in the early stages of restoration. Over the next couple of years, we will continue invasive species treatment and spreading native seeds to help establish a diverse plant community there. We hope that the results are similar to the northern section of Bear Creek Nature Park.
Gallagher Creek Park
We’ve launched several projects during my time at Gallagher Creek Park. I’d first like to highlight the native garden beds behind the playground. This was actually one of the first things that I did during my time at Oakland Township. It started off as nothing more than a dream to create a space that is both beautiful and educational for kids and parents alike. When we first put the beds in with the help of many volunteers, the plants seemed very sparse and spread out. I had my doubts about how well this would turn out. But boy was I wrong! The beds are now full and lush with an abundance of native species, including wildflowers like golden alexanders, wild lupine, and milkweed, and grass and sedge species like little bluestem, Carex brevior, and Carex muskingumensis. We were even able to collect seeds from the native plants this year!
Another project that we have been working on for years is the Phragmites within the park. What started off as major infestations that were threatening to take over all the wetlands of the park, are now reduced to nothing more than a few small stands. These stands have been treated for several years now with some patches completely eradicated. We take such a hard-lined approach to Phragmites because of their potential to take over and completely out-compete native vegetation in an area. It’s easier to stay on top of them with regular treatment of a few small stems than huge treatment projects every few years.
Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen
Unless you know where to look, one might easily be able to pass by this little parcel of land along the Paint Creek Trail between Adams Road and Gunn Road. Within this half-acre of land is a beautiful fen ecosystem. Over the years many of the fen plants have been choked out by a dense stand of non-native cattails, which often invade wetlands when nutrient levels increase. So, throughout my time here, we have painstakingly treated each cattail stem to ensure that we kill it while preserving the good fen species below. While being an incredibly labor-intensive project, it has resulted in most of the cattails dying back. The goal of this project is to open space for many more native specialist fen species to re-establish.
More Change Coming!
Writing this post has given me a unique and amazing opportunity to look back on these last three years here at Oakland Township Parks & Recreation. During my time here I have been able to be a part of so many different projects, each project shaping the future of the parks. Whether it was removing invasive species or planting native ones, I have truly enjoyed seeing the progress that has been made and cannot wait to see what happens to some of the other big projects we are working on right now.
As we welcome the cooler weather, changing of the leaves, and pumpkin spice lattes, we have to say goodbye to our natural areas stewardship summer crew. From early April through the end of September the crew has been hard at work completing many projects that were given to them. These projects included pulling garlic mustard, control of woody invasive species, treatment of crown vetch and swallow wort, and the treatment of Phragmites. (If you would like to learn more about what we did, check out the excellent stewardship blog posts that the crew wrote this summer!) This list just barely scratches the surface of what they were able to accomplish. Without their hard work and dedication to land stewardship, we wouldn’t have accomplished as many projects this summer. The crew helped keep the natural areas in our parks beautiful and healthy.
Katri will be pursuing her master’s degree from Oakland University this upcoming winter, studying aquatic ecology. Parker is working on applying to graduate school this fall and trying to continue to gain experience in the ecology field. Finally, Max will be returned to Michigan State for his junior year to continue pursuing his degree in crop and soil science.
We truly appreciate all of their hard work, curiosity about the world around them, and positive attitudes this summer! Their contributions to our parks will be seen for years to come as we continue work into the winter and next summer. We want to wish them the best of luck in their next endeavors. We will miss you guys!
If you frequent our Oakland Township parks, you might notice bird nest boxes in a few parks. Several times a week, a group of volunteers monitors these boxes for our Natural Areas Stewardship program using the protocols from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch effort. This program’s aim is to study the trends and conditions of the breeding bird populations across the United States. These trends can help show the results of climate change, loss of habitat, and effects of invasive species.
The Nest Watch Program
The NestWatch program is not just confined to organizations like Oakland Township Parks or research groups – it can also be done in your own backyard with little to no equipment necessary! If you simply have the NestWatch app, you can observe nests found in your own backyard. Data from one nest in your backyard might seem insignificant. However if done correctly, consistently, and combined with the many observations of other citizen scientists, your nest data can be of great use. If you would like more information as to how to monitor in your own backyard, click the link below: https://nestwatch.org/about/overview/. Nests can be in nest boxes, like ours, but you can also monitor open cup nests, nests in natural tree cavities, or any other nests you find.
Currently we have boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. We only install boxes when we know that we’ll have volunteers to check and maintain them. Nest boxes that aren’t maintained can be traps where birds are more easily taken by predators, or they can be breeding sites for invasive birds like House Sparrows and European Starlings. We chose nest box locations after deciding which native birds we wanted our boxes to benefit. For example, an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) requires open space to nest, while a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) prefers woodlots or forests. We are mostly working to benefit Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, so we placed nearly all of our nest boxes in open fields. The boxes are paired up to help bluebirds and swallows fend off nest predators and invasive species.
During the breeding season volunteers visit the nest boxes about two times per week. At each visit they check to see if a nest box is being used. If in use, they document the bird species, number of eggs, number of young, and other relevant details. The volunteers also maintain the nest boxes during the summer and clean out the boxes in the winter to prepare for new inhabitants the following year.
Donna and Louise – Citizen Scientists at Draper Twin Lake Park
We are only able to perform this monitoring program because of the amazing volunteers, our citizen scientists. We just wanted to give a big thank you to all of our volunteers as they devote several hours, numerous times a week to this project. Without their hard work and dedication to monitoring these boxes, we would not be able to contribute to the NestWatch program.
While all of the volunteers are amazing and we appreciate every last one of them, we wanted to spotlight two particular volunteers, Donna and Louise. They have been monitoring nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park since we began the program in 2018. I recently had the opportunity to join Donna on her monitoring trip out to Draper Twin Lake Park. She describes her time nest box monitoring as time well spent. She wants to spend her days doing something of quality and continuing to learn. That drive for more knowledge is what pushed Donna to volunteer with us. One of her favorite moments is when the young leave the nest, as she can now watch them grow and mature into adults. When I asked if she had any tips for people who were considering monitoring nests or setting up boxes of their own, her advice was to be courageous and most importantly be respectful. The data collection is secondary to what is actually happening in the nest.
Another great volunteer I wanted to highlight is Donna’s partner volunteer at Draper Twin Lake Park, Louise. She started monitoring with us because she wanted to help out our stewardship department however she could. Before monitoring with us, she already had two years of experience doing this in her backyard, where she grew particularly attached to barn swallows. Despite the time commitment, she has continued to monitor at Draper because she loves doing it and loves to see the prairie change throughout the season. She takes notes on the different things she sees, and uses the information learned to help restore her own personal property.
One of Louise’s favorite moments, besides working with Donna, happened one day when she was walking with her husband, Jim at Draper. They saw a pair of sandhill cranes with juveniles poking their heads out of the grass in the northeast prairie planting. When I asked Louise if she had any tips for new monitors, she advised people to take full advantage of all of the great resources that Cornell Lab of Ornithology has to offer. She also encouraged folks to talk to other birders, who generously pass along good insights and knowledge. Donna and Louise’s heart for nature, and dedication to observing what is happening in it, makes them the ideal volunteers! We would like to thank them and the rest of our citizen scientists who monitor for us each year!
Want to Help?
If you want to learn more about the NestWatch program, click the link below and click the LEARN tab (https://nestwatch.org/). If you are interested in monitoring with Oakland Township Parks next season, or just want to learn more about our program, please email Grant Vander Laan (email@example.com).
In October we’ve been collecting native plant seed in our parks. After all the work of growing, flowering, and making seed, plants have one more task for the year: dispersing the seed. Fluffy seeds ride the wind, buoyant seeds float on water, tasty seeds ride in the guts of animals, and “sticker” seeds cling to animal fur (or your favorite pair of socks!). And a few seeds ride in the paper bags of industrious humans! So it’s all hands on deck to collect seed during harvest time!
We collect native seeds to continue our natural areas restoration work throughout the parks. In 2019 we spread quite a bit of seed at Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and Bear Creek Nature Park in areas where we had removed invasive shrubs. The competition from native plants helps prevent non-native species from coming back. We also spread native plant seed after controlled burns to help increase plant diversity in an area.
We try to remove only about one-third of the available seed for any of our target species. We want to leave enough seed to maintain healthy populations of native plants, while also providing food for birds and other wildlife. If the area is large enough we collect from many different plants to ensure that our seed has lots of genetic diversity.
We collect seed on a small scale, so we mostly harvest by hand. For some plants we simply snip the dried inflorescence from the plant, collecting the entire seed head. This method works best for species that are very tough and difficult to remove by hand (Black-eyed Susan), and for plants with seed that might shake off easily (asters). We also strip seed from the stem by hand. We use this method for many grasses when the seeds are mature and easy to remove from the stem. We place the collected seed in paper bags so that it can dry without molding or rotting.
After the seed dries we clean it so that it is easier to mix and spread. We remove the seeds from the seed heads, pods, or other “fruits,” and winnow out any excess plant material. We only need the seed clean enough to combine with other species in seed mixes. We aren’t too worried about some extra leaves, stems, and other chaff. Our end product is a nice bag of seed packaged in plastic bag to keep extra moisture out.
We are almost finished collecting seed for the season since most of the plants have dispersed their seeds. Keep an eye out for next year’s fall newsletter to see which days we will be collecting seed in 2020. If you are interested in helping us this year, we have a seed cleaning work day on December 3, 2019 from 12:30 – 3:30 pm at Watershed Ridge Park (1720 W. Buell Rd). If you have any questions about this work day or any questions about seed collecting don’t hesitate to ask!