All posts by Ben VanderWeide

About Ben VanderWeide

I am the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation in southeast Michigan. I have a doctorate in biology (focused on plant ecology) and I am passionate about protecting and managing natural areas.

2019 Natural Areas Stewardship Annual Report

What can we say? With your continued support we continued to care for the land and water in our township parks. You can read the summary below and the linked report, but to really see what we did in 2019, here are a few spots to put on your hike list for this spring and summer:

  • Bear Creek Nature Parkwe cleared dense stands of invasive shrubs north of the center pond, and along Bear Marsh.
  • Charles Ilsley Park – the prairies continue to look good, and the new connector trail on the west side winds through meadows, past ponds, and through peaceful woodland.
  • Draper Twin Lake Park – the planted prairie in the northeast corner is looking good after its fourth growing season, and forestry mowing has knocked back invasive shrubs around the kettle wetland just to the south of the prairie.
  • Gallagher Creek Park – we installed a big native plant landscaping area around the new playground.
  • Stony Creek Ravine Nature Parkwe added 208 acres to the original 60 acres. Wetland restorations are already in full swing, with plans in motion to plant the farm fields to native wildflowers, grasses, and sedges in the next 3-5 years.

Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2019 Annual Stewardship Report. (Click link to view). The table of contents in the PDF is hyperlinked to help you navigate the report.

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A beautiful fall day in the wooded wetland near Cranberry Lake.

Volunteer Program

Volunteers contributed 1284 hours in 2019! Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also monitored nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and the Paint Creek Trail; monitored vernal pools at Bear Creek Nature Park; and monitored water quality at Lost Lake and Twin Lake. We had fun at summer and winter potlucks!

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Alex installs a new nest box at Bear Creek Nature Park

We continued the nest box monitoring program, expanding to Bear Creek Nature Park with six new boxes. We added predator guard to all the boxes. Thanks to our volunteers who monitor the next boxes using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch protocols!

Stewardship Blog

The stewardship blog continued to thrive, with regular posts from Cam Mannino. The seasonal technicians also wrote weekly posts about recent stewardship work. We published 47 posts (+2 from 2018) and had 8378 visitors (+2145), with 14,776 page views (+3032).

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Education Events

Stewardship talks included presentations on New Zealand Mud Snails, monarch butterfly ecology and conservation, coyotes, and bird nest box monitoring. We enjoyed a pleasant April evening at our annual Woodcock Watch at Bear Creek Nature Park. We also held weekly bird walks every Wednesday morning.

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Dr. Nate Haan from Michigan State University talks about Monarch butterfly ecology and conservation.

Phragmites Outreach Program

We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 31 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 26 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.

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Phragmites does not recognize property boundaries! Catch your Phragmites while it is small and easy to control for the best results.

Stewardship Staff

Alex Roland graduated from Michigan State University in May 2018 with a degree in environmental biology/zoology. In 2018 she completed an internship with the Student Conservation Association in Idaho doing backcountry conservation work, and she previously served as a Stewardship Coordinator Intern for the Thumb Land Conservancy. Grant Vander Laan graduated from Calvin College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He previously worked as a land management fellow for Pierce Cedar Creek Institute and as an Ecosystem Preserve Steward for Calvin College.  Marisa Kaddis has been a life-long resident of Oakland County and had just completed her first year of study in Natural Resources Management at Grand Valley State University. Marisa’s dream is to study tropical rainforest ecology and endangered species restoration.

Alyssa Winters (Radzwion) continued as the Stewardship Specialist until August, when she took a full-time position with the Blue Water Conservation District. Grant Vander Laan applied for the Stewardship Specialist position, was offered the job, and accepted the position to continue his work in October.

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The 2019 Natural Areas Stewardship Staff (L-R): Ben, Alyssa, Marisa, Grant, and Alex

All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.

Stewardship Talk TONIGHT: The Poweshiek Skipperling Butterfly

For our first Stewardship Talk of 2020 we are excited to host Dr. Pete Blank from The Nature Conservancy for his talk, “The Poweshiek Skipperling Butterfly: The Life and Times of Michigan’s Most Endangered Species.” The talk is free and will be TONIGHT, January 30, 2020 at 6:30 pm at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306.

The Poweshiek Skipperling butterfly was once common in the Upper Midwest in tallgrass prairies and prairie wetlands. Over the last 20 years its population has crashed and the species is now endangered in North America and critically imperiled in Michigan. One of its last strongholds is Oakland County, Michigan. Dr. Blank will discuss the current population status of the Poweshiek Skipperling, its life history, and efforts to bring it back from the brink of extinction.

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Hope to see you there!

Holiday Greetings from the Natural Areas Notebook!

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Another trip around the sun. Transitions from bitter winter to resplendent spring, from riotous summer to fall splendor, from year to year. You’ve been here with us, reading our musings and celebrating our natural areas.

Transitions help us consider what’s important and appropriate, both in our personal lives and on our land. Transitions rarely come or go easily, especially if we really liked how things were, or had just done it that way for a long time. Trees grow, turning field to forest. We plant wildflowers where crops once grew. Wetlands rise from fields that were once drained. And through it all we come together, a community of people who care about restoring our connection to nature.

When I reflect on the transitions in my life, the ones I remember joyfully happened in community. We’re thankful for you, our community, and the support you give as we launch big transitions in the natural areas of Oakland Township’s parks. Even though we recognize the noble goal of restoring habitat, change is messy and hard. But since we work together as a community, we reflect on this past year with satisfaction and look forward to the next with joy.

Happy Holidays!

Gallagher Creek Park Native Landscaping: Year 1

Things are happening at Gallagher Creek Park! This little park in the southwest corner of Oakland Township spans 15-acres at the headwaters of Gallagher Creek, an important water resource in the township which was home to a remnant native brook trout population just a few years ago. Outside the developed area near the parking lot, wetlands at Gallagher Creek Park host a variety of birds and wildlife, and prairie plantings installed between 2016 and 2018 blanket the upland areas.

In 2018 Oakland Township Parks and Recreation added a playground, picnic shelter, and rain garden at Gallagher Creek Park, and expanded the parking lot. All this work wrapped up just as fall set in last year. This spring we added finishing touches with installation of native plant landscaping around the playground. Join me, Ben VanderWeide,  for a tour of the first year of our new landscaping!

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Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park in fall 2018.

Native Plants for a Better World

We use native plants throughout our parks because they are important for a healthy environment. Native plants provide food resources and habitat for pollinators, and filter runoff and sediment from storm water flowing from developed areas of the park before  it reaches Gallagher Creek. Check out great books by Doug Tallamy if you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of native plants.

The landscaping surrounding the playground and picnic pavilion creates a transition from the play area to the existing natural community in the park, connecting visitors, especially young children and their parents, to nature. We designed this transition landscape to be visually appealing by using low-growing plants, showy flowers, and neat edges. Check out our plant list here. Our native plant landscaping is a free, publicly accessible resource for educators, nature centers, and anyone who wants examples of how to use native plants.

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Native plant landscaping design for Gallagher Creek Park.

Site Preparation

After the playground and other improvements were finished in 2018, we were left with fairly compacted soils. Some areas had fill dirt and one spot had a thin layer of soil over driveway gravel! We didn’t have the time or resources to loosen the soil, so we just hoped the roots of our tough native plants would break through the hardpan. Our site preparation mostly involved removing sticks, large rocks, and any existing plants. The total area of the native planting is about 9,000 square feet.

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The east side of the playground at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. April 12, 2019

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The north side of the playground at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. April 12, 2019

The area near the parking lot had been accidentally seeded to turf the previous year, so we had to kill the grass first.

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The temporary grass cover on south side of the playground near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. May 9, 2019

A few weeks before we started planting, we celebrated the grand opening of the playground equipment and other improvements. Jane Giblin was there representing both The Wildflower Association of Michigan and Rochester Garden Club, two organizations which provided grants to help us buy plants. Stephanie Patil also generously gave us a donation to help purchase plants. Thanks!

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Jane Giblin represented the Wildflower Association of Michigan and the Rochester Garden Club at the Gallagher Creek Park Grand Opening on May 23, 2019. Both organizations gave us grants to help install the native plant landscaping.

The last thing we did before planting was place the log edging. We used black locust logs left over from another project. Black locust resists rot, making it favorite choice for fence posts by farmers of the past. What a great use of this invasive tree!

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We used aged black locust logs left over from another project as the edging for our landscaping. The edging helps give the landscaping a neat, yet rugged appearance.

Planting!

All that preparation got us ready for the main event, planting! We put out the call for volunteers, and many of you showed up! The slideshow below shows our process. We first marked out each planting zone, then dug holes using a bulb planting bit on a gas-powered drill.  After placing the plants in the holes, we carefully packed dirt around the plugs to eliminate air gaps. We mulched around the plants and gave them a good soaking. Finally, we put small identifications signs throughout the landscaping to help people learn the  names of the species we’d planted.

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Weeding and Watering Through the Summer

Even with careful site preparation and a few inches of mulch, we prepared ourselves for a big flush of weeds from our post-construction soils. The worst weed problem the first year was annual grasses, but we had to be vigilant as seedlings of cottonwood, Canada thistle, quack grass, and crown vetch emerged.

As summer began, we watered about twice per week to help the plants establish. Ample rain fell during the second half of the summer, so we only watered as needed. The seasonal stewardship staff did great work hauling water to the site in a large tank and keeping the weeds down. Thanks Alex, Marisa, and Grant! I know a few volunteers also stopped by to help with weeding. We couldn’t have done it without you!

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Watering the new plants during the first season helps them establish deep roots. After the first season we won’t need to continue watering, though we’ll scan for weeds regularly.

Monarch Butterflies Love the Plants!

As plants grew larger, we found monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed, and adults enjoying the nectar of blazing star. Hurray for pollinator habitat!

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Plants like northern blazingstar (Liatris scariosa) were favorite nectar sources for monarch butterflies, while nearby butterfly milkweed provided hosts for their eggs and caterpillars.

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Build it and they will come! Monarch butterflies wasted no time finding our butterfly milkweed. This caterpillar we found on August 27 might be overwintering in Mexico right now!

From Small Plugs to Big Plants

Our little plants didn’t look so small by early September! The sedges and grasses did especially well, providing nice texture and structure. Some forbs (wildflowers) did well and even flowered their first year; others invested their energy in putting down deep roots. We weren’t able to get some species in the spring, so we planted a few additional species in the fall – western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis), round-leaved ragwort (Packera obovata), and nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum). Fall plantings don’t need to be watered as much, and the plants get a head start for the next year!

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By the middle of September, the small plugs we’d planted were robust plants. The sedges and grasses did especially well the first year.

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Flagstone paths provide routes to explore the colors, textures, smells, and sounds of the native plant landscaping. I can’t wait to see what this corner looks like next summer! September 13, 2019

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Flagstone pathways allow children to play on the playground or explore the beauty of the native landscaping.

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As summer turned to fall, the colors and textures of the grasses and sedges provided seasonal interest. In this picture we have muskingum sedge, little bluestem, Carex brevior, and prairie dropseed showing off different textures and shades of green. October 13, 2019

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In October the interesting textures and shades of green from grasses and sedges replaced the pop of color that wildflowers provided during the summer. October 25, 2019.

Looking Ahead to Next Year

Next year we won’t have to plant everything again, so we’ll be switching gears to long-term maintenance. In 2019 we mulched the plantings to help retain moisture and suppress weeds, but we’re planning to reduce or eliminate additions of new mulch in the plantings over the next few years. We included several species that spread by rhizomes or stolons as part of our “green mulch” strategy – allowing the good plants to create a dense canopy that resists  the establishment of new weeds.

Next year we won’t need to water, unless we have a severe drought. At that point,  the plants should have established deep roots, and will be able to handle the normal fluctuations in moisture and temperature for southeast Michigan – another advantage of native plants!

Weeding will continue to be important until we’ve reduced the weed seed bank and established our green mulch. I’ve found that a few years of intensive weeding can reduce the weed pressure to almost nothing.  Only a few quick scans will be required every month to catch problems before they become big ones.

Every year we’ll evaluate the species mix in our plantings. What’s doing well? What didn’t grow much? Do we have consistent blooms to support pollinators throughout the growing season? We’ll add species and thin others, fine-tuning our native landscaping.

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The tenacious crew on the last day of planting. Thanks to all the parks staff and volunteers that worked so hard to bring beauty to our residents and food to our pollinators.

We’re looking forward to the challenge and joy of watching our native plant landscaping change and grow over time. We hope you’ll join us, whether you’ve been a gardener for decades or are just interested in native plant landscaping.  All are welcome!

You’re Invited! Parks Master Plan Open House on October 23

Hi Folks!

I want to personally invite you to the Oakland Township Parks, Recreation, and Land Preservation Master Plan Open House on Wednesday, October 23 at the Oakland Township Hall (4393 Collins Road, Rochester, MI 48306). We will have two drop in sessions – the first is from 2-4 pm, and the second is from 6-8 pm. We will have poster-sized maps and concept plans for each park that you can view and mark up. You will also be able to view and comment on new Parks and Recreation logo concepts and draft plans the new trailhead along the Paint Creek Trail at our Paint Creek Junction park (currently an undeveloped parcel north of Adams on Orion Rd). And we’ll have snacks, of course!

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Residents share their input at the 2015 Oakland Township Parks Master Plan open house

We really appreciate your support and input during our planning process. We have a strong culture of supporting conservation and natural areas, and we need to continue passing that vision new township residents and the next generation. I hope to see you there, whether you’re a township resident, a regular user of our parks, representing another local park system, involved with a garden club, on the faculty at a school or university, or just love our parks! We want all of our “stakeholders” to have the chance to provide input.

See you next Wednesday!

Ben VanderWeide

Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Oakland Township Parks & Recreation

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