My year of clicks at Bear Creek Nature Park

Meet my new photographer friend Paul Birtwhistle whose wonderful photos have appeared over the summer in my posts. We’re pleased today to share a photo essay that Paul created for us. You’ll get to meet Paul and his canine “photo assistant” Stanley, while scrolling through a glorious gallery of Paul’s photos that capture a wide range of the creatures that he’s met this year at Bear Creek Nature Park. Enjoy, my friends! – Cam Mannino

PaulBirtyPhotography

Hello everyone, my name is Paul Birtwhistle and I have been encouraged by Cam Mannino and Dr. Ben VanderWeide to write a blog and share some of the photographs I have captured over the past year or so whilst walking my English Labrador called Stanley around Bear Creek Nature Park in Oakland Township, Michigan.

For reference here’s Stanley and I on the marsh deck near Gunn Road.

I have been walking around Bear Creek Nature Park with my wife and both of our dogs for a few years now and we really appreciate the wonderful wildlife and flora that is on our doorstep but soon after the pandemic arrived I realized that we were going to have a lot more time available to spend outdoors so I decided to get back into photography and see if I could capture some of the beauty that we regularly observed.

I armed myself…

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Taking a Dip Into the Science of Lakes

Every month, I and the other land stewardship technicians take several measurements from Twin Lake and Lost Lake here in Oakland Township. These measurements are taken because we are a part of the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program (CLMP) ran by the Michigan Clean Water Corps. The CLMP is a citizen-based volunteer monitoring program that is widespread across Michigan. The program has been around in some fashion since 1974, which makes it the second oldest volunteer lake monitoring program in the nation. Lost Lake and Twin Lake have been monitored since 2018. The measurements we take are spring and fall total phosphorus, Secchi disk (water clarity), dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll.

A fall sunset illuminates the splendor of changing leaves at Draper Twin Lake Park. Photo by Cam Mannino.

Lake monitoring is one of my favorite tasks that we do as Land Stewardship Technicians. Not only is it fun to go out on the lakes, but I greatly enjoy this task because I think the data we collect from the lakes is fascinating. In college at Michigan Tech, I worked in an aquatic ecology lab. Therefore, I am very interested in what the data we gather from each lake can tell us about how healthy a lake is.

Growing up in Minnesota, lakes and rivers were all around me, and continue to be an integral part of our identity as a state. I grew up near the Minnesota River, which is one of many rivers that flows into the Mississippi River. The Mississippi River watershed is the fourth largest watershed in the world, eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. Through my parents and in school, I learned about how water travels across the land and how we can affect the health of our watershed just in our backyard. My dad especially would stress the importance of keeping our water clean. He works for the City of Minneapolis mapping the sewage and stormwater systems, which gives him a great picture of how the waterways are connected. Therefore, because of my background, I like to “nerd out” about the data we collect from the Twin Lake and Lost Lake.

Twin Lake and Lost Lake

Twin Lake (at Draper Twin Lake Park) and Lost Lake (at Lost Lake Nature Park) are small glacial lakes in Oakland Township. We monitor Twin Lake East, which is about 12 acres with a maximum depth of 30 feet. Twin Lake East is connected to Twin Lake West by a small channel accessible by kayak or canoe. There is another small lake connected to Twin Lake West also by a small channel. Twin Lake East is the only lake monitored by Oakland Township.

Lost Lake is about 6 acres with a maximum depth of 17 feet. With the very dry spring this year the lake is only about 15 feet deep. Lost Lake is at the end of its life as a lake. This means within the next several decades it will likely become more of an emergent marsh than a lake because the vegetation will cover most of the surface area of the water. Because Lost Lake is so shallow, light can easily penetrate the water column, reaching the bottom of the lake bed where aquatic plants get enough energy to grow. Lost Lake is so “weedy” because the plants are receiving plenty of sunlight throughout most of the lake. In deeper lakes, you will only find plants growing and reaching the surface along the shoreline because in the center of the lake the plants receive less sunlight at the bottom.

A special thanks goes out to Maryann Whitman for taking Secchi Disk readings at Lost Lake since 2018! You have helped us immensely in monitoring our lakes!

Twin Lake is seen on the left from the dock. On the right is the view from the dock at Lost Lake.

What is a Watershed?

A watershed is a land area that channels rainfall and snowmelt into streams, creeks, and rivers that combine with other streams and rivers to progressively drain into a larger water area. A watershed often includes many counties and sometimes can encompass multiple states or countries depending on the location.

Why Monitor Water Quality?

Lost Lake and Twin Lake are part of the greater Clinton River Watershed that feeds into Lake St. Clair. Lost Lake and Twin Lake are both in the smaller subwatershed of Stony Creek, which flows into the Clinton River. Twin Lake is connected to Stony Creek Lake through the McClure Drain. The Clinton River flows into Lake St. Clair and on down to Lake Erie. The Paint Creek also runs through Oakland Township, connecting with the Clinton River in Rochester.

As water flows through a watershed, it often picks up pollutants which then can accumulate in Lake St. Clair where the water ends up. This can have many negative effects on the ecosystem and environment depending on which and how many pollutants end up in the watershed.

Clinton River Watershed Map. Oakland Township can be seen in the upper left corner of the map. Map taken from the Clinton Watershed River Council website (https://www.crwc.org/resources/resource-library/watershed-maps).

What Each Measurement Tells Us

Each summer, we take four different measurements numerous times at Lost and Twin Lakes. Some summers, we also do an exotic aquatic plant watch survey. These measurements, when compared to other data, can tell us different information about what is happening with the ecology of our lakes. The four measurements we take are phosphorous, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll.

Phosphorous

Phosphorous measurements are taken twice, once in the spring and once in the early fall. Because phosphorous is an essential limiting element for plant life, small changes in the amount of phosphorous can have drastic changes on what happens in a lake. Although phosphorous is an essential element for plant life, too much of it in the lake can cause accelerate plant growth, create algae blooms, decrease dissolved oxygen levels, and result in the die-off of some fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic creatures. Sources of increased phosphorous in waterways include run-off from lawns, agricultural fertilizers, manure and organic wastes in sewage, leaking septic tanks, industrial waste, and soil erosion.

Water Clarity/ Turbidity

Water clarity or turbidity is measured every 2 weeks with a Secchi disk. At its simplest, turbidity refers to how clear the water is in the lake. Water clarity determines how much and how far light penetrates the water. Water clarity is affected by several factors including algae, soil particles, and other materials suspended in the water. Therefore, Secchi disk readings are typically a good indicator of algal abundance and general lake productivity.

The Secchi disk is a very simple device to measure water clarity. The Secchi disk is lowered until it is no longer visible, and that depth is recorded. It then is raised until you can barely see the disk and that depth is also recorded. The average of the two depths is then taken. Above, Max is recording the Secchi depth for Twin Lake (Pictures taken by Grant Vanderlaan).

Dissolved Oxygen

Dissolved oxygen (commonly referred to as D.O.) is measured every 2 weeks using a D.O. meter. Dissolved oxygen is how much oxygen is in water. Oxygen is essential for supporting life in lakes. In the air we breathe, the oxygen concentration is about 21%, but in water oxygen concentrations are a tiny fraction of 1%. The temperature of the water determines how much oxygen the water can hold. Warm water holds less D.O. than cold water. In the summer, this is especially important because the top layer of the lake is heated by the abundant sun and is warmer than the lower part of the lake, with less dissolved oxygen. If you have ever jumped in a lake late in the summer, you will know what I mean. Therefore, in the hot summer, fish and other oxygen-dependent organisms will stay lower in the lake where it is cooler and there is more oxygen. One major concern with D.O. levels in lakes is a process called eutrophication. Eutrophication is where a lake or other body of water has excessive amounts of minerals and nutrients usually due to runoff. This leads to a depletion of oxygen in lakes and can cause a die-off of fish and other animals.

The D.O. meter is a very sensitive device used to measure the dissolved oxygen every 5ft until the depth of the lake is met. It also measures temperature at each depth. Above, Max is recording D.O. for Twin Lake (pictures taken by Grant Vanderlaan).

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll is measured monthly in our lakes. If you remember back to high school biology class, chlorophyll is what makes plants green and is found in the chloroplasts of plant cells. Chlorophyll readings are a way to estimate algae biomass is in a lake. High chlorophyll readings indicate an abundance of algae, which is usually correlated to other processes happening in the lake such as decreased D.O. levels and decreased water clarity.

Measuring chlorophyll is a lot like conducting an experiment in college biology class. Because light and heat degrade the chlorophyll collected, the water samples are kept out of direct sunlight and placed in a cooler as soon they are as collected. First, the larger brown container is lowered into the lake at a predetermined depth and is then slowly raised, so water collects in the container. If it becomes adequately full then the two smaller containers are filled and a couple of drops of magnesium carbonate (MgCO3) are added to the smaller containers. The samples are then brought back to the Cider Mill to be further processed. Above, Grant is adding MgCO3 to one of the small container samples.

Chlorophyll Lab Processing:

Parker pushes a water sample through the paper filter to capture the chlorophyll/algae in the water. Photo by Grant Vander Laan

Back at the office, the samples are filtered through a tiny paper to collect the chlorophyll. The paper filters are then frozen until we drop them off for the CLMP to further process them. Two paper filters of chlorophyll are processed for each lake for better results. Parker is filtering one of the samples above through a syringe.

Actions Taken from Data Collected

At the end of the season, when the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program staff enters all the data into the giant database for the state, management plans for the lakes can be updated from that data. Currently, we do not have enough years of data from phosphorous, water clarity, dissolved oxygen, and chlorophyll to make assumptions of what needs to be changed at that lake. That is because several years of data collection are needed to see trends happening at our lakes. The only measurement we were able to directly act on currently is the data from the exotic aquatic plant watch. During the exotic aquatic plant watch at Twin Lake, curly-leaf pondweed (an invasive species) was found. Since its discovery, we have been treating curly-leaf pondweed near our dock at Twin Lake. Hopefully, within the next couple of years, we can gain enough data from our other measurements to create management plans for both lakes.

How to Keep Our Watershed Clean from Your Own Backyard

Though you might not live on or near Twin Lake or Lost Lake, you can still help keep the Clinton River Watershed clean. Even actions you take in your backyard can have implications on the Clinton River Watershed. Below are some actions you can take to keep our watershed clean and healthy!

At Home Actions:

  • To avoid overapplying fertilizers, eliminate fertilizers in your yard or use organic or slow-release fertilizers instead.
  • Don’t treat with pesticides or fertilizers with 15 feet of a water source (creek, river, lake).
  • Don’t pour toxic household chemicals down the drain. Take them to a hazardous waste center or drop off site like NoHaz.
  • Consider putting in a rain garden to catch and filter runoff from your roof, driveway, or sidewalks.
  • When camping, use biodegradable soaps like Dr. Bronner’s and rinse dishes away from lakes and streams.
  • Pick up dog poop in your yard so that it doesn’t run into streams/ lakes and create bacterial problems.
  • Plant native plants that require fewer pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Wash cars on the lawn or at a carwash.

In your Community Actions:

  • Encourage your state and local governments to protect wetlands and protect water quality.
  • Consider volunteering with the Clinton River Watershed Council (CRWC) on one of their weekly cleanups.
  • Participate in the Clinton Cleanup 2021 on Sept 18th with the CRWC! (see link below)

If you want to learn more about volunteering with the CRWC please look at their website here: https://www.crwc.org/events/volunteer/keeping-it-clean

If you want to learn more about the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program, check out their website here: https://micorps.net/lake-monitoring/

The shoreline of the eastern Twin Lake at Draper Twin Lake Park.

Watershed Ridge: Water Works Its Miracles in a Small Restored Wetland

I’m a convert; I’ve come to love wetlands. I grew up avoiding them, icky mud underfoot and the ever present annoyance of so many bugs, for heaven’s sake! But these days, camera swinging at my hip, binoculars bouncing on my chest, I often head straight for the muddy edge of a wetland.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Shady swamps and vernal pools, sunny marshes and ponds, streams winding through a woodland, water seeping up from beneath the soil or trickling down a slope – that’s where life is swooping, singing, croaking, mating, predating, fluttering and buzzing in every park I visit. Oh, I relish a shady woods on a hot summer day, and I delight in the color and sway of a dancing prairie. But often a wetland is where the action is.

A berm constructed last fall has created open water between two wetlands at the bottom of a slope at Watershed Ridge Park – and creatures are making the most of it!

Last autumn, our Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, worked with local US Fish and Wildlife colleagues to restore several wetlands at Watershed Ridge Park that had been drained for agriculture years ago. One of these wetlands extends between two existing wetlands, and with a berm now holding some of the existing water and this summers downpours, a small area of open water now stands at the bottom of a former agricultural field. It may not look beautiful to you, but it certainly looked inviting to a remarkable number of interesting creatures.

On the Way to the Wetland

One recent Sunday, my husband Reg spotted a Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), its bright green spotted skin and light stripes (technically “dorsolateral folds”) shining up out of dry grass around the parking lot. I’d been hoping to see these frogs, having noticed them at this park in previous years. Their colors vary from brown to green, but the bright green ones are my favorites. Leopard Frogs use their speed and great leaping ability to escape predators so we were lucky to get this close to one.

A Leopard Frog paused for a portrait in dry stalks at the edge of the parking lot at Watershed Ridge Park.
Horseweed

We followed the path to the west of the parking lot out into a the field that runs along Buell Road. Though the land looks dry and barren now, dotted with Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), Ben thinks that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which designed and constructed the wetland restoration to Ben’s concept, will be planting native prairie seed in these fields late this fall. Native grass and wildflower seed generally requires a period of cold weather in order to germinate in the spring.

Passing through the hedgerow to the second field, we came upon an Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Colias eurytheme) darting restlessly from stem to stem, back and forth across the path. I despaired of getting a shot of its fully opened wings; it scurries about very quickly and folds its wings at rest. But eventually I caught it in flight further away. Look at the dramatic difference! The yellow spots in the black wing borders indicate that this is a female Orange Sulphur. (Click on photos to enlarge)

As we reached the crest of the slope above the wetland, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) lifted from the edge of the little wetland, rose on its powerful wings, and disappeared to the north. What a hopeful sign that life had found its way to this tiny pond! We’ll discover what brought it to the pond a bit further on. Since I missed this glorious visitor, here’s a photo of a flying heron that I took at Lost Lake Park in 2018.

A Great Blue Heron on the wing

And Then the Dragonflies Began…

Moving toward the pond, I whirled around to catch a shot of something yellow whizzing by me. The creature never stopped moving, sailing far away and circling back time after time. My photo is a bit blurred because of its speed. But luckily, it was clear enough for dragonfly aficionados of the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” to identify it for me as a Wandering Glider (Pantala Flavescens) – a dragonfly that was completely new to me!

A Wandering Glider dragonfly on the wing above the restored wetland

This golden dragonfly, it turns out, can fly a bit over five feet per second and according to Wikipedia, keeps moving “tirelessly with typical wandering flight for hours without making any perch.” All of that made me feel better about my photo! These Gliders are world travelers that migrate to our area each summer. Some of them make an annual multigenerational migration (like the Monarch butterfly) of about 11,200 miles, with each individual flying more than 3,700 miles! They are found on every continent except Antarctica. They’ve been recorded flying over 20,000 feet high in the Himalayas! A true super-hero insect – and I’m so pleased that it found our little wetland to its liking! Here’s a much more glamorous photo of this insect athlete taken and generously shared by drketaki, a photographer at iNaturalist.org.

A female Wandering Glider in its infrequent state of rest! Photo by drketaki (CC BY-NC at inaturalist.org

As we approached the pond, Reg and I realized that we had come upon a dragonfly hotspot. Dragonflies hovered, swooped, and whizzed in the air above the pond. Occasionally one would pause to cling to the stem of some aquatic plant and then whooosh! – off it went for another round of the pond or to make a brief foray into the surrounding field.

At the pond edge, another new acquaintance presented itself. A dark blue-black dragonfly with a sharply pointed abdomen clasped a dead stalk. Seeing those ragged black patches along the edges of the hindwing next to its abdomen, I remembered finding a photo of a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) after seeing this wing pattern on a dragonfly years ago. Such an appropriate name!

A male Black Saddlebags dragonfly who may be finished mating and is now aging.

I was puzzled, though, because my dragonfly guide says that these dragonflies should have yellow spots on section 7 of the abdomen and this one at Watershed Ridge had only a faint orange/red mark. A helpful aficionado at the dragonfly Facebook group, though, verified that indeed, it was a Black Saddlebags but added that the color change was probably due to age. It’s believed that these insects migrate from points south (perhaps as far as Cuba) to breed here; their offspring then return to the south. This Saddlebags probably mated many times during his journey to our little wetland, and may be nearing the end of his life now. Isn’t he a lovely midnight blue? And I admire the color-coordinated blue stigma (tiny colored cells) at the tip of each wing.

Farther down the pond, I saw two mated, dark dragonflies flying about in tandem, the male gripping the female as they dashed around the pond. I snapped another blurry shot as they zoomed about. When I sharpened the photo in the computer for a closer look, the light glinting off their bodies made them appear spotted. So I’m still not sure of their identification. But the position of the male’s grasping and their overall dark color makes me think that maybe they were a mated pair of Black Saddlebags. After mating, the Saddlebags male grasps the female as they patrol the still water. Then she periodically drops to the surface to deposit eggs, then returns to the embrace of her mate to repeat the process many times. I’d like to think that the life cycle of the Black Saddlebags – or perhaps some other dark dragonfly – repeated itself at this restored wetland – one male almost finished with his life and another pair creating more of their kind.

A mated pair of dark dragonflies, perhaps Black Saddlebags, flying in tandem as the female periodically drops down to lay her eggs.

I spotted familiar dragonflies, too, of course. The black-and-white striped wings of a Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) flashed like Morse code as it flew by. Eventually I found it, resting for few minutes on a stem near the pond’s edge. These skimmers are quite accommodating for photographers; they choose a perch and return to it repeatedly, even if disturbed.

A Twelve-spotted Skimmer is named for its 12 black spots, though the males have an extra 8 white ones.

The bronze shimmer on the wings of a female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) caught the sunlight as she perched peacefully on a dry plant stem. According to Kurt Mead in Dragonflies of the North Woods, these skimmers “hang beneath overarching leaves” during the night. I’d love to see that.

The black patches next to the abdomen of this female Widow Skimmer are smaller than the male’s who also has white bands beyond the black ones.

Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) tend to perch on a flat surface, wings outstretched rather than clinging to stems like many dragonflies. A mature male joined the throng at Watershed Ridge Park but uncharacteristically chose to settle on a bent stem thrusting out of the decaying plant material that covers much of the water surface at the new wetland. Perhaps the more colorful competition at the pond edge was too intense for him. The broad black patch near the end of his wings, the smaller patch near the thorax and the powdery (pruinose) white abdomen are field marks for Whitetail males.

A Common Whitetail male chooses a decaying stem for a perch.

A male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) protected his feeding perch and his mate will do the same once she returns. These dragonflies consume lots of mosquito larva (hooray!) and other small moths or flies – up to 10% of their body weight each day! According to Wikipedia, their hunting technique is just to stay very still and dart out to snatch any prey that ventures close to them, an activity in birds and insects called “hawking.” The striped thorax, blue abdomen, huge, iridescent green eyes and white face are male field marks of these Dashers.

A Blue Dasher male can be identified at a distance by his blue abdomen, striped thorax and large green eyes.

Damselflies, the other member of the order Odonata, had found their way to the wetland, too. This emerald green beauty is an Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), a plentiful species in our area.

A male Eastern Forktail dragonfly. These fellows fly from late June to October so keep your eyes open near water!

The one in my photo is a male, but I believe I saw a mature blue female Eastern Forktail ovipositing her eggs in plant material – but she was very tiny and at a great distance. So here’s a wonderful photo of just what I saw by another photographer, Mark Nenadov, who generously shared his work on Wikipedia (CC BY).

Other Signs of Renewed Life at the Wetland

Reg noticed a tiny orange butterfly bouncing along in its weak flight near the base of moist plant stems. I tracked it later in the afternoon and finally saw it land. It was the Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor), an appropriate name for this tiny butterfly (.66 to one inch!) only slightly bigger than my smallest fingernail! Because the ventral (lower) side of its wings are unmarked with brown, it can look solid orange in flight.

The Least Skipper is just that – the smallest of the skippers, usually less than an inch long.

My entomologist mentor, Dr. Gary Parsons, director of the Michigan State University Bug House, identified this colorful character for me. It looks somewhat like a large ladybug, doesn’t it? And it is a larger version of the same family, the Coccinellidae – but this one is the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata). (They come both orange and pink.) Like our old fave, the red Ladybug, these insects are the “good guys.” If you’re enjoying sweet corn right now like I am, thank these beetles! They thrive on the eggs of corn earworm, European corn borer and aphids among others. Farmers, I’ve read, have traditionally considered them allies.

The orange morph of the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle rids farm fields of several destructive larvae and aphids.

Now, About What Interested That Great Blue Heron…

With nearly every step that Reg and I took around the wet edge of this pond, we heard “plop, plop, plop,” as frogs leapt beneath the surface at our approach. Reg did spot a little Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) sitting tentatively near the water’s edge.

The little Wood Frog with its black mask lined in white sat quietly at the edge of the pond.

The heron may have been preying on Wood Frogs, but I’m more inclined to think that the hidden jumpers were small Leopard Frogs. Wood Frogs tend to spend more of their time on uplands at this time of year, though Reg’s discovery was sitting near the water’s edge. According to a US Fish and Wildlife website, Leopard Frogs like to forage near the water’s edge in wet grassy areas; I’ve read they usually face the water ready for a quick escape jump. I’m not sure which frogs were “plopping,” because they were always two steps ahead of us, diving under the surface. Frogs can respire oxygen through their skin for hours while under water, so these guys never surfaced again during my visit. Drat! Ah well, I’m glad so many frogs of whatever species inhabit this little wetland, foraging for insects and potentially serving as forage themselves for a hungry Great Blue Heron.

Aquatic Plants Flourish at the Pond as Well

After the berm was created to restore this wetland, Ben planted Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) and now it forms a delicate plume of white and green around one edge of the pond. The tiny flowers must produce wonderful nectar, because European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) had found their way to the wetland and were buzzing everywhere within these tiny blossoms.

One of many non-native European Honey Bees foraging on tiny blossoms of Water Plantain at the edge of the wetland.

A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) found its way to a graceful stalk of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) blooming in shallow water on the south edge of the new wetland.

Bumblebee finding what it needs in the purple blossoms of Blue Vervain

Some aquatic plants found their way to the wetland without Ben’s assistance. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the native Bulrush on the left provides sustenance for many creatures. Lots of insects, including caterpillars, two species of Katydids and the Two-striped Grasshopper nibble the leaves. Birds like Canada Geese and swans will happily consume the seeds. Among mammals, muskrats munch on the rootstocks and Meadow Voles will clean up any fallen seed. So it’s a very useful plant for its habitat! The tubers of Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) on the right provide food for a wide range of dabbling ducks, including Pintails, Teals and Mallards. Every native plant has a role to play in keeping life humming in our parks and wild areas.

Even a Little Water Supports So Much Life!

Surprise! An abundant flourishing of life in a most unlikely place.

Please take another look at this restoration project. It’s just a modest little wetland tucked into the bottom of sloping hills in the corner of a former farm field. But thanks to Ben’s creative thinking and planning, the careful design and construction by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and repeated summer downpours, it became a lively oasis for all kinds of wildlife. Instead of remaining a soggy, unproductive area in an agricultural field, it burgeoned into a gathering spot for dragonflies, local ones and ones who travel thousands of miles to mate, feed and age here. New native plants have taken root and begun to colonize the pond. Frogs now huddle in the grass snatching bugs from the air and then slip beneath the pond’s surface to live another day. High in the sky, a huge bird spotted a new blue shape below and descended for a quick lunch. This kind of diversity and richness exemplifies what ecologists call a “productive” habitat, one that provides sustenance, nesting areas, cover and water to many species. Imagine how much more life might visit here when the slope above it is seeded with native plants!

That’s why for me this muddy little pond is a miracle. Just a little water gathered in a low spot provides all those ecosystems services while also providing beauty for us humans. The delicate white plumes of water plantain, the iridescent glow of a damselfly, the “plop” of frogs and the sight of a huge blue bird rising out of the rushes are nature’s gratuitous gifts. Our role is first to stop long enough to simply behold what’s in front of us. We need time to let nature work its magic. And then we can get back to work protecting and restoring our natural inheritance.

Thinning Trees to Preserve and Restore Oak Woodland and Savanna Habitat

Have you ever wandered across a tree missing a ring of bark and wondered what was creating the ring and why? I too had these questions and they remained unanswered until I began performing the task as an Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship Technician. I learned that removing a complete ring of bark around a tree stem is called girdling, and it is used in Oakland Township’s natural areas to selectively phase out invasive trees by stripping off their nutrient pathways.

As deforestation awareness and efforts to plant trees continue to increase, girdling may register as counterintuitive. However, we girdle specific trees, and only in areas we are restoring to historic oak savanna or prairie communities. Lost Lake Nature Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, and Bear Creek Nature Park contain these historic communities so we are focusing our girdling and restoration efforts this summer in these natural areas.

Although red maple and basswood are native to Michigan, they are quite damaging to the historic oak communities. These trees grow so abundantly that their dense stands take up the real estate, nutrients, and light that fire-dependent, light-loving understory plants require. In the dense shade under red maple it is very rare to find any young oak trees. At Lost Lake Nature Park red maples outnumbered the old growth oak trees 12:1!

In Oakland Township’s natural areas we use a low-cost, low-impact girdling tool composed of a metal handle and arched blade to strip the trees bark, phloem (sugar transport highway) and vascular cambium (cells that produce phloem and xylem) from the trunk. This tool is quite simple and easy to use, but you can also girdle with chainsaws and hatchets if you don’t have a special girdling tool.

As the girdled trees defoliate and phase out, the sun’s rays reach plants like poke milkweed, harebell and whorled loosestrife, providing the essential energy to thrive. Many other oak savanna and prairie specialist plants are either lying dormant in the soil as seeds, or holding out as small plants until the ideal light conditions are created. For example: hoary puccoon, a rare and high quality plant began to flower at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie when the canopy was thinned! Furthermore, there’s an abundance of small huckleberry and blueberry at Lost Lake Nature Park patiently waiting for an opened tree canopy to reach their full potential. I am very excited to revisit the areas we girdled in a couple years to see what new plants are claiming space in these beautiful communities.

Opening up the tree canopy and conducting occasional prescribed burns are important practices of Oakland Township’s restoration efforts, helping to reinvigorate our diverse and tightly knit natural communities. The landscape of southeast Michigan was maintained by the Anishinaabe people for thousands of years. This culturally related group of indigenous people inhabited much of the Great Lakes region and lived with the land through with a deep relationship and knowledge of its beautiful natural communities. Through cultural practices like prescribed burns and sustainable harvesting, the Anishinaabe maintained these unique oak communities. Now, after more than 200 years of degradation, we are doing our best to restore them and acknowledge the original stewards of the land.

Unique Wetland Communities Along the Paint Creek Trail

The wet prairie showing its ability to retain water after a rainy week

What Makes a Wet Prairie?

A few months ago, you may have seen my blog post detailing the controlled burns that took place in some of our parks. While writing that post, I ended up researching how fire would affect certain habitat types that we burned and became interested in what makes those areas so unique. One such habitat is the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie that was partially burned along the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silverbell Road. If you visit, we would like you to view the wet prairie from the trail to prevent trampling sensitive plants. Because of this, it may be difficult to see what makes this area special at first glance. However, our recent work in this area has afforded me the opportunity to share some of the unique aspects that result from the conditions presented by wet prairie.

An aerial view reveals the original path of Paint Creek that passes through the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, highlighted in light blue. The wet prairie sits in the floodplain of this former creek. The current Paint Creek is highlighted in dark blue.

When I first visited the wet prairie this spring, I noticed that it wasn’t exactly as wet as advertised. However, revisiting the site after some significant rainfall revealed an increase in standing water, and the area started to live up to its name a little more. I soon discovered that wet prairies occur in areas with poor drainage, leading to periodic fluctuations in water levels that many of its plant species depend on. While helping with the prescribed burns in a few sections along the Paint Creek trail this spring, I learned that water isn’t the only element that plays a role in this ecosystem. Like other prairie habitat types, fire is more than welcome here. The burn we administered this spring will help recycle nutrients and control competing invasive species.

Stewardship Work in The Wet Prairie

Outside of the area that was burned this spring, we have been incorporating mechanical methods to keep invading species at bay and maintain the unique features that are present. Many understory plants associated with a more open oak canopy can be found in the wooded areas of the wet prairie. Unfortunately, certain fast-growing tree species like red maple have become more prevalent made the area much more shaded. One way we have been attempting to increase the growth of new young oak trees is through selective tree girdling of these shade-tolerant species. To girdle a tree we strip a complete ring of bark around an unwanted tree and apply herbicide to the exposed inner sapwood. The result will be a dead snag, allowing more light to the woodland floor and leaving more room for oak species in the canopy and savanna plants in the understory.

Parker girdles a red maple tree by removing a strip of bark all the way around the trunk. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

In addition to tree girdling, the other stewardship crew members and I have been working to remove other unwanted, invasive species through hand-pulling, mainly targeting garlic mustard, dame’s rocket, spotted knapweed and white sweet clover.

Natural Features Galore

Surveying for various invasive species involves spending a lot of time looking at what other plants are populating the area. Through this process, I discovered the many unique native plants that resided in the wet prairie. The presence of both sunny and shaded areas with wet and dry characteristics create a marvelous diversity of herbaceous plants. Many species contribute to a wide spectrum of flowers depending on the time of year. Such species include blue-eyed grass, butterfly milkweed, hoary puccoon, shrubby cinquefoil, Michigan lily and Culver’s root to name a few. Seeing this beautiful diversity helps drive home the purpose behind our stewardship work in these areas.

Of course, the many unique wildflowers of this habitat attract many pollinators as well. The stewardship crew happened to spot several species of butterflies including viceroys, monarchs, and great spangled fritillaries. We’ve also spotted many birds, notably a pair of great crested flycatchers nesting in a dead snag. Unfortunately, these birds were too quick for our cameras. I also happened to stumble upon a turkey that was nesting right off of the Paint Creek Trail. It may have seen me coming, but I certainly did not see it until I was inches away from its nest.

A nest of turkey eggs on the Paint Creek Trail berm

Stewardship Work in the Fen

The wet prairie isn’t the only unique habitat that can be seen from the Paint Creek Trail. Just a few miles north on the trail between Gunn Road and Adams Road, you may be able to see another interesting area that we have been working to protect: the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen. While we didn’t administer a prescribed burn here this spring, my interest and research into unique habitat types lead me to discover a lot of similarities between the wet prairie and the fen. A fen is also a special wetland characterized by soils composed largely of decayed plant material, and is unique in that it is fed by carbonate and calcium-rich groundwater groundwater. Because of these conditions, fens boast a high diversity of plant species including tamarack, poison sumac, and a variety of fen-specialist sedges and wildflowers.

A section of the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen

Our work in the fen has mainly consisted of controlling the densely growing non-native narrow-leaf cattail population that has spread and threatened native biodiversity. We control cattail using what we call the “glove of death,” which involves wiping the stem of each cattail with a glove sprayed with an aquatic herbicide. While very selective, I found this process to be one of the more difficult and meticulous invasive control methods we have experienced as it requires us to move carefully through the cattails to avoid touching herbicide-covered plants. Fortunately, we recently experimented with another treatment option that could potentially expedite the process of cattail control in denser areas. This method involves wiping larger areas of cattails with an herbicide-coated towel. Since the cattails are taller than most of the other plants, this treatment is selective.

Many of Michigan’s endangered insect species require these habitat types to survive. The Poweshiek skipperling, Hine’s emerald dragonfly and Mitchell’s satyr butterfly all rely on fens and spring-fed wetland habitat. While not all of these species have necessarily been spotted in Oakland County, the preservation of this habitat type is important wherever possible. Working in these areas is an interesting opportunity to be able to see how our efforts directly impact the land we work in. Some of these effects may take years before there is a greater noticeable change, but others are directly visible from one year to the next. For example, it was interesting to see how many fewer cattails there were in the fen this year after spending time treating them last year. It is in an honor to be taking part in the process of maintaining these unique Michigan wetlands.

If you’re interested in learning more about wet prairies and fens, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s website provides plenty of information on these habitat types and which plants and animals you can expect to see there: