Stewardship Volunteering: An Invitation to Befriend Our Native Landscape

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

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

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

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

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

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

Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”

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

Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group

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

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

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

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Gathering the Seed

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

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

Preparing the Seed for Sowing

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

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

Sowing the Seed

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

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

The stewardship crew planting in early spring, 2021

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

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

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

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

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

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

Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines

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

Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning

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

Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?

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

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

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

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

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

Letting Nature Breathe Again: Restoration at Cranberry Lake Park

North meadow at Cranberry Lake Park after forestry mowing

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

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

Miraculous Transformation Along the Hickory Lane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opening Up the Path to Cranberry Lake

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

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

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

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

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

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

A late-migrating Hermit Thrush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Exactly What is Being Restored at Cranberry Lake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Years of Habitat Restoration Progress in Our Parks!!

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.

Nature Shares the Restoration Work at Blue Heron Environmental Area

The North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area in Spring 2021
The North Pond at Blue Heron in Autumn of 2021

Quite a transformation, eh? In March of this year, I posted a blog concerning the progress of wetland restorations in Oakland Township. In the fall of 2020, the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area had been planned and constructed by the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, and his colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By spring of 2021, the berm built as part of that restoration had created a truly startling change. Where Ben had noticed a significant wet area in a farmed field, a large pond now lay like a slice of blue sky dropped into the sere March stubble.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So I returned this fall curious to see what nature had since contributed as our partner in the restoration project. The surrounding field was still striped with furrows left by a local farmer harvesting his crop; his work keeps the fields free of invasive plants until Ben can restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once grew there. When I crested a slope above the pond, though, I broke into a grin and whispered, “Wow!” The pond was now encircled by swaying green cattails and among them stood a Great Egret. I could tell from a distance that smaller plants had already populated the muddy shore as well, creating new habitat for wildlife. As I picked my way slowly through the wet ruts in the stubble, I hoped to see even more life flourishing around this newly restored pond – and I was not disappointed! ,

Summer Birds Forage In and Around the Pond, Preparing for Migration

When I got my first glimpse of the pond this autumn, what a delight to see the glorious Great Egret (Ardea alba). [Click on any photo to enlarge.]

A Great Egret wading the North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area

This elegant bird waded slowly and carefully around the southern shore of the pond searching for prey. Finally it plunged its head into the water and came up with something to eat! But evidently the bird had extracted its prey from the mud below because it quickly dipped its catch back in the water, flicked its head about to give it a few vigorous swishes in the air and swallowed it down that long elegant neck. Then my glorious companion moved on into deeper water.

As the egret approached deeper water, it stretched its neck vertically as if to get a good look around – or maybe it needed to “get the kinks out” after fishing so long with its head down. Who knows? As the water reached its breast, it took on a slower, even more careful gait, thrusting its neck forward with one step and looking carefully downward with the next. It appeared that the thrusting neck helped it move forward in deeper water and the slowness made it easier to spot potential prey.

I turned to look down the lake and heard a splash behind me. When I quickly turned back, the egret’s big yellow beak was filled with a stringy mess of wet greenery which it impatiently tossed aside. The egret had missed its prey and I’d missed a shot of an exasperated egret.

High overhead that afternoon, a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) flew south, following the leader of their flying chevron. In autumn, geese seem to do frequent practice runs before migrating. I noted that eight of them seemed to be tagging along behind one leg of the “V.” When eight geese flew back north a minute or two later, I couldn’t help imagining that these eight were the stragglers from the “V” who had decided they’d worked out enough for one day and turned back for a quick snack.

Each time I visited this pond, the piercing cry of a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) fell from high above me. Finally the two landed during my final visit. These dapper little characters spend the summer with us, scraping out their shallow, seemingly vulnerable nests in any bare earth they can find. Luckily, their striped heads and brown backs make them almost invisible in a vegetated field which apparently is enough to keep the Killdeeer and their young alive; I see them in the same fields year after year. I caught this one approaching a puddle in the grass and then turning its orange eye skyward, perhaps checking for predators who could snatch it up in flight, like Cooper’s Hawks and others in the genus Accipiter.

A Killdeer apparently keeping an eye out for flying predators

A pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) stood surrounded by a small flock of Canada Geese on the south shore of the pond. The geese flew away, but the Cranes slowly moved off into the field. One of them balanced with its wings while trying to navigate those water-filled ruts! After quietly grazing a bit, poking their beaks into the soil, they too took off heading south.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) kettled in a spiral above the forest west of the pond. Biting midges killed several deer in Michigan during our warm, wet fall. I wondered if the vultures, important members of nature’s clean-up crew, had found one dead near a forested wetland. Later a solitary vulture flew overhead while I watched a small flock of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) enjoying the quiet sunlight on the North Pond. And as I left one day, a Savanna Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) hopped and pecked its way along a tractor rut, plucking up whatever appeared to be edible.

A Mammal, Fish, Amphibian and even Crustacean Also Explored the Pond’s Possibilities

Besides the ubiquitous White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that leave their hoof prints in the mud around the pond, a few other creatures are evidently trying out this habitat. I’d noticed some cattails draped across a log on my first visit and thought perhaps a muskrat had pulled them to the surface, since cattails are a favorite food. Ben later showed me an area where a muskrat may have tried to burrow into the berm that holds the wetland water, although the berm isn’t sturdy enough for winter quarters. Ben also pointed out an area where cattails had been felled and piled into what looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a muskrat’s feeding platform – a place to get out of the water to eat.

A wedge-shaped pile of harvested cattails hints at the presence of a muskrat building a feeding platform.

A week or so later, the log I had seen earlier had more cattails on it and something else quite unusual that I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought that it might a large fungus. But a helpful member of the Mushroom Identification Facebook group told me it looked like Cyanobacteria (genus Nostoc). Hmm… considering its common name, Blue-Green Algae, I wondered how that flat green stuff on ponds could look like this?

Clumps of colonized cyanobacteria on a log in the North Pond.

My curiosity piqued, I eventually found my way to Michigan State University Extension Educator Beth Clawson who confirmed that it was indeed cyanobacteria and sent me some useful research links. It turns out these very ancient organisms can also form dome-shaped colonies on the bottom of lakes and ponds. The ones at North Pond, Ms. Clawson informed me, are harmless, unlike the summer algae blooms that can be toxic. So it seems most likely that the muskrat pulled up cattails to eat their roots and these clumpy cyanobacteria colonies came up with them.

Imagine! These bacteria are descendants of the very ones that changed life on our planet 3.5 billion years ago! As these particular cyanobacteria performed photosynthesis, they produced oxygen unlike other organisms that didn’t. As cyanobacteria thrived in the early oceans, the environment became ever richer with oxygen, making the evolution of oxygen-breathing creatures like us possible. So, funny-looking blobs on a log set me thinking about the origins of life on ancient earth! No wonder I love doing this blog!

By the way, the muskrat never showed up on any of my visits. Perhaps I just missed it, or perhaps it didn’t find suitable winter housing in this newly restored wetland and moved elsewhere. Or maybe the food sources beyond cattails were too scanty. Muskrats usually supplement their largely vegetarian diet with frogs, crustaceans and fish. Evidence of all three of its prey species exist at the pond but some may be in small numbers.

Prey Species at the North Pond that Might Interest Water Fowl or Muskrats

In late August, heavy summer rains were causing the pond to flow out toward the woods on the northeast edge of the pond. Ben noticed a small fish swimming upstream, against the current toward the pond! Evidently some fish from a nearby forested wetland had discovered the stream and decided to give it a try. We don’t know how many made it there, but what a discovery! I hope these adventurous little fish arrived and remain in their new habitat. If they did, though, they may be providing a dietary supplement for egrets or the elusive muskrat.

A small fish swimming upstream toward the pond in a downhill overflow stream

On my first three visits to North Pond, I repeatedly heard little “plops” as I walked the watery edge of the wetland, but didn’t see a frog. Once I heard the telltale squeak of a startled Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) but no sightings. During my last visit, though, my sharp-eyed husband spotted one traversing the uplands near the pond.

A Northern Leopard Frog in the field beyond the North Pond

The other possible prey for a muskrat or bird is crayfish. In spring, their “chimneys” erupt from the soil as they climb out of their underground burrows to lay eggs. They can be found all over the field and around the North Pond. At this point, crayfish may be the most numerous food source for creatures visiting this wetland. We have crayfish species in Michigan, but unfortunately the most prevalent is an invasive one, the Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus). I can’t be sure if that’s the species that built the chimneys at the North Pond. According to MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife website, for most of the year “they build and occupy a deep and complex subterranean tunnel system that goes at least as deep as the ground water table.” So that’s probably where they are now. Below is Ben’s photo of a Rusty Crawfish taken at Bear Creek Nature Park and mine of last spring’s slightly worn chimney at the North Pond in October.

Wet-footed Plants Settle In, Creating Habitat

The cattails that encircle the North Pond are not our native ones, but the aggressive, non-native Narrow-leaved Cattails (Typha angustifolia) that grow near the road. They may take over the pond eventually, turning it into a marsh. Fortunately, though, many native plants have also found their way to the pond. A seed of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) must have arrived stuck to a bird’s foot or in its droppings; I only saw a single stem in late September. Until mid-October, Nodding Bidens (Bidens cernua) ringed the pond with both seed heads and a few bright yellow blooms. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) sported tiny yellow blossoms. If they are pollinated and produce seed pods, they will be able to project their seeds up to several feet away from this original plant and add more Sorrel to the wetland habitat. Ben introduced me to Celery-leaved Buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), a look-but-don’t-touch plant; crushing or bending its leaves raises lesions on human skin. But as long as we leave it alone, it produces interesting leaves and cheery little yellow flowers from May to September. And of course Duckweed (genus Lemna) covers parts of the water surface like sprinkles on a cupcake.

I first got acquainted with two of the North Pond’s native plants at Watershed Ridge Park in August. When I saw Southern Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) there, I admired its tiny white blooms on delicate stems. And I also admired the polka-dot effect of its seed heads at North Pond in October. Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) made a nice contrast to the Water Plantain with its spiky stalks springing up like green and yellow fireworks both around the pond and in the field.

Ben decided to try adding to the pond’s plant life by bringing in rhizomes, the underground stems and roots of two native aquatic plants: Whorled Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) and Yellow Water-lily (Nuphar variegata). The Whorled Loosestrife is a native plant as opposed to the invasive species Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Ben planted the cuttings he took from Draper Twin Lake Park into the mud below the water close to shore, its preferred habitat.

The Yellow Water-Lily rhizome required deeper water to float its leaves. So Ben moved to the bank at the deepest part of the pond, tucked a few rhizomes in the mud and tossed any remaining small pieces far out from shore. It’ll be great to see if either of these settle in at the North Pond next summer!

Insects Dancing, Posing and Staring Me Down!

Insects, as I’ve noted before, could be real pests this year – but fortunately, the ones I encountered at the North Pond had no interest in me. Some were beautiful, others especially interesting. Let’s start with the ballerina of the group.

When I consulted Dr. Gary Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, he informed me that the crane fly that I’d seen pause in its frenetic fluttering to cling to a grass stem was a male. Its blunt abdomen was the clue. But since hundreds of look-alike crane species from five different families live in Michigan, he couldn’t identify this one from a photo.

A very small male Crane Fly

Close by, a larger female Crane Fly performed what I dubbed “The Dance of the Hundred Eggs.” She hopped above the bright, green moss, her body held vertically, wings outstretched, as she poked individual eggs into the ground with her ovipositor. Dr. Parsons tells me the eggs will hatch there, the young will scavenge, and then larvae will pupate before emerging as adults next year. If only I had the appropriate music to accompany this skipping choreography!

A female Crane Fly poking her eggs into moss on the shore of the North Pond.

On the surface of the pond, Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) danced too. These gregarious little insects whirl, spin and gyrate in large groups. Most sources seem to think it’s a way to avoid predators, or at times, to secure a mate – but no answers are definitive. I just enjoy the dance! I didn’t take a video at the North Pond because they were too far away, but here’s a group portrait of its corps de ballet.
A spinning, scooting, gyrating group of Whirligig Beetles.

I have a particular fondness for Katydids, especially when they pose for me on a grass stem. Their antennae are astonishingly long and their green, cartoon-like faces look slightly humorous to me. Katydids are active July to September when they mate, lay flat eggs on stems, soil or leaves and hatch the following summer. For me, the best way to tell katydids from grasshoppers and crickets is their long antennae, often 1.5 times longer than their body. Grasshoppers and crickets have shorter antennae, usually only half to 2/3 of their body length or less. Anyway, let me introduce you to the little female Meadow Katydid (genus Orchelimum) that I saw by the North Pond. I love her beady, yellow eyes and red, extravagant antennae!

A female Meadow Katydid blends in nicely with her surroundings.

On my visits, I repeatedly came across one species of dragonfly, a male Meadowhawk (genus Sympetrum), and one damselfly, a male Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). (Click on the damselfly to see his spiky surface!) I remain hopeful that their variety and numbers will increase next summer if I get there in warmer weather. A Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) gave me a baleful stare in the field nearby.

Given a Chance, Nature Shares the Work of Native Habitat Restoration

The Great Egret is a beautiful part of nature’s contribution to the restoration of the North Pond.

Nature itself is the very best stewardship partner. Here at Blue Heron Environmental Area, Ben began restoration by creating a berm to hold the water in the middle of a field. Once it was built, nature got to work. Thunderstorms repeatedly brought water down from the sky and up from the water-soaked earth. Cattails by the highway sent seeds sailing on stormy winds toward the muddy edges of the pond where they quickly took hold. Taking advantage of the plentiful moisture, seeds thrust their way out of the seed bank, arrived on the wind or were left at the pond edge by thirsty creatures. Seeing this rippling, blue expanse from above, birds dropped down to the pond to probe the shore for food or spend the night safely hidden among the cattails. A muskrat may have crossed the road late one night, survived the traffic and slipped into the dark water. Frogs, fish and flying insects found the new pond by hopping, swimming or winging their way from nearby wetlands or hatching from the wet soil as the summer progressed. Gradually, a small community of plants and wildlife made a summer home at Blue Heron’s North Pond. This fall we hope to seed native plants into the uplands around the pond, and next summer sprigs of native grasses and wildflowers will help knit the uplands to the wetland.

The outcome of restoration can be unpredictable. Yet working to recreate and preserve nature’s complex, interdependent web of life is always worth the effort. I am surprised and delighted by how quickly nature joined us in restoring the North Pond. I’ll be eager to see what else nature contributes to its restoration in the coming year. I hope you’ll be here, watching with me.

View to the northwest at Blue Heron’s North Pond.