Vernal Pools: A Wetland Wonderland

Marquette’s Migration and the Blue-Spotted Salamander Surveys

My friends and I carefully tip-toed on the closed, wet road of Peter White Drive in Presque Isle Park in Marquette, Michigan on a rainy spring night. The air was crisp, filled with bellows of cheerful people of the Marquette community. The trees of Presque Isle Park surrounded the paved road, allowing the small creatures who travel over the pavement a sense of safety and peace when they make it to the other side.  

A blue-spotted salamander from Presque Isle Park in Marquette, MI

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to conduct blue-spotted salamander surveys in Marquette. These adorable, tiny amphibians are painted with what looks like flecks of blue sky scattered along their dark bodies. Blue-spotted salamanders are shy creatures that awake to the rising moon. They inhabit forested areas and are most commonly found at vernal pools in spring. Unlike other salamanders, the blue-spotted salamanders do not lay eggs in clumps, but rather with individual eggs flickered amongst leaves and sticks on the bottom of a vernal pool.

Two blue-spotted salamanders being observed under a lamp

The road closure in Presque Isle Park begins at the end of March and continues until the end of April each year, allowing amphibians to safely cross the street. Rainy weather, and 35-45 degree temperatures provide further inspiration for several salamanders, toads, and frogs to continue their travels to the vernal pools. One perfect, rainy night, my good friends and I counted 112 blue-spotted salamanders and two wood frogs!

A wood frog found with the blue-spotted salamanders, together on their vernal pool expedition!

This migration makes local news and is a huge opportunity to participate in citizen science! Thanks to an evening, annual road closure in Presque Isle Park, the blue-spotted salamanders can safely travel from their burrows to vernal pools, where they lay their eggs in the same pool they were born in. If you’re looking for an evening adventure, I highly recommend joining Marquette’s blue-spotted salamander surveys. Just watch your step!

Salamanders and Vernal Pools Throughout Michigan

Marquette is a long drive from southeast Michigan. Fortunately, Oakland Township has plenty of vernal pools bursting with life. You can travel just 10 minutes from home to witness these wondrous habitats found in our parks.

A vernal pool found at Charles Ilsley Park

Vernal pools are temporary ponds that are formed by the melting of winter snow or early spring rains. They are a true sign of spring! Vernal pools- or vernal ponds (“vernal” meaning spring) – typically dry out by the end of the summer, but flow with biodiversity while they are present! These pools are temporary nurseries for amphibious offspring, made possible by the lack of predatory fish. While vernal pools thrive in the early spring, they can still be found throughout the parks in June. If you come across one, it is likely in its beginning stages of drying out. The vernal pools at this time of year, depending on their size, may have significantly less water in them compared to spring.

The larval stage of the salamander with gills and tail fins. In June the salamander eggs have hatched and look like this larva.

Vernal pools can be found throughout Oakland Township’s parks. Various species from frogs, fairy shrimp, and salamanders inhabit these ephemeral ponds! On a lovely hike through Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, or Cranberry Lake Park, you just might hear the bullfrog sing or see a peaceful wood duck floating on a vernal pool.

Eastern redback salamander at Blue Heron Environmental Area. Photo by Camryn.
Gray tree frog at Watershed Ridge Park.

Why are Vernal Pools Important?

Vernal pools are important for forest ecosystem health. Not only are they a nursery for amphibians, they are a temporary source of food and water for numerous species such as raccoons, ducks, and egrets. They are often called the “Coral Reefs of Northeastern Forests” for their bursts of biodiversity, several species can be found here if you look a little closer into the water.

If you would like to get up close and personal with vernal pools, grab your bug spray and muck boots for Michigan’s Vernal Pool Patrol! This program allows community members to participate in community science to collect information on identifying, mapping, and monitoring vernal pools statewide. The Michigan Vernal Pool Database, where this information is submitted, can be used to guide management decisions on vernal pool conservation. After attending some training (held in early spring each year), you will be ready to contribute to the Michigan Vernal Pool Database! If this is something that interests you, follow this link to the Michigan Vernal Pool Patrol website.

Alyssa Radzwion from Oakland Township Parks and Ian Ableson of Six Rivers Conservancy observing tiny life in a vernal pool at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2019.

If you ever see a vernal pool, consider taking a moment to enjoy its beauty and small wetland critters. Vernal pools can teach us to enjoy the little things in life, and appreciate them while they are still here with us. Yes, life gets busy, we live in a world that requires us to always be on the move. But by living this way, we just might forget about the little things. Tell your friends and family you love them, take your dog out for a walk, buy that stranger in the coffee shop their latte. All it takes are the little things to make someone’s day.

What the Turtles Taught Me

During my first month working in Oakland Township Parks, I was rewarded by the sighting of three Blanding’s turtles! These creatures seemed assured in my presence; their heads stuck out of their shell gallantly with a smile. I inched closer to get a better look. 

Two of the Blanding’s Turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) I saw during my first month at the parks. The left turtle was at Bear Creek Nature Park and the right at Watershed Ridge Park.

To my astonishment, they didn’t startle as I moved toward them. It was like their mind was elsewhere, and I left with envy at their mellow state. I admit I rarely experience a blank, light consciousness. In modern times, information is infinite and often a click away. There is so much to process at all times, that it is too easy to get lost in the constant happenings. In the presence of the smiley turtle, I saw the possibility of a different existence.

Turtles are the oldest living reptiles, even older than dinosaurs. Not only are turtles evolutionarily archaic, but they also have lifespans similar to humans: In 2016, a recaptured Blanding’s Turtle near Ann Arbor was believed to be 83 years old! Standing a short distance from them, their detached calm radiated onto me. This species, like so many others, is under threat and is currently listed as a species of special concern in Michigan. They take 14 to 20 years before reaching sexual maturity and have large home ranges (both wetland and upland). Yet, on my early visits to the parks, there they were. Obviously, humans are not turtles. They don’t have to pay rent and taxes or check their email. But that doesn’t mean they can’t teach us how to live on Earth. They have, in fact, been around the sun longer.

Snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) laying eggs last week at Gallagher Creek Park.

Lucky for us, Michigan is in the center of the Blanding’s range. According to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Oakland County has the highest occurrence of Blanding’s turtles in all of Michigan.  Keep an eye out for a domed shell and bright yellow neck that is characteristic of a Blanding’s turtle. You can report a rare species observation here https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/species/report on Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s website.

Because we are in late spring, you are most likely to see female Blanding’s and Snapping turtles. They may be crossing roads, trying to find areas to nest. If you are fortunate enough to witness a Blanding’s turtle laying eggs on your property, you could build even build a nest protector to ensure hatchling success! See https://www.nohlc.org/install-a-turtle-protector.html for instructions. These would need to be checked daily so hatchlings do not get trapped. If you see a turtle on the side of the road and it’s safe, move them to the side of the road they are facing. After you’re done, maybe stand a short distance away and stay in their company. Who knows, you may just learn something.

Sharing those moments with the turtles, I now understand their influence. Without language or expression, I could feel their sureness. I picked the invasive garlic mustard near them and worried that my conservation efforts were never going to be enough. Seeing these turtles whose lineages have remained mostly unchanged, I am reminded to take a moment outside myself. It’s a constant inner battle to exist with the same assurance as those turtles.

Like the turtle, my existence spans past space and time, and yet as humans, we are caught in our own self-made troubles. These long-lived, traveling species are not equipped to cross a busy road. Neither are they able to protect their nests from the increasing urban predator populations. Therefore, this species’ life history is at odds with the increasing urbanization and fragmentation caused by us. Their very presence should be a lesson to see that there is a vastly complex world that should not be ignored. As long as we continue to have turtles as neighbors, we can be reminded that life is bigger than ourselves.

Currently Flowering: Early June

Take a peek through the lenses of the stewardship team as we highlight native species that are currently flowering throughout the parks! This will be a recurring series, updated throughout the summer season as new plants unfurl their beautiful blooms. The majority of the species highlighted this week can be found in the native plant beds at Gallagher Creek Park. Since construction of the beds in 2019, the stewardship team has worked diligently to promote and maintain native plant diversity. We are happy to report that the beds are flourishing. They are abuzz with activity as happy pollinators weave through the blossoms. We hope that you get to spot these species on your next walk through our parks!

Golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea)

The aptly named golden alexanders are seen here in a photo from a native plant bed at Gallagher Creek Park. Golden alexanders is a perennial herb belonging to the carrot family (Apiaceae)! The upper leaves of this species are divided in two, whereas the lower leaves are divided in threes. The small yellow flowers of this species are arranged in a large umbel. This species is a larval host to the black swallowtail.

Common cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex)

Common cinquefoil is pictured here at Lost Lake Nature Park. As its name suggests, it is common. However it should not be overlooked! Its dainty flowers only last around a month, and are a joyous addition to the groundcover of a variety of habitats. This herbaceous species can be identified by its deep leaf venation and serrated leaves. The 1/2″ flowers have five yellow petals and roughly twenty stamens (pollen producing flower organ). Common cinquefoil belongs to Rosaceae, the rose family. The leaves of this species are often eaten by small mammals, and the flowers are visited by small flies and bees.

Golden ragwort (Packera aurea)

Golden ragwort can be seen at Paint Creek Heritage Area- Wet Prairie (photographed here). The flowers occur in clusters and are a shade of deep yellow. On a single flower, petal number can range from several to more than a dozen. Stewards Camryn and Cassie are pictured showing the height of golden ragwort, which can reach up to two feet. Golden ragwort belongs to Asteraceae, also known as the daisy family. Though past its peak flowering season, this species is too beautiful not to share!

Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus)

Robin’s plantain is shown here in the native plant beds at Gallagher Creek Park. The petals occur in a range of colors. Seen here in white, they can also be shaded lavender or blue. The basal leaves of this species are notably hairy and soft. This species, like golden ragwort, belongs to the family Asteraceae. Robin’s plantain propagates through stolons or rhizomes.

Sand coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)

Sand coreopsis can be found in abundance in Gallagher Creek Park’s native plant beds. This species is impossible to miss! It’s voluminous flowers perch proudly on peduncles that can reach up to 2 1/2 feet high. The photo on the right shows a coreopsis flower visited by a pearl crescent, a native butterfly. Pearl crescents lay their eggs on the leaves of various aster species. Sand coreopsis is a member of the Asteraceae family.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis)

Wild lupine has been seen in many parks over the past two weeks including Bear Creek Nature Park, Gallagher Creek Park, Charles Ilsley Park (pictured here), and Nicholson Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail. The palmately compound leaves of wild lupine are deeply divided into numerous leaflets. Flowers occur in clusters on stems that can reach up to two feet in height. The flowers are most commonly blue/purple, but can range from pink to white. Wild lupine belongs to Fabaceae, the legume family. Like other species within this family, lupine forms a symbiotic relationship with a group of bacteria called rhizobia. Rhizobia colonize and form nodules on the roots of legumes, wherein they fix and provide biological nitrogen to their host plants. This symbiosis is beneficial to the host plant, as nitrogen is an essential plant macronutrient.

Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Wild columbine is pictured here at Bear Creek Nature Park (left), and Gallagher Creek Park (right). This species is easily identified by its bell-shaped ‘drooping’ flowers. Five red and yellow petals are surrounded by five, paler red sepals. Wild columbine belongs to the family Ranunculaceae, also known as the buttercup family. This species attracts a variety of wildlife, including hummingbirds, butterflies, hawk moths, bees, and birds. It is a larval host to the columbine duskywing butterfly. When admiring this species, the lyrics of Townes Van Zandt’s 1969 song ‘Columbine’ never fail to get stuck in my mind…

“Cut yourself a columbine,
Tear it from the stem,
Now breathe upon the petals fine,
And throw ’em to the wind.”

…Except follow better ecological practices than Townes- don’t cut them!

False Solomon’s-seal (Maianthemum racemosum)

The slightly hairy stem of false Solomon’s-seal supports alternating oval-shaped leaves. The stem terminates in a cluster of dozens of small white flowers. This photo was taken at Cranberry Lake Park, where you can also find this species cousin, true Solomon’s seal! True Solomon’s seal can easily be distinguished from this species by its small, drooping, bell-shaped flowers. This species is within the lily group. False Solomon’s seal is able to colonize areas through sturdy rhizomes. This species is occasionally browsed by deer.

Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)

Foxglove beardtongue can be seen in Gallagher Creek Park’s native plant beds and surrounding natural areas. Seen in the photo on the left is a flower stalk with many emerging tubular blooms. Small hairs can be found on the white flowers. The opposite leaves of this species are glossy and lightly toothed. Foxglove beardtongue belongs to the plantain family, Plantaginaceae. This species is frequently visited by bumblebees, and occasionally even hummingbirds.

Hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus)

Hairy beardtongue can be seen in Gallagher Creek Park’s native plant beds, and several spots along the Paint Creek Trail. The drooping, slender flowers of this species are pale violet in color. The hairy stem is a key identifier of this species, as seen in the photo on the right. Like foxglove beardtongue, this species belongs to the family Plantaginaceae. The descriptor ‘hairy’ is derived from the fifth stamen of the flower. This special stamen is infertile and has a cluster of small hairs.

Check back in toward the end of June for a new list of native flowering species. Among the species highlighted will be milkweeds, which will begin to flower over the next several weeks. There are eleven native milkweed species to the state of Michigan. Keep an eye out to see which species we find within Oakland Township’s parks!

Meet Emma: Devotee of Ecology

We’re excited to welcome our 2022 seasonal stewardship crew! Camryn Brent, Cassie Stitzman, and Emma Campbell joined us in the last few weeks and will be out in the parks doing much-needed ecological restoration work until the end of the summer. This week Emma Campbell shares her introduction. We are inspired by her lifelong interest in plants and ecology! Help us welcome her to Oakland Township.
-Ben

My name is Emma Campbell and I am thrilled to be working as a land stewardship technician this summer. I am a born and raised Ohioan. For the past four years I have lived a little over five hours south of Oakland Township, in Athens, Ohio. There I am a student at Ohio University and will be graduating with my Bachelor’s in Field Ecology and a certificate in Environmental Studies in December of this year.

Taking a needed snack break at a campsite along the Zaleski State Forest backpacking trail.

I have had the great privilege of being born into an outdoorsy family. Spending summers in the panhandle of Florida with my native landscaper grandfather instilled in me a love of plants.

My grandfather showing me some trees in 2001.

This love of plants broadened into a passion for ecology in late high school and early college. In my sophomore year of high school I stumbled upon an article about Lycorma delicatula, the spotted lanternfly. L. delicatula is an invasive planthopper native to southeastern Asia that was first spotted in Berks County, Pennsylvania. This led me on a deep-dive of the effects of invasive species in ecosystems as a teenager. Over the course of several years I saw its rapid spread throughout the northeast, eventually making landfall in my home state in 2020. From there I learned to recognize invasive species everywhere I went. This further opened my eyes to the long-lasting effects of human disturbance.

As my interest in ecology unfolded, I became fascinated by the unseen. I am captivated by soil ecology and the importance of microbes in plant-soil interactions. Plant productivity is tied closely to the nutrients made ‘available’ to them by a whole host of soil microbes belonging to archaea, bacteria, and fungi. I am considering continuing my education and obtaining a graduate degree in soil sciences in the future.

At Ohio University I have worked as a research assistant on several species within the genus Lycopodiella. Plants within this genus are referred to as the bog clubmosses. As their name suggests, they commonly occupy bogs and wetland areas. My research involves collecting morphological data to identify hybrids. Several specimens that I have worked with were collected in southern Michigan region.

I am greatly looking forward to exploring natural areas in and around Oakland Township this summer. I am an avid hiker and backpacker. On many weekends throughout the summer you can find me donning a well-loved 1970’s aluminum frame backpacking pack passed down to me from my parents. I am planning a weekend backpacking trip to North Manitou Island later this summer. I would love any and all suggestions for Michigan trails before I head back south!

Preparing native seed mix for planting at Blue Heron Environmental Area.

Since starting two weeks ago, I have already learned so much from my co-workers and fellow seasonal stewards. I am confident that I will come away from this season with expanded knowledge and a solidified appreciation for all things Michigan.

Restoration Brings New Life and Exciting Visitors

Shades of green in a forest near the Wet Prairie

As bright green leaves emerge each May, stewardship in our parks kicks into high gear. During the last two years, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide restored two wetlands with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our township stewardship crew and volunteers restored a fragile woodland with a lot of muscle power and hard work.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I covered these three transformations earlier in Natural Areas Notebook – restored wetlands in at Blue Heron Conservation Area and Watershed Ridge Park and remnant woodland and wetland restoration near the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie.

In the last few weeks, work has moved forward, which will bring even more life and beauty to these three natural areas. And the changes wrought have already encouraged surprising new visitors and a renaissance of sorts. Come see….

At Blue Heron Environmental Area, A Rare Visitor and A First Sowing of Wild Seed

On May 4, as I passed Blue Heron on my way to monitor bluebird boxes, I saw Ben in the north field with my gifted photographer friends, Bob and Joan Bonin. Hmm… A few minutes later, I received a quick text from Ben that they suspected they were looking at a Willet, a bird I’d never heard of! Well, monitoring completed, I made a beeline to Blue Heron and yes indeed, it was a Willet (Tringa semipalmata), a shore bird rarely seen in Michigan. Be sure to click on the photos below to enlarge them so you can appreciate the detail the Bonins achieved!

Willets generally winter along the east and west coast of North America, the Caribbean islands, and the north coasts of South America. The eastern subspecies breeds during the summer farther up the northeast coast. The western birds breed out in the high plains area of the western U.S. and Canada. Our Willet had lighter colored feathers, so it appears to be a “western” bird. So it’s a mystery how this bird found its way to Blue Heron, but we are so glad it did! Evidently it needed some R&R after its wanderings and stopped by to rest on the shore of this blue oasis. The marshy edges of the new wetland were rich with food. Bob caught the moments when the Willet extracted a worm and when it latched onto what appears to be an insect larva from the water. Restoration of this wetland two years ago provided this wayward Willet with a safe haven. Ah, the rewards of good stewardship!

A few days later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service folks arrived to seed the north end of the field at Blue Heron. (The south end will still be farmed for now.) Native grass and wildflower seed sprayed from waggling, vibrating tubes at the back of the small tractor and a drag behind covered them with just a thin layer of dirt. The seeding happened a bit later than the stewardship crew had planned due to a busy season for USFWS. But Ben still hopes to see some new growth this summer. Native seed can take 3-5 years to reach full bloom.

A team from the US Fish and Wildlife Service plant seed above the north shore of the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area

Other Water Birds Dropped Down to the Pond for a Visit this Year

Last spring, the early arrival migrators were Black Ducks and the Greater Yellowlegs. Along with the Willet, other water birds arrived during this spring’s visits: a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) poked about in the shallows during the seed planting before continuing its journey to Canada. And a female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), who likely lives in the area year ’round, lifted off from the pond as I skirted the shore.

Reliable Wetland Summer Residents

A few other creatures shared Blue Heron with me this spring – the ones that tend to show up since Ben restored the wetland. Slideshow below:

Watershed Ridge Park Receives its Blanket of Native Seed as Summer Residents Arrive

The north fields at Watershed Ridge Park after seeding by US Fish and Wildlife Service on the same May day as the work at Blue Heron.

The little USFWS tractor also tracked across the sloping landscapes of the two north fields of Watershed Ridge Park, depositing native wildflower and grass seed. Once the seeds germinate and begin growing, they should help prevent erosion into the newly restored wetlands – as well as adding a lot of beauty for us visitors! The following day Ben did some hand sowing of wetland seed and came across a lovely surprise at the edge of a wetland!

My favorite surprise during my visits was a glorious male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) high in a tree near the parking lot. His more modestly dressed mate poked about a snag nearby, but flew away as I slowly turned to take her portrait. Wood Ducks can nest as far as 50 feet up in trees and have hooks at the back of their webbed feet to navigate up in the canopy.

A male Wood Duck avidly watched his mate explore a possible tree hole in a snag.

I think Mrs. Wood Duck probably decided that the snag was not close enough to a wetland, since she prefers a location in a tree near a wetland. Ideally, there her young can make a soft landing in deep leaves when they jump from the nest and then trundle after her into a nearby pond – with only the help of their mother’s encouraging quacking! I’ve included below the photo of a female Wood Duck that I saw at Bear Creek Nature Park a few years ago. If you can spot her on the limb, you’ll notice her subtle attire.

A female Wood Duck high in a tree looking for a nest hole in Bear Creek Nature Park. She’s well camouflaged, isn’t she? The one at Watershed Ridge blended into her snag beautifully, too.

Migrators at Watershed Ridge Park Find A Stopping-off Site or a Nesting Spot Near the Wetlands

Besides the Grackle, other migrators peeked from hedgerows or sang in tangled greenery near the restored wetlands. Slideshow below.

At the Wet Prairie an Open Canopy Creates Ideal Habitat for Two Special Visitors

The open canopy woodland near the Wet Prairie attracts interesting species and a native, diverse forest floor!

Please Note: No trails exist in the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, but you can enjoy the wildflowers from the Paint Creek Trail, which runs along its entire eastern edge. In this sensitive natural area most stewardship work must be accomplished by hand to carefully preserve the unusual prairie and wetlands. So please, enjoy these special natural areas from the trail. I’ll give you a closer look at them below or feel free to search for other posts about the Wet Prairie on this website.

Birds often choose very specific habitats for breeding and foraging. For example, Cornell University’s ornithology website, allaboutbirds.org, identifies some of the most popular breeding habitats for species like the Red-Headed Woodpecker that seek out “deciduous woodlands with oak or beech, groves of dead or dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas, recent clearings…” How lucky, then, that the open, moist woodlands near the Wet Prairie (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) turn out to be just such a habitat.

Though oaks stand tall in this forest, the canopy was thinned over the years by non-native infestations of Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm disease that left dying trees and snags (standing dead trees). In this habitat, sunlight slips between the trees, dappling the earth below where woodland flowers and small native trees like oaks can thrive in the partial shade .

Dead trees leave spaces in the canopy for sunlight to reach the forest floor, nourishing small native trees and wildflowers. These dead “snags” are vital nesting spots for cavity nesting birds.

This open woodland also features the very “river bottoms” mentioned by Cornell. The original bed of Paint Creek (before the railroad moved it east into a straight channel) – filled now by snow melt, rainwater and rising ground water – still winds its moist path across the forest floor. In May, it flourished with Marsh Marigolds!

Marsh Marigolds flourish in the ancient bed of Paint Creek that still winds through the forest. The creek was moved east long ago to accommodate the railroad.

And even the required “burned areas” and “recent clearings” that Cornell lists exist here! In fall of 2020 and the following winter, the stewardship team worked long, hard hours to clear a dense jungle of invasive shrubs and vines in the forest near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. Non-native shrubs like Privet, Common Buckthorn, Glossy Buckthorn, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet vine were hand cut and huge piles of them were safely burned atop the winter snow.

Burning piles of invasive shrubs, trees and vines dotted the forest after removal and were burned on the snow in early 2021.

Two Visitors Came to Check Out this “Open Woods” Habitat

And guess what? All of those conditions that Cornell mentioned did indeed attract a Red-headed Woodpecker to our open woods this spring! In late May, this bird’s call and drilling attracted the gaze of Lisa, a volunteer pulling invasive Garlic Mustard with Ben and the summer stewardship technicians. Listen to the third call at this link to hear what the crew heard.

At first glance, she thought she was seeing the much more common male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with its brilliant red crest and nape (On left below). But no, the busy bird drilling a hole in a snag was indeed a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus!) Check out the differences.

According to Cornell’s Birds of the World migration maps , Red-headed Woodpeckers are more likely to be passing through our area to breed farther north in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten.” But some do nest here and we may have seen one that will finish its hole and raise a family near the Wet Prairie! Fingers crossed!

The Red-headed obliged me with a pose that shows its dramatic back and red head. What a treat!

During my visit, another bird that seeks out open woodlands, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), landed in a tree near the woodpecker and was spotted by Camryn, our sharp-eyed summer technician. Luckily it paused for a look around. It’s also a cavity nester so let’s hope it decides to raise young here as well.

A Great Crested Flycatcher flew in and perched on a snag in the open forest. Watch for that yellow belly and the chocolate back and wings!

These fairly common flycatchers, with their distinctive “wee-eep” and vibrating “burrrr” calls, love to hawk insects from high in the canopy, making them hard to see. So what a treat to see one at the tip of a snag! It didn’t sing or call for us, but the sight of its chocolate brown head and back and that lemon yellow breast, plus the sighting of the Red-headed Woodpecker, definitely made my rush down to the trail worth the effort! Thanks to Lisa for spotting the woodpecker and to Camryn for spotting the flycatcher and taking me near the location for both!

Native Wildflowers Stage a Comeback after Invasive Shrub Clearing

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) basking in the dappled sunlight along the ancient bed of Paint Creek

This May, spring’s rain and pale sunlight once again reached native wildflowers that had been buried under the tangle of non-natives for many long years. And like a miracle, they emerged in the forest’s dappled light and bloomed! Whenever this happens after clearing or prescribed burns, it fills me with delight. Some already existed as single blooms and now spread in glorious profusion, like the Golden Ragwort above. Others may not have been seen here for years. Here’s a sampling of the plants that waited so long for their days in the sun.

Restorations Require Death – and then, New Life!

A thick carpet of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) moved onto the edge of the Paint Creek Trail once invasive brush was removed last year. What a sight, eh?

One of the odd aspects of stewardship work is that it involves removing living plants so that others, plants that nourish our local food web, re-emerge and thrive. But it’s occurred to me lately that gardeners have experienced this dilemma for centuries. Gardens require the removal of plants and grasses that infiltrate the borders. Sometimes even beloved but too exuberant flowers need to be thinned for their own health and the health of plants around them.

So inevitably, restorations mean eliminating aggressive, invasive non-native plants and trees that, if left in place, would eventually blanket a whole prairie or forest. Our stewardship crew spends days and weeks clearing invasive, non-native plants brought to America for their beauty or usefulness by settlers, landscapers and gardeners or as unseen hitchhikers in overseas shipments. Without the competition, predators and soil conditions of their Eurasian habitats, they can quickly smother, shade out, or choke off native plants.

The importance of native plants can’t be overemphasized. Because they evolved and thrived here for aeons, they can survive droughts, freezing temperatures, even fire. In fact many native plants require freezing winters or periodic fire to germinate! But they have no defenses against the rapid spread of non-native plants, because they’ve only been living with them for decades or perhaps hundreds of years, rather than thousands of years. Adaptation and evolution are very slow processes.

When native wildflowers and trees flourish, so does all other life around them. Native bees and butterflies can be attracted to non-native blooms, but their caterpillars can’t feed or develop normally on them. The leaves of native plants provide rich nutrition for caterpillars, the little creatures that nourish nearly every baby and adult bird we see. Later in the year, the berries of native plants provide migrators and winter birds with much more energy and nutrition than berries from non-native plants. Nature worked out an interlocking system of sustenance and shelter for life that we humans have altered dramatically over long years.

So what a delight it was to see that funny little tractor shaking out native seed at Watershed Ridge Park and Blue Heron Environmental Area! Or Ben and his crew hand spreading native seed collected right here in the township. Or even watching the removal of invasive thickets one year – and the next, seeing the plants nature intended rising from the soil after having waited decades to feel the rain, the sun, and the wind once again! I hope it’s not impious to describe those moments as little miracles, little resurrections – because that’s how they feel to me. I hope they lift your spirits as they did for me.