Things are happening at Gallagher Creek Park! This little park in the southwest corner of Oakland Township spans 15-acres at the headwaters of Gallagher Creek, an important water resource in the township which was home to a remnant native brook trout population just a few years ago. Outside the developed area near the parking lot, wetlands at Gallagher Creek Park host a variety of birds and wildlife, and prairie plantings installed between 2016 and 2018 blanket the upland areas.
In 2018 Oakland Township Parks and Recreation added a playground, picnic shelter, and rain garden at Gallagher Creek Park, and expanded the parking lot. All this work wrapped up just as fall set in last year. This spring we added finishing touches with installation of native plant landscaping around the playground. Join me, Ben VanderWeide, for a tour of the first year of our new landscaping!
Native Plants for a Better World
We use native plants throughout our parks because they are important for a healthy environment. Native plants provide food resources and habitat for pollinators, and filter runoff and sediment from storm water flowing from developed areas of the park before it reaches Gallagher Creek. Check out great books by Doug Tallamy if you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of native plants.
The landscaping surrounding the playground and picnic pavilion creates a transition from the play area to the existing natural community in the park, connecting visitors, especially young children and their parents, to nature. We designed this transition landscape to be visually appealing by using low-growing plants, showy flowers, and neat edges. Check out our plant list here. Our native plant landscaping is a free, publicly accessible resource for educators, nature centers, and anyone who wants examples of how to use native plants.
After the playground and other improvements were finished in 2018, we were left with fairly compacted soils. Some areas had fill dirt and one spot had a thin layer of soil over driveway gravel! We didn’t have the time or resources to loosen the soil, so we just hoped the roots of our tough native plants would break through the hardpan. Our site preparation mostly involved removing sticks, large rocks, and any existing plants. The total area of the native planting is about 9,000 square feet.
The area near the parking lot had been accidentally seeded to turf the previous year, so we had to kill the grass first.
A few weeks before we started planting, we celebrated the grand opening of the playground equipment and other improvements. Jane Giblin was there representing both The Wildflower Association of Michigan and Rochester Garden Club, two organizations which provided grants to help us buy plants. Stephanie Patil also generously gave us a donation to help purchase plants. Thanks!
The last thing we did before planting was place the log edging. We used black locust logs left over from another project. Black locust resists rot, making it favorite choice for fence posts by farmers of the past. What a great use of this invasive tree!
All that preparation got us ready for the main event, planting! We put out the call for volunteers, and many of you showed up! The slideshow below shows our process. We first marked out each planting zone, then dug holes using a bulb planting bit on a gas-powered drill. After placing the plants in the holes, we carefully packed dirt around the plugs to eliminate air gaps. We mulched around the plants and gave them a good soaking. Finally, we put small identifications signs throughout the landscaping to help people learn the names of the species we’d planted.
Weeding and Watering Through the Summer
Even with careful site preparation and a few inches of mulch, we prepared ourselves for a big flush of weeds from our post-construction soils. The worst weed problem the first year was annual grasses, but we had to be vigilant as seedlings of cottonwood, Canada thistle, quack grass, and crown vetch emerged.
As summer began, we watered about twice per week to help the plants establish. Ample rain fell during the second half of the summer, so we only watered as needed. The seasonal stewardship staff did great work hauling water to the site in a large tank and keeping the weeds down. Thanks Alex, Marisa, and Grant! I know a few volunteers also stopped by to help with weeding. We couldn’t have done it without you!
Monarch Butterflies Love the Plants!
As plants grew larger, we found monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed, and adults enjoying the nectar of blazing star. Hurray for pollinator habitat!
From Small Plugs to Big Plants
Our little plants didn’t look so small by early September! The sedges and grasses did especially well, providing nice texture and structure. Some forbs (wildflowers) did well and even flowered their first year; others invested their energy in putting down deep roots. We weren’t able to get some species in the spring, so we planted a few additional species in the fall – western sunflower (Helianthusoccidentalis), round-leaved ragwort (Packera obovata), and nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum). Fall plantings don’t need to be watered as much, and the plants get a head start for the next year!
Looking Ahead to Next Year
Next year we won’t have to plant everything again, so we’ll be switching gears to long-term maintenance. In 2019 we mulched the plantings to help retain moisture and suppress weeds, but we’re planning to reduce or eliminate additions of new mulch in the plantings over the next few years. We included several species that spread by rhizomes or stolons as part of our “green mulch” strategy – allowing the good plants to create a dense canopy that resists the establishment of new weeds.
Next year we won’t need to water, unless we have a severe drought. At that point, the plants should have established deep roots, and will be able to handle the normal fluctuations in moisture and temperature for southeast Michigan – another advantage of native plants!
Weeding will continue to be important until we’ve reduced the weed seed bank and established our green mulch. I’ve found that a few years of intensive weeding can reduce the weed pressure to almost nothing. Only a few quick scans will be required every month to catch problems before they become big ones.
Every year we’ll evaluate the species mix in our plantings. What’s doing well? What didn’t grow much? Do we have consistent blooms to support pollinators throughout the growing season? We’ll add species and thin others, fine-tuning our native landscaping.
We’re looking forward to the challenge and joy of watching our native plant landscaping change and grow over time. We hope you’ll join us, whether you’ve been a gardener for decades or are just interested in native plant landscaping. All are welcome!
Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park has always been amazing. Its original 60 acres feature open meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and a shady woods plunging down into a deep ravine with the West Branch of Stony Creek sparkling below. Now, thanks to our township Land Preservation millage, a willing owner and a grant from the Michigan Nature Resources Trust Fund, the Parks Commission added 208 more spectacular acres to the park in late September this year.
The first time I saw this land in 2016, I stood on the Overlook Hill and looked down on a huge, flat field encircled on three sides by deep mature forest. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!
But what I didn’t appreciate then is abundantly apparent now. Long ago large ponds at the heart of this land had been tiled and drained for a farmer’s crops, a common occurrence in the 19th and 20th century. Beneath the soil, the water flowed away rather than rising to the surface. Water waited to emerge, water that could restore the wetlands that fed plants, dragonflies, frogs, turtles, butterflies, abundant bird life and thirsty mammals that once had gathered there.
Restoring the Land: First Steps
Now that the purchase is complete, wetland restoration has begun. The former landowner is creating wetland mitigation banks, which are restored wetlands that help somewhat to offset wetland losses due to development in other places. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ) holds wetland “conservation easements” on these wetland restoration areas. The folks designing the wetlands determined that they needed to fence off these areas for 5-10 years to make sure that the native trees and shrubs they plant are able to grow. Otherwise our abundant deer would kill them by browsing. As a start to restoration, low berms were created to capture and hold the water, “habitat structures” were placed throughout the fields, and the drainage tiles purposely broken so that water could once again flow to the surface. And wow! Big beautiful ponds have already begun to form in both areas!
Within the wetland restoration areas, 4,000 tiny wetland plants were sown this autumn. You’ll notice stumps, logs and branches left within these areas for now. Those are the habitat structures which allow wildlife to find cover or perch while the trees and native plants grow back.
Birds Already Flock to the Renewing Wetland Areas
One of the huge benefits of this expansion’s location is that its directly across from Stony Creek Metropark. That helps create a larger “wildlife corridor” where local creatures can spread out and find more habitat in which to stay and raise their young. Migrating birds and insects will also find a larger area to rest and replenish themselves in spring and fall. On my two visits to the park in late November, birds were everywhere! Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) ratcheted out their prehistoric cries as flock after flock soared above me.
Some, of course, settled to feed at the edge of the forming ponds.
A flock of 20-30 Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) cruised back and forth in the shallow pond forming at the north end of the field.
And of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) found their way to the rising waters as well!
Outside the easement fence, other birds also found plenty of sustenance. A flock of winter visitors, American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea), had arrived from the Arctic tundra to spend the winter here. Their call-and-response twittering keeps them in contact with the group as they dash into the grass to feed and then back into the trees to look around. [Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A dozen Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) poked along at the outside edge of the wetland fence, their red and blue heads pumping with every step. One of them repeatedly showed off her impressive wingspan as she walked. Not quite as impressive as the male’s dramatic display of tail feathers, but still quite a show!
The Farmer’s Woodlot to the East
On the east side of the field, some wise farmer left a large tract of beautiful woods as a woodlot. Woodlots provided a source of lumber or firewood, if sensibly managed over the years. They also provided habitat for wildlife that could be hunted for sport or for the dinner table in hard times. The woodlot at the Stony Creek Ravine expansion is a beautiful example.
The small woodlot is different from the larger western woods. Its trees are mostly oak and maples and its understory is less tangled and bushy than the woods on the west. Perhaps that’s because for years it was managed by the farmer who left it next to the field. It’s a peaceful, open woods where you can see from the shade out into the sunlight. I like to imagine that the farmer or his wife also just enjoyed having a quiet place nearby to listen to the birds and where the children could play within earshot of the dinner bell.
The sensible farmer also had the good sense to leave a beautiful old White Oak (Quercus alba) on the west edge of the field. It must have been a great place for a picnic on a warm day. Now it’s also wonderful habitat. According to Douglas Tallamy’s useful book, Bringing Nature Home, oaks are unmatched in their ability to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Blue Jays, deer, turkeys, squirrels consume large amounts of acorns. Cavities in giant oaks make nesting sites and winter shelter for chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, bluebirds and others. They support a huge number of species of butterflies and moths, their caterpillars providing soft, nutritious food for hungry little birds all summer long. I’m glad these giants are our national tree!
The Deeper Forests on the West and North Host Some Less Familiar Trees (to me anyway…)
I’d already seen a beautiful American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) at the edge of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in the original 60 acre parcel. What a beauty with its smooth gray bark that looks almost unreal! And those graceful, toothed leaves!
When Ben showed me the northern woods that connects to the high ridge of the in the original park, I began to see more beeches. These trees favor moist air and germinate well in the shade. They host even more species of butterflies and moths than the oak. And like oaks, beech nuts are high protein food for lots of wildlife. We came across a big one in a group with two other mighty trees. Look at the size of this one’s “foot!”
A tall wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) stood nearby, with its dry flowers still clinging to the topmost branches! Tulip Trees are fast growing and can reach 80-120 feet here in Michigan, nearly 200 feet in the South! Their yellow flowers always bask in the sunlight in the crowns of the trees, making them difficult to see for everyone but the birds!
Between the Beech and the Tulip Tree stood a big Red Oak (Quercus rubra) – three large, beautiful hardwoods standing in just one small area of the forest. The red oaks are distinguished from the white oaks by having leaves with pointed tips with bristles, rather than the rounded lobes of the white oak. Their acorns, unfortunately, are not particularly tasty to wildlife like the ones on the white oaks are. (The yellow leaves in the foreground below are probably from small beech saplings.)
The forest is full of little wetlands like the vernal pool below. You can see that the forest floor in the woods is a bit more wild than the woodlot; saplings, bushes, fallen logs and snags (standing dead trees) provide a diverse habitat for all kinds of wildlife.
Even though Ben and I visited in November, green plants still flourished in the forest. A trailing vine of Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax hispida) was a new plant to me. It drapes over bushes and low branches of trees in moist thickets and attaches itself with tendrils. The dark blue/black berries provide food for game birds, song birds and many mammals during fall and winter. Luckily, it’s not a killer like non-native Oriental Bittersweet; Greenbrier climbs over shrubs but doesn’t wind around trunks and choke its hosts like Bittersweet .
Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) added a lovely spray of green beneath our feet. This pretty evergreen plant can be identified through its scaly stalk and its leathery leaves. It’s also a new plant for me. Who knows what else I’ll see for the first time when spring and summer arrive in this 268 acres?
So Much More to Explore, but Patience is Required For Now
This is just a first taste of what this new 208 acre parcel has to offer. In 2020 park staff plan to add a small parking lot and a few rustic trails following existing two-tracks that wind through the park. More investigation will be required, though, to know where to locate additional paths and other improvements without harming valuable wetlands or special stands of fragile, protected plants. Inventories of plant life will need to be taken, drainage issues dealt with, prescribed burns conducted and perhaps thousands of native plants need a chance to mature and spread without disturbance. The Parks Commission and staff have years of work to do on any piece of land to add improvements that work with nature – and this park expansion is a huge one! Plans are in the works to restore native habitats to the remaining farm fields throughout the park.
I’m already dreaming of how magnificent this park will be when the fences come down and trails lead you and I from one spectacular habitat to the next. Imagine those ponds reflecting a blue sky surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers bowing and dancing in a summer breeze. Imagine animals slipping through the surrounding greenery at the pond’s edge for a drink, while dragonflies zip through the air and turtles bask on logs. Envision those 4000 native plants and trees becoming tall and full enough to create nesting spots for birds we now rarely see. Some day we may wander along a winding path through the beech and maple forest to the tap-tap of woodpeckers or the burbling spring song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
I feel a deep sense of contentment and gratitude that this land is being restored rather than “developed.” Now, after decades of producing crops, it can return to its first assignment – providing food, shelter and comfort for wildlife. And that restoration of our natural heritage will eventually result in a beautiful and peaceful retreat for us and future generations as well. It’ll be worth waiting for. I’m sure of that.
The cartoons and legends about coyotes were right about one thing: coyotes truly are wily tricksters, though perhaps a better phrase is clever survivors. While their original habitat was the dry, open areas of the western half of the continent, coyotes gradually moved into every state but Hawaii and are in every county of Michigan. I imagine they might still prefer open fields, but coyotes now live successfully within suburban neighborhoods, the heat of the desert, the humidity of the tropics, the snow of Alaska, and the hustle and traffic of huge urban areas as well. Curious but shy, these daytime (diurnal) animals have learned to be most active at night in order to avoid us loud and slightly scary humans. Their complex, coordinated howling can allow a few coyotes to sound like a sizeable pack. That’s a lot of adaptation!
Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, has hosted two well-attended, useful coyote presentations for Oakland Township residents. The first took place in 2016 with naturalist educator Laura Zoet who founded Nature on the Go, and the second earlier this month with Jonathan Schechter, a nature education writer for Oakland County’s blog, “The Wilder Side of Oakland County.”
We’ll soon be entering the mating season for coyotes in Michigan, which runs from December through February or March. That’s when you’re most likely to see two coyotes trotting along in the distance, see two sets of single tracks in a snowy meadow or hear a pair howling and barking in the dark. The breeding and pup-raising season is when most human-coyote interactions take place. So now’s a good time to get better acquainted with coyotes.
Let’s Start with the Facts about Our Northeastern Coyotes
Their DNA: Are They Part Wolf?
You’ve probably heard the term “coywolf” applied to our Northeastern Coyotes (Canis latrans thamnos). Well, our coyotes are much more coyote than wolf. When the wolf populations in eastern Canada and New England were decimated by European settlers, western coyotes migrated east seeking abandoned territories and mates among the few wolves that survived. As a result, according to an article published in the National Library of Medicine of the National Institues of Health, the current DNA of coyotes in our area is about 66% western coyote, 24% eastern and western wolf and 11% domestic dog. (Rarely, if ever, does a coyote mate with a dog these days. Those genes are quite far back in their genetic history.) The wolf DNA has resulted in our coyotes being somewhat larger than western coyotes. But they are still far smaller than wolves and have a different appearance and behavior. Here’s a useful link from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for comparing the appearance of wolves and coyotes.
The Size of Our Coyotes : Less Than Half of the Size of a Wolf
Though our Northeastern coyotes can look large from a distance, their bone structure is actually slighter than most domestic dogs. As you can see above, the size effect is created by their thick fur and long legs. People compare them to wolves, but wolves can weigh 70 to 150 lbs., whereas coyotes weigh 15-40 lbs. That means that our coyotes are slightly smaller than a German Shepherd and on average, less than half the size of a wolf.
Identification: The Tail Carried Low is a Good Clue
Three of the most common field marks for coyotes are: yellow eyes; pointed and upright ears; and a bushy tail carried below the back, nearer the ground. (Coyotes do not have the muscles needed to raise their tails like dogs do.) Their long legs and narrow muzzles with a small nose pad are other distinguishing features. The coyote is known for its short, high- pitched howl which most often is mixed with yips and barking. They use it to bring their family group together during individual foraging, or to announce their territory to other coyotes.
The Coyotes’ Diet: Varied and Always Aimed at the Most Food for the Least Effort
Any wild animal wants to expend as little energy as possible in getting food. As a result, the main diet of our coyotes are rats, mice, and deer carrion. In summer, they also eat fruits, frogs, insects, snakes, goose eggs or goslings. Some birds and small mammals like squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks can make a meal year ’round. Coyotes will occasionally take down a fawn, but rarely an adult deer unless it’s already injured or ill. After all, dead deer along our roadsides are sadly plentiful and require little effort on the coyote’s part. Feral or outdoor cats with their twitching tails in the night are an occasional food source for coyotes; some research indicates less than 2% of their diet. Unaccompanied, unleashed small dogs are an even lower percentage. Larger dogs are generally more trouble than they’re worth to a coyote. You can prevent your small pets from becoming prey by keeping them indoors or accompanying them outside, especially at night.
Hunting Style and the Famous “Howl”
Coyotes don’t hunt in large packs like wolves, but in mated pairs. They may venture off alone for a short distance while hunting and then rejoin their mate as the hunt continues. In late summer or early fall, a family group of adults and youngsters (which can resemble a pack) may hunt together but most of the work is done by the adults. Between October and December, the young disperse, seeking new territory.
A pair or small family of coyotes can sound like a much larger group! According to Dr. Scott Henke, a researcher at Texas A&M University, coyotes use many different sounds and pitches in one howl. As a result, two yipping, barking and howling coyotes can sound like eight. Or three coyotes can sound like a dozen! Coyotes pick up scents up to a mile away, run up to 39 mph, jump 4-6 foot fences, swim and have figured out traffic patterns on our roads and highways. Coyotes, in other words, have all the skills they need to survive.
The Threat to Humans? The Animal on the Left is More Dangerous to You!
200 deaths each year in the US are caused by deer collisions. Photo by Cam Mannino
Only 2 human deaths by coyote have EVER been documented in North America. Photo by Jonathan Schechter)
Only two human fatalities from coyotes have EVER been documented in North America. Deer inadvertently cause 200 deaths EVERY YEAR in approximately one million car collisions. According to the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, even domestic dogs cause 19 deaths each year. It’s wise not to take chances with any wild animal, especially in urban areas where coyotes become more habituated to humans and food sources are plentiful. Coyotes are predators, but our caution with coyotes needs to be proportional to the actual threat.
How Do We Humans Coexist with Such a Successful Predator? Keep Them Wild!
Coyotes will be with us from now on, but luckily they are naturally shy around humans. A wild coyote will take one look at a human and head the other way. It’s our job to keep them that way! We don’t want them to become accustomed to being close to us and our habitats, i.e., our yards, parks, playgrounds or neighborhoods. Our goals must be to remove what attracts them to our surroundings and to scare them away when they venture too close to humans. Here are the strategies the presenters recommended.
Hunting Doesn’t Work Well to Lower the Number of Coyotes
As of 2016, coyotes can be hunted year ’round in Michigan. (See “Fur Harvesting” regulations at this link.) But as a method for reducing the population, hunting is ineffective. According to naturalist Laurie Zoet, there is some evidence that when coyote numbers begin to decline, the females produce more pups and the juveniles breed at a younger age. Other research indicates that the rebound of coyote populations after hunting is due to other coyotes simply moving into empty territories. Hunting or trapping can only temporarily decrease their numbers. So what to do? Read on!
For starters, NEVER INTENTIONALLY FEED A COYOTE! You want coyotes to avoid you and your home if you are to protect them, your family and your pets. Be careful to eliminate food sources that attract coyotes or that attract their most common prey. Don’t leave dog or cat food out in the open, especially at night. If coyotes are a problem in your yard, consider eliminating your bird feeder – which attracts mice, squirrels and chipmunks, some of the coyote’s easiest meals. If you can, put your garbage out for pick up in the morning rather than at night. If it has to go out at night, be sure it’s in a tightly sealed can. Other ideas include:
Wood and brush piles are good shelter for small mammals and birds and so are often attractive to coyotes.
Bird baths are water sources so if you’re worried, remove them, too.
Close off crawl spaces under decks which might look like a cozy place for a den.
Outdoor motion-sensor lights can also be a deterrent in some instances.
Nature lovers need to remember that you are not being heartless by keeping coyotes at a distance! You are keeping an animal wild and very likely saving its life, because coyotes that don’t fear humans usually end up dead.
If a Coyote Approaches You or Others, or is Seen Near Humans or Your Pet, Look and Sound Big and Fierce! Don’t Retreat! And Be Consistent.
If you see a coyote on a playground, in your yard, near a school, visiting a neighborhood during the day, it shouldn’t be there. It should not approach you or engage you in any way; it should be turning to leave as soon as you appear. These behaviors mean the coyote is getting comfortable around humans. So this is your chance to act crazy and obnoxious in public – and be appreciated for it! We all need to be consistent about keeping these bright, curious canines wild, i.e., uncomfortable when close to humans. The acronym that’s been created to help us remember the most effective system in keeping coyotes wild is S.M.A.R.T.
S:Stop, establish eye contact and perhaps make a firm stopping gesture. Don’t run. Don’t hide. Don’t retreat. You want to establish that you are the scarier animal. Running, hiding or speaking softly makes you look like prey.
M: Make yourself look big! Spread your arms over your head. If you have a rake, large stick or golf club at hand, wave it overhead or pop open an umbrella. If you’re on a trail, shake a can full of pennies (great trail accessory for kids) or let off a pocket air horn. Throw things toward the animal (not food!), but don’t try to hit it.
A:Announce yourself. In other words, shout! “HEY! GET OUT OF HERE” will work – or whatever you want really – as long as its fierce, forceful and loud!
R: Repeat the shout over and over again, while making yourself look as huge as possible until the coyote turns and leaves.
T: Teach others to do the same, including family and friends.
This strategy makes sense to me and both presenters assured us that it will work! Check out this video to learn more. Remember, coyotes are naturally intimidated by humans.
The Exceptions: If a Coyote is Cornered, Injured, at its Den or with Pups, Don’t Threaten It!
In the above cases, if you inadvertently come across a den or a coyote with pups and are with a pet, pull the pet close or pick it up if possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away. If alone, make yourself look as large as possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away.
Coyotes are Curious Creatures – So Are We!
Predator animals are hard for many of us to love and can seem frightening. But sometimes we scare ourselves simply by the language we use. As Jonathan Schechter wisely pointed out at his presentation, coyotes are not “lurking” at the edge of your property. They’re usually standing, looking, being naturally curious. I’d add, despite what a reporter might say, they are not “skulking” across a field; they’re exploring and searching for food. Are they “devouring their prey,” or simply eating a meal and thereby keeping the numbers of rodents around you in check? Words have power to create fear or understanding.
Remember that if you see a coyote in the distance at one of our parks or natural areas and it is simply pausing to look at you from afar rather than approaching, there is no reason to frighten the animal. Remember SMART while you watch to the coyote to see if it will continue on its way. It’s probably looking for a mouse, a grasshopper, a mole, some fruit, or other easy prey – not you.
It’s sensible to be wary of coyotes as predators. After all, we’re predators from their perspective and they’re very wary of us! They don’t like us near their young or their dens. We don’t like them near our young or our homes either. A certain respect and caution is called for on both sides. All that’s required by residents is to avoid tempting this curious and hungry predator with food and to consistently encourage it to keep its distance. Ultimately, like most animals,we need to protect our young and our territory, and by doing so we can continue to respect and enjoy the continued existence of our wild neighbors.
October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
In October we’ve been collecting native plant seed in our parks. After all the work of growing, flowering, and making seed, plants have one more task for the year: dispersing the seed. Fluffy seeds ride the wind, buoyant seeds float on water, tasty seeds ride in the guts of animals, and “sticker” seeds cling to animal fur (or your favorite pair of socks!). And a few seeds ride in the paper bags of industrious humans! So it’s all hands on deck to collect seed during harvest time!
We collect native seeds to continue our natural areas restoration work throughout the parks. In 2019 we spread quite a bit of seed at Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and Bear Creek Nature Park in areas where we had removed invasive shrubs. The competition from native plants helps prevent non-native species from coming back. We also spread native plant seed after controlled burns to help increase plant diversity in an area.
We try to remove only about one-third of the available seed for any of our target species. We want to leave enough seed to maintain healthy populations of native plants, while also providing food for birds and other wildlife. If the area is large enough we collect from many different plants to ensure that our seed has lots of genetic diversity.
We collect seed on a small scale, so we mostly harvest by hand. For some plants we simply snip the dried inflorescence from the plant, collecting the entire seed head. This method works best for species that are very tough and difficult to remove by hand (Black-eyed Susan), and for plants with seed that might shake off easily (asters). We also strip seed from the stem by hand. We use this method for many grasses when the seeds are mature and easy to remove from the stem. We place the collected seed in paper bags so that it can dry without molding or rotting.
After the seed dries we clean it so that it is easier to mix and spread. We remove the seeds from the seed heads, pods, or other “fruits,” and winnow out any excess plant material. We only need the seed clean enough to combine with other species in seed mixes. We aren’t too worried about some extra leaves, stems, and other chaff. Our end product is a nice bag of seed packaged in plastic bag to keep extra moisture out.
We are almost finished collecting seed for the season since most of the plants have dispersed their seeds. Keep an eye out for next year’s fall newsletter to see which days we will be collecting seed in 2020. If you are interested in helping us this year, we have a seed cleaning work day on December 3, 2019 from 12:30 – 3:30 pm at Watershed Ridge Park (1720 W. Buell Rd). If you have any questions about this work day or any questions about seed collecting don’t hesitate to ask!