Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.
But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]
Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
Hepatica seeds require more than one season in the soil before blooming.
A Common Trillium also germinates after multiple seasons in the soil.
And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).
Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round
Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.
In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park. Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.
Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix. (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.
Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet. But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.
Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.
A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well
Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.
In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades. Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.
A month ago on a dry winter day, he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs grew through the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!
In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression. In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!
Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.
Though adapted to fire and both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January, Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.
Ben and Grant fell a few trees that shade out rare plants on the Wet Prairie.
Glossy Buckthorn is a very aggressive invasive shrub that can take over large areas if left “unweeded!”
A pile of invasive Buckthorn near the Bear Creek marsh which will eventually be burned.
Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work
The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew through a thicket of invasive shrubs.
But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.
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!
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.
The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.
On the short path that winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.
Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping Up Everywhere!
Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know. After all, they’re harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.
The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa, when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!
The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.
I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely” the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis). This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.
Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.
Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest
Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.
My first thrill was holding my breath while a chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.
I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A Golden-crowned Kinglet in the willows by Gallagher Creek
The Golden-crowned Kinglet can stay here all winter because it can tolerate cold temperatures.
Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!
Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.
The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.
Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring
All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.
In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park. The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.
One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.
The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.
The graceful seed heads of Prairie Dropseed dance and bob in the slightest breeze.
The leaves form a tuft at ground level.
The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.
Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking
Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.
Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.
That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.
And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.
All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.
Lost Lake Nature Park may be small, only about 58 acres, but it’s a big resource for all kinds of wildlife – including us humans! Roughly 10,000 years ago, the glaciers sculpted this park with its rolling woodlands that now slope down to shady wetlands dotted with ferns and mushrooms. The deep Laurentian ice sheet also eventually dropped enough material to create a huge hill, one of the highest places in the township – now a magnificent sledding hill in the winter months.
The glaciers also gifted us with a large kettle lake. A huge chunk of ice broke off the ancient glacier and melted, gradually filling its hole with water as the glacier retreated, leaving rocks, soil and gravel around the lakeshore. Anglers – both human and avian – now pull fish from the lake and in the fall, a variety of birds seem to find it an ideal place to rest, socialize and feed before heading for points south.
So please join me on the dock as birds call and forage on the far shore or mud flats. Wander with me up and down hills in the woodland dimness, where a dragonfly devours its kin (!), green pools glow in the distance and a motley collection of colorful mushrooms appear and disappear within the bed of dark, moist leaves left from the summer evaporation of a vernal pool. It really is a “magical” little place!
The Pond Provides R&R Before the Big Push South
Almost any time from spring to fall, the honking of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) greets me as I step from my car at Lost Lake Nature Park. What appeared to be a family of about eight glided peacefully around the lake on a cool October morning. A noisy male declared himself to all comers, sounding his deep “honk” which wards off intruders but is also used right before takeoff. The female will often make a higher “hink” call in response, especially when in flight. This group eventually took off toward the east after a relaxing hour or so cruising the pond.
Far across the pond, a tall white figure lifted its knobby, backward knees as it stalked along in the mud. A Great Egret (Ardea alba) stuffed itself on creatures too far away for me to see; frogs, small fish, dragonflies, and grasshoppers all contribute to an Egret’s diet.
For a while, the egret just stared up into the sky, something I’ve never seen an egret do before. Maybe it was just being extra cautious, though I saw and heard nothing threatening. Or maybe it was just curious?
Most of the other birds at Lost Lake camouflage almost perfectly again the background of the browning vegetation on the mud flats. It pays to scan the surface with a pair of binoculars until I see movement. My camera and I could just barely discern three Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) slipping through the slim waterways that thread through the low-growing aquatic plants that blanket parts of the lake.
On the same busy day at the lake, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stepped out of the reeds on the far side. It was a wary creature, stalking along the edge to do a little hunting, but repeatedly slipping back into the tall plants to hide. Finally I caught it in the open – but just for a moment! It didn’t seem as lucky or perhaps as skillful as the Egret in finding food. Young Blue Herons are on their own two or three weeks after leaving the nest, so I wondered whether this was a slightly nervous juvenile or simply a wary adult.
A young Green Heron (Butorides virescens) appeared in my binoculars as I swept my gaze across the lake’s mottled surface. Since the heron stood almost completely still, I would never have spotted it without them. Its striped neck is the most obvious sign that this one is a youngster. Shortly, this solitary bird will head out on it own to spend the winter in Florida, along the Gulf Coast, or in the Bahamas. How young birds who often travel alone know where to spend the winter remains a mystery. According to the website of the University of Colorado at Boulder, recent studies indicate that migrations destinations may be genetically determined through years of evolution.
The high, keening cry of the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) sounded over the lake as a trio of them flew across the pond, wings akimbo at a sharp angle. They too stayed at the north edge of the lake, poking along the muddy shore for a very long time. My binoculars could reach them, but they were too small for my camera to see clearly. So I sat down on the deck and waited. Finally, the three flew in my direction and settled on a grassy flat. They too were nicely camouflaged by the browning foliage in the background, especially the bird on the left!
As I left the floating dock, I noticed a sparkling patch on the surface of the water. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a hatch of Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) swirling across the surface with sun on their rounded backs.
These little creatures seek protection in groups, swimming frantically in circles when agitated. Their divided eyes are believed to allow them to see both above and below the water’s surface. Nonetheless, periodically a fish dashed to the surface and a few disappeared, leaving a gap in the swarm, as you can see in the 10 second video below.
A closeup shot (below) shows these rotund insects more clearly. You can see how each little beetle makes its own tiny ripples as it energetically rows over the surface with its hind and middle legs. The front legs are used to grab other insects, including those unlucky enough to fall in their midst!
At the water’s edge, a small American Bullfrog (Rana catesbeianus) sat quietly in the shadows, its face turned to the sunlight. I mistook it at first for a Green Frog (Rana clamitans), but they have rigid folds down either side of their back. This little bullfrog had a fold that curled around its tympanum, the eardrum-like circle on the side of a frog’s head. Also its eyes sit up high on its head; Green Frogs’ eyes are lower with little noticeable bulge. I wondered if this small frog stared so steadily because it was trying to see the shadow of an insect flying by, silhouetted against the light. I wish just once I’d get to see that long tongue flash out and snag one!
On one of my trips to Lost Lake, I came across a mother and son team fishing on the deck. The young man, Zach Adams, had just pulled in a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) – and I believe, on his first cast! His mom, Cheryl, took a photo before her son released it back into the water. I’m happy that she kindly shared her photo with me, so I could show you one of the denizens that live below the surface of Lost Lake. This bass is what researchers call an “apex predator,” which means that its presence maintains the balance of species within the lake.
Then, Into the Steeply Sloping Woods
The path that leads to the woods was filled with dappled light one October afternoon. A Bumblebee (genus Bombus) slipped its long tongue into the last few flowers ringing a Bee Balm blossom (Monarda fistulosa) that miraculously still survived in October. You can see the stamens protruding from the tubular upper lip of each flower, while the three lower lips offer what the Illinois Wildflowers website describes as “landing pads for visiting insects.” This bumblebee has made the most of the landing pad, I’d say!
Where the sunlight found its way through the leaves, another Bumblebee nuzzled a Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) looking for whatever bits of pollen were still available before this late season goldenrod turned brown.
I came across a cloud of spreadwing damselflies fluttering among some small trees in the first shadowy light of the woods. I’d never seen so many at one time! I believe they were Emerald Spreadwings (Lestes dryas) because of their green sheen and slightly stockier appearance than most damselflies. But I never got a definitive identification.
When I spotted a female AutumnMeadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum) in their midst, I snapped a quick photo. I didn’t realize until I saw it in my computer that it was consuming one of the spreadwings! Yikes. No honor among Odonata evidently; they are members of the same order! Well, an insect’s gotta do what an insect’s gotta do, I guess.
A Beautiful and Strange Collection of Mushrooms
The fallen log picture above hosted undoubtedly the most beautiful assemblage of mushrooms I’ve ever come across on my hikes. Violet Polypore Mushrooms (Trichaptum biforme) stepped delicately down the side of this log while orange shelf/leaf fungi (genus Stereum) formed ruffles across the surface. Down at the bottom edge, a white Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae) paused to either nibble a bit – or just enjoy the artistry along with me. This tableau captured me so completely that I just sat down on a nearby log to appreciate it for several minutes.
I love entering the half-light of the forest at Lost Lake Nature Park. The topography is so dramatic! The back side of the sledding hill, covered in trees, slopes away to what was a vernal pool last spring. Now I can walk out on the spongy black soil at the foot of the slope and look for mushrooms. The moisture and the bed of rotting leaves is ideal territory for them.
I’m a complete novice at mushrooms, so I want to acknowledge and thank the knowledgeable fungi fans on two Facebook pages that helped me identify some of these: Mushroom Identification and Michigan Mushroom Hunters. I assume that the members are enthusiasts, not necessarily mycologists, so please don’t take their identifications as scientific proof – just much better and more educated guesses than mine! [Important Note: I enjoy mushrooms for their place in the wildlife food chain and their beauty in natural habitats. Please don’t pick them in our parks and don’t eat any wild mushroom unless a qualified individual tells you they’re safe. Lots of our mushrooms are toxic in various ways, so beware!]
In the stippled light of the sloping forest, Russula mushrooms(genus Russula) thrust their caps above the leaf litter. Russulas are “ectomychorrizal” which means they contribute to the “wood wide web.” They form the spore-bearing, visible part of a huge, unseen network of fungi beneath the soil that allow trees to communicate and feed one another and that in return can feed off sugars in the tree roots by tapping into them. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.
A Red Russula mushroom doesn’t have the bumps and stem ring of the red Amanita.
A White Russula, the first time I’ve seen one that wasn’t brightly colored.
Some mushrooms, of course, grow on dead wood, rather than emerging from the ground. I found two protruding in a somewhat spooky fashion from a snag (standing dead tree) in the moist soil of the former vernal pool. This one is in the genus Pholiota. It is the spore-bearer for unseen fungal threads called hyphae inside the wood that, according to Wikipedia, help break down decaying wood. In other words, like all fungi, they are recyclers!
Another recycler poked out of a nearby snag, though it looked like its job was nearly over. A Facebook mushroom enthusiast named Greg identified it as being in the genus Gymnopilus which is in the same family (Strophariaceae) as the Pholiota mushroom above. This one has a “veil,” a partial ring on the stem that mycologists think may help protect the gills under the cap where the reproductive spores are released.
In the same area, a beautiful “foliose” or Leaf Lichen draped like lace over a dead branch. A lichen is a strange life form that is not a moss or any other plant. According to Wikipedia, it “arises from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of multiple fungi species in a mutualistic relationship.” Some live on wood like mushrooms, but they don’t draw nutrients from it. They don’t have roots but pull water and nutrients from the air and dust. Their relationship with one of their partners, like algae, allows them to photosynthesize. These ancient organisms can look like leafy plants, drooping moss or powder on the surface of a rock. Have a look at its varied forms on the Wikipedia page. Lichens are so common in nature and yet live and grow (verrrry slowly!) in such an alien way. They intrigue me! Here’s the big, beautiful one I saw at Lost Lake.
And here’s a sight that just delighted me for no particular reason. But look at the cool knotholes on this downed sassafras log, like open mouths silently singing!
High on the Hillside, Autumn Wildflowers
We often think of summer when we think about wildflowers. But cool weather is the perfect bloom time for many plants. Some of the ones at Lost Lake Nature Park thrive between patches of light on the high slope of the forest; some are happiest down by the lake. So here’s a small assortment of plants that love fall as much as I do!
Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium)
Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
Either smooth aster (S. laeve) or prairie heart-leaved aster (S. oolentangiense)
Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) by the lake
Lost Lake Takes Me Back to the “Magic Places” of My Childhood
When I was a child, nothing delighted me more than finding what I felt were “magic places.” Usually these spots were hidden ponds, small clearings in a woodland or sudden openings between trees that gave me a new perspective on a familiar spot. Lost Lake brought back that childhood sense of “magic” for me on my final walk this fall.
Along Turtle Creek Lane on the west side of the park, I came across the oval pond in the photo above. The woods rise steeply at the back, as if throwing a protective arm across it. I found some park property across the lane that I hadn’t explored before. It featured a small clearing in the woods and an unexpected view into a grand marsh that is on private land .
So for me, Lost Lake Nature Park has many charms: a lake bustling with birds on a crisp fall day, a trail lined with damselflies and their treacherous kin, a shady spot that lets me explore, – dry shod – the moist bottom of a vanished vernal pool. These spots encourage me to take my time, look around, and feel the “magic” I sensed as a child. That feeling of mystery and possibility feeds my desire to save what we can as the climate struggles to adapt to the changes humans have caused. I want to be sure that the children of tomorrow can wander into untamed nature and find the magic that’s still so available to you and I.