Jack-in-the-Pulpit: What’s Under the Hood?

This week’s blog post was written by Stewardship Technician Max Dunn

Over the past few weeks, the stewardship crew has been hard at work pulling garlic mustard. As we grid the parks for these pesky weeds my eyes are also searching for Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Since we are walking every square inch of the parks to eradicate garlic mustard, I figured I should take some time to appreciate another plant. Life is all about balance right?

Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowering structures are composed of a modified leaf called a spathe and a pillar-like spadix which houses many small flowers and eventually striking red berries.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a widespread, eccentric perennial of woodlands that varies greatly in pigmentation, alters its sex overtime, and holds insects captive. This plant is easily recognized by its flowering structure, which is equipped with a hooded spathe and a pillar-like spadix. The spathe is a modified leaf that wraps around the spadix. This leaf initially caught my attention while gridding for garlic mustard because of their unique color patterns, ranging from a pure pastel green to a combination of dark green and waxy maroon. I am most interested in the underside of the spathe hoods since they create beautiful patterns, especially when the waxy maroon pigmentation contrasts pastel green veins.

The spadix also varies in pigmentation, but I found they tend to be green in Oakland Township. This pillar-like structure contains small, closely-arranged flowers that are either male or female depending on the plant. Nutrient reserves in the plant’s below ground corm (a modified stem for energy storage) helps determine the sex of the flowers. Plants with small corms and fewer stored nutrients are male, while plants with larger corms and more nutrient reserves are female. Larger corms allow plants to produce a second set of leaves and invest energy in female flowers that will produce striking, inedible red berries that are on display in the fall.

An interesting way to identify the sex of these plants is by looking at an insect trapping mechanism on the lower part of the spathe. Male spathes are equipped with a small little crook that allows pollen-covered insects like thrips and flies to easily exit and fly to a female flower. However, insects do not have an easy escape route in female plants since they lack this small crook in their spathe. With no easy escape these insects naturally spend more time near the flowers of the female spadix, frantically walking around and pollinating the flowers of the spadix more effectively.

These forest floor plants are an awesome sight if you take a second to look under the hood. The color variation of the spathes are beautiful and fascinating. If you catch a female at the right time you might just find a victim of successful pollination! Jack-in-the-Pulpit will be flowering for a couple more weeks so enjoy these unique plants before they finish flowering for the year. Comment below if you have a favorite Jack-in-the-Pulpit color variation!

Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

Footnote: Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park’s Golden Haze

In mid-April, I got a tip from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, that he’d come across a yellow haze floating above the ground in the woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Ben identified it as a large colony of Spicebush (Lindera bezoin), the biggest number of these shrubs together that he had ever seen. That was enough enticement for me to don my hiking shoes and head out the door!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Ben gave me rough directions – head west into the woods from the north fenced wetland until you come to several vernal pools where the land begins to rise. No trails exist in that very wet woods, so I hopped over rivulets, climbed over logs, skirted small vernal pools and finally saw a yellow band of light in the distance. Once I got closer, I was enchanted. A wide arc of soft yellow floated and nodded against a cold, gray sky, like a gentle golden light in a dim room.

I’d seen photos of Spicebush flowers but never seen them myself. As I came closer to the bushes, I realized that thousands of tiny yellow puffball blossoms along hundreds of Spicebush branches were the source of the golden cloud.

Thousands of tiny, yellow, Spicebush blossoms created the golden haze in the woods at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Of course, I had to learn more about this native shrub! Those tiny yellow blossoms, looking much like well-buttered popcorn, evidently smell sweet. Drat! I’d neglected to sniff them! And when crushed, their scent is described as aromatic and spicy, hence its name. In moist understory, they most often multiply from their roots as they did in this location, forming large colonies.

Before I ever saw this native shrub, I had seen a creature which counts on it to raise its young – the Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly (Papilio troilus). This dark swallowtail can be mistaken for the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) or the Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor). The field marks that identify them for me are the blue blush on the top (dorsal) side of the hind wings and a double row of orange spots on the hind wings’ lower (ventral) side. According to Wikipedia, the males do a lively courtship dance for the females which I’d dearly love to witness! Maybe I’ll catch the performance here when the weather warms up.

Female Spicebush Butterflies are wildly attracted to Spicebush and lay their eggs on the leaves more often than on other shrubs. Once hatched, a small, brown first instar is protected from predators by closely resembling bird droppings! The tiny caterpillar chews into the leaf, settles on its midrib,and exudes some silk. As the silk dries, it curls the leaf around the caterpillar, providing daytime protection; the caterpillar exits its tubular abode to eat, but only at night.

The later instars use much more dramatic mimicry to avoid predators like birds, dragonflies and spiders. These larger caterpillars turn green and orange and have a design on their thorax that makes them look something like a snake. To add to the effect they have an osmeterium, a structure on the first sections of the thorax that they can raise to look like the forked tongue of a snake! (Check out the link!) They then move to the lower branches of the Spicebush to spin a silk pupa.

Many thanks to the inaturalist.org photographers below who shared their photos, since I’ve yet to spot a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar. These butterflies generally produce three generations each year, so I’ll be looking for them along with the dancing males!

On my way into and out of the woods, I came across a wonderful collection of early spring woodland wildflowers. Many of our forest wildflowers have been decimated by White-tailed Deer(Odocoileus virginianus), so seeing large patches of Spring Beauty, sunshine spots of Marsh Marigolds and other native flowers sent me home with a smile.

When I returned to the woods ten days later, the golden haze had disappeared and the glorious Spicebush colony had become just another green-leaved denizen of the woods. But soon the first butterflies will appear. They’ll flutter and forage in the woods and the fields beyond. And we can hope that they’ll leave behind some young to keep the life cycle going. I’m cheered on a gray spring day that this native shrub thrives at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and that its golden haze will host its namesake butterflies for years to come.

Footnote: Hepatica Makes Its Seasonal Debut at Lost Lake Nature Park

Once in a while, I come across something that I’d love to share but that doesn’t call for a longer blog. So I decided to try out shorter pieces that I’m calling “Footnotes,” i.e. a little extra nature information that might intrigue or delight you as it did me. Here’s a discovery Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, shared with me in the last ten days.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Native “spring ephemerals” are wildflowers that surge up out of the earth in early spring before the trees leaf out so they can capture as much sunlight as possible. On April 13, at Ben’s prompting, I hiked to the crest of the sledding hill at Lost Lake Nature Park to see one of my favorite ephemerals festooning the landscape with dashes of lavender blue. Hepatica blossoms (Hepatica americana) don’t last long and the snow this week may have shortened their season. But I wanted you to know about them so we can all look for them again next spring.

Hepatica americana emerges in early spring to take advantage of the sun before the trees leaf out.

Fortunately, some species of native bees emerge from their winter nooks and crannies at the same time as the ephemerals and buzz directly to their favorite wildflowers. As they forage for nectar, their bodies become dusted with yellow pollen. Once they mate, they stash some of that sticky, nutritious food in their nest to feed the next generation of native solitary bees. Despite their short adult lives – most live only 4-6 weeks above ground – these native bees do a fine job of pollinating as they rush from blossom to blossom, shedding bits of pollen as they go. Nice reciprocal relationship evolution came up with, eh?

A Small Carpenter Bee exploring the possibilities of a Hepatica blossom.

The little bee above is a solitary bee from the genus Ceratina called the Small Carpenter Bee. Solitary bees are not aggressive, because unlike European Honeybees (Apis mellifera), they don’t need to defend a colony filled with honey, workers, larvae and a queen. So our native bees rarely sting and provide crucial pollination services for native plants like Hepatica.

In our region, these native bees usually produce only one generation. Adult solitary bees emerge from last year’s nest and once mated, the female buzzes the area seeking a pithy, upright stem from one of last summer’s perennials. They chew the pith from the center of the stem and use it to make separate cells within the stem, provisioning each with a pollen packet to feed the larvae once the eggs hatch. If such stems aren’t available close by, they may excavate small cavities in rotting wood. I’ve learned lately that those of us who value native plants and bees should leave hollow, dry, sturdy stems standing after the flowers die back. If we cut off about one-third of the stem and leave the rest, we’re creating nesting material for next spring’s hatch of harmless and very beneficial native bees!

This larger Carpenter Bee has a shiny abdomen instead of a fuzzy one like the Bumblebee, which it closely resembles.

Despite its name, the larger Carpenter Bee above (genus Xylocopa) is not a relative of either the Small Carpenter Bee (genus Ceratina) or the Bumblebee (genus Bombus) which it resembles. The shiny and hairless abdomen of a Carpenter bee lacks the stiff hair and fuzzy appearance of a Bumblebee’s abdomen. A Bumblebee flicks out its very long tongue to reach into deeper flowers. But a Carpenter Bee’s shorter mouth parts make it a very effective pollinator for open-faced, shallow flowers like Hepatica. Like most of our native bees, the Carpenter Bee rarely stings. The males will occasionally buzz around us while looking for a mate but have no stingers. The females only sting if handled or hassled. But Carpenter Bees can present us humans with a different challenge.

These bees nest by drilling neat round holes on the undersides of wood – like a limb or the cedar railings on our deck, I’m sorry to say! Once inside, they excavate a tunnel which runs with the wood grain and then construct separate chambers stocked with pollen for each egg they lay. Woodpeckers eat Carpenter Bees (ouch!). According to Wikipedia, if Bluejays (Cyanocitta cristata) detect the sounds of bee larvae within the wood, they may further excavate the bee’s neatly drilled hole in their search for another snack – doing more damage than the bee did! We’ll try to encourage our Carpenter female to move her linear nursery to the plethora of trees in our woods. I’ve read that she may object to the scent of citrus oil so we may spray some beneath our railings this spring. Wish us luck. I think we’ll need it. If it doesn’t work, oh well. Killing native pollinators isn’t an option for us. So I imagine that we’ll fill the holes beneath the railings once the young have left and go on with our lives.

So that’s the first “Footnote.” I hope you enjoyed this inaugural foray into a new format. Many thanks to Dr. Gary Parsons, Collection Manager and Bug House Director at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University for helping me again with bee identification. Please watch for these shorter pieces sprinkled between the longer blogs throughout the year. I’m sure Ben and I will come across many more small wonders to share!

A Wet Prairie Restoration Mystery: The Case of the Missing Creek…

The Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail surrounded by a tree-covered rim of soil, spoils of historical sand and gravel mining.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Yes, I’m returning to the Wet Prairie again even though we visited that special habitat in October. The reason is that another amazing restoration effort has been going on there since late November. It’s revealed something I’d heard about but never actually seen – the original, winding bed of Paint Creek that disappeared about 100 years ago.

A Quick Trip Back to the 1870’s

In 1871, the Detroit and Bay City Railroad Company (which later became Michigan Central Railroad) began work on a railroad line between these two cities with a flag station in the village of Goodison. This line carried both passengers and freight, including farm produce and other products back and forth from Detroit. According to former Parks Commissioner, Colleen Barkham, some time around 1920, a local entrepreneur, Mr. Frier, bought the land that is now the Wet Prairie and other areas along the tracks and began mining sand to ship to industries in the big city.

1963 aerial image with the old route of Paint Creek (blue) and one of the rail spurs for sand and gravel mining (yellow) highlighted. The current restoration area is outlined in red. The core wet prairie habitat is labeled in green text. Image a screenshot from the Oakland County Property Gateway (https://gis.oakgov.com/PropertyGateway/Home.mvc).

He called his company Goodison Sand and Gravel, and what made shipping sand feasible then was the handy availability of the train. Colleen, co-chair of the Oakland Township Historical Society, generously shared a photo of the operation from the Society’s archives.

The Goodison Sand and Gravel company loading a freight car with sand somewhere along what is now the Paint Creek Trail, c. 1920. Photo provided from the Oakland Township Historical Society archives

You can see how it worked – the sand coming down the chute from the land above right onto a freight car on the railroad line! Now I had an answer to the first part of the Wet Prairie mystery: Why is the Wet Prairie encircled by a rim of treed hummocks? (See the top photo in the blog.) Apparently, the land in the center of the current Wet Prairie was skimmed off to get at the sand, leaving a bulging rim of soil around the site. Wow. Quite a dramatic change of habitat, eh? Perhaps that explains why the mineral-rich water table that feeds the Wet Prairie’s unusual autumn flowers is so near the surface. The soil above the water table was removed about a hundred years ago!

An Earlier Dramatic Change in the 1870’s

Paint Creek’s current stream bed along the Paint Creek Trail

But there’s more! Back in the late 1800’s, when the railroad track was being laid, a problem arose with Paint Creek which looped and switch-backed across this section of the railroad’s property. No problem, said the engineers of the time; we’ll just move the creek! And that’s exactly what they did. That’s why today Paint Creek runs in a such a neat straight line along big sections of the trail. The narrow bed created for the creek has probably deepened over the years, since the creek now has only a small flood plain to stretch out in after heavy rains or snow melt. So 50 years or so after the railroad’s decision to move Paint Creek, Goodison Sand and Gravel reaped the benefit from an easy means of transporting their sand by rail.

So, where did Paint Creek run before it was moved?

When I learned of the changed path of Paint Creek several years ago, it occurred to me to wonder what happened to the old bed of Paint Creek. Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, knew the answer but couldn’t show me; the original stream bed was buried in a monumental tangle of invasive shrubs and vines. But no longer. Ben and his stewardship crew has taken on the task this fall and winter of removing the invasive undergrowth that covered the forest floor where Paint Creek once meandered across a moist forest of Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa). Let me show you the miracle that the crew is performing just north of the Wet Prairie.

Some members of the stewardship crew taking a break from clearing the forest floor west of the trail. From L-R: Grant VanderLaan, Dean Johnson , Jon Reed, Tylor Roberts, and Ben VanderWeide.

Since the 1920’s when the sand was hauled away, the native wildflowers that bloomed on the Wet Prairie had been bathed in sunlight. But over the years, trees began to spread from the forest, providing too much shade for sun-loving species. So restoration required removing some trees that encroached on the Wet Prairie’s sunny expanse. This fall, the stewardship team began an ambitious and arduous effort to clear away that thick layer of aggressive and invasive shrubs beneath the canopy in the woods north of the Wet Prairie. Here’s the type of wild tangles that confronted them – a jungle of privet, common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, autumn olive, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet.

The dense tangle of shrubs and vines that covered the area north of the Wet Prairie and along the Paint Creek Trail

And look what they accomplished just along the edge of the trail!

The area north of the Wet Prairie near the Paint Creek trail cleared of invasive underbrush after restoration began.

What follows that effort is now weeks of hard slogging to remove invasive shrubs deeper into the woods. Because of the moist soil in the woods, small trees, shrubs and vines must be removed without large machinery and then piled carefully into high stacks in clear areas where they can be burned late this winter when the woody material has dried.

A pile of invasive shrubs and vines cut and stacked in preparation for burning .

That work has already begun to unveil the original wandering path of Paint Creek. In December, I finally got a chance to see where the creek once ran. The crew has spent weeks clearing the banks of the former stream bed. Water fills its ancient path through the woods, but not running water. Rising ground water, snow melt and rainfall settle in the old bed, so it’s clear where the creek used to flow.

A section of the original path of Paint Creek winding through the forest

What an amazing sight! I was looking at the remains of the path nature chose for Paint Creek until about 150 years ago! Since the photo above was taken on December 23, a huge amount of work before and after the holiday break made impressive progress. Look below at the piles of vines and shrubs removed and stacked as of Friday, January 8.

Piles of invasive plants will be burned once the woody material dries

A lot of work remains to be done to restore this special, fragile space – more cutting and removal. As shrubs are removed, the crew carefully dabs each trunk with a stained herbicide to prevent it from re-sprouting.

Stumps of invasive shrubs are dabbed with a sponge containing a stained treatment which will keep them from re-sprouting.

Then Ben will wait to see which native plants emerge after the removal of the invasive shrubs that have smothered them for all these years, benefiting now from more sun, more rain or simply more space to grow and propagate. Ben tells me that while pulling garlic mustard in the spring, he saw a large patch of delicate Starry False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) beyond the area currently cleared, some Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum) and huge spreads of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in the wet areas. I hope I’ll be able to visit here with him in the spring or summer to see what else bursts forth after the restoration!

Ben showed me an old tip-up where a huge two-trunked Bur Oak had fallen in two directions – one into the forest and the other across the old creek bed, making a bridge of sorts to an island once surrounded by flowing water in the original Paint Creek channel. The tip-up left a deep hole where the roots were ripped out. Ben tells me that tip-ups can create two habitats – a watery one in the hole below, and a green one above with mosses, ferns, grasses or shrubs eventually growing over the root ball. He’s seen forested wetlands in which tree trunks had decomposed completely, leaving only a hollow in the earth beneath a mossy hillock to indicate the presence of an ancient tip-up.

In early winter the only green I could spot in this woods were stretches of Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale), a kind of horsetail with enough silica in it to make it useful long ago as a scrubbing tool. The bright orange disk of a crustose lichen (a composite organism of algae and fungi) caught my eye in winter’s gray light as well as a log sporting a nice collection of Turkey Tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). Ben pointed out the fertile fronds of Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) which carry the spores which may germinate to grow new ostrich ferns.

Ben also introduced me to the largest Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that I’ve ever seen. Cottonwoods can be aggressive trees, spreading like crazy with multiple seeds attached to cottony strands. So they’re not always welcome in areas where Ben is trying to restore an area’s natural diversity. This tree though was impressive. According to Wikipedia, cottonwoods grow quickly to 65 -195 feet, but in most habitats live only 70-100 years, not long in the world of trees. Ben can’t help admiring this one, so it will be left to prosper. Here’s my husband Reg standing next to it to give you a sense of its girth and height.

My husband Reg testing out the girth of a large Cottonwood with one of its sizable offspring in the distance on the right.

A Janus Moment: Imagining the Past and the Future at the Same Time

A section of Paint Creek’s former stream bed

Janus is the Roman god after which January is thought to have been named. He is usually depicted with a double face looking back to the past and forward to the future. How appropriate, then, that this January, during a transitional time at the Wet Prairie, I was lucky enough to imitate him. Standing at the edge of Paint Creek’s original stream bed, camera in hand, I happily immersed myself in imagining the past: the glint of the water wending its way through some large, widely dispersed Bur Oaks with wetland flowers and ancient sedges painting the dappled shade with color. I could picture native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), their stippled scales flashing, as they navigated their slender bodies around the island in the creek. Iridescent Ebony Jewelwing damsel flies (Calopteryx maculata) may have darted above the surface, delicately landing like dancers on surrounding greenery. I wondered about the indigenous people who may have picked their muddy way among these trees and what they might have noticed and enjoyed along the creek.

Today as the stewardship crew gradually clears away the smothering snarl of invasive shrubs, it feels to me as if the oaks and the huge cottonwood can breathe more easily, bathed in more sun and rain. I let my thoughts turn to the spring, when the Lady Slippers and that patch of Starry Solomon Seal bloom again unhindered by overhanging vines and shrubs. And I can’t help hoping that seeds that have waited for decades will wake in the warming earth once more and begin their cycle of growth. Today Paint Creek may be bustling its way beyond the busy trail to the east, but its ancient bed will still gather water from the sky and earth when it can. Moistening its surroundings, it will now have a chance to once again nurture the diverse community of native plants that shared its habitat for centuries. What a gift that will be to all the native grasses, sedges, wildflowers and wildlife – and us as well! And what a pleasure to have the “Mystery of the Missing Creek” solved during this ambitious restoration project.