Nature Shares the Restoration Work at Blue Heron Environmental Area

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

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

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Killdeer apparently keeping an eye out for flying predators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Northern Leopard Frog in the field beyond the North Pond

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

Wet-footed Plants Settle In, Creating Habitat

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

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

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

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

Insects Dancing, Posing and Staring Me Down!

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

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

A very small male Crane Fly

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

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

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

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

A female Meadow Katydid blends in nicely with her surroundings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Draper Twin Lake Park – East: The Stage is Set for Another Gold and Purple Autumn

Follow the Goldenrod Road … er, path into Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Walking into Draper Twin Lake Park – East in September is almost like being Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. The trails are lined with a wide variety of goldenrods and other sunny yellow wildflowers. Gold-and-black bees and beetles hum and scramble over them, making the most of late season nectar and pollen. Here and there the asters accent the gold with splashes of royal purple, lavender and white. Bronze and copper grasses dip and sway in the prairie, while summer birds finish their molts and prepare to move south or overwinter here.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So dodging between downpours and ensconced in my net anti-bug jacket, I ventured out into the thinning light of early autumn to enjoy early fall’s performance. Glad you’re here to join me.

Fall Flowers and Grasses Set the Stage in Early Autumn

Clouds above the golden prairie in the north of Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Here in Oakland Township, goldenrods and tall grasses create the early fall backdrop within which all the other creatures hunt, forage and fly. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to notice the variety of goldenrods that paint their particular yellow on early autumn’s canvas. So I think an introduction to just four of our most common goldenrods is called for, in case you think “you’ve seen one goldenrod, you’ve seen them all!” [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Giant Ragweed Photo
by Sam Kieschnik (CC BY)

A side note: Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever” as many fall allergy sufferers believe. Ragweed (genus Ambrosia) is the culprit! Its blooms are green and its light pollen is dispersed by the wind – right into people’s noses! Goldenrod flowers are yellow and their heavy pollen sticks to insects and can’t be carried by the wind. According to the Michigan Flora website, two kinds of ragweed grow in our county. So please let goldenrods off the hook for making you sneeze! A generous photographer from iNaturalist.org shared the ragweed photo on the left.

As the weather turns cooler, autumn adds in the late asters to complement the goldenrods. The name “aster” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “star,” so it’s wonderfully appropriate for this colorful family of star-shaped flowers to add sprays of contrasting color within the golden landscape.

Sprinkled here and there around the prairie and the marsh, other native wildflowers make an occasional appearance, adding more variety to the fall scenery. It always intrigues me that so many are yellow! It seems to be early autumn’s favorite color. The late season, many-stemmed Brown-eyed Susans and the Common Evening Primroses were plentiful this year. Maybe more rain helped?

And the tall, graceful, native grasses created a scrim along the trail, their dance moves providing the prairie’s choreography on a breezy September day.

Every performance needs a little drama, and the Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its pink stems and purple berries rises to the occasion near the marsh each year.

Pokeweed berries are beloved by birds, but beware! They are toxic for us mere humans.

The Backdrop in Place, Insects Take the Stage

Even as it fades, a Stiff Goldenrod simultaneously hosts 3 European Honeybees and two mating beetles!
Locust Borer beetles

Insects act as the “supporting actors” in any landscape, taking on the essential role of pollinating plants even as the days get colder and flowers begin to fade. I hope you spotted the five black-and-gold insects on the Stiff Goldenrod in the photo above. What a generous host that plant that is!

Two of those insects were mating – or rather, the larger female was busy foraging as the mating occurred. Not much romance among Locust Borer beetles (Megacyllene robiniae), I’m afraid.

In early September, the prairie still hummed with the buzz of hundreds of European Honeybees and native Bumblebees. Later in the month, their activity seem to drop a bit; perhaps that’s because flight is more difficult for bees when temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Let me show you a small sample of the work bees were performing in September.

Butterflies, though fewer in number, were also playing their part in pollination. We saw several large Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), members of the “super generation” hatched right here in Michigan which will take on the entire 2,500 mile journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico!

Smaller butterflies made appearances as well. Butterflies don’t do as much pollination as bees, but they certainly add some fluttering color to an early autumn walk!

Every drama needs a couple of questionable characters. I met up with two of them in September at Draper Park East. The first was a non-native, the European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiousa). It may look like it’s praying, but in reality, it’s actually preying on beneficial insects as well as others. It’s a master of camouflage when vertical in tall green grass. Its triangular head can turn 180 degrees and its raptor-like front legs shoot forward in an instant to ambush unsuspecting insects. Even after my husband spotted it, I had trouble finding it in my viewfinder until it climbed up on a dying goldenrod. Quite an elegant shape on this predatory character!

A European Praying Mantis pauses on the top of Canada Goldenrod to get a better view of possible prey.

Passing by some Big Bluestem that swayed above my head, I noticed an odd lump at the end of the seedhead. I’ve look closely at odd lumps in nature ever since I saw my first elusive Spring Peeper by getting curious about a lumpy leaf years ago. I was rewarded again this time with my second questionable insect at Draper East, a One-Spotted Stinkbug (Euschistus variolarius). Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House helped me out again by identifying this one, partly from the red tips on its protothorax.
A One-Spotted Stinkbug on a seed head of Big Blue Stem. It’s probably heading to the stem for a drink!

Dr. Parsons informs me that the One-spotted is a native stinkbug that eats by piercing the leaves, stems, seeds and fruits of herbaceous (non-woody) plants in order to siphon out some liquid. Generally though, he says, this species isn’t considered a pest. However, the invasive, non-native Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs that I occasionally see at home can be a huge problem for orchards, and stinkbugs can be pests in years in which they are abundant. If they are crushed during the harvest, their scent is not a pleasant addition to the crop!

Birds, Our Usual “Main Characters” in the Landscape, are Busy Changing Costumes for Winter or Migration

The cast of characters in our parks diminishes in the autumn. Insects either hibernate or lay their eggs for next spring’s hatch and die. Cool weather means most birds have finished raising their young just about the time the insect population begins to plummet. They stay high in the trees, often hidden among the leaves, especially if they’re molting.

Fall is a quieter season than spring. Birdsong, after all, is part of spring courtship. This September some social birds, like the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) did whistle their high contact calls to one another as they gathered fruits in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) or sallied forth to hawk into a cloud of gnats.

Juveniles may try out bits and pieces of adult songs or call plaintively to be fed long after they can feed themselves. The young Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) below, however, stared in silence out into the big, wide world. One of my fine birding mentors, Ruth Glass, pointed out that this bird had the buff wing bars of a “first fall juvenile,” rather than the adult’s white bars. That means that this little bird is about to experience its very first migration. Somehow it will have to find its way to its wintering grounds in Central America or even northern South America! Courage and bon voyage, my young friend!

According to website of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, The Eastern Wood Pewee hawks for insects an average of 36 times per hour even now, in the non-breeding season!

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) surveyed the area from high on the tip of a snag. It may spend the winter here, though I see Flickers more often in the summer when they can drill the earth for their favorite food – ants! These birds used to be called “Yellow-Shafted Flickers,” because the undersides of their tail feathers (which can be seen below) as well as their wing feathers are bright yellow in flight.

The Northern Flicker can spend the winter here if it can find enough fruits – even frozen ones!

On the eastern edge of Draper Twin Lake Park – East, several summer visitors chirped and chatted in a tangle of vines and small trees. The warm yellow throat of a female Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flashed in the greenery. She gave a sharp “chip” call as she moved restlessly from branch to branch. She’ll soon be riding a north wind during the night down to the southeastern states or on to the Caribbean.

A female Common Yellowthroat along the eastern side of the prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park

In the grass along the east path, a juvenile Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) hopped about, pecking in a desultory manner at bits of this and that. This little bird probably hatched in the boreal forests of Canada and is now headed for Florida or the Caribbean where the insects will be much more plentiful. Many thanks to expert birder Allen Chartier for an explanatory identification of this bird. Juveniles definitely challenge my developing knowledge of fall bird plumage.

Juvenile Palm Warblers are identified by yellow under-tail feathers (or coverts), the pale line above the eye (supercillium), brownish breast streaks and buff wing bars.

I was lucky to see another migrator heading south from the boreal forest, the Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). This nattily dressed little bird with its fine stripes and buff mustache (malar) tends to scurry into tangles as soon as it lands. I’d seen one for only the first time a week before at Charles Ilsley Park, though others spotted it in the spring from its wren-like burbling, complicated song. So imagine my surprise and delight when it hopped up on a branch to preen and stayed long enough for a portrait!

A Lincoln’s Sparrow in one of its rare moments in the open!

A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) suddenly popped into the open too. Its “bouncing ball” trill burbled up from the prairies all summer long. This particular one looked a bit frowzy around the edges because it hadn’t quite finished its molt. It was still growing fresh feathers for its relatively short flight to Ohio and points south.

A Field Sparrow not quite finished with its molt

Becoming an Attentive “Audience” in the Natural World

The trail that leads to the prairie along the marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park East.

In this piece, I’ve had fun imagining the prairie and its inhabitants as an early fall theatrical production – but that, of course, calls for the last element – the audience. Us! I find that paying as much attention to my natural surroundings as I would to a movie, a play or a concert reaps a similar kind of pleasure. I appreciate the color, the movement and the music of a prairie as much as I enjoy the scenery, the costumes and the gestures of a dance performance. A forest or a fen can be almost as mysterious and as filled with strange inhabitants as any sci-fi adventure. The care adult birds take with fragile nestlings is often as touching and as fraught as a family drama. And the ferocity of a large green insect’s ambush of its unsuspecting victim can be as creepy as the casual violence of an elegant but lethal villain in a murder mystery.

Stepping out into a natural environment is much like losing myself in a powerful story. I leave my ordinary life behind for a few hours and enter into lives much different than my own. Stories of life and death unfold. The sets and costumes change from scene to scene. The music, the dance, the voices, the behavior, the colors are not ones made by humans; I’m in a different reality. When I leave, I come back to myself refreshed, having learned something new, experienced something different than the everydayness of my life. And the only payment I’m required to make is paying attention. What a gift!

Stony Creek Ravine: Insects! The Good, the Not-all-Bad, and the Really Ugly

Stony Creek running fast and furious through the ravine after the many rain storms.

I’m sure you must have noticed. Insects are having a fabulous summer. Ticks are poised at the edge of tall grass, their back feet planted, their front ones waving about, trying to hitch a ride on anything that passes. Mosquitoes are reproducing like mad in any of the available standing water left by the repeated deluges that we’re experiencing. It’s not a pretty picture for us humans! But it can be, if I look more closely.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

This last few weeks I’ve explored the small, older section of Stony Creek Raving Nature Park, the western trail from Knob Creek Drive on West Gunn that leads to the Ravine itself. Armed with Deet, I wanted to see if I could find some beautiful, or at least interesting insects that would give me a break from the not-so-lovable ones! So here’s what I found, for better and for worse…

The Trail Begins in Sunny Meadows Filled with Wildflowers

The Meadow is lavender with Bee Balm blossoms and complemented by dashes of orange from Butterfly Milkweed.

Mottled sunlight slips over your shoulders when you first enter this area of the park. On one of my many visits between the downpours, I saw a flash of orange among the shadows which turned out to be the Gray Comma (Polygonia progne). It looks very much like the autumn coloring of the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma); since it’s summer, it had to be the Gray Comma. These butterflies emerge from within logs or from under tree bark in April and mate. This Gray Comma would be the offspring of those that overwinter. It will produce a generation which will fly in August or September and hibernate to start the cycle again.

The Meadow Trail: Butterflies, Dragonflies and Rolling Meadows of Wildflowers

Foraging Butterflies

Once out in the open meadows, I paused to appreciate the frenetic flight of the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It dashed across the field, landing for a few seconds, then fluttering off again just above the flowers. Their caterpillars have a fondness for Common Blue Violets (Viola sororia), so they will occasionally appear on lawns. In our parks, they prefer native Wild Bergamot/Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), thistles and milkweed, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels.

The Great Spangled Fritillary gets its name from the shine of the large silver spots on its hind wings. Here it’s sipping from Butterfly Milkweed.

Aren’t you always happy to see Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus)? The one my photographer friend Paul and I saw in the meadow arrived from somewhere between Mexico and Michigan, wherever its forebears stopped to lay eggs. With luck, this one will help set in motion the “super generation” of Monarchs; they make the whole 3,000 mile journey to Mexico where they overwinter. For lots more details on Monarchs, check out the blog that features them.

Paul and I hoped this Monarch would lay eggs for us on this Butterfly Milkweed. No luck that day. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle.

Territorial Dragonflies

Dragonflies patrol over the meadows as well, zinging here and there in an effort to establish territory and find a mate. The striking male Blue Dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis) with a green face zipped by me, but it was the juvenile Dasher who settled on a stick. It has the coloring of a female, but a much slimmer body than an adult. The female Dasher lays her eggs by flying over still water and repeatedly dipping her ovipositor into the surface to release her eggs.

Another denizen of the fields, the Halloween Pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) foraged with a bouncy flight. These small dragonflies stay aloft more easily on windy days than other dragonflies and can even fly in light rain, shaking the water off their wings in flight. This one insisted on looking straight at me until it zoomed away. Luckily you can still see its vivid coloring and the huge compound eyes on either side of its head (with nearly 30,000 lenses). Two of its three simple eyes shine above; they’re believed to improve its navigation in changing light and also may help stabilize them as they speedily change course above the greenery.

The brown wing patches on the Halloween Pennant’s wings are thought by some to shade its body on hot days.

Two other dragonflies kept me company on the meadow. A juvenile male Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) followed me along the path, evidently hoping I’d stir up some insects that it could snatch from the air. And several Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa) bobbed among the grasses on every trip to the park. The clear tips of their seem to disappear at a distance, but the dark patches near the abdomen are visible, so I sometimes mistake them for a large black fly until I get closer.

Pollinating and Nectaring Bees

Of course, bees forage busily along the path as well. Dr. Gary Parsons, from the Entomology Department at Michigan State University, identified this little native bee nuzzling a Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil blossom (Potentilla recta) as a female Leafcutter Bee (genus Megachile.) The clue he gave me is that a leafcutter has stiff hairs (scopa) covering the underside of its abdomen and that’s where it carries its pollen. In the photo on the right, the one flying away with its bright yellow underside was evidently a dead giveaway.

Paul snapped a fine shot of one of our native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), oblivious of a Bull Thistle’s (Cirsium vulgare) thorns below as it gathers nectar from the blossom.

A native bumblebee feeding on nectar from a Bull Thistle blossom. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Colorful Long-legged Flies

Along with the butterflies, dragonflies and an occasional damselfly (more about them later), an assortment of metallic flies dotted the leaves along the trail, but not your plain old black house flies! Dr. Gary Parsons tells me that they are from the family Dolichopodidae, also known as Long-legged flies. These common tiny insects perch in bright sunlight waiting for smaller, unsuspecting insects to cruise by. I like their diminutive size, the way they stand so elegantly on those long legs – and they come in an assortment of colors as you’ll see below!

The Plants that Feed and Shelter Them All

Now of course, what sustains all these creatures are the native plants that serve as host plants for their offspring, i.e., larvae/caterpillars. Here a Common Pug caterpillar (Eupithecia miserulata) is foraging on the petals of a Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Dr. Parsons reminded me that petals are actually just modified leaves so caterpillars can feed on them, but since they disappear quickly, leaves are the staple of a caterpillar’s diet.

A Common Pug caterpillar foraging on a Black-eyed Susan blossom

The beauty of native plants is that they can be both decorative and productive, providing lots of sustenance for the insects that are an essential ingredient of the entire food web. So here’s is just a sampling of the myriad of native wildflowers and grasses along the meadow trail.

The Forest Trail Above the Ravine: Damselflies, Abundant Moths and One Useful but Really Ugly Fly

The dappled forest above Stony Creek Ravine

Under the Forest Canopy, Beauties and the Beast

The forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park is a different world when it comes to insects. At the edge, where the forest meets the sunshine, butterflies seem to dominate. Both of the ones I saw imitate the dappled light of the forest with brown wings marked with white spots in lovely patterns. The Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) is the smaller of the two. Notice how the design on the underside of the wings is a bit more complex. Some sources suggest that the eyespots distract predators from attacking vital body parts. Butterflies can survive with ragged wing edges but an attack on the head is instantly fatal. I thought perhaps the larger spots on these forest edge species also provide more camouflage when the butterfly lands in dappled light. No one seems to be sure exactly how their patterns function.

The larger Northern Pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon) spends more time in the woods itself, especially near moist areas. It feeds on tree sap, rotting fruit, fungi and even dung – not a picky eater, evidently, eh? You’ll often see its head slanted downward on a tree trunk. Quite the set of spectacles on those buggy eyes and the orange and black antennae are very fancy!

The Northern Pearly-eye in its characteristic upside down position

Deeper in the shade of the forest, though, tiny moths flourish. The oaks in our forests and lawns act as host plants for the largest variety of insect caterpillars of any tree in North America, according to Dr. Doug Tallamy, a professor of entomology and author of The Nature of Oaks. Some moth larvae pupate on the tree, some burrow into the soil below but many just pupate within the leaf litter and then emerge in warm weather. So as I walked down through the woods at Stony Creek Ravine, huge clouds of tiny, triangular, leaf litter moths floated up at my feet. Almost every one immediately scuttled back under the leaves. But a gray one, that I believe is a Speckled Renia moth (Renia adspergillus), paused on a patch of bright green moss. So exciting for me see one as more than a flutter at my feet!

This Speckled Renia moth landed briefly on the edge of bright green moss before scooting back under the leaf litter!

Actually that short pause may not have been a good move for the Speckled Renia. Nearby, I saw the “not-so-bad” but “very ugly” insect of the blog title. Robber Flies (family Asilidae) are aggressive predators, and like the “bad guys” for whom they are named, they generally ambush other insects, including their own kind, from a hiding place. I saw two different insects meet their demise in the grip of a Robber Fly.

Robber flies don’t bother humans unless you’re handling one; I’d avoid that unless you’re doing research. And they are simply providing the service predators provide: keeping the numbers of their prey at a balanced level within their habitat. If you see one in your garden, ignore it; it will probably eliminate many pests for you. At a wetland, I met one up close and personal and really, that is one ugly bug!

The bristles on the head of the Robber Fly protect its face when its wrestling with its larger, struggling prey like bees, grasshoppers or dragonflies!

Deeper in the forest, I watched a black and white blur move toward a log. As I stepped forward, it suddenly transformed into just a fleck of something lying on a log. I thought perhaps my eyes had deceived me and it was just a bit of falling detritus. But I decided to ask Dr. Parsons if I’d really seen a living, moving creature. On the left below is the pointy fleck I saw, on the right the closeup I sent to Dr. Parsons.

Dr. Parsons let me know I wasn’t crazy. The tiny moth’s larvae is part of a large insect family, the Tortricidae, commonly known as Leaf Rollers. The caterpillars in this family eat and pupate in a carefully rolled leaf, hence the name. Dr. Parsons surmises that the adult moth above is most likely a Banded Olethreutes (Olethreutes fasciatana). Many members of this family specialize in fruit trees and their caterpillars are considered pests. This one’s offspring feeds on Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), but they’re not considered particularly harmful. Some experts think this camouflage is an attempt to simulate an unpalatable bird dropping. If I hadn’t seen this tiny moth moving, I’d never have noticed it, so I guess the trick works!

Dancing Damselflies Seek the Spotlight in the Creek

But enough of Robber flies and bird droppings! Let’s move on down to the West Branch of Stony Creek itself to enjoy instead the mating ceremonies of elegant Damselflies!

Stony Creek in late June flowing slowly around rocks and under sticks in late June.

I paused near a wooded wetland to witness what appeared to be a pair of damselflies courting. The male Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) landed first and fluttered about from twig to twig, keeping his iridescent colors flashing in the sun. The elegant brown female appeared and began what looked very much like flirting, flying close to him, then landing farther away with her abdomen cocked at an angle. Perhaps she was ready to mate, but the male hesitated. According to Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan, he may have had good reason; females can mate 4 or 5 times each day, rarely with the same male! Anyway, I gave them some privacy and headed toward the creek to see how other males were faring.

In late June, Stony Creek meandered its way around the rocks and sticks protruding from the slowly moving water. A group of Ebony Jewelwing males held a competition there for the sunniest spot on a prominent stick in the creek while waiting for females to show up. One male posed on the stick and began to display. Displays of his impressive wings can be intended to ward off competitors and may also interest females in the surrounding greenery. Periodically, he launched gracefully off his stick and zipped off to confront other males trying to oust him from the spotlight. A series of a scrambles with a group of competitors ensued for about 10 minutes. The University of Wisconsin Field Station’s “Bug Lady,” says that male Jewelwings compete by bumping into each other until one flies off. That’s certainly what occurred at Stony Creek Ravine as the originally male settled back on his stick after each skirmish.

If the male is successful, he’ll grab onto the female’s abdomen with his pincers and the two of them, locked together, will fly to a nearby perch. If she is ready to participate, she bends her abdomen upward and the partners form a heart-shaped “mating wheel.” Benoit Renaud, a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org got a wonderful photo of two doing just that! Thank you, Benoit!

Ebony Jewelwing damselflies in a heart-shaped mating wheel. Photo by Benoit Renaud (CC BY)

After mating, the male releases her and together they fly off to find rushes, sedges, moss or floating plant material. The female then bends her abdomen downward, slits a hole in the plant with her sharp ovipositor and lays her eggs. The male stands guard to protect her from males who might try to abscond with her and remove his sperm before she lays the eggs. Evidently, despite that heart-shaped wheel, damselfly mating is not a particularly romantic process. But it’s kept these graceful insects on the wing for thousands of years, so we won’t argue with it, right?

A week or so after I took my damselfly photos, the July deluge poured down on us. The once placid creek rushed through the ravine, flowing over the rocks and sticks in the damselflies’ courting arena. According to the “Bug Lady,” the Ebony Jewelwings like plants in a “moderate current” in which to lay their eggs. So I’m assuming there was a bit of a hiatus in their mating ceremonies this year!

After a series of heavy rains, Stony Creek rushed over rocks and sticks in a sparkling flood.

And Then The Fireflies Arrived…

A firefly beetle in India. Photo by Ashwin Viswanathan (CC BY) at inaturalist.org

I learned this week that fireflies sparkle at twilight in moderate or tropical zones all over the world. I love knowing that. Imagine! As the earth spins away from the sun each day, these tiny Firefly beetles (family Lampyridae) dance across landscapes, delighting humans around the globe!

The males of our local beetle, the Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) dance in a “J” formation, flashing their signal as they swing upward. A chemical reaction in the cells at the tips of their abdomens creates the bioluminescence that delights us. And with luck, a female in the area sends a coded signal back in just 1-2 seconds and they find each other.

The incredible variety of insects around (and often in) our home serves many purposes. The possum near our shed eats all the ticks it can find each summer. Bats, birds, and even the ugly Robber Flies, gobble up mosquitos by the millions. Bees pollinate our garden, wildflowers and nearby farmers’ crops. The beating wings of thousands of flying insects lure migrators back to our yard each spring. Here are a few of the most interesting ones we saw just this week.

Recognizing all the services that insects provide, I avoid wide-spectrum “bug killers” and instead try to utilize long sleeves, high socks and strategically applied Deet or Permethrin to repel them when outside. Despite all of that, like you, I swat flies and mosquitoes, flick insects off exposed skin and get snarky when insects slips inside the house.

But then at our darkened windows on these steamy, rain-soaked evenings, I pause to enjoy the tiny fireworks of a glowing beetle dancing in the tall grass at the edge of the field. And I’m lifted out of my grousing about bugs and rainy weather. Night after sticky night, the flash of the firefly reminds me that some insects are magical and that all of them play a crucial role in keeping life humming on this gorgeous little planet.

Growing With the Seasons: Learning on Site

This post was written by Stewardship Technician Max Dunn

I am now more than halfway through my seasonal internship as a stewardship technician with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation. My work season is ending about 6 weeks earlier than the rest of the crew since I am heading back to college at the end of August. Although I haven’t been here long, I’ve learned and experienced more at this job than my past three combined. I am now able to confidently maneuver a truck and trailer, identify and treat multiple invasive species, input data into Geographic Information System’s (GIS), and most fun of all, experience beloved native plants in their natural habitats.   

Truck & Trailer Experience

In 2017 I purchased a 1997 Plymouth Breeze and have been driving it daily ever since. This small, easily maneuverable car stands 4.5 feet tall, a dwarf to the stewardship crews truck; a large-and-in-charge GMC 2500 standard 8 foot bed, often pulling a trailer. Driving a rig of this size and length may be common place for some of you, but it was very new to me. We first practiced in an open field to get comfortable then worked up to main roads. Before getting behind the wheel for the first time, thoughts of doubt and insecurity arose in my head. An occurrence that often accompanies me when learning new things. However, this time I realized my degrading thoughts and switched my outlook to one of confidence. This allowed me to be the controller instead of the controlled and made space for a present and enjoyable learning experience.

Backing up the trailer proved to be the hardest task for me since small trailers are very touch sensitive to your driving. It’s a great test of patience and focus and I have come to enjoy the sharp mental state it puts me in. Just remember, when you turn left, the trailer goes right. Unless it’s at too much of an angle, then it goes left. Also, this is an extension of your truck, so allow more space for clearance.

Although pulling a trailer can be a challenge, it is essential for our work. It’s equipped with a 130-gallon water tank, water pump, and heavy duty hose which supplies readily available water for prescribed burns and herbicide application. It requires a great amount of trust from Oakland Township to put this equipment into the hands of myself and the other stewardship technicians and I am grateful they have. I have gained numerous skills from this task alone which will stick with me well into the future.

Geographic Information System

GIS is an acronym for Geographic Information System, a mapping system that captures, stores, and displays data related to specific positions on Earth’s surface. The stewardship crew and I use an app on our phones called ESRI FieldMaps to document locations of invasive species and herbicide application out in the field. With each location, we input additional information such as plant density, herbicide concentration, and weather for that day.

This job introduced me to the hands-on aspect of GIS. I was familiarized with with these systems last spring in an agriculture class at Michigan State University and it was a great overview. But I have found that subjects like this are best learned from hands-on experience. Within the first three days on the job we were getting oriented and comfortable with the Field Maps app. It was early in the garlic mustard season, so documenting plant locations in the field was our orientation task (and what a great one to use since it is so prevalent!). It initially seemed like so much information needed to be included with the garlic mustard location. I was slightly concerned that I would miss out on something valuable and began to ask myself, “How do I properly estimate a plants density and how do I draw a polygon of the area we surveyed? More importantly, how do I remember the area I surveyed?” These all turned out to be useless concerns since the app is quite user-friendly.

Swallow-wort is an invasive plant that is related to milkweeds. It makes seeds attached to fluffy parachutes, so it can spread long distances to new areas.

I have really enjoyed scanning our parks for invasive plants like swallow-wort, and recording their locations and plant densities into the GIS. It is interesting to find a large, dense “mother” patch, then locate all the stragglers in an area. Once all the points are plotted, a rough dispersal outline is created which shows how far offspring of that colony spread. These dispersal outlines then provide valuable information for future stewardship crews because we can compare dispersal outlines throughout time and see how the plants respond to our treatments. If they are effective, the outlines will shrink in size.

Using this app consistently on the job site has taught me how to properly record data and take time to complete tasks that remove me from “actual field work.” My past three jobs were strictly manual labor so if I wasn’t working with my body, it was viewed as a waste of time. It took around a month at this job to break down that ideology and I have gotten much better at taking the time to input data.

Wildflowers at Gallagher Creek Park

One of the most enjoyable new experiences on the job has been finding mature, native plants in their natural habitats. It provides insight into how naturally occurring plants compare to landscaped ones in size, spread, and structure. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), for example, seems to be pretty adaptable. I have seen them in wetland areas with dappled light, semi-dry areas with full sun, and in landscaped beds. Furthermore, they can be quite small and slender in the wild when competing with other plants, but can be very full and wide in landscaped areas; give them space and they will grow! These differences were witnessed in May at the native plant beds of Gallagher Creek Park. 

Golden Alexanders in the native plant landscaping beds at Gallagher Creek Park. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Gallagher Creek Park on Silverbell Road, just east of Adams Road is probably best known for the playground. However, it also houses some amazing plants such as Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) and Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum).

The day before we went to weed the native plant beds around the playground in May, our Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide let us know that Yellow Lady Slippers would most likely be flowering in the park. When we got to a garden bed near the suspected area, we took a quick intermission from weeding and began our search. Early on, I stumbled across a beautiful wild lupine, the first one I have ever seen uncultivated and growing naturally. Their loose flower clusters and unique foliage are quite striking!

As I was framing a picture of it, I noticed a helical blade of grass twisting its way into the frame and took it as a foreshadow of a Yellow Lady Slipper sighting. I thought this because the grass perfectly mimicked the helically-twisted sepals of a Yellow Lady Slipper. After admiring the lupine and golden grass blade, we continued our search, and as foretold, stumbled upon a colony of Yellow Lady Slippers! Partially bloomed flowers resembled Corinthian helmets, while the fully mature looked like sunbathing aliens. It was interesting to see how small they were in real life and appreciate their complexity up close. That was truly a day to remember.

Spending time on job sites is something I look forward to. I have realized that as I experience something new, I also learn more about myself. I now tackle new task with confidence and take breaks from manual labor in order to do activities like data entry that have delayed returns. It has been great to grow alongside the abundant wildlife each workday, and I am amazed at how much I have experienced on the job. I am curious to look back in 5 weeks and see what else I’ve learned!

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!