The photo on the left shows the path into Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park last summer when it was lined with invasive shrubs taller than my husband’s head! On the right is the path this year lined with Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), a native wildflower. Park neighbors recall that this area used to be an open field. Work started last autumn to remove invasive shrubs, giving native plants a chance to flourish as they once did. And the flowers have taken advantage of it! Below is a slide show of the native plants now blooming and the amazing collection of butterflies enjoying their nectar. Wait until you see the GiantSwallowtail (Papilio cresphontes)!It’s as big as some tropical butterflies!
The path leads to the dramatic ravine and an open oak forest. You’ll hear woodpeckers, warbling vireos, indigo buntings, towhees, goldfinches and more within this park. A remarkably impressive 60 acres which will only get more interesting over time!
Curiously, many native wildflowers like a little disturbance now and then. So township natural areas manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, sees that they get just what they need! By eliminating invasive shrubs, native plants grow stronger as sunlight reaches their previously shade-suppressed leaves. Regular prescribed burns help many fire-adapted native species emerge from the seed bank and thrive. The Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) along the Paint Creek Trail (seen above) are loving all the upheaval from invasive shrub removal three years ago. Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum), and Swamp Buttercups (Ranunculus hispidus) are flourishing for the same reason at Gallagher Creek Park. Native wildflowers are emerging in greater numbers all over Cranberry Lake Park after a recent burn. Below is a small sampling of local native wildflowers which benefit from the Parks Commission’s efforts to restore our natural heritage.
Native forest wildflowers called spring ephemerals burst forth into the cool spring air powered by nutrients stored in their rhizomes, bulbs or tubers the previous fall. Their leaves quickly harvest the sunlight pouring through bare treetops. Time is short. They must grow, blossom and produce fertile seeds in a few days or weeks before the trees’ shade slows photosynthesis. Some drop or even toss their seeds to the forest floor. Others wrap their seeds in fruits tipped with a fatty treat (an elaiosome). Ants can’t resist it, carrying the treats to their young underground. Luckily, the ants discard the seed itself in their tidy compost piles, providing a perfect place for germination. So despite being here today and gone tomorrow (almost), ephemerals continue spreading their colorful scarves across the forest floor spring after glorious spring.
The ungainly Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) comes into its own in the spring. The male struts slowly in front of the females in full mating display. Energetic gobbling frequently accompanies the ritual. His brilliantly colored feathers may be an important indicator to females of a healthy potential mate. Turkeys are native to the United States and Mexico. In the 1500’s, turkeys domesticated in Mexico were taken to Europe, became a popular dinner item and were eventually brought to the eastern US by settlers. Quite a circuit! The male turkey’s fanned tail may be a traditional symbol of our autumn Thanksgiving, but it’s an important rite of spring as far as the turkeys are concerned!
Early spring frogs have resurrected and their music fills the air! When the first ice of last winter formed on these little amphibians, they reacted by producing a glucose anti-freeze. According to Bernd Heinrich’s book, Winter World, “In about fifteen hours, the frog is frozen solid except for the insides of its cells. Its heart stops. No more blood flows. It no longer breathes. By most definitions, it is dead.” But as the weather warms, chorus frogs, wood frogs, and spring peepers thaw out and begin to serenade their mates in your local vernal pool or wetland. Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are nocturnal, but you can hear Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) and Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) singing all day. Enjoy nature’s spring miracle!
Well, we can safely say these trees are communicating! In the soil, a giant network of mycorrrhizal fungi wraps around tree roots, connecting them in a “wood wide web.” Trees nourish their own saplings and shaded fellow trees this way, keeping the tree community healthy. Trees may also release chemical messages into the air or soil “Wood Wide Web” (“mycelial network”) to warn nearby trees of coming insect pests. When attacked by insects, trees release chemicals to lure predators to prey on those insects. The blossoms of some trees release scents to attract pollinators. A community of “talking” trees! Quite a thought!
Who can resist doe eyes? Deer are truly beautiful animals with a special place in our natural areas and ecosystem. But deer numbers are higher than they’ve ever been historically. Deer no longer have any predators here, except hunters. Coyotes don’t bring down their numbers; they have easier food sources such as plentiful road kill, mice, rats, rabbits, fruits and wild berries.
Which picture shows a HairyWoodpecker (Picoides villosus), and which shows a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)? The plumage of these two woodpecker species is nearly identical. The clues below can help you identify the birds in the pictures above, and when they visit your suet feeder this winter!
Size can be hard to judge, so look at the length of the beak compared to the head. A Downy’s beak is daintier and only about 1/3 as long as the distance from the base of the beak to the back of the head. A Hairy’s beak is heavier and about as long as the distance from the base of its beak to the back of its head.
The Downy’s white outer tail feathers usually have black spots when seen from below, whereas the the Hairy’s are solid white. More comparisons at this link.
Hover your mouse over the pictures above to see if your guess was right!
Shortly after acquiring the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, volunteers and staff with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation began the process of clearing invasive shrubs in January 2006. This was the scene exactly eleven years ago at one of our unique local prairie remnants, tucked back off the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Rd. As we create new paths for the sunlight to reach the ground each year, prairie plants flower in greater abundance, growing seed to reclaim ground occupied by autumn olive.
Watch the prairie change from 2004 until today in a few pictures below. Our prairie, our heritage, ours to protect.
Winter is a good time to see Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) in loose groups of 5 or 6, foraging for acorns high in the treetops. These relatives of Crows and Ravens (the intelligent Corvid family) can stuff their throat pouches with seeds, caching them in tree bark for eating later. Some Blue Jays, mostly juveniles, migrate in the Fall, but adults are likely to stay in the same area year ’round. According to the Cornell Lab, the Blue Jay’s fondness for acorns may have contributed to the spreading of oaks after the last Ice Age!