One hot fall morning, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirred” cheerfully as it hopped among drooping vines, plucking fall fruits along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silver Bell Road. Down near the ground, beneath the towering stalks of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) on the Wet Prairie, native wildflowers bloomed, often unseen. This special prairie is “wet” because the soil just below the surface doesn’t allow water to penetrate. That leads to very wet conditions in the spring, but droughty soil in the heat of summer. It’s a “prairie” because prairie plants, which are adapted to fire, thrived here despite repeated wildfires over the years caused by the railroad. As a result, an unusual mix of autumn wildflowers, in exotic shapes and vivid colors, flourishes on our Wet Prairie.
Human memory is a funny thing. We like to create our own versions of events in our minds, so when I need to track progress over time, I know that it’s important to have a separate, objective record. We regularly use photo monitoring to document changes in the natural communities in our parks. Most of the photo monitoring points were established in 2011, so we have about 7 years of photographic records. Not a long record, but long enough to see big changes in areas where we are doing active land management.
Check out this series of pictures from Gallagher Creek Park. These photos illustrate the growth of Phragmites patches until they were treated in 2014. We have done follow-up treatment every year. When I check each Phragmites patch before treatment, I am a little frustrated when I see Phragmites resprouts. But these photos remind me how far we’ve come. We plan to wrap up Phragmites treatment in our parks next week, so expect to see (or not see) smaller Phragmites patches in the future!
Photo Point GCP03: Looking west on Silver Bell Road
The large willow tree on the left side is a good reference point.
When I walk outside in the morning, I feel a chill in the air that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. The days are getting shorter, and somehow it’s already September. Where did the summer go?
After hot summer days, I always look forward to the mild temperatures, fragrant cider, and just-barely-changing leaves of early fall. Even without these cues, wildflowers would announce the changing season if I’d just woken from a long summer nap. The timing of flowering can tell us where we are in the annual orbit around our star. By comparing the timing of flowering and other natural events from year to year, a science called phenology, we can learn how plants and animals respond to changes in their environment. Pretty cool!
I found some outstanding wildflowers this week while checking on the progress of our habitat restoration projects at Gallagher Creek Park and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Check out these photos to see how nature announces fall, then go find some wildflowers in real life! It’s going to be a beautiful weekend.
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.