Category Archives: Friday Photos

Photos of the Week: Restoring Nature’s Beauty with Fire? Yep!

Ben VanderWeide, Alex Kriebel and Volunteers Vinnie Morganti, Jim Lloyd and Parks Commissioner Dan Simon at Marshview Park for a “controlled burn.”

This week, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, Stewardship Specialist Alex Kriebel and a team of trained volunteers created a controlled burn around the sports fields at Marshview Park.  Our native plant species are adapted to fire after living for thousands of years with fire on the landscape. While lightning-sparked fires probably occurred occasionally, most fires in the last few thousand years were sparked by humans. The Native Americans in southern Michigan regularly used fire to clear and fertilize land for agriculture and to attract deer and other wildlife with tender, new growth, an early method of herding. As a result, our grasses and wildflowers have evolved to thrive after a burn. In fact, some grow only sparsely until a fire triggers them to emerge,  bloom and seed. And luckily, many of the invasive species in our parks, which didn’t evolve with burning, are weakened by fire.

The burn process begins after the crew reviews safety procedures and checks the wind, making sure that weather conditions allow the smoke to rise as quickly as possible to minimize effects on neighbors. Then fire breaks are created or double-checked where necessary by mowing or raking around the edges of the burn area. This gets rid of fuel that would allow the fire to spread where not wanted. In the case of the sports fields, the green grass and paths provided ready-made fire breaks.

The green grass of the sports field and the pathways provide fire breaks during a controlled burn.

Some members of the fire crew, under Ben’s supervision, use drip torch canisters to spread fire, creating a low creeping flame.

Volunteer Vinnie Morganti with a drip torch used to spread fire.

Others carry water tanks on their backs to spray trees or bushes that need protection and to put out all smoldering embers when the burn is complete.

Dr. Ben with a water tank to protect trees and put out smoldering embers
A volunteer drips fire while another crew member sprays trees and puts out embers
The fire spreads slowly across the burn area

The result will be burgeoning growth of native plants, including wildflowers and grasses.  After the first controlled burn in spring of 2016, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) made an appearance at Marshview Park.  Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) burst forth in the summer along with the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose huge leaves follow the sun during each summer day. (Photo below by Aaron Gunnar of inaturalist.org)  And in autumn, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) made a glorious,  royal purple show around the edges of the sports fields while Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native grass, filled the parking lot islands with its graceful russet stems. (Use the pause button if you can’t see the captions).

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And with these native plants come insects that nourish birds and other native wildlife, while the increase in beautiful butterflies delights the human eye.  So, yes, controlled burning paradoxically helps us restore the wild diversity of beauty that is Oakland Township’s natural heritage.

Photos of the Week: Migrators from the Arctic

As the township birding group departed Cranberry Lake Park last week, the bugling call of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) filtered down through the frosty air. Looking up, Ben drew our attention to a huge V-shaped flock of striking black and white birds arrowing across the cold November sky. Gifted local photographer Bob Bonin quickly captured this very special sighting .

A large flock of Tundra Swans called from a blue sky on a cold November morning at Cranberry Lake Park.

The Tundra Swans are so-named because they spend the summer on their breeding grounds above the tree line on the Arctic Circle. On river deltas, near large bodies of water, they build their nests on the chilly ridges formed by the thawing and freezing soil. During the 24 hour sun of an arctic summer, they feed themselves and their young on the lichens, mosses, and grasses of upland or wet meadow tundra. When the long dark of a far north winter started to set in, the swans we saw began their journey south. They passed over our area along their route, likely on their way to the eastern coast of the United States for the winter months.

But another much more modest arctic migrator arrived in the last month – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea). (Many thanks again to Bob Bonin for sharing his photos!)

The American Tree Sparrow has arrived from its summer breeding grounds on the Arctic Circle and will spend the winter with us.

This brown and gray sparrow with a black spot on its breast also raises its young on the arctic tundra. After the male has attracted a mate by singing from the stunted, shrub-like trees of the Arctic, the pair construct a nest of white ptarmigan feathers right on the tundra itself. During the Arctic’s long summer days,  they feast and feed their young on insects. But here these modest brown birds, who have traveled so far to spend the winter with us, become vegetarians, peacefully searching out seed in the snow beneath our feeders. (Despite their name, Tree Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground or in shrubs.)

So while we humans may grouse about cold winter days, birds from the arctic must find our area quite balmy. High above, magnificent Tundra Swans wing their way to America’s east coast, bugling cheerfully along the way. And humble Tree Sparrows, leaving behind a dark, frigid arctic winter, treat the blizzards of a Michigan winter like a Florida vacation! Everything, as they say, is relative.

Photos of the Week: Tadpoles in Autumn?? Who knew?

Most of us assume that tadpoles are a wriggling sign of spring and summer. But wait – last weekend, tons of  little creatures were wriggling just below the surface of a large wetland at Charles Ilsley Park. My husband guessed tadpoles, but I thought, “Naah, tadpoles hatch only in the spring or summer!” Next morning, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide was kind enough to net some of the squirming critters from among the fallen leaves floating on the water.

Ben searched the water to net a tadpole

And despite the unlikely season, they turned out to be tadpoles, most likely Green Frog tadpoles due to their long, spotted, doubled-finned tails.  It turns out that larger frogs – American Bullfrogs (Rana catesbeiana), Green Frogs (Rana clamitans)  and Northern Leopard Frogs  (Rana pipiens) – can take up to  2-3 years to reach adult size. So some of their young can still be in the tadpole stage when chilly nights grow long and leaves turn gold and crimson. These little tadpoles were preparing to slow their metabolism way down in order to hibernate underwater.

Frogs, though,  don’t hibernate like turtles, by digging down into the mud at the bottom of ponds. They’d suffocate if they did. Like adult frogs, tadpoles can breathe through their skin when completely submerged in oxygenated water. According to Scientific American, to keep water against their skin over the winter, they lie on top of the mud or only partially buried. Tadpoles have more surface area per volume than adult frogs do, so they can actually gather oxygen from the water more efficiently in the cold, motionless water.

Ben scooped out a tadpole and I took a quick series of  photos of it wriggling in a plastic specimen box. As a result, it’s possible to see a bit of how a tadpole moves itself forward by thrashing its double finned tail. So meet the tadpoles that taught me that autumn does not just mean long, cold nights, a cascade of brightly colored leaves and gray skies. It can also mean, of all things, tadpoles!

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Photos of the Week: Migrating Fall Birds

Every Wednesday morning the Oakland Township Birders gather at a township park for our weekly bird walk. Chickadees, Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, and Song Sparrows regularly greet us with their songs and antics, while Black-billed Cuckoos, Green Herons, and warblers are a special treat.

During the spring and fall we pay special attention to the birds using our parks as they move between their seasonal homes further north and south. On our walk at Draper Twin Lake Park this week we got great looks at a Hermit Thrush foraging quietly on juniper berries. Check out these great pictures that Bob Bonin captured on Wednesday.

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A hermit thrush peers from behind a branch. Draper Twin Lake Park, October 25, 2017.
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The hermit thrush shows off its throat and breast, highlighting the crisp dark-brown chocolate drops on a clean, white background that fade toward the belly. The warm reddish-brown tail also helps us identify this bird.

 

Nearby, White-Throated Sparrows bounced around in the thick brush, occasionally popping up to show off their clean white bibs and the splashes of yellow in front of their eyes.

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This White-throated Sparrow shows off the beautiful colors and patterns on its head.

Before I started learning about birds a few years ago, I didn’t even know these species existed. But now I look forward to seeing these old friends each spring and fall, messengers of the changing season.

 

Photos of the Week: Fall Splendor at the Wet Prairie

 

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) showing off his red belly while foraging on the trail near the Wet Prairie

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.

 

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Photo of the Week: Phragmites Progress at Gallagher Creek Park

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.

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Photo point GCP03. August 30, 2011.
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Photo point GCP03. July 16, 2012.
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Photo point GCP03. September 4, 2013.
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Photo point GCP03. August 28, 2014.
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Photo Point GCP03. September 14, 2016.
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Photo Point GCP03. September 6, 2017.

Photo of the Week: Early Fall Wildflowers

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.

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Turtlehead, Chelone glabra, flowering at Gallagher Creek Park.
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Tall sunflower, Helianthus giganteus, at Gallagher Creek Park. The pink joe-pye in the background really makes the yellow sunflowers pop!
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New England Aster, Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, with daisy fleabane at Gallagher Creek Park.
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Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica, in a sunny seep at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.
 

 

Photos of the Week: Native Wildflowers and Butterflies Flourishing at Stony Creek Ravine

 

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 Giant Swallowtail (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!

 

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Photo(s) of the Week: Some Native Spring Wildflowers Relish “Disturbance”

Golden Alexanders flourishing beneath the trees south of the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail

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.

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Photo of Week: Spring Ephemerals…Coming, Going and Gone

 

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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.