Category Archives: History

Case of the Missing Species: Bear Creek’s Fields and Forests from 1976 to Today

Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide recently surprised me with an intriguing document – a thorough natural history survey of what became Bear Creek Nature Park compiled in 1976 by a 14 year-old boy! Clearly, this boy was a remarkable naturalist. It turns out that’s not terribly surprising, since he is Mark Tomboulian, the son of former long-serving Parks commissioner, Alice Tomboulian, a remarkable naturalist in her own right. In 1976, the absentee landowner, Mr. Deveraux, rented out areas of his land to local farmers. The Tomboulians lived right across the road and Mr. Deveraux granted permission for exploration by the young naturalist and his family. The photo above left shows Alice and her children conducting nature study at the Deveraux property in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Mark is the center child. The right photo from 2016 shows two volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in what is now Bear Creek Nature Park. Bear Creek is still a great place to learn and explore!

Blog by Cam Mannino

As I browsed Mark’s hand-drawn maps and long lists of wildlife, I noticed birds and especially plants that no longer live in Bear Creek Nature Park, or are rarely seen. Since restoring our natural heritage is at the heart of the Parks Commission’s stewardship work, I thought I’d share with you what Mark saw in 1976 that is either missing or at best, more rare in Bear Creek Park today.

[Note:  Because the birds and plants in this blog are rare or missing in Bear Creek today,  I have no photos of them. So I’m using many photos by generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who permit others to share their work. Each photo is credited in the captions or text. My thanks to all these fine photographers.]

What Changed in Bear Creek’s Meadows?

1969 – Children on a field trip on the eastern path at Bear Creek, an agricultural field at the time.

The photo above was taken in 1969 as a school group went down through an agricultural field on what became the Eastern Path at Bear Creek. Mark must have traversed such a path in his childhood, too.  Mark’s maps show small areas of  “fallow fields” throughout the park where the native and non-native plants we see today survived in isolated patches.

2017 – Boneset and Joe Pye flourish along the same eastern path, which now traverses a meadow which hosts both native and non-native wildflowers.

Over the years since the land was purchased by the Parks and Recreation Commission, large areas of the park have steadily been restored. Controlled burns and protection from development have allowed native grasses and wildflowers to spread and flourish. The photo above of native Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) just off of the edge of the eastern path last summer is evidence that beautiful, natural meadows are thriving at Bear Creek.

It will take time to bring back the meadow and marsh birds that Mark was able to see during his childhood. When he was a little boy, the Northern Bob-white Quail (Colinus virginianus) whistled its rising two-note call, “Bob-white!” in the background of every summer day as small flocks foraged across the fields. Their numbers have declined by “roughly 85% between 1966 and 2014,” according to Wikipedia, due largely to habitat loss. Luckily, Bob-whites persist in states to the south and west in habitat where the land is disturbed by fire. These birds do well in newly grown grass that produces the seeds, cover and nesting materials they prefer. So if we’re lucky and continue restoration, perhaps we will hear their calls again on warm, sunny afternoons.

Northern Bob-white, a common bird at Bear Creek in 1976, is missing these days. (Photo by Greg Lasley CC BY-NC)

During the spring and summer 40 years ago, male Eastern Meadowlarks perched and sang on fenceposts, logs or treetops in Bear Creek’s meadows. Their descending, flute-like call with its many variations, complemented the rising call of the Bob-white. Meadowlarks usually have two, sometimes three mates at a time, so they have lots of singing to do! Today meadowlarks are quite scarce in our parks, but since they need at least 6 acres of grassland for each territory, perhaps the continued meadow restoration  will provide them with more nesting opportunities.

Eastern Meadowlark singing by Greg Lasly (CC BY-NC)

The glamorous Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), a popular non-native gamebird, used to stride through the fields and woods at Bear Creek Nature Park. These pheasants can rise almost vertically from the grass at a speed of up to 40 miles per hour! Their cackling call was a common occurrence in 1976, but is seldom heard in our parks these days. Female pheasants prefer to scrape out their shallow nests in tall grass where overhead predators can’t get at them. So as our native grasses take hold and fill the fields, these colorful birds may spring up again from Bear Creek’s meadows .

Ring-necked Pheasant by Dale Hameister CC BY-NC (1)
Ring-necked Pheasant, photo by Dale Hameister (CC BY-NC).

Mark Tomboulian saw four nests of the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) in the Bear Creek marsh in the spring of 1976. I’ve only seen a solitary bird that cruised the Center Pond more than 10 years ago. The Gallinule likes complex marshes and wetlands where it can walk on vegetation with its very long toes or dabble underwater like the Mallards. The Parks Commission efforts to return the marsh to its original habitat may mean that Gallinules raise their young there again in the future.

Common Gallinule by kakalotli (CC-BY-NC) (1)
Common Gallinule with its colorful beak and legs. Photo by kaklotli (CC BY-NC)

What Changed in Bear Creek’s Oak-Hickory Forest?

1979- Trillium and May Apple carpet the forest floor across Gunn Road from Bear Creek

In his book, Incredible Yesterdays, George Comps, who lived on the land that is now Bear Creek Park in the 1940’s, reported,  “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium).” The photo above , taken in 1979 by the Tamboulians, shows  Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) carpeting the forest floor 500 feet north of Bear Creek, across the road.

2012 – Bear Creek’s forest floor today with large bare areas.

The photo above  shows the largely bare forest floor of Bear Creek in May of 2012. Many forest wildflowers that Mark saw on the forest floor simply are no longer there.  Trilliums, for example, exist only in a few small patches  and in some years they don’t show up at all. What happened?

I’m afraid that a large part of the answer is deer. When Mark Tomboulian compiled his survey in 1976, deer were a rare and exciting sight in Oakland Township. But because of development and less deer hunting in the township, the deer population exploded. In the spring, hungry deer devour trillium and many other forest wildflowers before they can bloom. During the winter, they feed on the tiny, slow-growing oak saplings, a behavior that threatens the very future of our oak-hickory forest.  

Mark’s survey mentions a couple of woodland birds that we don’t see anymore in the oak-hickory forest. The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is known for attracting its mate by drumming the air with its cupped wings. The drumming sound is often compared to a sputtering motor, and can carry up to 1/4 mile!  (Turn up your volume and check out “male drumming” at this link.)  According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, in the far north part of its range, this interesting bird dives into deep snow to roost for the night! Quite interesting bird behavior!

The Ruffed Grouse needs young trees for cover and forage. As deer feed on young saplings, our aging forest is less appealing to them. Photo by Susan Elliott (CC BY NC)

Ruffed Grouse need young forests for both cover and food, so the aging of Bear Creek’s forest, exacerbated by the lack of young oaks and other saplings caused by deer browsing, works against the reappearance of Ruffed Grouse at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Alice Tomboulian recently told me that Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) used to nest on their property across from Bear Creek Nature Park, and Mark recorded seeing them on the park property in 1976. Alas, they are rarely seen at the park these days, though they are occasionally seen other places in Oakland County. These striking woodpeckers have developed some specialized skills. They can pluck insects out of the air in flight and they store nuts, seeds and the occasional grasshopper in cracks of bark for later use. Red-headed woodpeckers were plentiful in the 19th century; Audubon reported  100 shot from a cherry tree in 1840! But now their numbers are in decline and they are listed as “near threatened.” Scientific studies are needed to discover the cause and measures to increase their numbers. We can only hope that they return to Bear Creek which provides the snags (standing dead trees) they need for nesting and plenty of the acorns that they love to eat.

The Red-headed Woodpecker no longer nests in the forests of Bear Creek. Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY NC)

What’s changed most in the forests of Bear Creek since 1976, though, is that many wildflowers are simply missing. Imagine how colorful and interesting the floor of the oak-hickory forest would be if these forest flowers that Mark recorded could return to the uplands and wetlands under the forest canopy! (Click on pause button for captions.)

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The Challenge of Restoring Our Natural Heritage

Western slope from the south
Western meadow in early September 2015

The meadows and marsh in Bear Creek are already well on their way to reclaiming their original diversity of native plants. Controlled burns and some invasive shrub control have already allowed many prairie and wetland plants to become more abundant. Ben and his volunteers monitor the health of the vernal pools each summer, keeping an eye on the amphibian and reptile communities. At some point, the invasive shrubs that crowd the big loop north of the Center Pond will need to be removed so that the original open meadow there can be restored. And yearly removal of invasive plants like Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) will need to continue throughout the park. But already we are enjoying the benefit of years of stewardship in these areas.

Oak-hickory forest in October

Restoring the ground cover and bird diversity in the oak-hickory forest presents a greater challenge. As long as large numbers of deer consume the wildflowers and small trees on the forest floor, the woods will age without renewal. Solutions aren’t obvious. Planting missing wildflowers or small trees is pointless if the deer population stays at its current level. Fertility control for deer is labor intensive, costly, requires continual repetition, and according to some biologists, has yet to be conclusively proven effective except in enclosures or on islands. (See the second footnote below for “pro” and “con” opinions.) Fences would have to be very high,  prevent the movement of other animals and alter a park’s natural appearance, while being costly to install and maintain over such large areas. And culling and/or hunting is resisted by many people, despite negative effects of high deer density on both human well-being and deer population health. Unless effective solutions are found and proven, it seems we will eventually have to choose. We can have either an uncontrolled deer population with all of its risks, or a lower density, balanced herd that allows us to enjoy both beautiful deer and striking woodland vistas with carpets of wildflowers. Tough decisions!

Meanwhile, we continue our stewardship work, doing the best we can to steadily restore the beauty and diversity that we’ve inherited from the past, passing it forward to future generations.

1.Footnote:   My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Managr Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.
2.For pros and cons of controlling deer fertility, I found these three websites useful. The first is a presentation made to the Ann Arbor government by the Humane Society supporting the idea.
https://www.a2gov.org/departments/community-services/PublishingImages/Pages/Deer-Management-Project-/HumaneSocietyUSCouncilPresentation07132015.pdf 
The second is the opposing view from a Professor CW Dick, a U-M biologist and director of the U-M Herbarium, though he stresses that in this article, he does necessarily represent the U-M's views on the subject, but his own.  
https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/cwdick-lab/2016/04/17/the-pseudoscience-of-non-lethal-deer-management/
The third is from Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, a group that formed to explore solutions for overabundant deer in Washtenaw County. https://www.wc4eb.org/what/herd-reduction/sterilization/

TREES AND US: More in Common Than You Might Think!

The Schuette Oak may be 500 years old. It was named to the Champion Trees National Register in 1973.

The Schuette Oak has been living at the corner of Letts Road and Rush Road for probably 500 years. In 1973, it was recognized in the Champion Trees National Register.   I spent many of my childhood summers sitting in a huge, very old tree – in my case, a sugar maple –   in the field next to my parent’s house on Lake George Road. Held in its woody embrace,  I read books, ate snacks, sang and watched tall field grasses dance in the wind.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

So when I came across The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, I grabbed it and have enjoyed what this German forester had to teach me.   So here’s a baker’s dozen of interesting facts about these giants of the plant world.  Here’s hoping that you’re as surprised and delighted by some of them as I was.

MOST TREES ARE UNIQUE INDIVIDUALS.  

Like us humans, trees mostly reproduce sexually through sperm and egg – carried in the pollen and and ovary of plants (one exception is vegetative reproduction through suckering in trees like aspens and black locust,  a kind of cloning to make offspring that have the same genes as the parent). Each of those trees,  like each of us, have a unique set of chromosomes. The pollen of oaks, for instance,  is carried on the wind, bringing sperm to fertilize the eggs of other oaks.

The catkins on this Black Oak (Quercus velutina) are releasing their pollen. (Ah-choo!)

One advantage of reproducing sexually with pollen from another plant is greater genetic diversity of offspring. Differences in genetic makeup may help some individual trees better resist the challenges of plant life – disease, insects, drought or a warming climate. That creates a greater likelihood the at least some individuals of a species will survive even if the rest of the forest doesn’t.  A hopeful thought.

TREES BREATHE.   

Trees, like all plants, have pores, not visible to the naked eye, on the underside of their leaves called “stomata.” Trees breathe in carbon dioxide (CO2) and breathe out (“transpire”) oxygen gas and water vapor through these pores.  In pine trees, stomata are on the underside of their needles and sunken below the surface of the needle, helping reduce water loss when the air is very dry in the winter. Thanks goodness trees and plants do this! We need that oxygen and of course, we return the favor by taking in oxygen and transpiring CO2.

Tiny holes on the bottom of leaves, not seen by the naked eye,  are the “mouths” of the trees, called “stomata.”  All plants have them.
Stomata on the cuticle of a leaf. By Tyanna – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45217985

TREES FEED THEIR YOUNG AND OTHER NEEDY TREES  

As explained in a February “Photo of the the Week,” mychorrhizal fungi wrap around tree roots creating a “wood-wide web” of amazing density beneath the forest floor. According to Wohlleben, “One teaspoon of forest soil contains many miles of … ‘hyphae’ ” – the microscopically thin filaments of fungi in the web. This fungal network provides a way for trees to feed sugars to their young, which we call saplings. Occasionally large trees feed other needy trees in the forest, those in too much shade, for example – thereby creating a healthier tree community.

This mature oak is probably feeding the four little saplings around it through the “wood-wide web” of mychorrhizal fungi at its roots.

WHEN ATTACKED BY INSECTS, SOME TREES WARN THEIR FELLOW TREES.

Using  chemicals released through the “wood-wide web,” trees notify other trees when under attack. This allows their tree neighbors to increase the chemicals in their leaves to repel the invading insects. An oak, for example can increase the tannin levels in its leaves.   Scientist have found that the tannin is either toxic to insects or perhaps just makes the leaves taste bad. Some trees can also release a scent that attracts the specific predator that preys on that particular insect.  Clever, eh?

This maze of tunnels is the result of an attack of bark beetles (subfamily Scolytinae), which tend to attack weak trees, but luckily, mostly dead ones.

SOME TREES SYNCHRONIZE THEIR NUT PRODUCTION…SOMEHOW.  

Oaks and Beeches, for instance, somehow coordinate the years in which they will produce a huge number of fruits (acorns for oaks and beech nuts for beeches). These are called “mast years.”  In normal years oaks will only produce a few acorns, limiting the populations of deer, blue jays, squirrels, mice and other animals who love the fatty oil in acorns. Animals will eat most of the acorns in the off years, limiting establishment of new saplings. In mast years, however, the volume of acorns is so high that these animals can’t  eat them all. So inevitably more survive to grow into saplings. It’s a nifty way to insure that at least some of your offspring survive in a world where, on average, each tree only has one “child” that reaches adulthood! Scientists don’t seem to know exactly how trees synchronize for mast years, although weather and seed production in previous years probably play a role.

Acorns in the White Oak family – Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa), I believe.

TREES DON’T MOVE (OF COURSE) –  BUT FORESTS DO.

As glaciers advanced and retreated during ice ages, forests had to adapt. Trees like Maples (genus Acer) sent their seeds flying on little wings, called “samaras,” or what children call “helicopters.” If the climate warmed, the samaras that flew north were more likely to thrive and start new forests,  while the ones that flew south did better as the glaciers advanced. In this way, over thousands of years, whole forests migrated.  Jays and their relatives, fond of nutritious acorns, are credited with helping oaks in southern Europe rapidly re-populate after the ice age. Today, the roads, houses, and lawns of human development have fragmented forests, limiting their movement and potentially hurting their ability to respond and move in response to changing climate.

The samaras, flying seeds, of a Box Elder (Acer negundo), a member of the Maple family.

TREES “HIBERNATE” LIKE MANY ANIMALS

We all know bears, raccoons, woodchucks etc., fatten themselves up before winter hibernation. Trees do something similar. Leaves use photosynthesis to capture the light energy from the sun and convert it to chemical energy stored in sugars. Throughout the summer trees store these sugars in their branches, trunk, and roots. As days get shorter and colder, trees begin to move nutrients out of their leaves in preparation for winter,  breaking down the chlorophyll (which makes them green) into its components so it can be sent back out in the spring to the new leaves. Once these green pigments are gone, the leaves turn the color of the remaining yellow and red pigments. As a final step before dropping their leaves, trees produce a layer of cells that seal off the connection between the  leaves and twigs – and the leaves ride the next breeze to the ground. Trees are finally ready for winter. The next spring the stored nutrients and sugars will power the burst of new leaves and branches!

This non-native Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) is extracting the green chlorophyll from its leaves and storing it in the roots for next spring’s leaves.

SOME ADULT TREES KEEP A CHECK ON THE YOUNG.   

Older oaks and beeches create a lot of shade that inhibits the rapid growth of younger trees. You’d think that would be a problem for the little trees, but at least for oaks and beeches, it isn’t. The older tree is still feeding the younger through the underground web,  so the sapling can survive without as much sunlight and its wood. According to Wohlleben, this slower, denser growth makes saplings more resistant to fungi and insects. The adult’s canopy may also protect the saplings from heavy spring frosts. When a gap develops in the canopy, the sapling is ready to grow. Biological child care, you might say.

Large trees shade saplings. That way they grow more slowly but have denser wood to resist disease and insects.

SOME YOUNG TREES TAKE ADVANTAGE OF “SLEEPING” ADULTS.  

Once  larger trees shed their autumn leaves and “sleep” for the winter, the youngsters seize the moment! Many keep their leaves later into the fall so they can make more sugars from the autumn sunlight available under the bare adult trees. Young trees also “wake” on average about two weeks earlier than older trees.  That gives them a little extra spring sunlight for growth. The youngsters can get caught, though, by an early freeze, preventing them from shedding their leaves. That’s not a huge problem for little trees in the winter, which are more flexible in winter wind and snow.  Smaller trees may also keep their leaves to discourage deer and other herbivores from nibbling their twigs and bark – who wants a mouthful of lifeless leaves?

This old White Oak (Quercus alba) lost its leaves in the fall but the sapling nearby kept its leaves to take advantage of late fall light.

TREES  NEED THEIR “SLEEP.”

 Wohlleben reports that tree lovers experimented with taking tiny oaks inside in pots on windowsills during the winter. The result was that the seedlings, taking advantage of the heat and light, continued to grow all winter. But without a rest from all that growing, most of them died during their first year. Trees may need rest at night too, when the air cools and their metabolism slows.  Sleep deprivation – evidently it’s a problem for both humans and trees!

Trees may benefit from a bit of a rest at night and during the winter  just as we do.

CONIFERS “BUNDLE UP” TO COPE WITH WINTER  

Needles are actually the leaves of conifers. Their leaves survive short summers and harsh winters by being tightly rolled  into needles and by “bundling up” with a waxy coating on their bark and needles that acts like anti-freeze and helps retains moisture. Green needles allow conifers to start photosynthesizing as soon as the weather warms.  Like us human Michiganders, they soak up as much sunshine as possible when spring arrives.

In a bog near Lost Lake Nature Park is a remnant stand of Black Spruce (Picea mariana). These trees typically grow in colder environments and would have populated large areas of Michigan as the glaciers retreated. The cool bog microclimate provides a southern refuge for black spruce. Their sparse, pointed tops and flexible branches, which layer downward when snow-laden, shed snow nicely too, an important survival strategy in snowy climes.

A remnant stand of Black Spruce near Lost Lake Park, trees that thrived in the cool climate as the glaciers receded.

AGE AFFECTS TREES IN WAYS SIMILAR TO AGE IN HUMANS.

Bark is essentially the skin of a tree. It holds in and releases moisture, protects a tree’s “insides” and is a barrier against pathogens that seek their way into the circulatory system. According to Wohlleben, “In young trees of all species, the outer bark is smooth as a baby’s bottom. As trees age, wrinkles gradually appear (beginning from below) –  and they steadily deepen as the years progress.” Their girth, of course, increases, too. The crowns of trees thin out with age, just like the locks of aging humans. So we’re not the only ones who get stouter, balder and more wrinkled with age!

The young White Pine (Pinus strobus)  has smooth skin, or bark, like all saplings, whereas the adult pine behind has “wrinkled” bark.

TREES CONTINUE TO AFFECT THE LIVES OF OTHERS LONG AFTER DEATH  

Wohlleben says that “In total, a fifth of all animal and plant species  – that’s about six thousand of the species we know about – depend on dead wood.” Insect and fungus specialists process a fallen log over many years, and woodpeckers, salamanders, and other critters find food and refuge in the rotting wood. Nutrients stored in bark and wood for perhaps hundreds of years are slowly returned to the forest floor. In some cases, young trees even sprout in the fallen bodies of their elders, creating “nurse-logs.”  Trees, like humans, leave a legacy for future generations.

Insects and fungi will gradually process this fallen tree, returning nutrients that will feed the whole forest, including new saplings. A tree legacy.

Trees as Living Beings

Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) on a foggy autumn morning at Bear Creek.

Without faces, it’s easy to see trees as “things” instead of living, breathing beings.  They can become just a backdrop to our lives. But trees communicate with each other, feed their young, breathe – do so many of things that we do.  Wohlleben’s book helped me see trees in a new and more complex light, even though I’ve always loved trees. I hope this brief taste of what the book has to offer does the same for you.

Footnote: The main source for this blog was The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, Copyright 2015 by Ludwig Verlag, Munich, part of Random House GmbH publishing group.  English translation copyright 2016 by Jane Billinghurst .  Other sources include Wikipedia, www.Michiganflora.net, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich (Cliff Street Books, 1997) and Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Townships Park and Recreation. 

CALLING ALL HISTORY BUFFS! We Could Use Some Help.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

Last winter, I posted two blog entries about the history of Bear Creek Nature Park (early history and becoming a park).  I had enormous fun doing it and you, the readers, seemed to enjoy it. The township was very lucky when back in the 1960s,  George Comps wrote a 600 page book about his life on the farm where Bear Creek now stands.  It had lots of photos and lively stories about that piece of land 75 years ago.  Former Parks commissioner Alice Tomboulian also lent me photos from the 60’s and 70’s before the land was developed as a park – plus great stories as well. (Hover cursor for captions.)

I’d like to do similar pieces on other parks in the township – but I need your help!  If you or anyone you know has information or photos about any Oakland Township parks before they were parks, Ben or I would love to hear from you (see map below). Maybe you lived on or near a parcel that is now a park, or have family history in the area. Please contact us stewardship@oaklandtownship.org, or use the form below. You can also call 248-651-7810 ext. 401. We look forward to hearing from you!

And thanks!

parksoverview_20160627

 

 

Photo Monitoring: Only time can tell

Blog post by Heather Herndon, Natural Areas Stewardship Technician
Blog post by Heather Herndon, Natural Areas Stewardship Technician

Whether it be over hours, days, or even years, we observe change over time in a variety of ways. Observations can be made in a changing landscape, how fast our kids grow up, the expansion of a town’s business district, etc. There may be old photos of a building when it was first built in the 1800s which we compare to how the same building may look today.  In my own experience, a photo has been taken on my first day of school in the same spot every year by my mother. She now has the photos in an album showing how much I have grown up since the first day of kindergarten to the first day of college. I have found that over the years my favorite color to wear all of those years has been pink… and the funny thing is, it still is today! Ha! In what ways have you seen or documented changes over time?

Recently, the Stewardship Crew has been busy conducting point photo monitoring in the parks around Oakland Township. Photo monitoring is using photos (just like my first day of school photos!) to document the changes of a specific area in our parks over time. We may want to see how our work is reducing the abundance of invasive Phragmites, or see how which a patch of autumn olive is expanding.

The materials needed to do these observations are pretty simple and easy for anyone to acquire: a camera with a tripod, a zebra board as a scale to measure growth, GPS or map with the locations of the photo points, a compass to face the correct direction, notebook to record information, and a identification card for the site being photographed. Expense for these materials is relatively low, making repeat photography a favorable monitoring tool for land managers. Some of the materials can be seen in the photos below.

photomonitoring1
Setting up the camera and meter board for a photo

 

photomonitoring2
Keeping all the data organized in a binder is helpful
photomonitoring3
The equipment set up at one of our fantastic township parks!

Photo monitoring is a great tool to show the changes in a landscape over time – how different management strategies change an area, how fast invasive species can take over, or a prescribed burn affects the plant community. Check out some of the photos from our parks over the years!

Bear Creek Nature Park – Interpretive Node

Wow, the autumn olive and trees are filling in quickly! Better stick that on the list of things to do.

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 O’Connor Nature Park – Phragmites patch

We treated the Phragmites in 2014 and 2015. Looking a lot better!

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Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie

Official photo monitoring began in 2011. The photos before 2011 were taken at approximately the same location as the photo monitoring point.

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Photos should be taken in the same place at specific intervals, whether it be once each season, once a year in summer, or once every five years, etc. Over time the changes in vegetation can be observed and assessed by land managers to help inform future management goals or changes in management practices. Only time can tell what changes in an area or what will stay the same.

This is a great activity for local residents interested in volunteering with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation to participate in. It is a great way to see the parks in a different light, go to places in the parks you may not have seen before, and maybe learn something new about the native flora and fauna! If you are interested in volunteering with us, comment below or call the Parks and Recreation office at 248-651-7810.

Photo Monitoring information for this post was used from the US Forest Service online guide to photo point monitoring.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bear Creek 75 Years Ago

BC View of House 1939 (1)

The farm house at what is now Bear Creek Nature Park as it appeared in 1939.

Long before 107 acre Bear Creek Nature Park had official trails or a play area or decks at the marsh, it was a farm with chickens, ducks, cows, orchards and a garden. The Comps family rented the house on that farm from 1939 until they moved to their own home on Silver Bell Road in 1959. George Comps, a boy when the family moved there,  wrote a long book called Incredible Yesterdays (published by Ravenswood Press, 1997) about his years on that piece of land. The book is available at the Rochester Hills Library in their local history room,  the Oakland Township Historical Society and the Rochester Hills Historical Museum.   All the quotes and black-and-white photos below are from Mr. Comps’ book, whose long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton gave me permission to use photos and quotes.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

What an intriguing look Incredible Yesterdays provides of Oakland Township’s oldest publicly protected park as it existed 75 years ago! Bear Creek’s land was a source of sustenance, heat, income, play, beauty and peace for the Comps family during difficult times. So join me for a short visit to Bear Creek as it looked during the Great Depression and through the Second World War (current map of Bear Creek here).  It was a very different world, but oddly familiar.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Warmth and Food!

In 1939, during the Great Depression, the elder Mr. Comps lost his job and the family moved from Rochester to the home you see in the photo at the top of today’s blog. The Great Depression made life challenging for the Comps family. Unlike their house in town, this house had no electricity, no running water and no central heat at that point! But the owner, Mr. Devereaux, agreed to let them stay rent free for a year if they fixed the place up. So the maple syrup buckets on the trees in the photo no doubt provided a sweet treat much appreciated by the family!

Path through Oak-Hickory forest
The woods where the Comps’ family cut wood to heat their home in 1939.

The house was heated with a wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. “We burned wood that we cut back in the woods. When we first started cutting it was fun because it was something different, but later it got to be a real chore, hard work … Most of the wood we cut was oak and it was so hard it dulled the saw in a hurry.”

Shagbark Hickory nuts
Hickory nuts at Bear Creek were a source of food in 1939 and still grow in the park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The many trees on the farm provided food as well  as heat. And many of those tree species survive on the farm today. “Being we had an abundance of nut trees and bushes on the farm, we kids decided to gather as many as we could. There were hickory, walnut and butternut trees and many hazel nut bushes. We gathered nuts every year and spent a lot of time shucking them so we could dry them and have nuts to crack and eat in the winter.”

Honey bee with jodpurs
Bees provided the honey the family found in a huge “bee tree,” an oak they cut down to get to the honey.

Sweets are always in big demand for a family so Dad and the boys went one winter night to chop down a huge oak to get at the bees’ nest inside. “When we got to the tree, there weren’t any bees to be found on the outside. Dad rapped the tree a few times and some did crawl out but it was too cold for them to fly … He said we’d have to cut the tree down to get to the honey. We could use the wood for heat.  This tree was a huge oak about six feet in diameter at the base and extremely tall … Dad carefully took out the combs of honey and put them into the washtub we had brought along for just that purpose.”

Umbrella mushrooms in colony
There were mushrooms on the farm, but Comps’ mother decided not to eat them, not being sure they were edible.

Two Italian men came to the house shortly after the family moved in asking for permission to hunt for mushrooms. Permission granted, “They did come, several days in a row, and they always had a big basket of mushrooms.” Mrs. Comps’ didn’t charge the gentlemen for their mushrooms and when they offered her some for the family, she graciously accepted them, but then decided she wasn’t quite sure they were edible and threw them away – a wise thing to do if you don’t know much about mushrooms.

Hunters also came to hunt pheasants because at that time open fields and remnants stands of native grasses, like the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in the photo below, would have provided lots of ideal cover for them.

Big Blue Stem
Big Bluestem, a typical prairie grass that was probably more common in Oakland Township in the 1940s.

And of course the family had a garden as well. So the land that later became Bear Creek served the family well in terms of warmth and nourishment.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s:  Beauty!

Despite the hardships of the Depression, the Comps family made time for simple pleasures. When the skies were darker at night in Oakland Township than they are now, the family enjoyed the startling beauty of the Northern Lights. “It was an astounding sight when the sky would light up with all the colors from all around. The streaks of light would shoot up so strong and even from the south and make it look like you were standing under an umbrella of light. Directly overhead the shafts of light would meet but wouldn’t come together, creating a hole in the display … Just awe inspiring.”  sunset!The skies in Bear Creek are still beautiful, but brighter night skies from nearby development makes seeing the northern lights a rare occurrence these days.

Mr. Comps remembered the steep hill sloping down to Gunn Road in the northern part of the Oak-Hickory forest. There he and his sister  came across “hundreds” of garter snakes “curled up,” basking in the spring sunlight and named it “Snake Hill.” He said,  “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium)” and the children picked some on Snake Hill to add to their Mother’s Day gift bouquet. Alas, deer eat trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and other native woodland plants – and  now trillium are found only in a few spots in the park. And in 20 years, I’ve never seen that many garter snakes! On a high hill on the east of the farm,  probably where houses stand today, George found “wild columbine on a big hill” and transplanted some to his mother’s garden. (Hover cursor over photos for captions.  Click on photos to enlarge.)

 

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Pocket Money

Lots of animals that we’ve come to appreciate now were just considered “varmints” by farmers when the Comps children lived on the farm. Ridding the neighborhood of these “pests” was a way to earn a bit of pocket money. Crows were disliked by farmers because as Mr. Comps put it,  they “would follow behind the farmer’s corn planter and dig up the kernels, eating them as fast as he planted them.”  So in those days, Oakland Township paid a bounty that could be collected at the little store in Goodison. “They paid a dime for a rat tail, a dime for baby rats, a dime for a crow’s head and a quarter for a pair of groundhog  ears.”

Muskrats pelts had value too. George’s older brother, Bud, trapped muskrats in the pond and the swamps.  At first, he didn’t have the knack.  But “After talking to the Old Timers at the Goodison store, he gained valuable information about where to put the traps and how to secure them … On his second trip to gather his loot he did very well.” Skinning and preparing the pelts for drying was “more than he bargained for” but he did it for two winters and “gave  the money to mom to help alleviate the strain on the budget.”  So nature provided a little assistance in a hard time for many families – but I’m glad now these creatures can live peacefully in their native homes.

muskrat closeup2
A muskrat peacefully cruising through the duckweed, safe from losing its pelt like it did in earlier times.

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Fun! Excitement!

Some of the fun in those days was a bit tough on nature. George Comps remembered “… frog hunting late at night and using barrel staves for hitting the frogs.”

But those barrel staves also made skis for sailing down the western slope on a snowy day. “The big hill was too steep to cultivate and the grass was short from the cattle grazing, thus making it a good place to go skiing and with deep snow, it could be excellent.” The western slope also provided a great place for constructing snowmen.  “… this was the spot we started the snowball  and by the time we got to the bottom the ball was so big we couldn’t move it …  It kept on rolling, getting larger as it went down hill.” The children sensibly started the second snowball only halfway down the hill to make the snowman’s head! Nowadays I see evidence of kids sledding on that hill and still see the occasional remains of much smaller snowmen.

Kids weren’t quite as squeamish about nature adventures in the 1940s. One day the children went swimming in the Center Pond (which they called “Our Little Lake”) and came out with leeches on their legs (turtles show up with them these days!).  After that they just brought a salt shaker with them because salting the “bloodsuckers” made them fall off!  They actually built an earthen dam to make the pond a bit deeper.  It became their place “to go ice skating in the winter and in summer we played on a homemade raft.”

When summer dried Bear Creek marsh (which they called Bear/Bare Swamp), “we could walk all over the swamp.  The grass was so tall we couldn’t see out.”  They came across various snakes, “mostly blue racers.  We were never afraid of them because they were so fast and afraid of humans so they always went slithering on ahead of us.” The marsh no longer dries completely in the summer but the grasses and reed do get tall!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1
The marsh dried in summers in the 1940s.

They’d “go to the stone pile by the swamp [Bear Creek Marsh] and find a soft rock that we used for chalk…we’d take it to the house and break it up so we could handle it.”

Whistle swamp from the lane
A wetland where the Comps made willow whistles.

Nearer to the house, was “Whistle Swamp” so named because “… Dad took us there and showed us how to make whistles from the willow branches. This could be done only in the early spring when the bark…was loose and we could slip it off very easily.”  “Whistle Swamp” seems to be the wetland west of the Walnut Lane, about halfway down.

Grass fires – which children find very exciting and terrify adults –  have always been a part of Oakland Township’s  “Oak Savanna” landscape – some natural, some used by Native Americans to clear and fertilize land. Later, after European settlers arrived and began to develop the area, the Comps family experienced fires in the prairies along that railroad, sparked by trains that passed through Goodison. “Spring was always a time when there were lots of grass fires, especially along the railroad tracks in the valley.”

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Indiangrass, a beautiful native grass that lends color to the late summer landscape.

Current Parks Commissioner Barkham also remembers seeing smoke repeatedly during the summers when she was a girl years later,  as sparks from the trains made tall grass along the tracks catch fire.  And imagine, no township fire department, just locals with brooms and shovels! That’s one reason we still have so many beautiful native plants growing along the Paint Creek Trail now! Many of our native plant communities depend on fire, whereas some invasive plants do not.  The Parks and Recreation Commission now depends on safe, controlled prescribed burns instead of wildfires to hold onto our natural heritage, the amazing diversity of native plant and animals in Oakland Township.

What Nature Provided in 1940s :  The Under-appreciated “Swamp”

In the 1940s wetlands were often seen as a problem and drained.  Now we know they are crucial and beneficial for erosion control, fisheries,  wildlife habitat, flood control, ground water filtering, native and rare species habitat  and much more. The Comps affectionately named lots of “swamps” on the farm. True swamps  are forested wetlands with standing water at least part of the year, while wet meadow and marsh more accurately describe other wetlands that Mr. Comps explored at Bear Creek. I can’t be sure I’ve located all these correctly, but what follows are a few of George Comps’ “swamps” today.

West of the house was the hay barn, where the cows that grazed the western slope presumably were kept.  That area now is the playground field near Snell Road; the road is much wider now than it was in the 1940s. Behind the barn in the center photo below you can see the tops of two giant oaks that are still there.  Those giants stand over the marsh that the Comps’ children called “the barn swamp.”  Mr. Comps mentions that Michigan Holly, a native bush, grew in the middle of that area, so I’ll look for it in the spring!

“On the east side of the swamp…were two big oak trees.  They grew about half way down the bank and their branches hung just a few feet above the ground at the top of the hill.  We used to hang on the branches and bounce up and down.”  Seventy-five more years have taken a toll as you’ll see at left below.  I’m guessing that what Mr. Comps refers to as “the lane” was somewhere near the path that starts north of the playground and goes all the way to Center Pond. Our Playground Pond on the right is likely what he refers to as the “Lane Swamp.”

“Across from it was The Duck Swamp where all Mike’s ducks would go when they wanted to take to water.” Since this one’s so close to the house location, I’m thinking that his younger brother’s domestic ducks took off to the wetland just west of the Snell path into the park where Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) were singing lustily this week.

Pond near the house Mike's ducks
A true “swamp” is a forested wetland with a mix of live trees and standing dead trees, or snags. The family’s domestic ducks took off to “Duck Swamp.”

Or perhaps he meant the wetland, just north of there, where today woodpeckers are constantly drilling in the trees. Not much open water for ducks now, though.  It’s filled in with native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Lane Swamp
This could also be “Duck Swamp” though it’s a bit farther from the house site.

One thing we do know is that the  “Walnut Lane” I refer to was “the lane” when the Comps children played on the farm. Mr. Comps describes going out on a moonlight walk with his sister when they were young.  “We started out and went down the lane because it was easier walking.  When we got to the lake, we heard an owl hoot and it sounded very close.  At the end of the lane was a big huge oak tree and we stopped and listened. It hooted again and we spotted it sitting on the edge of a low branch.”

white oak at center pond
The same “big huge oak,” that George Comps saw near the Center Pond 75 years ago – only “bigger and huger” now!

The “Little Lake,” our Center Pond now,  shows how different the landscape looked when Bear Creek was farmed 75 years ago.  Here’s another view of “The Little Lake” in 1940 and a closer shot of it today.  Now the pond is surrounded by trees and thickets of dense bushes, some native ones and many invasive shrubs.  The cultivated fields, once grazed by cattle or mowed for hay, are now full of wildflowers,  again some native, many non-native, and some invasive.

Big Rock n side pondWhen the Comps children took the moonlit walk to the Little Lake,  George Comps waited on the south side of the lake while his sister found her favorite place on “the Big Rock” on the north side of the pond.  Today, that rock, I’m quite sure, is still here, a short distance up the northern loop and surrounded by invasive bushes.  George’s sister sat there to watch the water.   Today, it can’t be sat upon and the view is obscured by woody shrubs.  Eventually, stewardship will bring back some of openness that the Comps children enjoyed, though rather than simply grazed fields, we hope for widely spaced trees and native wildflowers with their faces to the sun.

What Bear Creek Provides Today:  Peaceful Beauty

We, of course, don’t rely on Bear Creek Nature Park in the same way the Comps family had to, for food, warmth and pocket money. But it still provides its bounty for us by filtering and slowing stormwater, housing bees and other native pollinators to tend our crops, providing us with a healthy respite from our busy lives and many other ways. We leave the flowers and nuts to seed again and the bees, muskrats, crows and ground hogs live undisturbed within its boundaries. But they and all of the nature at Bear Creek still share the same beauty and peace that the Comps family treasured 75 years ago. “Mom liked to go wandering down to the woods. She was a decidedly observant person and never missed a thing when it came to nature.  This was her way to relax and get away from the trials and tribulations of the day to day problems…” All of us who enjoy Bear Creek benefit in just the same way today.

My thanks to Mr. Comps for writing down such a lively and frank account of life on a plot of land much beloved by our citizens  – and to his long-time friend,  Janet Potton, who gave me permission to use photos and quotes from the book.