Field Note: Restoring the Past and Preserving the Future in the Wet Prairie Woodlands

On a gray day in mid-December, while buzzing about trying to complete a myriad of Christmas errands, a message appeared on my phone from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager. He wanted me to know that he and a small crew were working in the woods at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Aha! Ben knows that restoration of that particular woods is of special interest to me! So when a free moment appeared, I grabbed my camera and headed north on the trail from Silver Bell Road to see the transformations taking place in one of my favorite restoration projects.

A Reminder about an Historic Change in Paint Creek

As I’ve explained in a previous blog, for eons Paint Creek wandered through the floodplain west of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road. But in the late 19th century, the stream bed was moved to accommodate the railroad that ran along what is now the Trail. Since then, the water in the original bed comes from rain, snow melt, and some groundwater. After human intervention dramatically altered the water flow (or hydrology) of the area, non-native bushes, vines and trees invaded the wet meadows and moist open woodland along the former stream bed.

The new, non-natives had distinct advantages. Their predators – insects, fungi, animals – were left behind in their countries of origin. They could easily compete with native plants whose predators are also native. The open tree canopy closed, and the woodland floor darkened. And over the next century, invasive shrubs and vines gradually choked off or shaded out most of the native plants that had bloomed for millennia in the woodland and wet meadows and along the former creek bed.

A 1963 aerial photo showing the old bed of Paint Creek (blue), the core wet-mesic prairie area (green), and the current active restoration area outlined in red.

The Restoration Process Begins to Unfold

Most of the work at the Wet Prairie since its acquisition in 2003 had concentrated on the core wet-mesic prairie and the wet meadows to the south. In 2018, a parks prescribed burn contractor conducted a controlled burn in the north half of the park which top-killed huge thickets of non-native brush. Restoration was off and running! But much more was needed, of course, and heavy equipment was impractical in a delicate, very moist area.

So in late 2020, Ben, stewardship specialist Grant VanderLaan, staff from Six Rivers Land Conservancy, and volunteers took on the monumental task of cutting and carefully burning as many non-native bushes and vines as possible in the northern wet meadows and woodland. In some areas, careful application of herbicides to stumps and small re-sprouts followed in order to eliminate invasive species while doing as little harm as possible to any native plants still struggling to survive beneath the non-native thickets. It was an exhausting, laborious process, but what a transformation was taking shape!

This past autumn, the crew’s goal was to continue to increase light reaching the woodland floor to help the special mix of woodland wildflowers, grasses, and sedges return. To do this they reduced the number of fallen ash trees caused by emerald ash borer damage, removed any last invasive shrubs, and thinned trees that were choking out the remaining oaks in the area. As they’ve done annually for several years, volunteers also collected and cleaned a record amount of native wildflower and grass seed from local populations. The Wet Prairie woodlands were an ideal location for sowing some of it once this fall’s work was completed.

Small Winter Fires of Brush and Fallen Logs Release Nutrients Back to the Soil

Piles of branches and logs from old dead falls piled where the canopy is tall and open.

In mid-December, Ben’s message appeared on my phone with a photo of a small part of the work area. Amazed at what I saw, I left Christmas prep behind and headed to the Wet Prairie. The work crew was small by then – just Ben, Grant and hard-working volunteers George Hartsig and Jon Reed. They had removed a remarkable amount of non-native shrubs and vines and piled them along with the ash deadfalls and thinned saplings in open areas where low fires on moist ground could not reach the canopy. Then they’d set the piles ablaze on the wet soil and tended the fires until they had turned to ash. Wet winter days are ideal for this work and I was happy to see plumes of white smoke rising in multiple spots throughout the woodland when I arrived.

Multiple fires burned in the moist woodland, tended by Dr. Ben, stewardship specialist Grant VanderLaan and volunteer George Hartsig.
A section of the woodland restoration area with burn piles smoking in the distance in the current work area.

I was delighted to see the woods opening further with the restoration work. Now patches of sunlight and rain could nurture the woodland floor, and struggling wet meadow plants could grow. Another part of the moist woodland could breathe again.

The “Comeback Kids”: Native Plants Return and an Iconic Bird Responds to Restoration

Though invasive plants had decimated many of the native species that once bloomed on the forest floor and along the banks of the stream bed, a few hardy survivors appear each year as restoration continues. Last year, in an area along the Paint Creek Trail formerly blanked by thickets of bittersweet, privet, glossy buckthorn and autumn olive, a gorgeous carpet of native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) emerged on its own! Imagine how long those native wildflowers had waited for the sun and the rain!

Last summer, the stewardship crew spotted a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) exploring a possible nesting cavity on a dead tree at the Wet Prairie. These birds prefer woodlands with open canopies and plenty of standing dead trees, just the conditions that restoration work had provided over the years (with some help from the emerald ash borer, in this case.) A hopeful sign that restoration will encourage the return of other species!

A Red-Headed Woodpecker at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie in summer 2022.

During my December visit, Ben pointed out some of the remaining green leaves or dry stems of sturdy native plants that have emerged since restoration granted them their days in the sunshine and rain.

A Final Step for this Year: Sowing Native Seed

Sadly, few native plants survived the long years of domination by non-native species. Ben would like to return more native wildflowers and grasses to this special woodland. So as the fires burned low this winter, Grant used a leaf blower to open patches around the cleared area to allow native seed to reach the soil. And George spread the collected seed mixes in the woods – a mesic savanna mix for consistently moist areas and a sunny wet meadow mix for wetter spots.

Isn’t it cheering that native seed prefers to be sown in the coldest months? It’s so counter-intuitive and I love that! In fact, many native seeds need the cold to germinate. Then these hardy native plants spend about three years growing deep roots until they fully bloom, ready for Michigan’s unpredictable weather. We’ll have to be patient, but with luck, the wait will be worth it. Here are a few of the plants we can hope to see taking up residence in the woodland at the Wet Prairie once they’ve established their deep root systems. (Click on black boxes at the edge of the frame to move through the slideshow below.)

Looking to the Past to Help the Future Flourish

Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) under the open canopy in a restored area within the Wet Prairie Woodland in 2021

As I watched the fires on that gray December day, I felt that Ben and his stewardship plans were not only restoring an ancient ecosystem that nature had developed over thousands of years. Restoration will also make it possible for nature, with a bit of help from us, to once more determine what will develop and thrive there in the future. At an online workshop I attended in November, Gregory Nowicki of the US Department of Agriculture summed up restoration with a quote he found that perfectly captured what I felt as I watched those fires slowly burning down in the Wet Prairie Woods.

Restoration uses the past not as a goal but as a reference point for the future. If we seek to recreate the temperate forests, tall grass savannas, or desert communities of centuries past, it is not to turn back the evolutionary clock but to set it ticking again.” (Falk 1990)

Yes! Nature knows best and humans, even with the best intentions, have interfered with ancient processes that supported a healthy, highly varied habitat. Those carpets of invasive plants appeared in our parks because humans moved them here from distant lands. But in Oakland Township, we are lending nature a helping hand, letting it get back to work at filling our parks and natural areas with healthy habitat that supports the birds, animals, and insects that share the benefits of nature’s bounty with us. What a Christmas gift Ben gave me when he sent me that text!

Thanks to Our Stewardship Crew, a Hard Workin’ Group!

I can’t believe I already have to write this goodbye post; it seems like just yesterday this crew was starting out, learning what it takes to be a well-oiled habitat restoration machine. Like previous years, our natural areas stewardship team has picked and sprayed its way through garlic mustard, crown vetch, swallow-wort, a multitude of invasive shrubs, bittersweet, and Phragmites. To top it all off each person has written several amazing blog posts about topics like golden oyster mushrooms, Blanding’s turtles, cow parsnip, and fens. We were able to accomplish so much this summer. Without their help the parks wouldn’t look as good as they do now!

Cassie returned to Northern Michigan University where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife management. Emma returned to Ohio University to continue her bachelor’s degree in field ecology with a certification in environmental studies. Finally, Camryn is exploring opportunities to continue her career in the field of ecology.

Their curiosity, infectious positivity, and love of nature were greatly appreciated this summer! The effects that they have had on our parks will be seen for years to come. We wish them the best of luck in their next endeavors. We will miss you guys!

A Fragile, Wet Prairie Full of Encouraging Discoveries

A patch of familiar native plants near the southwest end of the Wet Prairie – Bee Balm, Black-eyed Susan and Butterfly Weed

Ah, the excitement of meeting interesting and beautiful strangers, eh? After all, it’s the premise of so many stories from childhood on – that moment when you’re surprised and delighted by a face you’ve never seen before. Novelists and script writers have thrived on it for centuries, it seems.

As many of you know, I’m new to the presence of native wildflowers in the landscape. Since I started volunteering with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, he’s introduced me to a bevy of native blooms emerging beneath my feet that I was completely unaware of, despite years of being an outdoor enthusiast. So when Ben kindly alerted me to some unusual wildflowers that he’d spotted at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail this July, I set out to find these inhabitants of the township that I’d never met before.

[Please note: As you’ll see below, the Wet Prairie is a very special and fragile place, so you’ll find it has no trails. It is technically best described as a wet-mesic prairie, according to the classification from Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Ben and his crew go there to perform important restoration work. I’m allowed to go there periodically with permission from Ben in order to bring some of the beauty of this unusual habitat to our residents in a way that doesn’t injure this special natural area. So please observe it only from the trail.]

Why Our Wet Prairie is Wet, Unlike Your Stereotypical Prairie

The original bed of Paint Creek north of the Wet Prairie before it was moved to its current position to accommodate the coming of a railroad. It fills with rain and snow melt each spring.

I don’t know about you, but in the past, I’d always envisioned prairies being like the ones in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books or western movies – big flat, dry, sunny places out west somewhere. But early on in one of Ben’s workshops, I learned that our area of Michigan was covered with oak savanna and prairie before European colonization. In that era, Paint Creek meandered in a curving flow through what is now woods and fields that surround the Wet Prairie. Periodic fires – both natural ones and ones set by indigenous people – kept the Wet Prairie free of shrubs and trees, making it a moist but sunny spot. Perhaps some of my new floral acquaintances this July first settled in then.

Loading gravel onto rail cars from a location along the Paint Creek Trail, c. 1920 (Photo courtesy of the Oakland Township Historical Society)

In the late 19th century, a railroad company moved Paint Creek east to its current position along the trail. Sparks from the trains continued to cause repeated wildfires along the track near the Wet Prairie which not only knocked back large vegetation but also favored native plants that had adapted to fire over the centuries. Shortly after the railroad arrived, an ambitious local resident began mining gravel from the current site of the Wet Prairie and loading it on train cars to sell in Detroit. Though the creek wasn’t feeding the prairie any longer, the land removal meant that the water table, with its rich collection of minerals, was left very near the surface. As a result, native wildflowers that require mineral-rich moisture could find a comfortable home there, and must have been abundant enough to establish in the newly exposed area.

Ben felling a few trees that shaded out rare plants on the Wet Prairie

In recent years, Ben and his stewardship crews have removed many invasive shrubs and trees that encroached on the prairie when the railroad was abandoned and eventually replaced by the Paint Creek Trail. Many of the special plants here have also benefited from the crew’s periodic prescribed burns over several years which eliminate a layer of dead thatch and allow open areas for native seedlings adapted to fire to take root. As a result of that stewardship work and perhaps the abundantly rainy spring this year followed by weeks of sunlight, some wildflowers that I hadn’t met before appeared in the Wet Prairie. I was delighted to meet them. Hope you will be, too.

The Beautiful Strangers that I First Met This Summer

The first two plants below have a special designation at the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website. About 45 years ago, botanists and ecologists created a system for rating the faithfulness of individual native species to high-quality natural communities that retain some of the native flora found in early surveys done circa 1800. Native plants are given a score between 1 and 10, 10 being the best for indicating a habitat that is very special. Non-native plants have no score. Native plants adapted to human or natural disturbance and found just about everywhere, like boxelder, score a zero on what’s called the “Coefficient of Conservatism,” or C value. Species that are found almost always in high-quality natural communities have a high C value (greater than 7).

False Asphodel and Prairie Loosestrife in the Wet Prairie are scored a perfect 10. The presence of these native wildflowers, and others with high C values indicates that the Wet Prairie is a rare remnant high-quality natural area. This natural area hosts some of the plants that likely bloomed more widely throughout southeast Michigan before agriculture, industry, logging, and mining arrived in the early 19th century. Nature fostered a rich diversity of plants then which included these wildflowers. So the Wet Prairie producing two flowers that are rated at 10 on the scale this year is impressive! And as you’ll see below, three others are scored at 8 as well. Their appearance is a strong indicator that restoration is working in Oakland Township.

If Ben and I had seen False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) earlier in the season, it might have appeared to have reddish tips like the photo on left by Nate Martineau at inaturalist.org. When we saw it, however, a hot July had changed them to brown. Now in August, the sepals have folded up over the developing fruit capsule which turns red as the tiny seeds inside mature. This little wildflower feeds a wide variety of bees, wasps and butterflies. It grows largely in high quality areas all over the country and can form colonies; I hope it forms one in the Wet Prairie!

I originally identified the nodding yellow flowers in the photo below as native Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), which I’d seen at the Wet Prairie before. But the centers of the Wet Prairie blossoms weren’t red like the ones with which I was familiar. (I didn’t notice until later that the leaves were radically different as well!) Ben later explained that the new ones were native Prairie Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora) which prefers moist prairies and fens rich with chalky, calcium-rich soils, making it an ideal native resident in our Wet Prairie. This wildflower also scores a 10 in the Conservatism scale for being an indicator of ancient habitat here. The restoration work of the stewardship team over the last several years seems to have been rewarded this year!

Ben helped me locate native Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) at the Wet Prairie. I’d only seen the nursery version (cultivar) which popped up once in the woods at my home. This delicate native beauty likes full sunlight. It may have bloomed at the Wet Prairie this year after shade trees at the prairie edge were thinned in recent years. Lots of native and non-native bees draw nectar from Harebells.

When Ben took this photo, the Harebells still looked lovely despite beginning to fade. What a graceful shape and soft lavender hue. Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Here and there I spotted stalks of Pale Spiked Lobelia (Lobelia spicata). This lovely, but short-lived wildflower requires full sun, but needed those days of spring rain we had in May to keep its seedlings alive. According to a website I find useful, illinoiswildflowers.info, this lobelia attracts a whole host of native bees, including miner bees, little carpenter bees, mason bees, leaf-cutting bees, plus butterflies and other pollinators. What a contribution this plant is making!

Pale Spiked Lobelia attracts many native bees in its short life. They come for its nectar rather than its pollen.

Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale) likes the partial shade at the edge of the prairie. It spreads by rhizomes, underground stems beneath the soil. According to the website of Friends of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden in Minnesota, indigenous peoples used the roots to create red and yellow dyes and later, settlers used its fragrant, dried foliage to stuff pillows and mattresses.

Northern Bedstraw can grow to over 3 feet in partial shade. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Ben spotted a tiny flower that I was unable to find during my visit, native Whorled Milkwort (Polygala verticillata). Its central spike is only about 3/4 inches tall and it’s surrounded by tiny flowers that never fully open but have pink stamens protruding from the blossoms. I’m so glad Ben got a photo; I’ll look for it again next summer.

I like the spiky leaves and pink-tipped blossoms on the very small Whorled Milkwort. Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Glamorous Acquaintances That I Catch a Glimpse of Now and Then

Each year the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) produces more of its dramatic, nodding blooms in various restored areas of the township. Please don’t confuse it with any other orange lily! It is distinguished by its downward facing blossom consisting of 6 six spotted petals/tepals curving dramatically upward, and a cascade of 6 stamens with dark anthers (the male flower parts) and a long pistil (the female part). Michigan Lily has whorled leaves, while the non-native tiger lily used in landscaping has alternate leaves that often have purple-brown bulblets where leaves meet the stem. Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) and even Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies sip nectar from our dramatic Michigan lilies!

Five stunning blooms on one stem of Michigan Lily at the Wet Prairie! Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Showy Tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) emerges in mid-summer and lasts about 3 weeks. Its shapely pink-lavender blossoms don’t provide nectar, but the pollen is sought after by many pollinators and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of two lovely, small butterflies – the Eastern Tailed Blue (Everes comyntas)and Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) – among others.

Beware! Showy Tick-trefoil produces hairy seeds pods that are distributed by sticking tenaciously to passing animals and human clothing!

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), a member of Rose family, may not initially look as elegant as some of the other native flowers in the prairie, but it boasts a Conservatism Coefficient of 8, which means that it’s another strong indicator that that Wet Prairie is a high-quality natural area. Like false asphodel and prairie loosestrife, shrubby cinquefoil prefers to grow in areas with calcium and magnesium-rich groundwater or soil.

Elegant and Important Old Friends that Arrive in Late Summer and Fall

I look for these wildflowers each year on the Wet Prairie and last shared them in detail in a Wet Prairie blog from October of 2020. Look at the link for more information about these very special plants. Two of them, Grass of Parnassus and Fringed Gentian score an 8 on the Conservatism Coefficient scale, like the Shrubby Cinquefoil – more evidence of a high quality area with wildflowers that thrived in this area for centuries.

More Old Friends and Some of their Insect Partners and Visitors

Here’s a slideshow of native plants I’ve loved in the Wet Prairie over the years and some of the insects partners that frequent them.

The Delights of Discovery

A native Bumblebee departs a fading Bee Balm blossom at the Wet Prairie

I’m always beset with a marvelous sense of discovery the first time I’m introduced to an unusual plant like False Asphodel or a fascinating specimen like the Great Golden Digger Wasp. And once I see them, I want to learn what a new friend of mine referred to as their “stories,” e.g., their contributions to sustaining life in a particular habitat, their mating rituals, their migration patterns or overwintering sites, and on and on.

Of course, like most of you kind readers, I can’t possibly remember every detail shared here. But it’s satisfying to have recorded and shared that they live here with us. I want to be ever more aware of how we humans are just one species embedded in nature’s huge, intricate design that sustains us.

I’m glad you’re here to share these experiences with me. Together we can keep working to restore what humans have – often unwittingly – disrupted, damaged or even destroyed on this little blue planet. Perhaps our growing curiosity, sense of wonder and respect for nature’s brilliance will inspire us and our descendants to live a bit more modestly among our wild brethren. We can always hope, right?

A Great Field Season, and an Even Better Crew!

As we welcome the cooler weather, changing of the leaves, and pumpkin spice lattes, we have to say goodbye to our natural areas stewardship summer crew. From early April through the end of September the crew has been hard at work completing many projects that were given to them. These projects included pulling garlic mustard, control of woody invasive species, treatment of crown vetch and swallow wort, and the treatment of Phragmites. (If you would like to learn more about what we did, check out the excellent stewardship blog posts that the crew wrote this summer!) This list just barely scratches the surface of what they were able to accomplish. Without their hard work and dedication to land stewardship, we wouldn’t have accomplished as many projects this summer. The crew helped keep the natural areas in our parks beautiful and healthy.

Katri will be pursuing her master’s degree from Oakland University this upcoming winter, studying aquatic ecology. Parker is working on applying to graduate school this fall and trying to continue to gain experience in the ecology field. Finally, Max will be returned to Michigan State for his junior year to continue pursuing his degree in crop and soil science.

We truly appreciate all of their hard work, curiosity about the world around them, and positive attitudes this summer! Their contributions to our parks will be seen for years to come as we continue work into the winter and next summer. We want to wish them the best of luck in their next endeavors. We will miss you guys!

Ben, Katri, Parker, Grant, and Max (left to right)

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.

Click to access 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.
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/