October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
This post was written by our stewardship technicians, whose season officially ended at the end of September. We are thankful for their contributions to keeping our natural areas beautiful!
As the season for the summer crew ends, we would like to thank Alex and Marisa (seasonal land stewardship technicians) and Alyssa (our former Stewardship Specialist) for all of their hard work. Grant started as a seasonal technician this year, and will be staying on as our new Stewardship Specialist. They got hands-on experience natural areas management, obtained different certifications, and gained leadership experience that will help in their future endeavors. Our crew always had a positive, hardworking attitude that we will miss! We wish you all the best of luck!
During this field season, the crew gained experience with many tasks. The season started with the installation of new nest boxes and the restoration of old ones at Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. These boxes were set up for the purpose of increasing the bluebird and tree swallow populations. An enthusiastic group of volunteers monitored all of the boxes through from April to August!
Then it was straight into garlic mustard removal. The crew pulled garlic mustard from many parks like Cranberry Lake Park, O’Connor Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and many others. It takes quite a long time to remove garlic mustard from these parks, but it is truly necessary to prevent its detrimental effects in mature forest. We found less garlic mustard this year, so our persistent work seems to be paying off! If you would like to know more about garlic mustard, how to identify it, or more please visit the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network website.
Volunteers from FCA Motor Citizens helped us pull garlic mustard along the Paint Creek Trail
Alyssa shows off a vigorous garlic mustard plant at Cranberry Lake Park
During this season, the crew completed native landscaping at Gallagher Creek Park around the new playground. They were able to plant over 25 different species of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges, as well as six species of trees and shrubs. The purpose of the native garden beds is to help educate the public on different kinds of native species that they could use in their own landscaping. It was also planted with pollinators in mind, including bees and monarch butterflies. We even found some monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed in August! Don’t forget to check this area through the year as this cool mix of native plants continually repaints its canvas.
Our next big task was controlling crown vetch (Securigaria varia) and swallow-wort (Cynanchum species) in the parks. These two species are a high priority for us, so we treat them anywhere we find them in the parks. Like garlic mustard, they are aggressive, and beat out native species for nutrients and space. The control was done using herbicides due to the ineffectiveness of hand pulling, mowing, and burning.
After that the crew moved on to do woody invasive species control, including common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, privet, honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, and autumn olive. This control was mainly done at Bear Creek Nature Park using the cut stump technique. The crew was able to get through a large portion of the park, as well as put a large dent in the glossy buckthorn that has taken over the area around the marsh on the north side of the park. Like most invasive species, both buckthorn and autumn olive have a tendency to out compete native species, take over areas, and become detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. Buckthorn can lower the water table in wetlands, and secretes a chemical that interferes with amphibian reproduction!
Some smaller tasks that were completed were our yearly photo monitoring of several parks including Gallagher Creek Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Stony Creek Ravine, and a few others. These photos are for our records to see the changes in these areas over time. We also completed our lake monitoring (Secchi disk and total phosphorus) which was done through the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program (CLMP). This is done to monitor the quality of the lake and help identify problems.
Grant checks the transparency of Twin Lake using a Secchi disc
Alex sets up a photo monitoring point
The crew had the opportunity to attend workshops throughout the season including one that focused on the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, a chainsaw safety workshop, and a wetland grass identification training. They also received several different certifications including first aid, CPR, herbicide applicator, and chainsaw safety and use.
Throughout the summer, there have been several different volunteer workdays and Wednesday bird walks. These include garlic mustard control, woody invasive species control, and providing assistance for our native plantings. We would like to extend a big thank you to everyone that came out and helped us at these different volunteer work days. The Wednesday bird walks are lead by Ben, the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, and take place at a rotation of five parks. If you are interested in volunteering or attending the bird walks, please check our the website pages linked above or the parks newsletter for upcoming events.
It has been a long field season, but the crew has managed to complete a lot this summer. It is rewarding to see all that we accomplished! Be sure to be on the look out for the occasional update this winter from Ben or Grant, the new Stewardship Specialist.
The stewardship crew has been busy managing more invasive woody shrubs along the Paint Creek Trail and at Bear Creek Nature Park. One invasive woody shrub species we would like to highlight is oriental bittersweet (Celastrusorbiculatus). Bittersweet can be found in a wide range of habitats from woodlands to marshes. It’s a woody vine that will wrap around other plants and trees, covering the vegetation completely and killing them in the process. The twining stems can even climb up to the top of mature trees!
One way to identify bittersweet is by its extensive, bright orange roots. The leaves are alternate along the stem (not in pairs), with toothed margins. The leaves often have a roundish body that tapers to a long tip, but can vary in shape. Its flowers are a pale greenish-yellow and can be found at the base of the leaves along the stem. Bittersweet produces small orange fruits, which makes the vines popular in holiday wreathes.
This aggressive invasive species can produce large populations from just one seed! Small root fragments can also regenerate, making it difficult to remove completely. Birds and small mammals enjoy the fruits and help this invasive species travel long distances – however the fruits are poisonous to humans and livestock. Don’t spread bittersweet with your holiday wreath!
So if you see the crew out in the parks and would like to learn more about bittersweet and how to identify it, please stop to ask questions!
Summer is finally taking hold. Many of the flowers, butterflies and other insects are late this year, but they’re slowly appearing. Warm days allowed fledglings to emerge from their nests and use their tiny wings to pursue their parents into the fields and marshes, begging to be fed. Many of the young birds look a bit shaky out on their own. Parent birds whisk back and forth, beaks lined with seed or bearing a drooping caterpillar. Wildflowers, long buried under invasive shrubs that were removed last fall, are emerging from the seed bank in all their glory. A time of renewal for sure!
So join me on a virtual circuit of Bear Creek Nature Park – from the meadows, to the pond, through the woods to the marsh and back to monitor the bird boxes. I’m happy to have you along!
Fledglings Venture Forth into Sunny Meadows
As I began my walk, rambling along the path through the eastern meadow, I was suddenly aware of lots of movement and noisy chattering in the bushes and small trees. Little fledglings were perching there, occasionally fluttering and calling, reminding their busy parents to bring them a meal. A little Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) struggled up onto a branch near an adult who took off immediately to look for food, leaving the youngster looking just a bit insecure!
Another youngster perched on a branch seemed on high alert as it looked out on the meadow. The striped feathers and the fact that adult Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) were nearby makes me think that it’s their fledgling.
On a birding walk a week earlier, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, heard the high, wheezy call of the small Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). Looking up we spotted a tiny nest near the top of a walnut tree. Two adult gnatcatchers were industriously taking turns bringing food to their young. The left photo shows what we could see of the nest and the parent bird from below, though the group did catch a glimpse at one point of a fluttering wing as a nestling leaned out to get the goodies. I’ve included an earlier photo of an adult Gnatcatcher as it forages. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Dragonflies and Damselflies Hover and Dart in the Meadows
Dragonflies maneuver across the meadows, moving up, down and forward, in their search for unwary insects or possible mates. The broken wood of the mowed invasive shrubs makes a handy resting place for them. A juvenile male Common Whitetail dragonfly (Libellula lydia) rested quite near a more adult one, perhaps learning the ropes? The white patches at the bottom of the hind wings are field marks for the juvenile. When mature, the whole abdomen is covered in a dusty white, referred to as “prunescence.”
A juvenile Common Whitetail perches, hoping to catch a passing insect.
An adult male Common Whitetail uses his white tail to establish his territory.
The male Eastern Pondhawk dragonfly (Erythemis simplicicollis) also found the woody shards a great place to lie in wait. Though the female is bright green all over, the male’s colors transition from a green face, to a blue-green thorax and a slaty blue abdomen. Quite a handsome fellow!
Lots of orange dragonflies cling to stalks in the meadow grass. They belong to the genus Sumpetrum, but knowledgeable folk in the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” inform me that you can only determine the species of orange dragonflies if you have one in hand with a magnifying glass! And of course, I’m never in a summer meadow, it seems, without seeing the striking Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa).
Damselflies seem more likely to prefer shady areas. But I do occasionally see them in tall meadow grass. Here’s a male Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes dryas) I saw when wading through deep grass one warm afternoon. Like dragonflies, they consume a lot of mosquitoes, which pleases me and you too, I bet.
The Seed Bank Awakens as Restoration Begins
Perhaps the biggest thrill for me in the meadows this week, though, was the reappearance of long lost wildflowers. Evidently, beneath those invasive shrubs in the meadows near the pond, seeds and small plants of native wildflowers had been waiting for maybe decades while the fields were covered either with grazing fodder for cattle or abandoned to non-native plants. Now the sun and rain have reached the earth over them again and they are making a comeback!
Out in the meadow west of the pond, large patches of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) have emerged where previously we only saw a single plant here or there. And as you’ll see further down in the blog, the Monarch butterflies are already finding them.
A spectacular wildflower blooming this year is one neither Ben nor I have ever seen before in Bear Creek Nature Park – the Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense) – not to be confused with the non-native tiger lilies or the much less glamorous Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva) which originated in Asia. I’d only seen this striking native with its cup of curved petals, arching stem and showy stigma near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. But this beauty at Bear Creek waited patiently. Once warmth and moisture reached it, up it came just west of the Center Pond. Michigan lilies can be tempting to hummingbirds and many butterflies. I saw one other bud, so I’m hoping for more!
Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) and Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) have staged a comeback, too. A Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) at the edge of the path had produced its bright green berries on a wide spadix. The berries will turn a brilliant red in the fall. Who knows what else will emerge over the summer and fall?
Butterflies Arrive – but Not Enough for Me, Yet!
As the mid-summer wildflowers finally begin to bloom, the butterflies are begging to appear. Sun-loving Butterfly Milkweed hosted a Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) last week. Since this is a female Monarch, we can hope that it will lays its eggs either on the leaves of this milkweed or on one of the many Common Milkweeds in the eastern meadow.
A Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) took a while to show me the bright white spot on the lower (ventral) side of its hind wing. It looks quite different when the “silver spot” is out of sight!
A very tired, worn, Black Swallowtail sat quietly on the path one afternoon. According to Wikipedia, Black Swallowtails are generally longer-lived than other butterflies, unless subjected to bad weather or deprived of food. We’ve had pretty wild weather and the flowers are behind schedule, so perhaps that took its toll on this unfortunate female.
The Little Wood Satyr (Papilio polyxenes), though, seemed be just fine as it danced along in its bouncing flight from shade into the sun and back again.
On to the Pond and Its Frog Song
A few blossoms of White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris) still peek from the background of abundant Duckweed (Lemna minor) at the Center Pond. The Northern Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) sprawl comfortably among it, floating at the surface and croaking in their banjo voices to attract mates. Since males have a tympanum (circular hearing device near the eye) bigger than their eyes and a yellow throat, this one staring at me intently was definitely a male.
Frog “talk” this July:
I smiled at this small Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) who seemed to be listening to the frogs right along with me. But more likely, it was just basking in the warm sunlight after a cold spring, and trying to ignore the frog voices. It’s decorated nicely with bits of Duckweed.
Into the Woods
The woods on the east side of the park let in so much more light now that the invasive shrubs have been removed! I keep hoping I’ll see more woodland wildflowers because of it. But deer are plentiful at Bear Creek so that’s a slim hope; they love to eat native plants and young saplings. But a couple of woodland flowers escaped their notice, probably because both of them are a bit fuzzy, which puts deer off: Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea canadensis) and Panicled Tick Trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum). Both thrive in the dappled sunlight of the woods so perhaps I will see them spread as sunlight reaches more of the forest floor.
Panicled Tick Trefoil has tiny hairs on the stem
In the fall, Enchanter’s Nightshade will make prickly seed pods that can be carried by passing humans or animals.
Unfortunately for humans, native Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is more abundant in the woods and everywhere else this year. But if you stay on the paths, you’ll be just fine. Look for a three leaved plant on which the center leaf has two “thumbs” but the right and left leaves have only one “thumb” – or look for a vine with that leaf arrangement and reddish “feet” clinging to the bark. Poison ivy isn’t poisonous for animals, though. It produces green berries that turn white in the fall just at the time when other berries are disappearing. So migrating birds gobble them up, enjoying a boost of energy and protein before heading south. Northern Flickers, Bobwhite Quail, Eastern Phoebes, Cedar Waxwings, Woodpeckers, Tufted Titmice, and American Robins all readily eat Poison Ivy berries. Raccoons and deer can eat the whole plant – and they’re welcome to them, as far as I’m concerned.
I followed the song of an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) high in the treetops as I entered the woods. I paused, listened, moved a little – no luck at seeing him in the high treetops. After about 10 minutes of following him from one tree to the next, I gave up and moved on. Luckily, the following week ,the birding group spotted one in the open at Cranberry Lake Park, so at least I can show you a somewhat fuzzy photo of “the one who got away.”
A Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) sang one of its summer songs repeatedly, but it was also hidden in the leafy branches. It’s a classic, summer moment when this unmistakable, ebullient call reverberates from the treetops!
Damselflies love the “spotlight effect” they get from the filtered light in the forest. I came upon a female Ebony Jewelwing (Calopteryx maculata) who seemed to be trying to seduce an oddly unmotivated male. Each posed on a sunlight leaf, but she would periodically fly briefly onto his leaf, making him jump off for a few moments. Perhaps she hoped to be pursued, but it was not happening while I was there. I’m afraid I caught her at an indiscreet moment when she paused to poop a few moments later….
A woodland moth slept soundly on a leaf at the edge of the woods one afternoon. The caterpillar of the White Slant-line Moth (Tetracis cachexiata) feeds on all kinds of native trees, so it’s a common moth in woods and forests all over Canada and the US. I love the simple design of its bright white wings and subtle yellow stripe.
As I walked off the path in the woods to follow the Towhee, clouds of what I think were Hangingflies (genus Bittacidae) rose from the greenery under my feet. These harmless creatures are a relative of the also harmless Scorpion Fly (family Panorpidae) I saw last year at Bear Creek, named for the upward curve of the male’s abdomen. Both belong to the order Mecoptera. But the delicate legs of Hangingflies cannot support their body weight! So instead they hang by their front legs beneath leaves and capture aphids, moths and other passing insects with their long back legs! Nature always finds a solution. I felt lucky to find one suspended in a spot of sunlight beneath a grass stem.
Bear Creek Marsh – Wet, Green and Full of Life
The native Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) has round, green buds just waiting to burst into balls of white blossoms in the summer heat. It lines one half of the southern platform overlooking the Bear Creek Marsh.
Here’s what each of those buds will look like shortly!
At the northern platform, my husband spotted an adult Green Heron (Butorides virescens) standing among the cat-tails and rushes across from the deck. It probably had been probing the mud for food. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, it has a wide ranging diet – from frogs to fish, snails, insects – even rodents! This one took off and landed high in a tree overlooking the marsh. I just learned from Cornell that Green Herons actually nest in a large fork in a shrub or tree with overhanging limbs to hide the nest from predators like snakes, crows or grackles. I’d love to see the nest or young of this handsome bird!
As usual in the summer, we looked for slow-moving mounds of mud or moss in the water, a sure sign of Common Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina). We eventually saw four, a large one and 3 smaller ones. It helped when the big one raised its head on that long neck. The snappers weren’t much interested in each other at the moment and spent a lot of time munching on fresh underwater plants.
Of course, Red-winged Blackbirds dotted the marsh as well, clinging onto cat-tail stems and trilling. On my first visit, a female scolded me continually while I sat on the bench. Eventually, I realized that her nest was nearby when a male appeared with a worm or caterpillar in his beak. He quickly dropped into the grasses near the water to feed his young.
A week later, I saw a Red-winged fledgling watching a male pick apart a cat-tail for seeds. The little one tried to do the same but with little success since its cat-tail head had already been mostly eaten. Later the small bird landed on a cat-tail in the distance where the male obligingly stuffed some seeds into its beak, thank goodness!
Down below the platform, the American Bur-reed was in all stages of blooming – from buds to blossoms to fruits. Marsh plants clean our waterways by storing nitrogen and phosphorus that would otherwise starve the water of oxygen. And Bur-reed is one of the most effective marsh plants, storing four times more than some other aquatic plants. Plants like Bur-reed are one of the reasons conservationists value wetlands so highly!
As I headed back to the parking lot, I walked back along the boardwalk by the playground pond and noticed a sleepy, nocturnal Gray Tree Frog ( Hyla versicolor) resting peacefully on a lower railing.
Stewardship Fosters Nature Here – and Far Beyond the Township
Thanks for taking a virtual hike through Bear Creek with me. I find it heartening that the stewardship crew and Dr. Ben are restoring habitat and fostering the wildlife in this park with all of its natural variety. The invasive shrubs are removed and the seed bank brings back native flowers. The native flowers bloom and butterflies and other insects thrive by feeding at them. The nestlings are fed with the insects’ caterpillars and venture out of their nests and nest boxes to soar over the meadows. In the fall, some of them will travel great distances, bringing their beauty and their role in maintaining healthy habitats to places as far away as South America.
The humble bur-reed is allowed to flourish in the marsh. Because it cleans the water as it stores nutrients in its stems and leaves, Bear Creek’s water is healthier as it flows out of the marsh, eventually reaching Paint Creek. And the fish and other aquatic creatures and plants there benefit from cleaner water – and on it flows into the intricate, inter-locking systems of the natural world.
Stewardship is a lot of hard work but the reward is that it makes a difference not just in our township, but far beyond. Wherever the creek’s water flows, wherever native seeds are carried by creatures, wind or water, wherever migrating birds and butterflies travel, a little bit of our township’s stewardship work has played its part in preserving our natural heritage.
In March, I spent two glorious days at the 32nd annual convention of the Wildflower Association of Michigan. Having worked with Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for four years, I’m still absorbing information on native plants at a ferocious pace.
Like many of us, I’d never given much thought to the sources of plants surrounding my house. The lovely family that built our house no doubt thought of landscaping and gardening more as a decorative exercise than as a crucial way to establish beautiful and healthy habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife. As a result, the small woods on one side of our property is full of non-native plants, shrubs and trees which do little or nothing to create habitat that supports wildlife. Luckily, the other side was left largely in native trees and our small slice of field carries an assortment of prairie plants and grasses.
Dr. Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, gave the keynote at this sold-out conference. He shared the science behind native plants in a completely engaging and easily understandable presentation. Dr. Tallamy and the other presenters opened my mind and put a hopeful smile on my face. Can our lawns and gardens really make a difference in preserving the natural world? Their answer was an emphatic “Yes!” And I’m already envisioning a transformation outside my front door!
Why Bother with Native Plants, Anyway?
Dr. Tallamy began by pointing out that it isn’t really a matter of native vs. non-native. Plants from other parts of the world aren’t “bad,” but as Lois B. Robbins, author of Lawn Wars, puts it “A plant that is well-behaved in its hometown will often lose its inhibitions in another locale and trash the place.” Alien plants can be aggressive in a new environment, crowding out native plants since the restraints present in their native lands are not there to stop them. They can require more watering and fertilizing because they aren’t used to foreign soil. And as you’ll see below, they are not able to feed most of our wildlife. The value of native plants is that they are perfectly suited to their habitat; they have evolved over millions of years to survive in their home environment.
As I discussed in an earlier blog, plants pass along the sun’s energy (and the earth’s nutrients and water) to all the creatures around them, humans included. Some are eaten both by us and by the other creatures in our local habitat. And some in each generation successfully reproduce, providing food for a next generation. But for that process to continue functioning, we specifically need… brace yourself… more insects!
Is It Possible to Be Welcoming to Insects???
We’ve all grown up in a world where insects are referred to as “pests” and routinely swatted, sprayed with deadly chemicals or fried in “bug zappers.” But the famous biologist E.O.Wilson calls them “The Little Things that Run the World.” Why? We first think of them as important for pollination, and they are. They pollinate 80% of all plants and 90% of all flowering plants. Without insects, most plants can’t reproduce.
But there’s more to insects than pollination. Insects form the next ring out from plants in nature’s food web. They eat plants and when eaten themselves, they pass along the sun’s energy to fish, amphibians, reptiles, and of course, birds. According to Dr. Tallamy, insects and spiders “are essential dietary components for 96 percent of North American terrestrial bird species.” They eat them all year, even in winter, seeking out frozen or hibernating insects (or their eggs and larvae) for the protein they need to stay warm. They also need insects in order to raise their young in the spring and summer.
Insect caterpillars are birds’ favorite food for offspring. Caterpillars, the larval stage of insects, pass along the most energy from plants to other animals. Bird feed them to their nestlings because they’re soft for tiny throats. Plus, they’re loaded with both fat and protein for little birds, and caterpillars are large. One fat caterpillar is easier for an adult bird to pluck up and ferry back to the nest than gathering up and delivering hundreds of tiny aphids, for instance. By the way, insects are 25% of a Red Fox’s diet and 23% of a bear’s. So mammals (including in many cultures, humans!) eat them as well.
So, How Does the Importance of Insects Relate to Native Plants?
It turns out that insects vastly prefer the plants with which they evolved. In fact, research shows that 90% of insects are specialists; they will only eat or lay their eggs on certain native plants. The Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is, of course, an extreme example. Out of the 2,137 genera of plants in North America, the Monarch’s caterpillar can eat exactly one – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias).
The very reason butterflies and hundreds of thousands of birds go to the trouble of migrating north is the huge pulse of food produced each spring by our native plants and the insects that feed on them. Butterflies and other insects may lay their eggs on non-native leaves and stems if that’s all that is available, but once the caterpillars hatch, they often can’t eat them or can’t get enough nutrition to finish developing into reproductive adults. With fewer caterpillars, 90% of birds have less to eat – and on it goes throughout the food web.
Dr. Tallamy compared native trees and non-native trees on his property and at the Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio where he does his research. He marked out areas of native and non-native plants and recorded the number of caterpillars found on them over a set period of time. Here are results:
Native Oak – 419 caterpillars from 19 species
Native Wild Cherry – 239 caterpillars from 14 species
Non-native and invasive Callery/Bradford Pear – 1 caterpillar (a common tree in subdivisions and office parks)
Non-native Burning Bush – 4 caterpillars from 1 species
Dr. Tallamy shared the results of a study on CarolinaChickadees (Poecile carolinensis), which need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars in a season to rear one clutch of fledglings! His student, Desirée Narango, compared chickadee breeding success in home landscapes with native plants vs. landscapes filled with non-natives.
The results were pretty dismal for lawns like mine. Non-native areas, like most of my current yard (and maybe yours):
produced 75% fewer caterpillars
were 65% less likely to have breeding chickadees
the nests contained 1.5 fewer eggs
the nestlings were 29% less likely to survive (not enough food!)
nests produced 1.2 fewer fledglings
the maturation of nestlings was slower by 1.5 days
Have a look at Just a few of the many species I’ve seen on one of our common native wildflower, Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa). (Use pause button for captions.)
Have a look in your yard this summer. At the end of the summer, if I bother to look, I’ll find many more signs of insect munching on the big, leafy Black Oaks (Quercus velutina) in our front yard, for instance, than I will on our non-native Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum) or invasive Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia).
“No holes, no chewed leaves, no damage – sounds good to me!” you might be thinking. After all, that’s one reason that you and I have always liked non-native species and why nurseries like to sell them! If you want plants that are just decorative, that might work for you, but not for the nature around you. But step back a few paces and the chewed leaves of natives are hardly noticeable. I’m hoping my yard can be beautiful while also being more productive, filled with life and energy, more a working part of the natural world.
Some Questions You Might Be Asking Yourself
Dr. Tallamy respectfully described some of the questions and challenges other scientists have raised about native plants and their importance. Here’s what his research and the research of others have shown that answered their concerns and maybe yours.
But I’ve seen birds and butterflies feeding on non-native plants! Ten percent of insects are generalists who can eat a wide variety of plants, but even their populations are lower on non-native plants than on natives. Adult butterflies and other native insects can often sip nectar or spread pollen from non-native flowers, thereby helping them take over fields! But unfortunately their caterpillars cannot grow to adults by eating non-native plants. As a result, insects in landscapes with few native plants don’t reproduce effectively, their numbers decline, and the loss is felt throughout the food web.
Birds will also feed on non-native plants, but they often can’t get the nutrition they need. For example, our native plants produce berries in the summer that have low fat and high sugar content, which is great for fledgling birds. In the fall, native berries are high in protein which is just what migrating birds and birds that spend the winter require. Non-native berries in the fall and winter are very low in fat and high in sugar, which won’t sustain birds on migration or in cold weather.
Isn’t this just some romantic notion about returning to an imagined pre-European settlement, pristine world – or even worse, a kind of horticultural prejudice against alien plants? Again, the issue isn’t good plants or bad plants. If we want to restore habitat, we need plants that feed our local food web, that provide insects for food, and that provide shelter and nest sites for birds and other local wildlife. Native plants are just much more efficient and productive at doing that than non-native plants.
When does a non-native plant become native? How long does it have to be here?If non-natives acted in the food web like natives, we wouldn’t care how long it had been here. But they just don’t, because insects don’t adapt to new foods quickly. The invasive, non-native grass Phragmites (Phragmites australissubspecies australis) feeds 170 plant-eating insects in its native Europe. But it’s been in North America for 300 years and only feeds 5 insect species here. Eucalyptus trees (genus Eucalyptus) feed 48 species in their native Australia. They’ve been in North America for a 100 years and feed only one!
How about planting cultivars of native trees bred for special colors or flowers, for example? In general, when nursery-developed cultivars of native trees are planted, caterpillar abundance drops 65%. Bees too are very particular about flower shape. When native flowers or trees are bred for double flowers instead of single ones, it can have a big impact on pollinators. Or if the leaf color is changed to red or purple instead of green, insect numbers drop. Changing to variegated leaves, changing height or berry size, however, may not be a problem.
Aren’t There Still Plenty of Native Insects in Wild Areas if Not Our Yards? Well, no, in fact, there aren’t. Here in the Midwest, 50% of our native bees have disappeared from their historic ranges in the last century. Four bumblebee species declined 96% in the last 20 years. 25% of our bumblebees are already at risk for extinction. 50% of our mid- western native bee species have disappeared in the last 100 years. Globally, there’s been a 45% decline in insects since 1975 – almost half of the insects in the world gone in about 45 years! Germany has experienced a 79% decrease in insects! (On the bright side, Amsterdam has seen a 45% increase in bee populations since developing a policy of using native plants throughout the city.)
Many natural areas in our region (and yours too, probably) are heavily infested with aggressive non-native plants just like the woods on my property. That’s why our township stewardship program is always working to eliminate aggressive non-native plants and restore abandoned fields and forests to a healthy, diverse assortment of native plants. Many non-native plants have historically been promoted by nurseries and landscapers and then escaped into the wild. The seed of others arrived here in livestock feed or grazing grasses.
Some of you older readers may remember moths dancing in the headlights when your parents drove the car at night. Some people affixed bug screens to the fronts of cars to prevent insects from smashing regularly into the grill, hood or windshield. But no more. Unfortunately, every generation thinks the number of insects around them is “normal” when it’s actually been steadily declining for decades.
Major Causes of Insect Decline
We usually think of insecticides first when we hear about the decline in bee, butterfly or other insect populations – and they do have a powerful effect. And climate change is no doubt taking a toll as well.
But the fact is that we just don’t have enough natural areas full of native plants left on our planet to feed insects and hence other wildlife. Researchers estimate that half of the arable land on earth is now covered by agriculture or ranching. Corn and soy bean seeds, the most common agricultural plants in America these days, are often treated with insecticides which are designed to kill some insects. These plants are also wind-pollinated and so don’t provide nectar or pollen for insects.We have 770 million acres of rangeland in the US, an area 12 times larger than the state of Michigan! Ranchers are just now being encouraged to integrate native grasses after decades of growing largely non-native grasses. And our non-native lawns are actually the largest irrigated “crop” in the United States.
Commercial areas are built on former grasslands and prairies, then covered with asphalt. The Denver airport alone, for example, covers an area the size of Manhattan in asphalt. We have built housing in field after field, forest after forest and covered millions of miles in roads. That’s where we home owners come in…
Property Owners Can Now Play a Crucial Role in Restoring Natural Habitat
Non-native plants hold the upper hand in most natural areas that are not managed carefully. Luckily, our township’s stewardship program here is restoring native habitat in our parks every day. Former farm fields choked with non-native shrubs and plants are being restored to diverse and beautiful prairies like the one above, full of the color and insect hum of native plant communities. And we can do the same on a smaller scale right out our front doors.
Property owners – home owners, businesses or towns – are now our best hope for restoring native habitat for the benefit of wildlife and ultimately for ourselves as well. Currently, our yards are largely “green deserts” in the sense that they just don’t provide enough food, protection or nesting sites to support the food web and create healthy habitat for wildlife. At most American homes, like mine, the lawn is a stretch of non-native turf grass (the standard lawn grasses) and the gardens are still largely filled with non-native trees, bushes and flowers.
So what do you think? Can we declare a ceasefire with more of our insects? After all, only about 1% of all insects are even interested in us – and proper clothing, screens, and repellent can keep most of them at bay. Can we begin to add beautiful native plants to our non-native gardens, gradually turning them into beautiful habitats that flutter and hum with life? Perhaps some of us will even be adventurous enough to replace our sod carpets with a well-maintained variety of native grasses or interesting green sedges. Perhaps we can ask more companies and towns to install native plant landscapes. I’m so hopeful that we’ll see a new garden ethic, a renaissance of native plants, come to fruition in my lifetime. The visionary conservationist John Muir made the best case for preserving our native habitats:
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Suggestions and Resources for Introducing Native Plants to Your Yard and/or Garden
Get a copy of Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy. The whole book is great. Chapters 8-12 are specifically targeted toward getting started with native plants in your lawn or garden.
Look for native plants sales in your community. This year the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission sponsored a sale, for instance (orders are already in for this year). I’m aware also of yearly native plants sales in our area: North Oakland Headwaters Land Conservancy hosts a sale in Clarkston, and Cranbrook sells plants rescued from developments. If you look, you’ll find some near you if you live further afield.
The best native plant sources provide genotypes from your state or local area. Here is a lists of plant suppliers in southern Michigan that we know. (Let us know if we missed any!)
Hidden Savanna Nursery near Kalamazoo grows Michigan native wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees sold in containers and plugs. Specializing in Southwest Michigan genotypes. They have several retail sale dates on weekends in spring and late summer.
Wildtype in Mason, Michigan. Largely a wholesaler but have three weekends in May and one in August for those of us buying retail and in smaller quantities. The retail catalog has helpful information about each plant.
Michigan Wildflower Farm near Portland, MI grows Michigan native wildflower and grass seed, and provides design, consultation, installation, and management.
Native Connections near Three Rivers, MI grows Michigan genotype wildflower and grass seed, design, consultation, installation, and management.
Go Grow Plant Natives near Charlotte, MI is a native plant nursery specializing in Michigan native shrubs, trees, and wildflowers.
Designs By Nature, LLC. near Laingsburg, MI. A native plant nursery and native landscape consulting company. 517.230.2923, email@example.com
The Native Plant Nursery in Ann Arbor grows only local native plant species from Michigan seed sources and produces a diverse selection of native perennials and a few species of native trees and shrubs. Often has a booth at the Ann Arbor farmer’s market.
She Is Growing Wild in Ada, MI grows and sells over 80 Michigan native species. 616.450.7407, firstname.lastname@example.org.
DISCLAIMER: Oakland Township Parks & Recreation does not endorse or promote any business entity which produces or markets native plants or seeds, or which provides landscape design or installation services. The list of vendors is provided for informational purposes only. Information above is from the websites of the Michigan Native Plant Producers Association, River City WildOnes, and the Native Plant Guild. Links to websites included when available, otherwise phone numbers and email addresses.
Beware of buying any plants or seeds treated with insecticides, specifically neonicitinoids, as they are harmful to insects despite what the label says about it being approved for human health. Also avoid seed mixes that say something very general like “prairie seeds.” You may get a glorious bloom the first year, but many of the plants are not local and could introduce invasive plants that you and your neighbors will battle later on.
Get comfortable with bees and other pollinators as well as insects and their valuable caterpillars on your property. Dr. Tallamy made 400 of us laugh when he suggested “a ten step process. Step back 10 steps and you won’t notice the caterpillars!”
Many native plants don’t need or like fertilizers or other soil amendments. Some do better without them. Some will take off too enthusiastically and try to take over your garden. Learn a bit ahead of time about which ones re-seed avidly and which tend to stay put. Be prepared to pull some out if they get too rambunctious.
Start small and consider the neighbors. Native gardens can function as an advertisement to your neighborhood of the benefits of native gardening. Keep the edges trimmed or even decoratively fenced for a tidy look. Plant informally or formally; native plants need communities of other plants, but that can include massing colors and other popular approaches to garden design.
Create mowed paths through your yard if you decide to try a native lawn, which is a larger undertaking. You want a native lawn to look tended and purposeful, not neglected.
Be patient. Remember that native prairie plants here in Michigan, for example, need deep roots to handle drought. It can take up to 3 years for your new plants to reach full bloom. Learn which plants work in your soil ahead of time but also be prepared to switch things out that don’t work, if necessary.