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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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
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!
Welcome to the final post in this series! In the first post, we discussed the unique geological processes that form prairie fens. Then in the second post, we presented plant species that we can use to discover prairie fen habitats. Lastly, we will be discussing the threats prairie fens face, what we are doing on-site, and why our efforts are so important.
My time at the parks has come to a close. Having arrived in the early spring and leaving in the early fall, I have witnessed lots of change. I followed the life stages of plants as they transitioned through the seasons. From emergence to bloom to death, I got to be a part of it all. Just as amazing, this was the first position where I was able to actually see the results of our stewardship efforts.
I personally have felt the most fulfillment from working at the prairie fen off the Paint Creek Trail. Oakland Township’s portion of this fen is only about a half-acre, but the larger fen habitat extends up and down Paint Creek. Even with its small size and history of fragmentation and disturbance, our little fen patch is resilient. We hope to restore our park’s prairie fens to their full biodiversity capacity.
Threats and restoration
Our Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen can be used as a case study of the major threats these natural communities face. Our fen was once a part of a larger wetland complex extending to its south and west, but the connections to this wetland and the surrounding uplands have been damaged over time. Due to the parcel’s small size, there is little buffering it from encroaching development. The smaller a site, the more vulnerable it may be to changes in the surrounding landscape and threats. These threats mainly include a lack of fire, invasive species, nutrient pollution, and changes inhydrology.
Just like our oak lands and prairies, thesuppression of fire on the landscape and the removal of indigenous land management practices have changed the composition of our prairie fen. The loss of fire has compacted the sedge meadow zone of the fen while increasing the woody zone (check out the previous post to learn more about fen vegetation zones).
Interestingly, the majority of our fire-dependent landscapes in Michigan that have held on after European colonization have been along railroads. In the late 19th century a railroad was built on what is now the Paint Creek Trail, cutting right through the fen. As mentioned in Cam Mannino’s previous blog post, fires sparked by passing trains spread into the surrounding landscape, maintaining natural communities like oak savanna, prairie, and prairie fen.
With the decommissioning of the railroad in the late 1970s, we now need prescribed fires to maintain the integrity of the prairie fen. We try to use controlled burns every 3-5 years to preserve the remnant prairie fen. The burns control invasive woody shrubs and remove dead stalks of Phragmites and invasive cattails after treatment. In addition, fire encourages plants to bloom more profusely and allows seeds of fen plants to germinate. The last controlled burn at the site occurred in 2019.
Invasive species may proliferate due to problems, like fire suppression, nutrient pollution, or hydrology changes. Often, though, invasive species both exacerbate these problems and create new issues of their own. Both invasive cattails and Phragmites grow more vigorously in wetlands with lots of nutrients. The dense stands of Phragmites and cattail, and the thick layers of dead thatch that accumulate, crowd out fen plants. Invasive woody shrubs like glossy buckthorn and common buckthorn often invade fens that have dried out due to hydrology changes that result from building a trail, berm, or road through a fen, fo example. However, these invasive shrubs can also change conditions in a fen to facilitate their own invasion.
When our Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen was acquired over a decade ago, large areas had already been encroached by invasive woody shrubs, narrow-leaved cattails, and Phragmites. We have prioritized saving the core area of our fen by controlling invasive Phragmites and cattails over the last five years. Fen plants like shrubby cinquefoil, Kalm’s lobelia, and grass-of-Parnassus are growing again in areas that used to be dense Phragmites or cattails.
Now we’re starting to work on the invasive shrubs that are spreading into the fen from the edges. In one area glossy buckthorn shaded out a nice Grass-of-Parnassus patch. This year the stewardship crew started clearing the glossy buckthorn so it may return.
Our fen-specialist plants are adapted to growing in alkaline, low-nutrient environments. Increased nutrient inputs from farm runoff, lawn fertilizer, leaky septic tanks, or deposited from the atmosphere through rainfall really change the function of a prairie fen by favoring more generalist wetland plants and invasive plants that can take advantage of increased nutrient levels. Left unchecked, Phragmites, invasive cattails, reed canary grass, and purple loosestrife that like high nutrient levels often grow in dense stands with no other plants, patches that we describe as “monocultures.”
We often can’t address past or ongoing nutrient pollution issues directly if they happen off our property, so try to limit the damage from high nutrient levels. The last three years the stewardship crew has been working at selectively treating narrow leaf cattail stands. To learn more about how this treatment is done, check out a past blog post. I have hailed it as being one of the most taxing yet most rewarding stewardship tasks. I know that each treatment causes the cattails to shrink away and reveal more prairie fen habitat.
Change in Hydrology
The steady supply of cold, calcium, and magnesium-rich water in fens really is their lifeblood. Unfortunately, many property owners don’t realize how special fens are and permanently damaged them by digging ponds. In addition to scooping up valuable fen, digging ponds lowers the water table by creating a low spot in the wetland where water can collect. This creates drier areas that become establishment hotspots for invasive species like glossy buckthorn and other invasive shrubs.
Other changes can affect fen hydrology directly or indirectly. In the past, many fens were dried out by the installation of drain tiles and ditches to “improve” them for agriculture. Building roads, driveways, and trails disrupt the flow of water through a fen by acting like a dam, creating wetter conditions above and drier conditions below. Extracting water with wells for irrigation or other uses can also deplete aquifers that feed fens. It is critical that we partner with surrounding landowners to protect the water that charges the prairie fen.
Why Put In the Effort?
Although our fen is small, it has many high-quality specialist plant species present. Fen ecosystems also support a plethora of rare insect and animal species. In fact, several insect species rely entirely on prairie fen communities and would go extinct without them. You can check out the rare plants and animals associated with prairie fens at Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI).
With our fen off the Paint Creek Trail, it only becomes increasingly difficult to buffer it from the effects of habitat fragmentation. This is especially true for prairie fens, as they often blend into surrounding uplands, wetlands, and bodies of water. However, even in the face of fragmentation, species may be able to persist if they can move between small high-quality parcels. As you might imagine, this may be more difficult for a slow-moving species like a turtle than it is for a flying insect like a butterfly.
A restored prairie fen right next to the Paint Creek Trail is also an excellent educational opportunity for trail users. Since it is only half an acre, the site is manageable and able to show the significance of our stewardship work. As with any restoration project, it is imperative that objectives are well-defined. In the case of thePaint Creek Heritage Area, our team is working to maintain high-quality habitat that trail users may be able to see and learn from. With our invasive shrub removal efforts near the trail, we hope the prairie fen will become more visible to folks passing by. We also hope that other township residents and neighboring properties join us as prairie fen stewards. The more we protect the surrounding area, and the more we get people involved to protect our fen, the greater the impact of our little half acre will have.
Each Action Makes a Difference
Stewardship work is often laborious and ceaselessly repetitive. The blood, sweat, and tears our stewardship crew spent at the half-acre fen parcel have been rewarded time and again by our encounters with fen dwellers. Whether it is the noisy flush of a spooked woodcock or the silent presence of a butterfly, visits to the fen never felt lonesome. While treating our last group of narrow-leaf cattail for the season, fellow steward Cassie spotted a baby Blanding’s turtle. After she set the baby down, she turned to me and exclaimed how happy she was to have seen that turtle. We had been selectively hand-wicking cattails all morning. We were tired and hungry for lunch. But after releasing the prehistoric baby back into a pool of groundwater, we continued our tedious task with newfound ambition. Our work was making a difference.
As bright green leaves emerge each May, stewardship in our parks kicks into high gear. During the last two years, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide restored two wetlands with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our township stewardship crew and volunteers restored a fragile woodland with a lot of muscle power and hard work.
In the last few weeks, work has moved forward, which will bring even more life and beauty to these three natural areas. And the changes wrought have already encouraged surprising new visitors and a renaissance of sorts. Come see….
At Blue Heron Environmental Area, A Rare Visitor and A First Sowing of Wild Seed
On May 4, as I passed Blue Heron on my way to monitor bluebird boxes, I saw Ben in the north field with my gifted photographer friends, Bob and Joan Bonin. Hmm… A few minutes later, I received a quick text from Ben that they suspected they were looking at a Willet, a bird I’d never heard of! Well, monitoring completed, I made a beeline to Blue Heron and yes indeed, it was a Willet (Tringa semipalmata), a shore bird rarely seen in Michigan. Be sure to click on the photos below to enlarge them so you can appreciate the detail the Bonins achieved!
Willets generally winter along the east and west coast of North America, the Caribbean islands, and the north coasts of South America. The eastern subspecies breeds during the summer farther up the northeast coast. The western birds breed out in the high plains area of the western U.S. and Canada. Our Willet had lighter colored feathers, so it appears to be a “western” bird. So it’s a mystery how this bird found its way to Blue Heron, but we are so glad it did! Evidently it needed some R&R after its wanderings and stopped by to rest on the shore of this blue oasis. The marshy edges of the new wetland were rich with food. Bob caught the moments when the Willet extracted a worm and when it latched onto what appears to be an insect larva from the water. Restoration of this wetland two years ago provided this wayward Willet with a safe haven. Ah, the rewards of good stewardship!
A few days later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service folks arrived to seed the north end of the field at Blue Heron. (The south end will still be farmed for now.) Native grass and wildflower seed sprayed from waggling, vibrating tubes at the back of the small tractor and a drag behind covered them with just a thin layer of dirt. The seeding happened a bit later than the stewardship crew had planned due to a busy season for USFWS. But Ben still hopes to see some new growth this summer. Native seed can take 3-5 years to reach full bloom.
Other Water Birds Dropped Down to the Pond for a Visit this Year
Last spring, the early arrival migrators were Black Ducks and the Greater Yellowlegs. Along with the Willet, other water birds arrived during this spring’s visits: a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) poked about in the shallows during the seed planting before continuing its journey to Canada. And a female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), who likely lives in the area year ’round, lifted off from the pond as I skirted the shore.
Reliable Wetland Summer Residents
A few other creatures shared Blue Heron with me this spring – the ones that tend to show up since Ben restored the wetland. Slideshow below:
Watershed Ridge Park Receives its Blanket of Native Seed as Summer Residents Arrive
The little USFWS tractor also tracked across the sloping landscapes of the two north fields of Watershed Ridge Park, depositing native wildflower and grass seed. Once the seeds germinate and begin growing, they should help prevent erosion into the newly restored wetlands – as well as adding a lot of beauty for us visitors! The following day Ben did some hand sowing of wetland seed and came across a lovely surprise at the edge of a wetland!
My favorite surprise during my visits was a glorious male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) high in a tree near the parking lot. His more modestly dressed mate poked about a snag nearby, but flew away as I slowly turned to take her portrait. Wood Ducks can nest as far as 50 feet up in trees and have hooks at the back of their webbed feet to navigate up in the canopy.
I think Mrs. Wood Duck probably decided that the snag was not close enough to a wetland, since she prefers a location in a tree near a wetland. Ideally, there her young can make a soft landing in deep leaves when they jump from the nest and then trundle after her into a nearby pond – with only the help of their mother’s encouraging quacking! I’ve included below the photo of a female Wood Duck that I saw at Bear Creek Nature Park a few years ago. If you can spot her on the limb, you’ll notice her subtle attire.
Migrators at Watershed Ridge Park Find A Stopping-off Site or a Nesting Spot Near the Wetlands
Besides the Grackle, other migrators peeked from hedgerows or sang in tangled greenery near the restored wetlands. Slideshow below.
At the Wet Prairie an Open Canopy Creates Ideal Habitat for Two Special Visitors
Please Note: No trails exist in the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, but you can enjoy the wildflowers from the Paint Creek Trail, which runs along its entire eastern edge. In this sensitive natural area most stewardship work must be accomplished by hand to carefully preserve the unusual prairie and wetlands. So please, enjoy these special natural areas from the trail. I’ll give you a closer look at them below or feel free to search for other posts about the Wet Prairie on this website.
Birds often choose very specific habitats for breeding and foraging. For example, Cornell University’s ornithology website, allaboutbirds.org, identifies some of the most popular breeding habitats for species like the Red-Headed Woodpecker that seek out “deciduous woodlands with oak or beech, groves of deador dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas, recent clearings…” How lucky, then, that the open, moist woodlands near the Wet Prairie (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) turn out to be just such a habitat.
Though oaks stand tall in this forest, the canopy was thinned over the years by non-native infestations of Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm disease that left dying trees and snags (standing dead trees). In this habitat, sunlight slips between the trees, dappling the earth below where woodland flowers and small native trees like oaks can thrive in the partial shade .
This open woodland also features the very “river bottoms” mentioned by Cornell. The original bed of Paint Creek (before the railroad moved it east into a straight channel) – filled now by snow melt, rainwater and rising ground water – still winds its moist path across the forest floor. In May, it flourished with Marsh Marigolds!
And even the required “burned areas” and “recent clearings” that Cornell lists exist here! In fall of 2020 and the following winter, the stewardship team worked long, hard hours to clear a dense jungle of invasive shrubs and vines in the forest near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. Non-native shrubs like Privet, Common Buckthorn, Glossy Buckthorn, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet vine were hand cut and huge piles of them were safely burned atop the winter snow.
Two Visitors Came to Check Out this “Open Woods” Habitat
And guess what? All of those conditions that Cornell mentioned did indeed attract a Red-headed Woodpecker to our open woods this spring! In late May, this bird’s call and drilling attracted the gaze of Lisa, a volunteer pulling invasive Garlic Mustard with Ben and the summer stewardship technicians. Listen to the third call at this link to hear what the crew heard.
At first glance, she thought she was seeing the much more common male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with its brilliant red crest and nape (On left below). But no, the busy bird drilling a hole in a snag was indeed a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus!) Check out the differences.
According to Cornell’s Birds of the World migration maps , Red-headed Woodpeckers are more likely to be passing through our area to breed farther north in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten.” But some do nest here and we may have seen one that will finish its hole and raise a family near the Wet Prairie! Fingers crossed!
During my visit, another bird that seeks out open woodlands, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), landed in a tree near the woodpecker and was spotted by Camryn, our sharp-eyed summer technician. Luckily it paused for a look around. It’s also a cavity nester so let’s hope it decides to raise young here as well.
These fairly common flycatchers, with their distinctive “wee-eep” and vibrating “burrrr” calls, love to hawk insects from high in the canopy, making them hard to see. So what a treat to see one at the tip of a snag! It didn’t sing or call for us, but the sight of its chocolate brown head and back and that lemon yellow breast, plus the sighting of the Red-headed Woodpecker, definitely made my rush down to the trail worth the effort! Thanks to Lisa for spotting the woodpecker and to Camryn for spotting the flycatcher and taking me near the location for both!
Native Wildflowers Stage a Comeback after Invasive Shrub Clearing
This May, spring’s rain and pale sunlight once again reached native wildflowers that had been buried under the tangle of non-natives for many long years. And like a miracle, they emerged in the forest’s dappled light and bloomed! Whenever this happens after clearing or prescribed burns, it fills me with delight. Some already existed as single blooms and now spread in glorious profusion, like the Golden Ragwort above. Others may not have been seen here for years. Here’s a sampling of the plants that waited so long for their days in the sun.
Restorations Require Death – and then, New Life!
One of the odd aspects of stewardship work is that it involves removing living plants so that others, plants that nourish our local food web, re-emerge and thrive. But it’s occurred to me lately that gardeners have experienced this dilemma for centuries. Gardens require the removal of plants and grasses that infiltrate the borders. Sometimes even beloved but too exuberant flowers need to be thinned for their own health and the health of plants around them.
So inevitably, restorations mean eliminating aggressive, invasive non-native plants and trees that, if left in place, would eventually blanket a whole prairie or forest. Our stewardship crew spends days and weeks clearing invasive, non-native plants brought to America for their beauty or usefulness by settlers, landscapers and gardeners or as unseen hitchhikers in overseas shipments. Without the competition, predators and soil conditions of their Eurasian habitats, they can quickly smother, shade out, or choke off native plants.
The importance of native plants can’t be overemphasized. Because they evolved and thrived here for aeons, they can survive droughts, freezing temperatures, even fire. In fact many native plants require freezing winters or periodic fire to germinate! But they have no defenses against the rapid spread of non-native plants, because they’ve only been living with them for decades or perhaps hundreds of years, rather than thousands of years. Adaptation and evolution are very slow processes.
When native wildflowers and trees flourish, so does all other life around them. Native bees and butterflies can be attracted to non-native blooms, but their caterpillars can’t feed or develop normally on them. The leaves of native plants provide rich nutrition for caterpillars, the little creatures that nourish nearly every baby and adult bird we see. Later in the year, the berries of native plants provide migrators and winter birds with much more energy and nutrition than berries from non-native plants. Nature worked out an interlocking system of sustenance and shelter for life that we humans have altered dramatically over long years.
So what a delight it was to see that funny little tractor shaking out native seed at Watershed Ridge Park and Blue Heron Environmental Area! Or Ben and his crew hand spreading native seed collected right here in the township. Or even watching the removal of invasive thickets one year – and the next, seeing the plants nature intended rising from the soil after having waited decades to feel the rain, the sun, and the wind once again! I hope it’s not impious to describe those moments as little miracles, little resurrections – because that’s how they feel to me. I hope they lift your spirits as they did for me.
As happens so often in life, I sort of backed into being a stewardship volunteer. I spent my childhood in Oakland Township forging paths through abandoned farm fields filled with tall grass. On a flannel blanket scented by the warm earth beneath, I settled beside a small wetland to read. My father knew where wild asparagus grew on Collins Road and rushed back home one afternoon to report seeing a trumpeter swan. We watched birds on a simple feeder in a bush outside the kitchen window. My brother and I could be gone all morning in the fields as long as we returned when the dinner bell rang. Being outside meant disappearing from adult supervision for hours on end, and we loved it.
When my husband I moved back to this area, we began Sunday walks in Bear Creek Nature Park, just an abandoned farm when I was child. At a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in 2015, I took the opportunity to ask the Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, about a giant tuft of stiff grass that jutted out at the edge of a field at Bear Creek. Did someone plant some exotic grass in our park? It looked very odd and ungainly. Ben explained that it was Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native grass that had once covered large areas of our township – part of our ancient natural landscape. Really? He suggested coming to a presentation that he’d planned to describe that pre-settlement landscape and the role of periodic prescribed fire in restoring and preserving it. Fire as a preservation technique? I took the bait and arrived home from that event bubbling with ideas about Michigan’s prairies and how they might be restored to us. That huge tuft of grass at Bear Creek Nature Park, it turned out, was probably a remnant of the grasses through which I’d roamed years ago, grasses which had emerged after field fires during my childhood.
That eye-opening presentation marked the starting point of what is now my seven-year journey into deepening my relationship with the natural world. I continue to appreciate nature in ever more intimate detail – and it never fails to simultaneously fascinate and soothe me. Through volunteering in a variety of ways, I’ve come to understand that I have a part to play in healing the landscape that nurtured me as child and still does. And in doing so, I experience a bit of healing myself.
So here’s my invitation to join us in this reciprocal process of enriching the native diversity of our natural areas while enriching ourselves. Perhaps you’ll discover an activity that suits your gifts or interests. For details on monthly events, click on a date on the calendar page at this link. [See the blue bar at the top of the linked calendar page.]
Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”
If our feathered neighbors intrigue you, perhaps these activities are for you!
Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group
Every Wednesday year ’round (with a few weeks off in December), a group of us gather at one of the township parks. We come with binoculars (or Ben can loan us a pair) and head out on the trails. Some of the birding group members are amateurs. Others have birded for years and can recognize a bird by its song or its pattern in flight overhead. Learn, laugh, hang out with kindly people in all kinds of weather and be a citizen scientist at the same time! The data collected each week by Ben and stewardship specialist, Grant Vanderlaan, is reported to the Cornell University Ornithology Department’s ebird website where it can be used by researchers to learn more about our feathered neighbors.
Get “Upclose and Personal” with Birds by Monitoring Nest Boxes
We volunteers participate in another citizen science project, Cornell University’s NestWatch Project. Each volunteer takes responsibility for monitoring a set of bird boxes in one of our parks. After a yearly session on the do’s and don’ts of monitoring, we visit our boxes once or twice each week. I’ve peeked within the nest boxes of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia Sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to record the date of the first egg laid, the hatch date, the fledge date and other data. As a result, I’ve seen baby birds hatch, feed from their parents’ beaks and sail out into the big bright world on their first solo flight! What fun! I recommend it to you.
Need A Little Excitement in Your Life? Volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Crew!
Many of our native plants are “fire-adapted,” which means they benefit from fire or actually require it to germinate! After a low burn, the nutrients of dry plants nourish the soil, the blackened fields absorb sun for a longer growing season and room is created for native plants and the creatures which need sun and rain. So although Ben hires contractors for complicated burns, he also provides training each year for members of a volunteer fire crew. All adults are welcome, regardless of gender. The volunteers don protective equipment provided by the Parks and Recreation Commission and that, plus training and on-site supervision by Ben, makes for a dramatic, interesting and safe experience. So add a bit of adventure to your life and provide our stewardship team and nature itself with some badly needed help!
Share an Ancient Tradition: The Gathering and Preparing of Native Seed
Gathering the Seed
On a lovely autumn afternoon, Ben invites us to gather in a prairie to collect native seed, something humans have done for thousands of years. I love these autumn events; they’re so incredibly peaceful , relaxing and so easily productive. Ben chooses the site where desirable seeds are plentiful and gives us brief instructions on how much we can harvest. We then move out into the fields and slip seeds from their stalks, dropping them into a labeled bag later to be cleaned and sown where needed in our parks.
Preparing the Seed for Sowing
Early in December, volunteers and staff gather at the township’s pole barn on Buell Road to separate the seed from its pods or seed heads. We dress warmly, snacks are on hand and we set to work pushing the seeds through screens into tubs, bagging the stalks and stems for compost. Some seeds need to be rubbed through a coarser screen while standing in order to break them off sturdy seed heads. The seed for each species is individually weighed, its origin and collection date recorded and then stored away for sowing. We chat while we work and the whole feeling of the event is a bit like an old-fashioned barn raising or quilting bee!
Sowing the Seed
Native seeds need to be sown in late fall or early spring, when nature drops many of its seeds; wild seeds usually require cold temperatures in order to germinate. It lands on the soil surface and moves into the soil by the force of rain or snow during freeze/thaw periods. Many are tiny, almost dust-like, and ignored by the birds. Some seeds are carried below ground by animals or insects.
Our collected native seeds are most often sown by hand or occasionally with a hand-cranked seed spreader. Ben and his crew recreate nature’s process in our parks by spreading it on the surface of prairie sites prepared by burns or mowing, on the edges of wetlands or for aquatic plants, even on pond ice. Natives may need three or more years to reach full bloom because they first establish deep roots. Unlike non-native nursery plants, they’re tough survivors who’ve evolved to grow without fertilizer or much other human intervention in Michigan’s unpredictable weather!
Scoop Up Tiny Shrimp and Other Tiny Aquatic Critters: Vernal Pool Monitoring
Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that form in low areas in the spring. They fill with snow melt and rain water, and then dry up in warm weather. As a consequence, these pools don’t support fish, which makes them a safe place for many creatures to breed and lay eggs. Tiny orange Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) and appropriately named Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) are indicator species in these freshwater pools. Who knew shrimp and clams live and breed right in our parks? Likewise, our Wood Frogs (Lithobates syvaticus) and some species of Salamanders court and lay eggs here after overwintering in the uplands. Periodically Ben trains volunteers to record data from the vernal pools so that it can be reported to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory – a third kind of citizen science! Ben provides small nets and clear boxes and we don our high boots and wade in, learning first hand how to identify what dwells in these temporary pools that team with life that most of us have never seen before!
Enjoy Taking on the “Bad Guys?” Try Invasive Species Management!
Invasive species – like Bradford/Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and many others – are a big problem because they didn’t evolve here. In their original habitats in Eurasia and elsewhere, they did what our native plants do here, providing food and shelter for native species. But of course here, they are not among their native species. Consequently, they’re much less productive for our habitat. Their seeds may last longer in the fall, but offer little useful nutrition to our migrating birds – too much sugar, not enough fat. Butterflies may sip at non-native blossoms, but their young (the caterpillars) generally can’t/won’t eat non-native leaves, or if they do, fail to thrive into adulthood. Most caterpillars only feed on plants they’ve evolved with for centuries. Since caterpillars and their native plant hosts anchor the food web that feeds our birds and other creatures, the lack of caterpillars means a less healthy, more hungry habitat. Also, the predators that kept invasive species in check in their original habitats (insects, animals, fungi) aren’t present here – so invasives can quickly spread across the landscape with little opposition – robbing our native plants of the sunlight, rain, soil nutrients and pollination they need.
So here are a couple of examples to show how you might help preserve the rich diversity of our natural areas by eliminating non-native, invasive species:
Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines
Volunteers and stewardship staff took on clearing a large area of invasive shrubs and vines at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail in late 2020. Forestry mowing would have damaged the fragile ecosystem there. After weeks of work, clearing was complete and the resulting piles were burned on the winter snow. See the transformation process in the slideshow below.
Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning
No, garlic pulls are not at all like taffy pulls, unfortunately. Just nice folks who go out into woodlands with Ben and Grant to remove the nefarious, invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This introduced European plant crowds out many species of our native woodland wildflowers like Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Garlic Mustard, named for its scent, is easy to pull! A four-year-old delighted in helping me pull some near my home and did a fine job. The following year, a native wildflower emerged from the seed bank – the kind of reward we hope to see again in our natural areas! (Notice the historical photo below of the forest floor at Bear Creek in 1979!)
Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?
I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. We volunteer because we want to be of use and what we discover is that the greatest benefit has been to ourselves! Working with Ben and the other stewardship folk, I have learned to be of use to nature. I’m happy to provide data to researchers learning to protect nesting and migrating birds or tiny shrimp. And it’s such a thrill to see a diverse tapestry of native plants emerge from the soil after decades of being buried beneath a heavy load of invasive shrubs or grasses. It invariably feels like I’m privileged to witness a small resurrection.
But what I’ve experienced is that the benefits for me often outweigh the relatively small part I play in the process. I’ve made bright, interesting friends both in person and here on the blog. What a delight to enjoy and learn from kindred spirits! I’ve stimulated my aging brain with new information that matters to me. I’ve exercised both my mind and my muscles as I head out in the fields to see what nature is ready to show me. This kind of volunteering makes me feel more alive!
But most importantly, through stewardship work, I’ve come closer to the natural world. In fact, I’ve come to feel embedded in it. We humans aren’t just walking on the earth, after all. We are an integral part of a vast and intricate system that feeds us daily, quenches our thirst, supplies our oxygen, clothes us, heats our homes, provides materials for the very roof over our heads and the tools we use every day – and nature does all that while gifting us with beauty! A field full of wildflowers, sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds, bird song and the whisper of leaves, the dance of tall grass in a summer breeze – all of that glorious art is gratis once we step out our door.
So I hope you’ll find a way to join us. More than 1500 acres of preserved natural areas in Oakland Township could use your attention and if possible, your helping hands. I guarantee that nature will richly reward your efforts.
Ah, at last! The native trees and plants can breathe again! Many of the invasive shrubs that had crept across open areas at Cranberry Lake Park are gone. Now the sun washes across the landscape, rain sluices into the ground, nourishing the roots of native trees, grasses and wildflowers waiting for spring. As the carpet of mowed stems and branches decompose, the nutrition previously taken up by autumn olive, privet, glossy buckthorn and other non-native shrubs can gradually re-nourish the soil. The diverse wildlife that evolved with our native plants will once again benefit from the food and shelter that they’ve depended on for thousands of years. With the help of careful stewardship – treatment of non-native re-sprouts and the spreading of native seed – a habitat will be reborn.
So come have a a look at the new vistas in the park. I can’t show it all, but maybe I can give you taste of it. Along the way, we’ll see a few creatures that shared my walks during the mostly gray days of November and early December.
Miraculous Transformation Along the Hickory Lane
To appreciate the dramatic changes made by forestry mowing, here to the left is a typical view of most paths at Cranberry Lake Park before the restoration work began – and it’s not too scenic, I must say. A tangle of invasive shrubs and vines created very little nutrition for wildlife, left only a narrow edge along the path for native wildflowers and had spread thickly into the fields beyond the trails. The almost impenetrable density of the shrubs blocked views of wetlands and the open vistas of large trees that had existed before the invasive plants took over. The invasives also took up nutrients and shaded out native plants all over the park.
As I headed north from the parking lot at West Predmore Road and stepped into the Hickory Lane, I first noticed that I could see into a wetland that I’d struggled to reach from the opposite side last summer when a group of volunteers and staff monitored a vernal pool there. How nice to see it so clearly from this direction! Perhaps you can see the density of shrubs on the far side, which is what used to exist along the Hickory Lane.
The mature trees along the Hickory Lane, of course, were not touched and only a scrim of shrubs remain between them. Look at the contrast between the un-mowed left side and the open area in the distance on the right! I was immediately tempted out into that cleared meadow.
I found a place to slip between the trees and look at the landscape that had appeared. I’d never seen this sight before!
I was elated! The large trees, once shrouded with thickets of invasive shrubs, now stood clear in the November light. I wandered across the shredded trunks and branches of the former thicket, looking down for any signs of native plants which had survived beneath that carpet of invasives. And even though it was early November then, I found two. The tiny evergreen plant popping out in the photo on the left below is named Haircap Moss (a Polytrichum species). These plants thrive in moist, partial shade so they may eventually disappear in this location and be replaced by more sun-friendly species. And on the right below is native Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) which does well in the sun. Its flowers provide sustenance for butterflies and moths in spring and its tiny berries do the same for wildlife in the summer.
This sprawling meadow is divided by a tree line and in the northern section, a huge Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) stood tall in the sunlight, freed at last from the tangle of invasives. It still had one intruder, though. One of the least welcome invasives, Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), hung in its branches. Though the mower had chopped it off near the ground, it will try to make a comeback since its seeds will drop to the ground or be carried all over the park by birds.
This invasive vine spirals up tree trunks, choking them while climbing to the sunlight. It shades out growth below and since it accumulates in the canopy can make trees vulnerable to being toppled in high winds. I saw a smaller tree felled in just this way farther east in the park. (See below left.)The hickory will survive, but a nearby tree in the restored meadow (below right) was heavily infested with Bittersweet. Look at the number of berries that can be spread from one vine!
Now that the field has been forestry mowed, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his crew will take on the extensive follow-up processes to prevent re-sprouting by carefully applying herbicides to invasive shrubs like Bittersweet, or by girdling the trunks of non-native trees. Once that’s completed, native plant seeding can begin. We can do our part by not using Oriental Bittersweet for fall decorating and by cutting and treating any stems that appear near our homes.
The clearing of this wonderful meadow also brought the beauty of the Long Pond into view – a series of linked ponds that runs north and south on the eastern side of the restored meadow. What a treat to get close like this! I look forward to seeing the water glinting through the trees next summer and seeing the water fowl that drop in to forage or rest during migration.
Blue sky days were rare in November. Most of the time, the sun struggled to get through heavy cloud cover.
On one of those cold, dark days, when most birds were silent, I heard a gruff squeak repeated incessantly by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who fled from one tree near the Hickory Lane to another. (Click here and choose the December call recorded in New York near the bottom of the list for a sample.) I thought it might be issuing a warning but I couldn’t see a threat. Later however, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) eyeing me from high in a distant tree and wondered if it prompted the Red-belly’s call.
On one of the snowy, quiet days on the Hickory Lane, it cheered me to see the tracks of little animals who’d visited the lane just after the snow fell the previous night or early that morning. I wasn’t alone! I followed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) for quite a distance, a squirrel, probably the tiny Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), had bounded across the lane and a White-footed Deer Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had left its stitching tracks as it scurried diagonally across the spot where two paths met.
Opening Up the Path to Cranberry Lake
Like the Hickory Lane, the path to the lake had been crowded with non-native invasives. Once the forestry mower got to work, though, the lake could actually be glimpsed from far up the trail.
Along the trail in November and early December, birds were more heard than seen on dark cold days. Of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) still trumpeted overhead. I love it when they get close enough to hear the snap of their wings!
Along with the usual year ’round inhabitants, I did get to see two more unusual birds , migrators that I’d missed earlier in the autumn. Early in November, the birding group spotted a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) high up in trees near the lake. The numbers of these pale-eyed blackbirds have “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years,” according to Cornell University’s website allaboutbirds.org. The ones near Cranberry Lake were too high for my lens to reach that day, but luckily I’d gotten a closer look back in 2017 at Bear Creek.
On one late November visit, a speckled Hermit Thrush(Catharus guttatus) surprised me by stopping by so late in the season. Since they are known to like open areas in woods, maybe this one found Cranberry Lake Park a good stopover after a late start at migration.
When the birding group reached Cranberry Lake early in the month, a bobbing flotilla of ducks floated in the distance.
The ducks stayed out of the reach of even our binoculars. But some of the more expert birders were able to discern three species by the patterns and colors on their wings or heads: Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks. Later in the week, I was able to get a bit closer to the Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) when a friend let me cross his lawn on the far side of Cranberry Lake. (Thanks, George!)
My photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, shared his photos of a variety of ducks on open water at Stony Creek Metropark one January. Here are Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) hanging out with a larger group of Redheads (Aythya americana) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on a cold winter day. For Ring-necked ducks the white swoop on the flanks and the stripe at the base of the bill are good field marks for this black-and-white diving duck. Some Redheads spend the winter here, but most migrate to the Gulf coast.
Paul also shared some fine photos of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) who frequent Cranberry Lake as well as the lake in Stony Creek Metropark during the winter. Here’s a male and female Hooded Merganser and one of a lucky male who snagged a crayfish!
I found a photo of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) by a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org. These ducks may have been migrating through when the birding group saw them in early November. They tend to spend the winter along the Gulf Coast. The ruffled “cap” on the back of its head is what separates it from the very similar Greater Scaup.
Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with their bulbous orange and black bills fed actively on the far side of Cranberry Lake. The Cornell All About Birds website describes the difficulties presented by these beautiful, but non-native birds. “Their aggressive behavior and voracious appetites often disturb local ecosystems, displace native species, and even pose a hazard to humans.” Our native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) were once endangered, and though Cornell Ornithology says they are “recovering,” they still have a hard time competing with Mute Swans. Trumpeters, which have solid black bills, breed in our area, but winter farther south.
A Quiet Walk Back Wakes Me to the Small Details of a Winter Walk
On these four quiet days in the park, I didn’t see much wildlife on my way back through the park’s eastern section. When that happened, I looked more carefully downward and as usual I was rewarded by paying attention. Below a wooden walkway over a small wetland on the trail, leaves made a mosaic under a skim of ice. That’s the kind of detail I can miss when looking up.
The dry Showy Goldenrod plumes (Solidago speciosa) drew my attention to bands of late autumn color at the edge of the Eastern Meadow. Along the paths, fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), clad in their bead-like sori, contain the spores for next year’s crop.
Dry Wild Cucumber Vines (Echinocystis lobata) were draped like garlands across bushes here and there in the park. In summer, the vines look delicate and airy. In autumn, they produce the prickly seed capsules that give this plant its name. Each capsule opens in the fall, dropping four seeds from within its two chambers.
Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone Cylindrica) is a favorite of mine in early winter. I often miss its modest flowers in the spring. I begin to notice it when its small green center begins to extend into a cylinder as it forms its thimble-like fruit. I appreciate it most when colder weather prompts its seed head to burst forth in a cottony tuft filled with tiny black seeds.
So Exactly What is Being Restored at Cranberry Lake?
At times, I’ve thought of restoration projects as similar to the restoration of an historic home. The work that Dr. Ben VanderWeide and our stewardship crew perform restores natural vistas that thrived here for thousands of years before European colonization. At Cranberry Lake Park we’re removing invasive shrubs and vines so that native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers can reestablish a mosaic of forest and meadows. That’s historic preservation, for sure!
But what’s essential to understand about the work being done in our parks is that it’s about much more.
One presenter at a Michigan Wildflower Conference compared nature’s intricate systems to the thousands of lines of code in your cellphone, each one of which depends on the performance of thousands of others to make the system work. Imagine, the presenter said, randomly removing just one line of code from your cellphone. You wouldn’t do it! The system might crash!
Nature spent eons perfecting its “coding,” creating a delicate balance that fed and sheltered a huge variety of life forms. Sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly, humans have removed one “line of code” after another from nature’s finely-tuned system. It’s happened everywhere on our small, blue planet, even right here in our yards and parks. Non-native plants introduced into our parks, fields, and gardens can act like an aggressive computer virus, spreading quickly, damaging nature’s finely balanced systems with destructive force.
So as we begin a new year, let’s celebrate that in our little spot on the globe, we’ve chosen to support stewardship and restoration in our natural areas. As the native wildflowers, trees and grasses that nature fostered for eons return to their rightful places, they provide a healthy foundation for the rebirth of our meadows, forests and wetlands. We can justifiably hope that with time and effort, some small part of nature’s intricate and carefully balanced “lines of code” can be restored to our ecosystem. If so, the myriad of complex relationships that once thrived here will again sustain the rich variety of life that nature planned for us.