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.
When we spend a lot of time in a space, the sound, shadows, and ambience almost become part of our subconscious. The creakkkk of a floorboard as we walk through the living room. The drip of coffee slowly filling the pot in the morning. The rustle of pine boughs in a favorite patch of forest. The harsh call and boastful flash of color from red-wing blackbirds in a marsh. Our happy memories in these places make them special to us.
What about the natural spaces that have (almost) ceased to exist in our everyday lives? The prairies and oak savannas of Oakland Township used to have a signature rustle in the evening breeze. Fields of brightly lit prairies were punctuated by speckled shade under oak groves, and seasonal bouquets of native wildflowers marked the transition from spring to summer to fall. Until a few decades ago, the inhabitants of our township had been intimately familiar with the sights and sounds that defined our open oak lands in southeast Michigan for thousands of years.
We now assume that all fields should eventually grow into shrub thickets, then forests. But many plants, birds, insects, and other wildlife are prairie and savanna specialists, with connections to each other that were formed by living together in this landscape. They depend on us re-awakening memories of these fantastic, forgotten fields, doing the important work of making them new.
So two weeks ago, with the help of our volunteer prescribed fire crew, that’s exactly what we set out to do. We assembled around noon at Bear Creek Nature Park. All the staff and volunteers that help on our burns have been trained to do prescribed fire, so they know the drill when they arrive. We double-checked our pre-burn list: introduce everyone on the burn crew and write names on helmets… check; call the fire department… check; walked trails around the burn unit… check; tested equipment… check; everyone is wearing the right gear… check; weather and fuels meet our burn prescription… check. After reviewing the plan for the day, we headed out to begin burning. The fine grasses were nice and dry, though small patches of snow lingered in the shade on a north-facing slope.
We started on the down-wind side, slowly letting the fire creep into the burn unit.
As we built up a safe, burned buffer on the outside of the unit, we lit parts of the interior. The mowed trails kept the fire exactly where we wanted it, though we checked them often during the burn just to be sure.
As we worked around the burn unit, we let the fire creep through patches of invasive autumn olive and multiflora rose. The slow-moving flames will do more damage to the shrubs than a fire that passes quickly.
After we got around the outside of the burn unit, we stepped back to let the fire crawling through the interior finish its work. Then we walked through the area one more time to put out anything that was still smoking.
Fire crawls through a patch of trees at Bear Creek Nature Park on March 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.
After burning the available fuel, the fire slowly extinguishes itself. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.
We had a nice mix of experienced staff, returning volunteers, and new volunteers. By the end of the burn, everyone got a chance to try the different pieces of equipment and responsibilities on the burn crew. And we had fun!
The fire likely top-killed the invasive shrubs in our burn unit. We’ll still need to treat any that sprout again in the summer, but fire did a lot of work for us in a few hours. The black soil will warm more quickly than areas that haven’t been burned, extending the growing season for the plants. In a few weeks we’ll see a fresh fuzz of green growth carpeting these areas. We will spread seed of more native grasses and wildflowers so that they can establish in the newly opened soil.
That March afternoon was a fine day for making new memories. Our memories of working together as a team to restore grassland habitat are an important part of natural areas stewardship. We only care for the things we value. The township residents that walk these fields will see the dramatic change, watch the landscape grow over the summer, and make their own memories. Hopefully most of the visitors will see the signs we posted, explaining why we use prescribed fire. A few will go home a look up more information. And maybe some will join our team next time we do a prescribed burn!
Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.
The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!
Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)
Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy. Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.
So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.
Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!
Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road
The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.
The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.
A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.
I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!
From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.
A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.
A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.
When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.
One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.” Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?
The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees, or flies, rather than honeybees or bumblebees. They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!
Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.
Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason – so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.
Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods
Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed. Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving. (Anyone have an ID for me?)
Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left)basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.
At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.
At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!
A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow
Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them. So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)
And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!” A new creature for me!
On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!
Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge. The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.
The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.
The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.
A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming
Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.