A Wet Prairie Restoration Mystery: The Case of the Missing Creek…

The Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail surrounded by a tree-covered rim of soil, spoils of historical sand and gravel mining.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Yes, I’m returning to the Wet Prairie again even though we visited that special habitat in October. The reason is that another amazing restoration effort has been going on there since late November. It’s revealed something I’d heard about but never actually seen – the original, winding bed of Paint Creek that disappeared about 100 years ago.

A Quick Trip Back to the 1870’s

In 1871, the Detroit and Bay City Railroad Company (which later became Michigan Central Railroad) began work on a railroad line between these two cities with a flag station in the village of Goodison. This line carried both passengers and freight, including farm produce and other products back and forth from Detroit. According to former Parks Commissioner, Colleen Barkham, some time around 1920, a local entrepreneur, Mr. Frier, bought the land that is now the Wet Prairie and other areas along the tracks and began mining sand to ship to industries in the big city.

1963 aerial image with the old route of Paint Creek (blue) and one of the rail spurs for sand and gravel mining (yellow) highlighted. The current restoration area is outlined in red. The core wet prairie habitat is labeled in green text. Image a screenshot from the Oakland County Property Gateway (https://gis.oakgov.com/PropertyGateway/Home.mvc).

He called his company Goodison Sand and Gravel, and what made shipping sand feasible then was the handy availability of the train. Colleen, co-chair of the Oakland Township Historical Society, generously shared a photo of the operation from the Society’s archives.

The Goodison Sand and Gravel company loading a freight car with sand somewhere along what is now the Paint Creek Trail, c. 1920. Photo provided from the Oakland Township Historical Society archives

You can see how it worked – the sand coming down the chute from the land above right onto a freight car on the railroad line! Now I had an answer to the first part of the Wet Prairie mystery: Why is the Wet Prairie encircled by a rim of treed hummocks? (See the top photo in the blog.) Apparently, the land in the center of the current Wet Prairie was skimmed off to get at the sand, leaving a bulging rim of soil around the site. Wow. Quite a dramatic change of habitat, eh? Perhaps that explains why the mineral-rich water table that feeds the Wet Prairie’s unusual autumn flowers is so near the surface. The soil above the water table was removed about a hundred years ago!

An Earlier Dramatic Change in the 1870’s

Paint Creek’s current stream bed along the Paint Creek Trail

But there’s more! Back in the late 1800’s, when the railroad track was being laid, a problem arose with Paint Creek which looped and switch-backed across this section of the railroad’s property. No problem, said the engineers of the time; we’ll just move the creek! And that’s exactly what they did. That’s why today Paint Creek runs in a such a neat straight line along big sections of the trail. The narrow bed created for the creek has probably deepened over the years, since the creek now has only a small flood plain to stretch out in after heavy rains or snow melt. So 50 years or so after the railroad’s decision to move Paint Creek, Goodison Sand and Gravel reaped the benefit from an easy means of transporting their sand by rail.

So, where did Paint Creek run before it was moved?

When I learned of the changed path of Paint Creek several years ago, it occurred to me to wonder what happened to the old bed of Paint Creek. Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, knew the answer but couldn’t show me; the original stream bed was buried in a monumental tangle of invasive shrubs and vines. But no longer. Ben and his stewardship crew has taken on the task this fall and winter of removing the invasive undergrowth that covered the forest floor where Paint Creek once meandered across a moist forest of Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa). Let me show you the miracle that the crew is performing just north of the Wet Prairie.

Some members of the stewardship crew taking a break from clearing the forest floor west of the trail. From L-R: Grant VanderLaan, Dean Johnson , Jon Reed, Tylor Roberts, and Ben VanderWeide.

Since the 1920’s when the sand was hauled away, the native wildflowers that bloomed on the Wet Prairie had been bathed in sunlight. But over the years, trees began to spread from the forest, providing too much shade for sun-loving species. So restoration required removing some trees that encroached on the Wet Prairie’s sunny expanse. This fall, the stewardship team began an ambitious and arduous effort to clear away that thick layer of aggressive and invasive shrubs beneath the canopy in the woods north of the Wet Prairie. Here’s the type of wild tangles that confronted them – a jungle of privet, common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, autumn olive, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet.

The dense tangle of shrubs and vines that covered the area north of the Wet Prairie and along the Paint Creek Trail

And look what they accomplished just along the edge of the trail!

The area north of the Wet Prairie near the Paint Creek trail cleared of invasive underbrush after restoration began.

What follows that effort is now weeks of hard slogging to remove invasive shrubs deeper into the woods. Because of the moist soil in the woods, small trees, shrubs and vines must be removed without large machinery and then piled carefully into high stacks in clear areas where they can be burned late this winter when the woody material has dried.

A pile of invasive shrubs and vines cut and stacked in preparation for burning .

That work has already begun to unveil the original wandering path of Paint Creek. In December, I finally got a chance to see where the creek once ran. The crew has spent weeks clearing the banks of the former stream bed. Water fills its ancient path through the woods, but not running water. Rising ground water, snow melt and rainfall settle in the old bed, so it’s clear where the creek used to flow.

A section of the original path of Paint Creek winding through the forest

What an amazing sight! I was looking at the remains of the path nature chose for Paint Creek until about 150 years ago! Since the photo above was taken on December 23, a huge amount of work before and after the holiday break made impressive progress. Look below at the piles of vines and shrubs removed and stacked as of Friday, January 8.

Piles of invasive plants will be burned once the woody material dries

A lot of work remains to be done to restore this special, fragile space – more cutting and removal. As shrubs are removed, the crew carefully dabs each trunk with a stained herbicide to prevent it from re-sprouting.

Stumps of invasive shrubs are dabbed with a sponge containing a stained treatment which will keep them from re-sprouting.

Then Ben will wait to see which native plants emerge after the removal of the invasive shrubs that have smothered them for all these years, benefiting now from more sun, more rain or simply more space to grow and propagate. Ben tells me that while pulling garlic mustard in the spring, he saw a large patch of delicate Starry False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) beyond the area currently cleared, some Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum) and huge spreads of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in the wet areas. I hope I’ll be able to visit here with him in the spring or summer to see what else bursts forth after the restoration!

Ben showed me an old tip-up where a huge two-trunked Bur Oak had fallen in two directions – one into the forest and the other across the old creek bed, making a bridge of sorts to an island once surrounded by flowing water in the original Paint Creek channel. The tip-up left a deep hole where the roots were ripped out. Ben tells me that tip-ups can create two habitats – a watery one in the hole below, and a green one above with mosses, ferns, grasses or shrubs eventually growing over the root ball. He’s seen forested wetlands in which tree trunks had decomposed completely, leaving only a hollow in the earth beneath a mossy hillock to indicate the presence of an ancient tip-up.

In early winter the only green I could spot in this woods were stretches of Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale), a kind of horsetail with enough silica in it to make it useful long ago as a scrubbing tool. The bright orange disk of a crustose lichen (a composite organism of algae and fungi) caught my eye in winter’s gray light as well as a log sporting a nice collection of Turkey Tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). Ben pointed out the fertile fronds of Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) which carry the spores which may germinate to grow new ostrich ferns.

Ben also introduced me to the largest Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that I’ve ever seen. Cottonwoods can be aggressive trees, spreading like crazy with multiple seeds attached to cottony strands. So they’re not always welcome in areas where Ben is trying to restore an area’s natural diversity. This tree though was impressive. According to Wikipedia, cottonwoods grow quickly to 65 -195 feet, but in most habitats live only 70-100 years, not long in the world of trees. Ben can’t help admiring this one, so it will be left to prosper. Here’s my husband Reg standing next to it to give you a sense of its girth and height.

My husband Reg testing out the girth of a large Cottonwood with one of its sizable offspring in the distance on the right.

A Janus Moment: Imagining the Past and the Future at the Same Time

A section of Paint Creek’s former stream bed

Janus is the Roman god after which January is thought to have been named. He is usually depicted with a double face looking back to the past and forward to the future. How appropriate, then, that this January, during a transitional time at the Wet Prairie, I was lucky enough to imitate him. Standing at the edge of Paint Creek’s original stream bed, camera in hand, I happily immersed myself in imagining the past: the glint of the water wending its way through some large, widely dispersed Bur Oaks with wetland flowers and ancient sedges painting the dappled shade with color. I could picture native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), their stippled scales flashing, as they navigated their slender bodies around the island in the creek. Iridescent Ebony Jewelwing damsel flies (Calopteryx maculata) may have darted above the surface, delicately landing like dancers on surrounding greenery. I wondered about the indigenous people who may have picked their muddy way among these trees and what they might have noticed and enjoyed along the creek.

Today as the stewardship crew gradually clears away the smothering snarl of invasive shrubs, it feels to me as if the oaks and the huge cottonwood can breathe more easily, bathed in more sun and rain. I let my thoughts turn to the spring, when the Lady Slippers and that patch of Starry Solomon Seal bloom again unhindered by overhanging vines and shrubs. And I can’t help hoping that seeds that have waited for decades will wake in the warming earth once more and begin their cycle of growth. Today Paint Creek may be bustling its way beyond the busy trail to the east, but its ancient bed will still gather water from the sky and earth when it can. Moistening its surroundings, it will now have a chance to once again nurture the diverse community of native plants that shared its habitat for centuries. What a gift that will be to all the native grasses, sedges, wildflowers and wildlife – and us as well! And what a pleasure to have the “Mystery of the Missing Creek” solved during this ambitious restoration project.

A Short Excursion into the Rich Diversity of Blue Heron Environmental Area

Blue Heron Environmental Area on Rochester Road is a place I’ve rarely visited. This special natural area was  purchased years ago by our Parks and Recreation Commission to protect a Great Blue Heron rookery that has since moved on.  The township has begun planning for the area’s future use, but for now it’s preserved as a beautiful green space with a large arc of wetland curving through a high-quality lowland forest. The fields outside the forest are planted by a local farmer which helps prevent the spread of invasive shrubs until future plans come to fruition.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Until recently, I had only been in this forest to pull garlic mustard during spring volunteer workdays. But in early June, I was able to join our township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his stewardship specialist, Grant VanderLaan, for a short exploration while they there were clearing invasive plants. What a great opportunity to share some of the special flowers, vivid dragonflies, and elder trees that inhabit this moist, shady world!

Escorted Along the Fields by a Fleet of Dragonflies!

While skirting the farm field near Rochester Road, I noticed a sunlit meadow to my right that was splashed with blossoms of native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus).

The sturdy, daisy-like faces of native Daisy Fleabane dotted a restored field at Blue Heron.

All along the field edges, dragonflies were patrolling, and occasionally dueling over, their territories. Blue Heron Environmental Area is ideal for these aerial wizards. In the open areas, they can scoop up mosquitoes, flies, midges or even moths and damselflies out of the air, while attracting a mate with their speed and skill. And once they do mate, the forest wetlands provide an ideal spot for depositing their eggs. Since walking humans stir up a lot of insects, they were also happy to accompany me along the field edge to harvest whatever I stirred out of the grass.

The Widow Skimmer female below (Libellula luctuosa) looks very like the male, except that her abdomen is black and gold while his is gray-blue. The male also has white patches beyond the dark brown ones on each wing. Widow Skimmers find shelter at night by hanging underneath overhanging leaves.

Widow skimmer female or juvenile 2 BHEA

The offspring of this  female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) will resemble her closely, but with male juveniles,  the gold stripe on its abdomen will gradually fade to gray-blue.

Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) are fierce predators. They have long spines on their legs for grasping prey, which includes any insect their size or smaller – occasionally even other Eastern Pondhawks! These dragonflies are more likely than others to follow along as you walk in order to feast on swarms of insects. Eastern Pondhawks are “dimorphic,” meaning the male and female look very different as you can see below.

During maturation, this male Eastern Pondhawk’s abdomen slowly turned to blue-gray starting at the tip of his abdomen and ending at his thorax. This guy looks ready to take me on!

According to Dragonflies of the North Woods by Kurt Mead, female Eastern Pondhawks can mate multiple times in a day. Perhaps the female’s bright green color and striped abdomen, so different from the male’s, makes her more visible to possible suitors.

A female Eastern Pondhawk can lay up 2100 eggs per day. She releases them into the water by dipping her abdomen into the water in short intervals.

The Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) is a favorite of mine not only because of the alternating stripes on its wings, but because of the way it hunts. It sallies forth from a perch to snag its prey, and then frequently returns to the same perch repeatedly – giving amateurs like me multiple chances for a decent photo! All dragonflies are a challenge to photograph in flight, but particularly Twelve-spotteds since they fly in bursts of speed and can reverse direction in a flash.

The male Twelve-spotted Skimmer sometimes hovers over the female during egg-laying to prevent other males from harassing or mating with her.

The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) below could be a female, but is more likely a juvenile, since they’re the ones that tend to head for fields and open areas, leaving the water behind once they emerge from their larval stage. Their appearance is not only identical to the adult female; it also closely resembles the female Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The only difference is that the yellowish-white stripes of the female/juvenile Whitetail form a jagged line down the sides of the abdomen (see below), while the side stripes of the female Twelve-spotted form a neat straight line. So needless to say, I always need a photo to decide which one I saw when a female of either species appears.

A juvenile Common Whitetail is more likely to be found at a field edge than the adult female, though both look exactly alike during early maturation.

I came across two other interesting insects at the edge of the fields. Noticing delicate movement at my feet, I finally spotted a strange creature that is completely harmless to us humans, but quite a predator! A Hangingfly (genus Bittacus) does just as its name implies; it dangles beneath leaves by its looong front legs which have claspers to grasp leaves or stems for support. It uses its other four legs to snag any unwary insect passersby. It looks a bit like a Crane Fly but isn’t related.

A Hangingfly hopes to snag unsuspecting insects as it dangles from under a leaf.

And a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) showed up right where they always are – in a bright spot at the edge of a field or forest, its stiff, iridescent green wings shining in the sunlight.

A Six-spotted Tiger Beetle paused in a sunlit spot on an old log at the edge of a field.

Something New:  Restoring a Forest

A field now cleared of invasive shrubs that will eventually be restored to the forest it once was.

Have a look at the photo of the cleared, green field above.  Until two years ago, it was choked with Autumn Olive and Glossy Buckthorn, invasive non-native shrubs that quickly take over abandoned farm fields. A forestry mower took them down in the winter and the area was soon sown with native grasses and wildflowers. The stewardship summer crew treated the invasive shrub regrowth the following summer.

Often stewardship work in our township begins with this clearing process as the first step in turning a field back into a native prairie or savanna- but not so at Blue Heron.  When I visited, Ben showed me that the cleared field in the photo had originally been part of an earlier forest.

As you enter the woods, you can see a demarcation where younger, smaller trees give way to taller, thicker, older ones.  It’s likely that decades ago, the older trees,  many of which lean eastward,  had been reaching for sun at the edge of a farmed field . The bigger trees to the right in the photo probably grew back after the forest was originally cleared for farming in the 19th century. The smaller trees to the left probably sprouted after part of the field was no longer farmed in the second half of the twentieth century.

Older, larger trees on. the right were once leaning into the sun at the edge of the field when it was farmed years ago. Smaller trees beyond started growing when part of the farm field was abandoned many years later.

Stewardship plans include eventually planting native oaks in the open, cleared meadow  in order to restore more of the native trees that thrived here before farming began. I’d love to be around to see the restoration of a forest!

The Rich Diversity of a Lowland Forest

Blue Heron Environmental Area is a high-quality lowland forest with a curving arc of wetlands.

I’ve only explored a small section of the current woods at Blue Heron Environmental Area, but I’m already wowed. In the sources I used to research the plants I saw here, I  came across phrases like, “found only in high-quality wetlands,” or “found in high quality woodlands.” Because much of the forest has been undisturbed for a long time, Blue Heron provides high-quality examples of both.

Moist Forest Flora – and Some Rare Beauties!

As I stepped with Ben into the older forest, the shade deepened. Ben kindly took me to see a unique orchid. It seems that at one time, this natural area hosted two kinds of Ladyslippers. The more common, and still lovely Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) peeks out of the greenery beneath the tall trees. I love how the dark sepals form the purplish ribbons of the lady’s slipper.

The sepals of the Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper that once enclosed its bud look like the ribbons that wound around a lady’s leg to secure her shoe in ages past.

But there was once another orchid here which Ben and Grant haven’t yet spotted, the  rarer White Ladyslipper (Cypripedium candidum)Here’s a photo of one from iNaturalist.org taken by photographer Erin Faulkner. Note that the sepal “ribbons” are green with faint flecks of purple rather than the dark purple and bright yellow sepals of the Yellow Ladyslipper above.

Ben thinks the rare White Ladyslipper must have cross-pollinated with the Yellow Ladyslipper to create a hybrid at Blue Heron. Photo by Erin Faulkner (CC BY-NC)

Ben presumes that White Ladyslippers once grew in this natural area because here and there today grows a hybrid between these two native orchids. The hybrid wildflower at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper but the purple, sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper. The two native Ladyslippers must have cross-pollinated and produced this special hybrid that Grant found. I’m so glad that I got to see several of them and am able to share one with you!

The hybrid Ladyslipper at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper and purple sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper.

Also enjoying the beautiful forest floor, I noticed little yellow pom-poms on a stem growing in the mottled shade of a long, arcing marsh. Ben identified it as Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thrysiflora), a species of Loosestrife I’d never seen before. Its clusters of tiny blossoms, called “racemes,” emerge from the middle axils of the long, graceful leaves like tiny fireworks. It’s described by a useful wildflower website, Illinois Wildflowers, as “found in higher quality wetlands.”

The yellow racemes (clusters of separate flowers) of Tufted Loosestrife catch the light and shine in the shade at the marsh’s edge.

Large areas near the marsh were carpeted with a calf-high plant I’d never before noticed on my hikes –  Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis). This member of the mint family produces a plume or spike of tiny yellow flowers in mid-summer, adding a spark of color to the dense shade when little else is in flower. Since I saw only its leaves, here’s a photo of the plant blooming by inaturalist photographer Sirruba.

Richweed, a native wildflower that creates colonies through its underground stems, called rhizomes. Photo by Sirruba (CC BY-NC)

Ferns Waving from the Forest Floor

The feathery fronds of a glorious variety of ferns sway above the ground near the marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area. Ben  identified two for me and I spotted an old favorite as well. The Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) is described by Illinois Wildflowers as “found in higher quality woodlands where the original ground flora is largely intact.” I saw its fan-shaped fronds spiraling out of the ground quite near the center of the marsh’s arc. It carries its spores in narrow bands on the underside of the leaflets near the tip. Each leaflet on the frond folds down slightly to partially cover the sporangia, the structures that carry the spores. They will eventually break open and release the spores to the wind.

Maidenhair Fern enjoys the humid shade of Blue Heron.

The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) produces a glorious, rising plume of infertile fronds that catch the sunlight and feed the plant through photosynthesis. The shorter, straight fertile fronds are thinner and produce yellow bead-like spores. The draining of wetlands around the world has had a big impact on Royal Ferns, so I’m happy to have seen so many here!

A Royal Fern near the marsh rises like a large, green bouquet rising from the moist forest floor.

All over the woodland grows an old friend, the Sensitive Fern, reportedly so-named because its fertile fronds wither at the first frost and arrive after the last frost. Its green, infertile fronds with their jagged edges feed the roots while the smaller fertile fronds eventually produce shiny, brown, bead-like sporangia that last through the winter before breaking open to release the spores. Sensitive ferns also reproduce by underground stems called rhizomes.

A Sensitive Fern unfurling its infertile, photosynthesizing fronds at Blue Heron. The infertile fronds produce brown beads  that carry the spores through the winter to be released the following spring.

Wet Woods Extras

High Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), an unusual native plant that I’ve only seen before at Cranberry Lake Park, huddled under the shade of a willow on a hummock in  the marsh. When I got closer with my camera, I could see fruit just beginning to form. Native mining bees and bumblebees or non-native honeybees must have found the little white nodding blossoms and pollinated them as they foraged. Some lucky bird or mammal has a treat coming!

The petals of Highbush Blueberry blossoms have dropped and the fruit is forming.

Near the Blueberry bush, in a wet crevice of a moss-covered hummock, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus).  It must have hatched this spring from eggs quickly laid in a vernal pool back in March. Less than 2 inches long, it floated in the shallow water or rested on the moist mud as it explored its shady grotto.

A tiny Wood Frog in the moist mud within a hummock near the marsh

Healthy Little Saplings, a Majestic Beech and Some Colorful “Hangers On”

Among the mixture of maples and oaks, some trees that I see less often have also found a suitable habitat in the forest at Blue Heron. Ben told me of a large Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) farther back in the woods that I’d missed. But I did see this little sapling of one springing up from the moist earth. I love how tiny saplings create such large leaves to capture as much sunlight as possible. Let’s hope it escapes the attention of foraging deer!

A tiny Tulip Tree will have to survive foraging deer to reach its adult size.

I did find an impressive American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) reaching up to the sunlight with its smooth, gray bark. Wildlife love the plentiful beechnuts that this tree will send rattling to the earth. And according to the Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela, the seedlings and saplings that manage to take root can survive in the shade for years waiting for other trees to fall, giving them the sunlight and space they need. I’m hoping for a grove of Beeches – a new favorite of mine.

A huge American Beech made its way up into the sunlight in the forest at Blue Heron.

A tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor) must have begun its upward journey from the forest floor when the acorns dropped last fall. Swamp Oak acorns usually come in pairs and sprout shortly after falling, according to Stan Tekiela. If one survives hungry birds and animals, it grows more quickly than most oaks. And it could live for up to 300 years,  according to Wikipedia. Good luck, little oak!

Leaves of Swamp Oaks are dark green above and lighter below – hence its species name, “bicolor.”

What first appeared to be some sort of fungus had sprung up around a large fallen oak in the woods.  But it wasn’t a fungus; it was a parasitic plant commonly called Cancer Root or Bear Corn (Conopholis americana). It’s an underground plant that consequently can’t photosynthesize sunlight. Instead it feeds off the roots of woody plants, especially oaks and beeches. This interesting pinecone shape is the flowering stem of the underground plant which grows on the roots about four years before producing these flowers that can grow as high as 8 inches. I’m continually amazed by the variety of ways that nature has found to sustain life.

Cancer root or Bear corn draws its sustenance from the roots of trees since the plant is underground and can’t photosynthesize. These are its flowers.

Imagining Blue Heron’s Past, Protecting It Today and Restoring It For the Future

A section of the long crescent of marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area.

The distant past of this striking lowland forest can only be imagined. Before farming began here in the 1800’s, an old growth forest probably stretched out from its present site across where Rochester Road is now and beyond. Gray wolves probably roamed the area, keeping a healthy deer population in check. Those White Ladyslippers may have bloomed in profusion in an open wet meadow pocket, since non-native plants had not yet been introduced to the ecosystem.

Today Blue Heron is a special natural area preserved by the Parks and Recreation Commission and the residents who support our parks. The old growth forest is gone, but large trees from the 19th century still stand tall among the wetlands shading a forest floor full of native plants. Thanks to our stewardship program, garlic mustard and other invasive trees, flowers and shrubs – some brought early on by European settlers, others unwittingly planted in our gardens or along our streets – are being removed from our parks and controlled in a variety of ways,  including prescribed burns. As a result, our heritage of native plants can begin to reassert itself, providing a healthier, more productive habitat for native wildlife.

And for those of us who want to pass that heritage on to future generations, we can dream of young children wandering among tall oaks and waving native grasses that were restored to Blue Heron Environmental Area by people in our time who valued the gifts of the natural world. What a legacy, eh?

Worried About the Planet? Let’s Make a Difference One Garden at a Time.

It’s admittedly a worrisome time for those of us  who love our small, blue planet. Devastating fires, raging floods, 30 billion fewer birds in the last 50 years, a UN report that 100 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades. According to Eduardo Brondizio at Indiana University, half a million species have “insufficient habitat for long-term survival.” Their best hope is restoration of their habitat.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Aha! Now here’s something you and I can do something about! And we can do it without leaving home, or participating in protests or influencing recalcitrant politicians. We can enrich the habitat right beyond our kitchen windows. And it won’t take sacrifice – in fact, it’s rewarding! It won’t take giant sums of money or raising taxes. All it takes, dear kindred spirits, is adding native plants to our gardens and yards – as many as we can plant each year. By doing so, we can make a HUGE difference to the survival of species. Stick with me here. The news keeps getting more hopeful as we move along.

Is Your Yard Full of Non-native Plants?  Mine Is…

I’m betting your garden is a lot like mine – filled with non-native trees, grass, shrubs and flowers that evolved in distant countries.  I’m thinking of common garden plants like Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) from the Balkans in Southeastern Europe, Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from eastern Asia,  or Vinca (Vinca minor) from Europe, Africa and Asia.  Take a short world tour in this slideshow and discover where a few of our most popular garden plants originated. [Use pause button for time to read captions.)

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Our non-native, international gardens look lovely;  butterflies sip nectar from the flowers and insects never leave a hole in the leaves.  The turf grass looks like a seamless green carpet if we fertilize it and water it regularly.  So what’s the problem?

Well, in their homelands, our non-native plants were not a problem.  They did just what nature asks plant to do – pass on  the sun’s energy (through photosynthesis) to all the other organisms in their habitat that can’t do that.  In its native Europe, invasive Phragmites (Phragmites australis subspecies australis), for example,  supports over 170 insect species. But not here! Here the invasive, non-native grass crowding every wet roadside supports only 5 species – and it’s been here for centuries!

Burning won’t kill phragmites! Here, we’re using controlled burning to remove dead Phragmites that was treated in fall 2014. We remove dead material in the hope that native plants may emerge.

Problem: Our Gardens are Missing One Essential Feature – Plentiful Caterpillars

Now you may be thinking, “Caterpillars eat holes in leaves! The lack of caterpillars is not a problem!!!” Well, actually, it is. Like me, you’ve probably always thought of your garden or lawn as an artistic or decorative enterprise. And it should be! We all need beauty around us. But nature needs our garden flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to be productive, as well as beautiful. Our yards also need to nourish creatures large and small who live around us. The sad truth is that  most of our gardens are green, colorful food deserts that leave nature hungry and malnourished. Luckily, we can easily change that!

Insects: “The Little Things that Run the World”

Insects, including butterflies, moths, and many other pollinators keep an ecosystem fed. They really are, as the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, “the little things that run the world.” An insect’s chubby caterpillars chewing and hunching along a plant stem provide essential food for the whole web of life. Birds stuff them down the scrawny throats of baby birds; caterpillars are soft and filled with the fat and protein nestlings need. Adult birds snag insects from the air, pluck them off the ground, and snatch them from leaves. They even spend winter days probing loose bark looking for frozen insect eggs or caterpillars to get the protein that helps keep their small bodies warm on icy nights.

Without enough caterpillars, birds won’t lay a full clutch of eggs in the spring. Their  young will not be as large and healthy. And they need a lot of them! Chickadees, for example, need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise their clutch of nestlings! Caterpillars are simply the most important food source for birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and some mammals. Seeds and fruits contribute to food webs too – but caterpillars are essential.

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So Why Are Our Yards Missing So Many Caterpillars?

Ninety percent of our native caterpillars, the young of daytime butterflies and the moths who maneuver through the night, are picky eaters! They can only eat plants with which they co-evolved. They are specialists who, over eons, have overcome the chemical defenses of particular native plants and are now adapted to eat them and nothing else. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to switch to what’s available. It would take thousands of years of evolution to make that possible. So if our caterpillars don’t hatch out on a native plant, they generally die of malnutrition before reaching adulthood.

The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), of course, is the classic example; its caterpillars can eat only one genus – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias).  Monarchs will sip nectar from all kinds of flowers, but their caterpillars need one of the milkweed species for food that will nourish them to adulthood. And 90% of all our insects face the same challenge of finding the native plants their young can eat. Not enough native plants means not enough insects and their caterpillars, which means not enough birds, not enough amphibians –  and on it goes as hunger spreads through a habitat’s food web.

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A Beautiful, Simple Solution: Plant More Native Flowers, Grasses, Shrubs and Trees

So many environmental issues are beyond our control. But we can control our yards, our gardens, the fields and woods on our land. And we can turn around the declining numbers of butterflies, pollinators, birds and more by nourishing wildlife around us with beautiful native plants. They come in all kinds of colors and shapes. Some thrive in wet areas, some in dry. Some need the sunshine, some the shade. Some bloom in only one season, some in more than one. Some are even green all winter! Here’s just a tiny, rainbow sampling  to whet your appetite!

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Our Gardens and Yards Can Change Gradually, Right?

We don’t need to overhaul our gardens overnight. I plan to just gradually add in more native plants each year. Ideally, our goal is to reach at least 70% native – but any increase in native plants benefits our local habitats. For example, I can’t afford to eliminate the non-native woods of invasive Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) next to our driveway – but I can remove its invasive sprouts wherever I come across one. And maybe year by year, we can remove a bit more of the Vinca and Lily-of -the-Valley that have choked out native woodland flowers on the forest floor. I’m thinking  of removing Locusts that are crowding the few native Wild Black Cherry Trees (Prunus serotina) in the woods and perhaps adding in a few native understory trees to help out the birds and insects.

Dense woods of non-native Black Locust

Three years ago, I started taking on the invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that has encircled our yard and infiltrated the woods for years. Pulling them out by the roots is quite easy; my 4-year-old neighbor enjoyed doing it with me! And the reward at our house is that beautiful, native White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) now rises out of the earth each autumn wherever I pulled the Garlic Mustard in the spring! (Have a look at the beautiful bank of white blossoms below!) I’m anxious to know what else may be hiding in the seed bank under the forest floor!

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If placed in the right environment, native plants are less fussy than non-native plants we usually get from the garden store. They’ve evolved in our ecosystem so they don’t need the regular watering, fertilizing or soil amendments that non-natives usually do. In fact many of our native plants do better in poor soil! Rain generally provides enough water for them, except in severe droughts. You’ll need to experiment to see what works, just as you do with non-native plants. Some will grow more vigorously than you’d like and need to be thinned; consider sharing them with neighbors! Others will need to be moved to a new location. That’s OK! It’s all a learning process, right?

A Word about that Lawn…

Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, a sort of  “bible” for native gardeners, points out that millions of acres in America are covered by our lawns. In fact researchers say that the American lawn covers an area the size of New England! Turf grasses are non-native and require huge amounts of water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep them  green. Mowing them frequently also uses lots of fossil fuel.

Now neither Doug Tallamy nor I are not advocating that you ignore your lawn and let it grow into a fallow field full of invasive plants! What Tallamy and other conservationists are asking is this: Could you do with less grass and plant more native gardens? Could you plant a native White Oak (Quercus alba) in your front yard? (White Oaks can support over 500 different insect species and still look great! Could you put native shrubs along your driveway? Maybe you could plant a more formal native garden in the front with drifts or masses of native plants that love to be planted close together.  (No need for mulch!)

Grass paths could be used to guide you through your landscape; turf grass is great to walk on. If your children play outside (and I fervently hope they do!), leave a play area but surround it with native wildflowers or flowering native shrubs. And where you have slopes or large open areas with plenty of sun, consider taller native grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a variety of sun-loving prairie plants. Native grasses and shrubs provide artistic structure in a garden, but also give caterpillars safe places to spin their chrysalises and cocoons.  The possibilities are endless.

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An Inspiration for the Future:  The “Homegrown National Park”

In his newest book,  Nature’s Best Hope, Dr. Tallamy proposes a glorious vision of what a dedicated nation could create for its people and its wildlife. He envisions all of us together creating huge swaths of native habitat by linking our native-growing neighborhoods into a “Homegrown National Park.” Imagine that! Our new national park could be as large as 20 million acres if we all reduced our lawn areas by half. Wow! An audacious idea, but theoretically possible. For the moment though, our goal can simply be to enhance the habitat around our own houses and perhaps eventually a network of houses and neighborhoods full of both life and beauty.

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Wild geranium and wild columbine make a stunning spring combo

Imagine Your Native Garden as Living Landscape, a Beautiful Habitat Where Nature Thrives

February is a great time for garden dreaming. Envision the possibilities outside your kitchen window. A green path wends it way between native gardens that change with each season. Warm patches of sunlight bring butterflies looking for nectar. Perhaps fledgling bluebirds beg to be fed beneath your native flowering shrub. In the shade of the native tree canopy, migrating birds stop by to sing while looking for caterpillars or to pluck a few berries on their way south for the winter. I’m finding a whole new set of yard dreams myself. I hope you conjure up a few too, and add some natives to your yard this year.

RESOURCES:

Ready to Plant Some Native Plants this Spring and/or Fall?  We Can Get Them for You Wholesale!

Starting last year, our Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, created a new native plant sale for township residents.  All the information for this year’s sale is right at this link  or under “Native Plant Sale” at the top of the Natural Areas Notebook home page.  But you need to order by March 4th!

Need More Detail about Native Plants, In-Depth Information or Answers to Frequently Asked Questions?  

  1. Get hold of a copy of any of Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy’s books:  Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press);  Nature’s Best Hope – A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press), and one he wrote with native landscaper, Rick Darke, The Living Landscape – Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.
  2. Listen to this podcast of Dr. Tallamy being interviewed about native plants.
  3. Find native plants for your county by using this national database and putting in your zipcode!
  4. Check out the somewhat more comprehensive blog about native plants that I wrote last year after attending the Wildlfower Association of Michigan annual conference.

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

Draper Twin Lake Park: The Restless Transitions of Mid-Autumn

A trembling aspen which leafed out in spring, and shed leaves in autumn,  despite having fallen across the Draper marsh in a storm at the end of last winter.  Rose hips from Swamp Rose (Rosa Palustris) in the foreground.

October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.

Photos and Text by Cam Mannino

As the month moves on,  a sharpness edges the morning air and shadows slide across the landscape more quickly in the late afternoon. The birds are agitated  – snatching up as much seed as possible, drilling holes for snug winter hideaways, or pausing for an overnight respite before catching a north wind going south.

Change is in the air.  Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.

Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly

One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto  the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!

The Common Buckeye is a lovely little butterfly that I see most often during its migration to southern climes.

In early October, afternoons were still occasionally above 50°, warm enough for the European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) to gather more winter stores. The nectar collected by these bees will be turned into honey for the hive to feed on in the winter. Having large stores of nourishment in the hive is crucial if honey bees are to survive the winter months, so this one paid no attention to me as it probed for some last sips of nectar.

A Honey Bee gathering nectar from an aster to feed the hive during the cold winter months.

The sturdy Heath Aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) emerges as the summer fades and blooms heartily in the cooler temperatures. So any warm afternoon in fall, this lovely native wildflower offers itself to foraging bees in the hope of being pollinated quickly so that seeds will be ready before the snow falls.

Heath Asters make their own white snowstorm, often blooming right up until snow falls.

Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) look a lot like their relative, the Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta). But Brown-eyeds tend to grow multiple stems from a single root and usually grow taller than the Black-eyed variety. I see them only in late summer or fall, whereas Black-eyeds last from June to September. Nice to have some fresh yellow wildflowers just as cool weather sets in!

Brown-eyed Susans are short-lived perennials that grow on mulitple stems.

A lone, fading Black-eyed Susan hid a tiny beetle among its petals and attracted a greenish-gray caterpillar busily nibbling off the tiny yellow flowers poking from the wildflower’s composite seed head. After pouring over the guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner, my best guess is that it’s the caterpillar of the Common Pug Moth (Eupithecia vulgata) whose larva has chevrons along its spine and which feeds on these flowers, among many other plants. If I’m right about the caterpillar (and remember, I’m just guessing!), the Pug Moth is a  modest gray- brown with a small dark spot on both its fore- and hindwings.

An insect caterpillar and a small beetle  as well as various windflower fibers have landed on a fading Black-eyed Susan.

In the grass, we found a Wooly Bear Caterpillar, the larva  of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). If you look carefully below, you can almost discern its projecting mandibles (jaws) about to tear off the edge of a clover leaf. (Sorry for the blur. It was chewing rather vigorously!) The Farmer’s Almanac these days does a fine job of explaining the “folklore” behind the idea that the width of the color bands predict the severity of winter. A serious scientific study has never been done; it would require too many caterpillars over too many years. According to Wikipedia, however, Wooly Bears vary a lot in their color banding and the bands also tend to widen with each molt – so it’s not likely to be an ace weatherman.

A Wooly Bear caterpillar munching on clover.

In the marsh within the eastern section of the park, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) found a sunny spot on the mud behind the dying leaf of a Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). It closed its eyes, turned its head skyward and basked. Shortly it will sink to the muddy bottom and won’t emerge until spring. During winter, it actually stops breathing, but its slowed metabolism means it can survive on the oxygen that passes through its skin from the surrounding water. Hibernation is miraculous, isn’t it?

A Midland Painted Turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thin sunlight of early autumn.

One birding morning on the western side of the park, Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide,  introduced us to a colorful shrub off one side of Draper’s fishing dock.  It turned out to be Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)! It’s a relative of the harmless and quite beautiful Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), and a sibling to Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). I’d never come across this bush with its gray bark and white berries, but the familiar red leaves of other sumacs. Luckily it grows within or at the edge of bogs, fens, marshes and other very wet places where my hiking shoes don’t often carry me. Look but don’t touch and don’t inhale its smoke are the watchwords here.  Poison Sumac is more toxic than Poison Ivy.  The Michigan Flora website has a great photo of it in bloom.

Poison Sumac looks quite glamorous in the fall with its red leaves and white berries.

A more benign plant sent a spray of red leaves across the lily pads in late September and early October. Native  Whorled/Swamp Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) is not a problem like the non-native, invasive Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). This native wildflower produces purple blossoms along each stem and leaves that turn red in October. In November, its seed heads make a lovely pattern against the water of the lake. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife

The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you.  But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.

Two Goldfinches eating while riding the swaying stalks of goldenrod.

Five Goldfinches ultimately enjoyed the seeds of just one clump of Stiff Goldenrod. (The fifth bird is semi-hidden at the lower right.)

A flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) sailed across the path far in front of us – just a swish of blue against the morning sky. Bluebirds restlessly move south a bit in the fall, but can often be seen here in the winter, even on icy days. I never got close enough for a shot during the birding walk, but I did see a flock at Bear Creek Nature Park a couple of weeks earlier. This pair seemed to be exploring the possibilities of a winter hole in a snag at Bear Creek.

The male bluebird pays close attention as a female checks out the possibilities of a hole in a snag.

In the distance, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rocked on a low branch at the far edge of the field and repeatedly darted down into the grass. At last, it found what was possibly the cocoon of a caterpillar and it rose back to the branch, tail pumping as always, with its prize in its beak.

An Eastern Phoebe with what appeared to be a caterpillar’s cocoon.

Farther down the tree line, pulses of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) flew down into the grass to feed and then back into the trees. It seems that the red heads and chests of the males are a bit paler in the fall. I know the depth of the hue depends on what they eat, so perhaps their favorite berries or seeds are not quite as available as the season wanes.

House Finches fluttering out of a tree in the distance at Draper Twin Lake Park

High overhead a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) bugled their way across the autumn skies. They were headed south but it may have just been one of their many practice runs before migrating to Florida.

Sandhill Cranes flying south over Draper Twin Lake Park

Over in the eastern section of the park, a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) added its “miaows” from the hedgerow one afternoon, possibly calling a mate or youngster to share some wild Summer Grapes (Vitis aestivalis). I hope it’s a nice change from their summer diet, since number the insects that they eat during the summer is diminishing with the colder weather. The catbirds will be leaving soon to winter in Florida, Cuba, the Bahamas or along the eastern seaboard.

A Gray Catbird calls to a companion from a wild grape vine.

Down near the water, I noticed a lot of twitching in the shrubbery and waited in the shade for what might appear. The first bird that emerged was a familiar year ’round bird, the Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). This tiny acrobat hung upside down, then rightside up,  twisting this way and that, to snatch as much seed as possible from Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) near the lake.

A Black-capped Chickadee eating its fill of Canada Goldenrod

Small visiting migrators often show up around chickadees. Cornell Ornithology Lab provides a possible explanation. “Most birds that associate with chickadee flocks respond to chickadee alarm calls, even when their own species doesn’t have a similar alarm call.” Good to have a reliable sentinel! I’ve also read that visiting birds find food by hanging around local chickadees who presumably know the best foraging spots. That was certainly the case at Draper Lake. A migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) popped out into the open and began stripping seeds from the goldenrod just like the local chickadee. In the fall and winter, it pays to look carefully wherever chickadees are gathering.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet joined the Chickadee in devouring goldenrod seed. A leaf cast an interesting shadow on its tiny back.

As I turned away from the Kinglet, I heard a call that I knew was a woodpecker and looked up. A large black and white bird landed on a nearby tree and began to peck at a hole. Wow! It was the closest I’ve ever been to a Pileated Woodpecker. And as an added bonus, the afternoon sun lit its crest with a scarlet glow. It may have been looking for the right tree in which to make a new hole, one lower than its nesting hole, that will serve as winter shelter.

A Pileated Woodpecker seemed to be considering whether a hole in this tree could be further excavated for a winter storm hideaway.

Near the end of the path, a Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) hopped about, restlessly picking up and dropping bits of this and that. Theoretically these sparrows, plentiful in the summer, can spend the winter here, but I rarely seem them after the fall. This one may have migrated here from farther north and also chosen to explore where the chickadee was foraging.

The sparrow near the lake has the typical long tail of a Song Sparrow.  If you could see its breast, there’d be a dark spot in the middle of its striping, another field mark.

I saw several other birds at Draper Twin Lake Park with the birding group in the last two months, but only through my binoculars.  A quick flash of red or yellow high in the fall leaves, a recognizable song in the distance, or a sudden chasing flight over the prairie – none of that provided a chance for a photo. However, I wanted to share these birds here so that you can appreciate how many birds can be seen at Draper Twin Lake Park in autumn. So here’s a short slideshow of some of them as seen in photos I’ve taken at other times, or in photos from the generous photographers at inaturalist.org. (Use pause button for captions.)

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Relishing Autumn’s Transformation

Native Indian Grass swaying in an October wind

The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie:   “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”

Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season.  I appreciate that reminder.