Wow! 2018 was another big year for the Natural Areas Stewardship program. We completed botanical inventories of several small parcels. The Land Preservation Millage was renewed for another 10-year term. Major invasive shrub control projects began at Bear Creek Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Charles Ilsley Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Volunteers monitored vernal pools, lakes, and nest boxes. Our fire crew gained experience and was able to complete several burns in the spring. Our planted prairies from 2015 really started to look like prairies in 2018. And the word continued to spread about our natural areas stewardship program and the wonderful, consistent support from our township residents. What fun! Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2018 Annual Stewardship Report. (Click link to view). The table of contents in the PDF is hyperlinked to help you navigate the report.
Volunteers contributed 1212 hours in 2018! Weekly bird walks continued, gathering useful data about avian life in the park and engaging residents. Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also monitored nest boxes at Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and the Paint Creek Trail; monitored vernal pools at Bear Creek Nature Park; and monitored water quality at Lost Lake and Twin Lake. We had fun at summer and winter potlucks and the December birder coffee hour!
The nest box monitoring program was made possible by volunteer Tom Korb, who built, helped install, and Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and the Paint Creek Trail. We enjoyed watching bluebirds and tree swallows nesting in these new boxes!
Prairie Restoration with USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Grants
After planting 55 acres of prairie reconstructions in 2015 and 2016, we completed our third round of plantings in 2018. Using our second Partners grant, we planted an additional 15 acres at Charles Ilsley Park and 3 acres at Gallagher Creek Park in May 2018. We continued maintenance of areas planted in 2015 and 2016, working to give native plants the upper hand during the critical establishment phase.
We contracted with Plantwise LLC for spring burns at Cranberry Lake Park(40.4 ac), Lost Lake Nature Park (24.6 ac), and Paint Creek Heritage Area—Wet Prairie (9 ac). We also worked with private landowners to burn 13.1 acres of habitat adjacent to the Paint Creek Trail right-of-way, including high quality oak savanna, prairie remnants, and fen wetland. We held volunteer prescribed burn crew training again in February. The volunteer crew completed burns at Bear Creek Nature Park (23 ac), Charles Ilsley Park (1 ac), Draper Twin Lake Park (9.4 ac), Watershed Ridge Park (2.4 ac), and Paint Creek Trail at Gunn Road (0.4 ac).
The stewardship blog continued to thrive, with regular posts from Cam Mannino. She regularly highlighted cool features across all of our parks, all with excellent writing and photographs. The blog also continued to serve as an up-to-date source of information about stewardship volunteer opportunities and events. We published 45 posts and had 6233 visitors, with 11,744 page views.
Stewardship talks included presentations on native bees, rain gardens, prescribed fire, emerging invasive species, bird nest box monitoring, and oak wilt. We enjoyed a pleasant April evening at our annual Woodcock Watch at Cranberry Lake Park.
Phragmites Outreach Program
We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 32 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 25 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.
Billy Gibala returned to our crew through June. He graduated from University of Michigan-Flint in 2017 with a degree in wildlife biology and minors in regional and urban planning, We welcomed Alyssa Radzwion to the crew. She graduated from Oakland University in December 2016 with a Bachelor’s degree in biology, and had previous experience working for the Michigan DNR stewardship crew. Katlyn Hilmer recently graduated from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where she focused on forestry work. Sarah Rosche joined the crew in July after completing her Master’s, studying the effects of fire on Northern Bobwhite nesting ecology and habitat selection. We had a great crew with diverse experiences!
All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.
Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above, along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.
We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.
Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.
Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?
This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.
In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!
Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.
During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.
Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely; it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!
Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.
Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.
During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis)also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.
Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More
For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica)thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.
The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!
On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.
On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.
When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!
A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis)seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.
A male bluebird scanning the grass for something to eat.
A female bluebird surveying the eastern meadow
This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.
Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater)foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!
The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!
While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.
With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.
I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.
The skunk cabbage’s flower within its spathe emerging from the mud on March 31.
Its leaves beginning to form by April 18.
At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!
Spring Beauty is slow getting going this year.
Look for its tiny blossoms under forest trees as the sunlight increases.
Stewardship Projects Proceeded
A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects. Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The Promise of Full-fledged Spring
We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.
Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us. Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert! Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, and others as cited in the text.
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!
After three years of consistent stewardship work in key project areas, we are beginning to see good results. New wildflower species were found at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail. Invasive shrubs were cleared from over 20 acres at Watershed Ridge Park and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Prairie species planted a few years ago at Draper Twin Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park began to flower. And more people like you got involved in the adventure through bird walks, volunteer workdays, nest boxes, potlucks, and stewardship talks. What fun! Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2017 Annual Stewardship Report (click link to view).
Volunteers contributed 637 hours in 2017! Weekly bird walks were well attended. For the first time we hosted a summer stewardship potluck to help build our conservation community. Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also helped with maintenance of native plant gardens, prescribed fire, vernal pool monitoring, and building nest boxes.
Volunteer Tom Korb led the effort to revitalize nest boxes in our parks. Tom built nearly 30 nest boxes for installation at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park. We hope to see more breeding bluebirds, kestrels, and other cavity-nesting birds in our parks in the future!
Prairie Restoration with USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Grants
Using our second Partners grant we prepared sites for planting 15 acres of native prairie plants at Charles Ilsley Park and 3 acres at Gallagher Creek Park. Planting was delayed until spring 2018 due to seed shortages, but that will give us a little more time to get the site in good shape. We continued maintenance of areas planted in 2015 and 2016, working to give native plants the upper hand during the critical establishment phase.
We contracted with Plantwise LLC for spring burns at Cranberry Lake Park, Lost Lake Nature Park, and Marsh View Park. We also worked with private landowners to burn habitat adjacent to the Paint Creek Trail right-of-way, including high quality oak savanna, prairie remnants, and fen wetland. We held volunteer prescribed burn crew training again in February. The volunteer crew completed burns at Marsh View Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area—Wet Prairie, and the Art Project prairie north of Gallagher Road along the Paint Creek Trail.
The stewardship blog continued to thrive with regular posts from Cam Mannino. The blog also continued to serve as an up-to-date source of information about stewardship volunteer opportunities and events. We published 52 posts and had 5324 visitors, with 8797 page views. Natural Areas Notebook, oaklandnaturalareas.com
Stewardship hosted education events in early 2017. Topics included the importance of protecting public land in Michigan, reptiles and amphibians of Michigan, and prescribed fire in Oakland Township parks.
Phragmites Outreach Program
We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 33 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 21 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.
We had one technician return for 2017, Zach Peklo. Zach came to us from Grand Valley State University studying natural resources management with an emphasis on Geographic Information Systems. New to our crew as seasonal land stewardship technicians in 2017 were Josh Auyer and Billy Gibala. Josh graduated from Calvin College in May 2017 with a degree in Biology. Billy graduated from University of Michigan – Flint in spring 2017 with a degree in wildlife biology and a minor in regional and urban planning. Alex Kriebel also returned to our crew as a Stewardship Specialist, bringing additional experience in natural areas management from his work with Oakland County Parks and Recreation.
All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.
If you are interested in joining our volunteer burn crew, join us for our training workshop on Saturday, February 24, 9 am – 2:30 pm at the Paint Creek Cider Mill (4480 Orion Road, Rochester, MI 48306). We will cover reasons for using prescribed fire, preparations for conducting a fire, necessary tools, roles of each burn crew member, and ignition patterns. Training is required for new crew members, and a great refresher if you’re returning. Weather permitting we will do a small demonstration or mock burn after lunch. Snacks will be provided, but please bring your own lunch.