Stewardship Volunteering: An Invitation to Befriend Our Native Landscape

The native grass that I wandered through as a child which I later learned was native Big Bluestem.

As happens so often in life, I sort of backed into being a stewardship volunteer. I spent my childhood in Oakland Township forging paths through abandoned farm fields filled with tall grass. On a flannel blanket scented by the warm earth beneath, I settled beside a small wetland to read. My father knew where wild asparagus grew on Collins Road and rushed back home one afternoon to report seeing a trumpeter swan. We watched birds on a simple feeder in a bush outside the kitchen window. My brother and I could be gone all morning in the fields as long as we returned when the dinner bell rang. Being outside meant disappearing from adult supervision for hours on end, and we loved it.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

When my husband I moved back to this area, we began Sunday walks in Bear Creek Nature Park, just an abandoned farm when I was child. At a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in 2015, I took the opportunity to ask the Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, about a giant tuft of stiff grass that jutted out at the edge of a field at Bear Creek. Did someone plant some exotic grass in our park? It looked very odd and ungainly. Ben explained that it was Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native grass that had once covered large areas of our township – part of our ancient natural landscape. Really? He suggested coming to a presentation that he’d planned to describe that pre-settlement landscape and the role of periodic prescribed fire in restoring and preserving it. Fire as a preservation technique? I took the bait and arrived home from that event bubbling with ideas about Michigan’s prairies and how they might be restored to us. That huge tuft of grass at Bear Creek Nature Park, it turned out, was probably a remnant of the grasses through which I’d roamed years ago, grasses which had emerged after field fires during my childhood.

That eye-opening presentation marked the starting point of what is now my seven-year journey into deepening my relationship with the natural world. I continue to appreciate nature in ever more intimate detail – and it never fails to simultaneously fascinate and soothe me. Through volunteering in a variety of ways, I’ve come to understand that I have a part to play in healing the landscape that nurtured me as child and still does. And in doing so, I experience a bit of healing myself.

So here’s my invitation to join us in this reciprocal process of enriching the native diversity of our natural areas while enriching ourselves. Perhaps you’ll discover an activity that suits your gifts or interests. For details on monthly events, click on a date on the calendar page at this link. [See the blue bar at the top of the linked calendar page.]

Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”

If our feathered neighbors intrigue you, perhaps these activities are for you!

Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group

Birders at Cranberry Lake Park watching several different migrating warblers in a nearby tree. Photo by Tom Korb, a member of the group

Every Wednesday year ’round (with a few weeks off in December), a group of us gather at one of the township parks. We come with binoculars (or Ben can loan us a pair) and head out on the trails. Some of the birding group members are amateurs. Others have birded for years and can recognize a bird by its song or its pattern in flight overhead. Learn, laugh, hang out with kindly people in all kinds of weather and be a citizen scientist at the same time! The data collected each week by Ben and stewardship specialist, Grant Vanderlaan, is reported to the Cornell University Ornithology Department’s ebird website where it can be used by researchers to learn more about our feathered neighbors.

Get “Upclose and Personal” with Birds by Monitoring Nest Boxes

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box.

We volunteers participate in another citizen science project, Cornell University’s NestWatch Project. Each volunteer takes responsibility for monitoring a set of bird boxes in one of our parks. After a yearly session on the do’s and don’ts of monitoring, we visit our boxes once or twice each week. I’ve peeked within the nest boxes of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia Sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to record the date of the first egg laid, the hatch date, the fledge date and other data. As a result, I’ve seen baby birds hatch, feed from their parents’ beaks and sail out into the big bright world on their first solo flight! What fun! I recommend it to you.

Need A Little Excitement in Your Life? Volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Crew!

Two trained burn crew volunteers, a woman dripping low flame, a man carrying water for dowsing when required

Many of our native plants are “fire-adapted,” which means they benefit from fire or actually require it to germinate! After a low burn, the nutrients of dry plants nourish the soil, the blackened fields absorb sun for a longer growing season and room is created for native plants and the creatures which need sun and rain. So although Ben hires contractors for complicated burns, he also provides training each year for members of a volunteer fire crew. All adults are welcome, regardless of gender. The volunteers don protective equipment provided by the Parks and Recreation Commission and that, plus training and on-site supervision by Ben, makes for a dramatic, interesting and safe experience. So add a bit of adventure to your life and provide our stewardship team and nature itself with some badly needed help!

This could be you! Trained and ready to help restore our natural areas with prescribed fire.

Share an Ancient Tradition: The Gathering and Preparing of Native Seed

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Gathering the Seed

On a lovely autumn afternoon, Ben invites us to gather in a prairie to collect native seed, something humans have done for thousands of years. I love these autumn events; they’re so incredibly peaceful , relaxing and so easily productive. Ben chooses the site where desirable seeds are plentiful and gives us brief instructions on how much we can harvest. We then move out into the fields and slip seeds from their stalks, dropping them into a labeled bag later to be cleaned and sown where needed in our parks.

Former Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa, gathering coneflower seeds among the Big Bluestem at Charles Ilsley Park.

Preparing the Seed for Sowing

Volunteers cleaning seed and Stewardship Specialist Grant VanderLaan weighing it on the right.

Early in December, volunteers and staff gather at the township’s pole barn on Buell Road to separate the seed from its pods or seed heads. We dress warmly, snacks are on hand and we set to work pushing the seeds through screens into tubs, bagging the stalks and stems for compost. Some seeds need to be rubbed through a coarser screen while standing in order to break them off sturdy seed heads. The seed for each species is individually weighed, its origin and collection date recorded and then stored away for sowing. We chat while we work and the whole feeling of the event is a bit like an old-fashioned barn raising or quilting bee!

Sowing the Seed

Native seeds need to be sown in late fall or early spring, when nature drops many of its seeds; wild seeds usually require cold temperatures in order to germinate. It lands on the soil surface and moves into the soil by the force of rain or snow during freeze/thaw periods. Many are tiny, almost dust-like, and ignored by the birds. Some seeds are carried below ground by animals or insects.

Our collected native seeds are most often sown by hand or occasionally with a hand-cranked seed spreader. Ben and his crew recreate nature’s process in our parks by spreading it on the surface of prairie sites prepared by burns or mowing, on the edges of wetlands or for aquatic plants, even on pond ice. Natives may need three or more years to reach full bloom because they first establish deep roots. Unlike non-native nursery plants, they’re tough survivors who’ve evolved to grow without fertilizer or much other human intervention in Michigan’s unpredictable weather!

The stewardship crew planting in early spring, 2021

Scoop Up Tiny Shrimp and Other Tiny Aquatic Critters: Vernal Pool Monitoring

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that form in low areas in the spring. They fill with snow melt and rain water, and then dry up in warm weather. As a consequence, these pools don’t support fish, which makes them a safe place for many creatures to breed and lay eggs. Tiny orange Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) and appropriately named Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) are indicator species in these freshwater pools. Who knew shrimp and clams live and breed right in our parks? Likewise, our Wood Frogs (Lithobates syvaticus) and some species of Salamanders court and lay eggs here after overwintering in the uplands. Periodically Ben trains volunteers to record data from the vernal pools so that it can be reported to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory – a third kind of citizen science! Ben provides small nets and clear boxes and we don our high boots and wade in, learning first hand how to identify what dwells in these temporary pools that team with life that most of us have never seen before!

Enjoy Taking on the “Bad Guys?” Try Invasive Species Management!

Invasive species – like Bradford/Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and many others – are a big problem because they didn’t evolve here. In their original habitats in Eurasia and elsewhere, they did what our native plants do here, providing food and shelter for native species. But of course here, they are not among their native species. Consequently, they’re much less productive for our habitat. Their seeds may last longer in the fall, but offer little useful nutrition to our migrating birds – too much sugar, not enough fat. Butterflies may sip at non-native blossoms, but their young (the caterpillars) generally can’t/won’t eat non-native leaves, or if they do, fail to thrive into adulthood. Most caterpillars only feed on plants they’ve evolved with for centuries. Since caterpillars and their native plant hosts anchor the food web that feeds our birds and other creatures, the lack of caterpillars means a less healthy, more hungry habitat. Also, the predators that kept invasive species in check in their original habitats (insects, animals, fungi) aren’t present here – so invasives can quickly spread across the landscape with little opposition – robbing our native plants of the sunlight, rain, soil nutrients and pollination they need.

So here are a couple of examples to show how you might help preserve the rich diversity of our natural areas by eliminating non-native, invasive species:

Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines

Volunteers and stewardship staff took on clearing a large area of invasive shrubs and vines at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail in late 2020. Forestry mowing would have damaged the fragile ecosystem there. After weeks of work, clearing was complete and the resulting piles were burned on the winter snow. See the transformation process in the slideshow below.

Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning

No, garlic pulls are not at all like taffy pulls, unfortunately. Just nice folks who go out into woodlands with Ben and Grant to remove the nefarious, invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This introduced European plant crowds out many species of our native woodland wildflowers like Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Garlic Mustard, named for its scent, is easy to pull! A four-year-old delighted in helping me pull some near my home and did a fine job. The following year, a native wildflower emerged from the seed bank – the kind of reward we hope to see again in our natural areas! (Notice the historical photo below of the forest floor at Bear Creek in 1979!)

Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in full bloom in July after wildflower seeding

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. We volunteer because we want to be of use and what we discover is that the greatest benefit has been to ourselves! Working with Ben and the other stewardship folk, I have learned to be of use to nature. I’m happy to provide data to researchers learning to protect nesting and migrating birds or tiny shrimp. And it’s such a thrill to see a diverse tapestry of native plants emerge from the soil after decades of being buried beneath a heavy load of invasive shrubs or grasses. It invariably feels like I’m privileged to witness a small resurrection.

But what I’ve experienced is that the benefits for me often outweigh the relatively small part I play in the process. I’ve made bright, interesting friends both in person and here on the blog. What a delight to enjoy and learn from kindred spirits! I’ve stimulated my aging brain with new information that matters to me. I’ve exercised both my mind and my muscles as I head out in the fields to see what nature is ready to show me. This kind of volunteering makes me feel more alive!

But most importantly, through stewardship work, I’ve come closer to the natural world. In fact, I’ve come to feel embedded in it. We humans aren’t just walking on the earth, after all. We are an integral part of a vast and intricate system that feeds us daily, quenches our thirst, supplies our oxygen, clothes us, heats our homes, provides materials for the very roof over our heads and the tools we use every day – and nature does all that while gifting us with beauty! A field full of wildflowers, sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds, bird song and the whisper of leaves, the dance of tall grass in a summer breeze – all of that glorious art is gratis once we step out our door.

So I hope you’ll find a way to join us. More than 1500 acres of preserved natural areas in Oakland Township could use your attention and if possible, your helping hands. I guarantee that nature will richly reward your efforts.

Prescribed Burns for Healthy Habitat

Post written by Parker Maynard, Land Stewardship Technician. Post updated June 7 – we accidentally posted a version that wasn’t quite finished last Friday!

Volunteers and natural areas stewardship staff ignite the fields at Bear Creek Nature Park (Photo by Cam Mannino)

I can’t think of a more interesting and exciting way to start the stewardship season than by learning how to light up controlled fires to maintain the beauty of Oakland Township parks. Throughout late April and early May, the other Stewardship Crew members and I were involved in a unique hands-on training experience by participating in several prescribed burns. With the help of volunteers and contractors, areas within several parks underwent changes that will maintain and improve habitat and help native species thrive. As someone who has long been interested in the process of prescribed burns but has never had the chance to participate in one, I can easily say this was one of the most memorable stewardship activities I’ve participated in.

Learning Before Burning

Before I jumped into the action, I was able to learn about the purpose of such an intense process, as well as how to safely utilize and control fires. Through this training, I learned that fire is a regular and beneficial part of the natural cycle of many landscapes, from keeping open prairies free of woody and invasive species to maintaining fire-resistant oak forests. Although it seemed surprising, I learned that fire had historically found its way into these areas again and again, through Native Americans intentionally burning land or lightning striking the ground. In recent history, wildfires have been suppressed, making these habitat types more of a rarity. Fortunately, Oakland Township is working to help preserve what remaining prairie and open oak forests are present in our parks by administering these burns.

Comparison of a burned and unburned field at Bear Creek (Photo by Cam Mannino)

After learning the basics, I was able to observe a prescribed burn in person at Watershed Ridge Park with the rest of the Stewardship Crew. When we arrived at the park, we introduced ourselves the contractors that were going to be conducting the burn, who were busy prepping the site. The site preparation process involved creating a nonflammable boundary around the burn area called a “burn break”. Leaves and other flammable materials were cleared to form a portion of this boundary, but an existing wetland and farm field were also utilized as natural burn breaks since they weren’t likely to carry fire. After all preparations were complete, the burn crew gathered and was briefed on the plan We reviewed a map of the burn area, discussed wind direction and expected weather, talked about noteworthy topography, and went through the ignition and containment plan.

Into the Fire

After more observation and hands-on training, I was excited to be able to participate in a burn myself at Bear Creek Nature Park. This time, the burn would be conducted with a few volunteers, so my role was more integral to the process. Before we began, everybody suited up in proper personal protective equipment (PPE), which included a fire-resistant shirt, pants, gloves and a hardhat. Since I had never actively walked through a burning fire, I was wary as to how “fireproof” these clothes really were. However, I eventually felt safer after the fire began and I was walking in and out of burned areas with ease. We first ignited a slow backing fire by lighting the area against the prevailing wind direction with drip torches. These tools are handheld tanks with a wick to ignite the fuel mixture as it drips onto the ground. I like to think of it as a reverse watering can that pours fire instead of water. After I had gotten some practice with a drip torch, I began feeling more “in control” of the burn.

Lighting an area on fire is one thing, but it is just as important to make sure that the fire is put out afterwards. When we completed our burn, the crew spent a while putting out any actively smoking logs and other materials with backpack water sprayers.

Results of the Burn

So, what are the results of such an intense process? It is difficult to predict exactly how a landscape will react to a fire, but several changes will surely take place. The burning process helps to break down and get rid of dead organic matter and recycle nutrients back into the soil. When a burn takes place in the spring, many perennial plants are in a dormant stage and will be minimally impacted by the fire. Other plants may utilize this newly barren landscape as a chance to grow without as much competition. Plants that are adapted to these cyclical fires will be right at home in this newly created habitat as they are more accustomed to fire, whereas many invading species are not. In some cases, seeds may be spread manually in order to encourage specific species to thrive. The Stewardship Crew spent some time hand-spreading seeds and Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide utilized a tractor to spread seeds in areas that had been previously burned at Bear Creek.

Burned area at Charles Ilsley Park with fresh new growth a few weeks after the controlled burn

About a week after our burn at Charles Ilsley Park, I was surprised to see how green the burned fields had become in such a short time. I am especially interested to see how the wet prairie along the Paint Creek Trail will react to the recent burn that took place there, as it hosts many unique fire-tolerant plant species.

A robin looking for food after a burn (Photo by Cam Mannino)

Before participating in these prescribed fires, I was very curious as to how animals would react to the process. During a few of the burns, I observed turkeys, songbirds, and snakes fleeing from the burn area. It was clear that just as plants had evolved to withstand wildfires, many of these critters have as well. Even insects could simply burrow into the ground to evade the danger of fire. I realized that this emigration was only a short-term effect as shortly after the burn was complete, I began to see birds and even a Blanding’s Turtle return to area. I knew that the preservation of uncommon plant communities through burning will in turn help attract rare insects, birds, and other fauna to the area in time.

A Blanding’s Turtle returning to a burned field at Charles Ilsley Park

If you are interested in volunteering to participate in a future prescribed burn, there are annual trainings held in February. See Prescribed Ecological Burn Program | Natural Areas Notebook (oaklandnaturalareas.com) for more details.

Natural Areas Stewardship 2018 Annual Report

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.

Volunteer Program

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!

Volunteers Seed Cleaning

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning in December 2018.

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!

Tree Swallows DPTL

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.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July

Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018.

Prescribed Burns

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).

MikeJoanKent_23Mar2018 (9)

Volunteers assist with a prescribed burn at Bear Creek Nature Park in April 2018.

Stewardship Blog

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.

 

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Education Events

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.

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Sarah (right) and Cam exploring nature at Charles Ilsley Park, August 15, 2018.

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.

PhragmitesText

Phragmites does not recognize property boundaries! Catch your Phragmites while it is small and easy to control for the best results.

Seasonal Technicians

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!

2018 Stewardship Crew

2018 Stewardship Crew (L-R): Ben VanderWeide, Alex Kriebel, Katlyn Hilmer, Billy Gibala, and Alyssa Radzwion. Sarah Rosche is not pictured. Photo by Carol Kasprzak.

All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Snow, Sleet but Spring Arrived Anyway!

Red-winged Blackbirds in an April snow squall

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.

A Canada Goose rested among the dead reeds at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell.

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!

A Northern Cardinal looking a bit shocked at the snow and the icy wind ruffling his crest.

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.

The silhouette of a Turkey Vulture coping with an April snowstorm at Bear Marsh.

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.

A lone Grackle looking back  toward the south on a snowy Michigan day

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!

An Eastern Phoebe, in its brown and white plumage, almost disappears into the branches and the snowfall.

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.

A Tree Sparrow stocks up on food before leaving for Hudson’s Bay in northern Canada or perhaps the Arctic tundra.

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.

The Dark-eyed Juncos are preparing to depart to Ontario and points north.

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.

Last November the Wood Frog found a spot to hibernate in a log or under fallen leaves.

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.

A Song Sparrow lets the wind carry his song into 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!

The Woodcock probes for worms with that long beak and performs an elaborate courting dance as the sun sets.

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.

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.

The Hairy Woodpecker has a thicker, longer beak than the similar Downy.

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!

A Brown-headed Cowbird pauses while foraging in the Eastern Meadow.

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!

Nine Painted Turtles turtles basking in the sunlight on the first warm day.

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.

Eastern Garter Snakes mating. The male snake is much smaller than the female who needs to carry the live young.

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.

A Sexton Beetle on its way to bury a carcass of a mouse or bird on which its larvae can feed.

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.

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!

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.)

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The Promise of Full-fledged Spring

A young girl flies her kite at Bear Creek Nature Park on a spring-like afternoon.

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.

Fantastic, Forgotten Fields: Using Fire to Manage Open Habitat

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.

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Wild lupine in a prairie at Highland State Recreation Area, May 2017.

 

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.

Western Slope BC mid-August

The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park was one of the units we burned in March 2018. This view is from August 2017. Photo by Cam Mannino.

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.

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The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park on the morning of March 23, 2018.

We started on the down-wind side, slowly letting the fire creep into the burn unit.

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Fire slowly backs into the wind.

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.

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Mark lights part of the burn unit using a drip torch.

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.

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Joan watches fire advance slowly into the shrubs. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.

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.

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!

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Alex, Joan, Mike, and Dan are all smiles after a good burn at Bear Creek Nature Park on March 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Mike and Joan Kent.

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.

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The western slope at Bear Creek Nature Park after our burn on March 23, 2018.

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!