Spring is an incredibly busy time for our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide. So many projects demand attention at once – and they all depend on so many variables! Planting native seed has to happen while the ground is still cold and wet. Prescribed burns, however, have to happen when the wind is low and from the right direction, and the plants are dry.
Meanwhile volunteer training and supervision is going on for vernal pool monitoring, nesting box monitoring and burn crews. Whew! Here’s a sample of what went on in late March and April at just one location – Bear Creek Nature Park.
Seeding Mowed Areas with Native Seed
In late March, Dr. Ben and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion began a project to spread the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers in the areas cleared by forestry mowing last fall. The hope is that these native plants can help prevent some renewed growth of the invasive shrubs that were removed. It’s a project that will take years of persistent work, but they made a good beginning.
Monitoring the Life in Vernal Pools
In mid- April, the stewardship staff, a stewardship tech from the Six Rivers Land Conservancy (see Ian below) and a group of volunteers, including Parks Commissioner Dan Simon and his wife pulled on tall boots and waders and ventured into the vernal pools in Bear Creek’s forest. The purpose is to monitor the health of these temporary pools, which are biodiversity hotspots in our forests.
As usual, the crew found a surprising variety of creatures. Spring frogs, salamanders and many insects choose vernal pools as a good place to mate and lay eggs because they are free of hungry fish. The pools dry up and disappear in warmer weather, preventing fish from establishing if they are introduced.
Nest Box Monitoring
For the second year, Dr. Ben has organized and trained a group of volunteers to monitor nest boxes from first nesting to the flight of fledglings. We “citizen scientists” report our data to Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “NestWatch” program. This year Ben added six boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park to the ones in Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. And I’ll be the Bear Creek monitor this year, which will be great! I’m hoping to count Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, and possibly Black-capped Chickadees or House Wrens where the nest boxes are closer to trees and shrubs. We might have Brown-headed Cowbirds to count too if those characters lay their eggs in any of the other birds’ nests!
The boxes were only up a day or so when Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) began to explore the boxes. I’m betting they are impressed with the real estate – new construction, a southeast exposure and a security system (metal predator guards to keep out raccoons, snakes, etc.). Between raindrops last Thursday, I watched a pair of Tree Swallows courting on one of the new boxes. They were doing their wet gurgling call to each other the whole time and touching beak-to-beak, while the male performed fancy wing displays. The male had just chased off a competitor, so he seemed excited! It looks like an argument in the photo below, doesn’t it? But I think it was just a lively prelude to mating.
I also found two completed Bluebird nests made of dry grasses in the new Bear Creek nest boxes, but didn’t get to see the female doing the building. However, here’s a little Bluebird female I saw at Charles Ilsley Park the week before bringing nesting material to her box.
Much to my delight, four days later at Bear Creek Nature Park, I found the first egg in one of our new boxes – a Bluebird egg. They lay one egg each day for 3-5 days and won’t start incubating them until all the eggs are laid. The eggs then generally hatch on the same day, making feeding the nestlings more efficient for the adult birds. Remember, please, that only trained and certified volunteers are allowed to monitor the bluebird boxes so as not to cause too much disturbance at the nest!
Holding Prescribed Burns Using Trained Volunteers
The township uses prescribed burns to periodically refresh our fire-adapted native plants, which benefit from periodic fires. Some of these burns are complicated and require hiring professional burn crews. But many are conducted by a group of volunteers trained and supervised by Dr. Ben. In late April, previous volunteer crew members and some new volunteers practiced their skills with two small burns at Bear Creek Nature Park in the native gardens near the parking lot. Volunteers are an important part of the stewardship program and the teamwork is an great way to meet local people who care about the natural world. Consider joining us!
And a Celebratory Dance to End a Busy Month
Toward the very end of April, Dr. Ben arranged our annual Earth Day/Spring celebration: The Woodcock Dance Watch – and wow! This year’s dance was spectacular! This odd bird, with big eyes toward the back of its head, a stout body and a huge beak, does its unique aerial mating dance at dusk.After a short review of information about the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), we toasted marshmallows while waiting for the sun to set. (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith for sharing his photo.)
This year, one of our birding group members had been making almost nightly visits to Bear Creek Nature Park to watch one particular Woodcock who faithfully danced on the path near a certain puddle. So, as the sky darkened, ten of us gathered on the slope designated by our birder friend, Vinnie, and waited.
Suddenly, very close to us, the Woodcock landed on the path and started his dance. He began with a very odd bug-like buzz called a “peent” call while turning in circles, as he attempted to attract any available female. Then he took to the air with whirring wings, flying in lazy circles high in the air while burbling a different call. Finally he plopped back down right where he started. Without pause he started the “peenting” again, and the dance continued. It was an exciting performance! We all came away feeling it had been an evening well spent celebrating the spring rituals of the natural world.
A Busy Month for Nature and its Stewards
Ah, Spring! Little creatures slip into and out of ponds to begin mating. Seeds await the moisture and warmth they need to thrust new stems into the sunlight. Birds are busy migrating north, establishing territory, finding mates, building nests – even dancing! And we humans are busy studying, recording and preparing their habitat for another glorious summer!
Gray clouds blanket our April skies in Michigan – but the occasional bright blue day or a beam of pale sunlight slipping between the rain clouds can lift our spirits in a giddy instant. The earth emerges from its snow cover in shades of gray and brown – but summer birds return dressed in their spring finery, ready to join others in exuberant song.
Hibernators poke their heads from tree holes or slip out of the leaf litter or swim up from thawing ponds, ready to nurture a new generation of young. Early spring takes its time, offering us just a few tastes here and there of the colorful bustle ahead as the days grow longer.
Visitor Birds Fly In Bearing Color and Song on Their Bright Wings
I hope you’ve been able to open a window or step out your door to listen to the birds’ dawn chorus in the last few days. Just in case, I thought I’d play a recording I made outside our home last Sunday morning. If you increase your volume, you’ll hear the insistent call of Northern Cardinal, the buzzing call of a Red-winged Blackbird, the “kwirrr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), the “tweeeeets” of American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and in the background, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) high overhead, plus a few smaller birds twittering along. It’s a joyful noise after a cold winter.
The male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) you heard above, of course, has provided splashes of scarlet against the snow all winter. But now some old friends are arriving for the summer, brightening up an April day. Members of our birding group heard the high pitched whistling calls of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) and then spotted a small group that had settled into trees near a Bear Creek Nature Park wetland. The yellow tips of their tails and yellow bellies added a spot of sunshine on a blue/gray morning. Though Waxwings can stay here year ’round, I see Waxwings less often in the winter. I’m glad some of them choose to nest in Bear Creek each year.
As a friend and I skirted the eastern edge of the Center Pond one afternoon, we heard a splash and looked up to see a female Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) flying up into a tree with her quarry. She swallowed it, though, before I got her picture. Her blue and rust colored belts show that she’s a female.
The male has only one blue belt. Fortunately, last Sunday, the male was at the Center Pond. When my husband and I arrived, the kingfisher was very agitated, calling as he dashed from tree to tree. These kingfishers don’t sing. At best, their fast, rat-a-tat rattle provides the other birds’ vocals with a little background percussion.
The gorgeous male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) brought more than his share of brilliant color to the chilly waters of the Playground Pond. Together he and his mate will scout for a nesting hole high in the top of a tree near water in the woods nearby. Wood Duck nestlings are “precocial,” meaning born ready to go – eyes open, covered in feathers and, in their case, outfitted with claws for climbing. Only days after birth, they claw their way up to the edge of their nest cavity and leap into the air, following their mother’s calls below. They fall harmlessly into the leaf litter or water and join her in the the nearest pond to feed. Amazing feat for a baby bird! The adult birds make quite a racket when taking flight, the male’s “zeet” call is very different from the female’s “oo-eek.”
The diminutive Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) repeatedly sang his lovely up-and-down spring song while he hopped about frenetically in a cluster of vines near the Playground Pond. Through the tangled branches, I could see the red crown raised slightly atop his head, but never got a clear shot. Luckily, gifted local photographer, Joan Bonin, got a lovely photo when a kinglet posed on a branch for her at Holland Ponds in Shelby Township. Thanks to Joan for sharing her excellent photographs for the blog!
In his brilliant iridescent green head, yellow beak and orange legs, the Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) seemed to be leading his more modestly dress mate around the Playground Pond one afternoon. But when the female Mallard spotted me, she turned and swam away, quacking insistently until the male looked around nervously, saw me and fled toward her, scrambling awkwardly across some submerged logs to catch up with his mate. By the way, that famous “Quack!” is only given by Mallard females. Have a listen to it along with male’s very different call at this link.
Near the Walnut Lane, a wonderful ripple of song flowed down from the treetops. After a bit of peering around, high above I spotted an American Robin holding forth repeatedly with his up-and-down lilting spring song. I recorded his music and then looked up and took a photo from an angle I hadn’t noticed before. I got a worm’s eye view, you might say, of that very sharp, probing beak and felt glad it wasn’t being thrust in my direction!
Over in the marsh, the male Red-winged Blackbirds have been clucking and buzzing from atop the cat-tails for a couple of weeks as a way of establishing territory. Last week, the females began to arrive. Maybe their dark striping lets them blend safely into the shadows while they tend their nests among the stems down near the water. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
And Then the Frogs Join the Chorus!
After one warm April day, the hibernating spring frogs broke into song. Every wetland at Bear Creek trilled with the high-pitched peeping of Chorus Frogs (genus Pseudacris) and lower chuckling gurgle of the Wood Frogs. Both have been frozen all winter with no heartbeat and no brain waves but enough built-in anti-freeze in their cells to somehow stay alive. And as soon as they warm up, they’re ready to sing!
The Wood Frogs, like the one above, are easier to spot because they croak while floating on the surface, flexing their legs in an occasional kick. The thrust creates concentric circles in the water around them, so I look for the little masked frogs in the middle of those circles. Most Chorus frogs are harder to see, usually huddled on, against or under logs. I haven’t spotted one yet this spring, (though their piercing songs can be deafening up close! Here’s a photo, though, from a previous year.
Some of our local Chorus Frogs, Spring Peepers, (Pseudacris crucifer) are nocturnal. I imagine that the Bear Creek Nature Park neighbors are hearing them when the sun sets, or will shortly. If you see one sleeping on a leaf during the day as I did once, you’ll see the “X” on its back just behind its head, though it’s hard to see in this shot. Isn’t it tiny?
Other Hibernators Emerge…
The Raccoon (Procyon lotor) that I watch for every year in the oak-hickory forest has already given birth to four kits. One of them is what’s sometimes called a “blond morph”; it’s not an albino, just a different morph or phenotype of the raccoon. I saw a blond adult raccoon a few years ago in the same tree so that trait must be in the local gene pool. The four kits (one is barely visible at the back right) seem to be laying across their sleeping mother’s back in order to get a good look at me. She’s probably catching up on her sleep after hunting all night to feed these youngsters!
A couple other hibernators made their first appearance in the last two weeks. An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus), that had dozed off and on all winter in its multi-chambered den, emerged and just sat quietly in a patch of sunlight along the entrance trail. The light must take some getting used to after months underground, just waking now and then to eat stored nuts and seeds.
A pair of Midland Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata) kept each other company on a log in the Playground Pond last week. The slightly warmer water must have signaled them to leave their winter torpor in the mud below and swim up into the light and air. I wondered if these two were a pair; the lower one maintained a steady stare at the higher one, who paid no attention while I was there. They both probably were just staring off into the distance, though, as turtles often do.
Over in the marsh, a whole group of them gathered in the reeds and assumed exactly the same pose in order to soak up the sun on their dark shells.
A couple Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) surfaced in the marsh as well. One fed with its head down as it cruised the marsh, eating vegetation. It looked just like a slowly moving green lump! But the other, much smaller, was basking with its entire body encased in vivid green Duckweed (genus Lemna). It seems very content with the look, and probably feeling, it had created, eh?
Plants Begin to Bloom…and Butterflies (and others) aren’t Far Behind!
Just as spring was breaking and icy puddles were melting, I came across a little stream burbling through Bear Creek Nature Park’s eastern woods. This streams runs out of the Center Pond toward the marsh, joining Bear Creek after it leaves the march. Such a lovely spring sound!
On the north side of the Center Pond last week, the Willows (genus Salix) bloomed and (hooray!) we got our first glimpse this year of butterflies – and other pollinators. First we saw one of the hibernating butterflies, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). It looked a bit ragged from having spent the winter in a tree cavity or under loose bark on the snow-covered ground. It’s often the first butterfly I see in the spring. Mourning cloaks generally don’t pollinate much because they sip tree sap or the honeydew of aphids, rather than nectar from flowers. This one might have been displaying in order to attract a female.
On the same plant, a migrator, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) posed. It does sip nectar but it also competes with other males for territory by showing off its flying skills. Perhaps that’s why this one was flitting busily from limb to limb.
On one bloom, we saw what appeared a small Wasp (maybe suborder Apocrita). It seemed very busy enjoying the willow’s pollen. According to Wikipedia, unlike the better known wasps, like Yellowjackets (fam. Vespidae), most wasps are solitary with each female living and breeding alone.
Over in a wetland on the west side of the marsh, the strange blossom of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) had thrust itself up out of the mud. Its purple and yellow spathe covers a tiny spike of petal-less flowers inside. The smell of skunk cabbage attracts early spring flies that pollinate this sci-fi looking blossom. It releases a skunk-like smell and a bitter taste when bruised which means most predators stay away, too. The stem of Skunk Cabbage remains beneath the ground and the green leaves rise after the flowers. Odd, how this eccentric plant with the nasty scent seems to reverse my expectations of how plants grow in the spring!
The brightest colors in the woods now, though, are the vivid greens of Moss (members of the Bryophytes). Spring light sifts through bare limbs providing enough sunlight to feed these interesting, ancient plants. The leafy green parts of moss are “gametophytes” that produce the gametes, sperm and ova. Once spring raindrops rinse the sperm across the surface of the moss to a waiting ovum, fertilization occurs and a tall thin “sporophyte” rises from the green surface. The sporophyte will eventually release it spores. These spores initiate thin filaments called the “protonema” out of which grow new gametophytes, starting a new patch of moss.
Here are what I’m guessing are three different stages of moss growing on the same tree near the marsh. Or maybe its three different mosses? I’m too much of an amateur naturalist to know. I do know that I love the green glow of moss in the dappled light of the forest. (If you are knowledgeable about mosses, please feel free to correct my guesses and help me identify them! )
If mosses just don’t do it for you, don’t despair. Thanks to last fall’s forestry mowing north of the pond, sun has already reached the sunny faces of the Blood Root (Sanguinaria canadensis). I admire its leafy cloak that rises with the flower wrapped inside.
The first tender leaves and buds of the woodland wildflower, Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) are already rising at the feet of trees in the Oak-Hickory forest.
And out in the eastern meadow, a Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) began to bud a few weeks ago, while it peacefully hosts a wide assortment of developing insects within its pine cone-shaped Willow galls. Last Sunday, it had bloomed, but the insects didn’t seem to be issuing forth yet.
Slip on Your Boots and Your Raincoat! Spring is Singing Its Siren Song
Spring’s a great time to act like a kid again. Try heading for the park on a rainy day and let the sounds and sights of spring cheer you like they did when you were small. Slosh through a puddle. Squelch through some mud. Leave your earbuds at home – and pause, eyes closed, for a short serenade by a Robin or a Song Sparrow. Use your binoculars to scan the wetlands for tiny frogs, their throats bulging with song. Let your color-starved eyes feast on the yellow of a Waxwing’s belly, the emerald shine of a Mallard’s head, the exotic, multi-colored pattern of a Wood Duck’s plumage. Swish your palm across a soft cushion of a vivd green moss. Perhaps even get close enough to a skunk cabbage to make your nose wrinkle. Our senses need a good workout after being indoors for so long. Treat yourself to a walk in the park. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll come home happier than when you left. Works for me every single time.
Bear Creek Nature Park can be surprisingly busy on a late autumn afternoon. Couples sit chatting on a bench, while pairs of other species are gliding together on the Center Pond or cozying up in the hollow of a tree. Birds soar overhead or chatter from distant branches.
And meanwhile on the north side of Bear Creek, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, along with hard-working volunteers and a forestry mower, are ridding the park of invasive shrubbery. And what emerges from their efforts is a beautiful, rolling oak savanna landscape! You may be a bit shocked at first by the change – but trust me, you’re going to love it!
Pairing Up in Autumn
Spring may be for lovers but autumn’s got its own appeal. One late afternoon, a young couple came wandering down a forest path toward me, the girl giving me a shy hello. And shortly thereafter, as I approached the north platform of the marsh, a slightly older pair of friends relaxed on the bench, just enjoying together the golden light of an autumn day.
Nearby at the Center Pond, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were paired up as well. Mallards choose their mates in the autumn once they’ve finished their molt. They won’t mate until the spring, but they spend the winter hanging out together. Kind of nice, really….
A third couple showed up in the comfortable, big hole in a White Oak (Quercus alba) where I’ve often seen Raccoons (Procyon lotor). They were looking pretty cozy as the sun went down. You may see only one in the photo below at first, but note that there’s a third ear showing! The second raccoon, sleepier or less curious than its companion, stayed hidden behind the first. Raccoons are generally solitary but they occasionally den up together and sleep through cold snaps, especially in December and January. They don’t actually hibernate, which would involve slowing down their metabolism for a continuous period. This sleepy-eyed raccoon could be a female and its kit; the young generally stay with their parent for close to year. But from their size, I’m guessing it’s two young raccoons of the same sex – they den that way too – just waking up as the night comes on.
More Birds and a “Bear” of Sorts…
As I approached the pond one afternoon, a flash of slate blue and a ratcheting call alerted me to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Though Cornell tells me I should see them year ’round, I only seem to spot them in the spring and the fall. Again this time it was a noisy, solitary male; kingfisher mating pairs only associate in the breeding season. He stayed off in the distance but I could tell it was a male from the single blue band on his chest. Females have two bands, one blue and one chestnut brown.
A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) circled high above the eastern meadow, scouting for a snack before nightfall.
On a snag near the marsh, a female Downy Woodpecker(Picoides pubescens) drilled for her evening meal. Downys look a lot like Hairy Woodpeckers, but are smaller and have shorter, sharper beaks and dark dots on their outer white tail feathers. Hairy Woodpeckers have a longer, heavier, spike-like beak and clear white feathers on the outside of their tails.
During the bird walk at Bear Creek Nature Park two weeks ago, we were treated to the sight of a good-sized flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). At first we saw just one of two.
And then Ben spotted a whole flock on the western slope where they eventually landed in a single tree, as if decorating it for the holiday season!
A couple of migrants had arrived as well. The Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) had just arrived from Alaska or Hudson’s Bay where it raised its young this summer. This bird loves cold weather but the far north is too extreme even for Tree Sparrows at this time of year, so it traveled south to relax in a balmly Michigan winter!
Another migrator was just passing through. I didn’t catch a photo two weeks ago, but here’s a photo of the White-throated Sparrow (Zonothrichia albicollis) from a previous autumn. Notice the yellow lores above its eyes! Handsome bird!
And About that Bear…
As you know, there are no actual bears in Bear Creek Nature Park. But there is, of course, the Wooly Bear, the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). I have a particular fondness for these little creatures because they so often introduce children to the pleasures of nature. Wooly Bears, as you may recall, curl into a ball if handled as a defensive move. So placing one in a child’s hand often elicits surprise and laughter as the bristles of its brown and black hair tickles a youngster’s palm. In fact, I recently saw this happen to little children at Gallagher Creek Park. So here’s Bear Creek’s only bear, at last.
Volunteers Open New Vistas at the Marsh
When farm fields were abandoned in the township decades ago, aggressive non-native shrubs quickly took over the fields and surrounded wet areas. Bear Creek Marsh has been surrounded by these non-native shrubs for many years. But in late October, Six Rivers Land Conservancy and a group of industrious volunteers from Fiat-Chrysler helped Ben VanderWeide and stewardship specialist Alyssa clear huge thickets of glossy buckthorn from the edges of the marsh at the eastern edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
FCA volunteers worked with great enthusiasm to cut buckthorn at Bear Creek Nature Park.
FCA volunteers cleared invasive glossy buckthorn at Bear Creek Nature Park on October 19, 2018.
A pile of invasive Buckthorn which will eventually be burned.
Stumps of Glossy Buckthorn dyed with a treatment that will help prevent resprouting.
The crew created huge piles of the invasive shrubs which Ben plans to burn during the winter months. The stumps of the buckthorn shrubs were carefully treated. As you can see above he uses a blue dye with the treatment to be sure he’s covered the stumps completely in order to prevent re-sprouting.
The end result of their remarkable effort is that we have wonderful new views of the marsh which we could never enjoy before! And, of course, other native plants can thrive at the edge of the marsh!
An Oak Savanna Emerges from a Tangle of Invasive Shrubs
Before farming came to Oakland Township, the landscape was defined by tall native grasses, native wildflowers and widely spaced oak trees – what is called an “oak savanna.” That grassy, open landscape is just beginning to be restored at the north end of Bear Creek Nature Park – and it is just spectacularly beautiful!
Until last week, invasive Glossy Buckthorn shrubs filled the entire area surrounding the Center Pond, just as it had surrounded the marsh. Starting at the edge of the forest, the Buckthorn and a few other invasive shrubs formed super dense thickets filling the entire loop trail and the trail edges up to the forest. The photo below, taken the first day that the major restoration began, shows just how densely the Buckthorn had grown!
Because of those shrubs, the trails had become tunnels between non-native vegetation. Here are the two arms of the Big Northern Loop and the trail behind the pond as they looked before restoration began and how they look now after we started the restoration process.
Eastern Trail on the Big Loop
Western Trail on the Big Loop
Trail Behind the Center Pond
Before the forestry mower arrived, Ben carefully marked the trees to be saved and the areas filled with invasive shrubs that required removal. The operator of the mower, an employee of the Ruffed Grouse Society that owns the machine, carefully avoided the trees Ben had marked and even preserved other young oaks that he found buried in the thickets. As the mowing proceeded, what gradually appeared behind it was an oak savanna – oaks and a few other trees sprinkled across a plain – the very type of landscape that thrived here hundreds of years ago! All that’s needed are tall native grasses and wildflowers.
When Ben took me last week to see what had begun, I was astonished and delighted to discover vistas that I’d never known were hidden beneath all those shrubs! Here’s the western loop trail stretching south toward the pond. Now I could see a cleared meadow dotted with young oaks and other trees with the edge of the forest on the perimeter. What a difference from walking through a tunnel of buckthorn!
I could stand in the center of the loop which had been an impassible tangle of shrubs and look south down an undulating slope to the whole expanse of the Center Pond, a viewpoint I’d never had before!
When Ben and I left the western loop heading back up the trail toward the south, the forest stood tall beyond the newly cleared field. We could now see the forest, a dark wall of hickories and oaks, that embraced the new landscape. We were no longer inside a tunnel of shrubs that blocked everything but the treetops beyond. Ben looks pretty pleased with the work after the first day of restoration, doesn’t he? He should be!
A Landscape Resurrecting
When I followed that path around to stand again on the observation deck at the Center Pond, I realized the scope of the transformation emerging at Bear Creek. Now the graceful, flowing curves of the landscape began to dip and rise in graceful curves beyond the pond. These three photos together can give you some idea of what I saw standing there, looking north from west to east across the pond.
I’m guessing that you can tell I was thrilled at the transformation taking place at Bear Creek. I have walked this park for over 25 years and at one point, I walked it every day for 3 years. It’s essentially my “home park,” and I know it intimately. So when Ben first talked of changing it, I was skeptical. When I came to see the first day’s restoration work last week, I actually stopped in my tracks as I came to the pond and gasped – and then I began to smile. That smile never left my face as I wandered through a vastly changed Bear Creek that for me had suddenly become even more beautiful. The feeling of “rightness” was so powerful. This, I felt, was the way this land was meant to be. It seemed as if the earth could take a deep breath, that the oaks that had been hidden among the tangle of shrubs were now stretching to the sky, ready to grow taller and stronger in the sun and the wind.
It will take years of hard work to complete this transformation. Buckthorns don’t give up easily. This winter Ben will plant native grass seed among the shards left from the shrubs, the broken wood eventually returning its nutrients to the earth. In the spring, the buckthorn will vigorously produce sprouts again and Ben and his crew will have to persist in keeping the ground that they gained for the oaks, the native plants and the wildlife.
Eventually, when the shrubs have subsided, Ben can plant the area with native wildflowers. Turtles will emerge from the wetlands to find soft soil in which to dig their nests and lay their eggs. The native plants will slowly sink their roots deep enough to survive fire and drought. And if we’re patient and lucky, they will finally come to full bloom. And that’s when we’ll be able to see birds and butterflies fluttering and floating between and above the oak trees, over the rolling grassland – some perhaps that we haven’t seen in a long time. And won’t that be a sight to see?
June is an easy month to love. In the early weeks, May’s buds transformed into blooms. Turtles and dragonflies emerged from the ponds. Butterfly and grasshopper eggs hatched into caterpillars and tiny nymphs. May migrators and some year-round birds completed their nests and were busily laying eggs.
And then came really warm days – or even some very hot days this year! – and by the end of the month, life had quickly moved on. The spring blooms produced their seeds and subsided as the summer flowers began to emerge. Bees buzz along the trails. Dragonflies dominate the open meadows and wetlands. Damselflies, like colorful, winged sticks, pause briefly by the pond and other strange flying creatures hunt in the shade. The fledglings emerge from nests, awkward and downy, begging to be fed by exhausted parents. So much to see that I find myself rushing from park to park, trying not to miss anything! So here’s just a selection of what came my way at Bear Creek Nature Park during the first month of summer.
Early to Mid-June: Brave Beginnings
The Bear Creek Wetlands in Early June
So much happens near the wetlands as summer begins. Two nests graced either side of the viewing deck at the Center Pond. On the west side, high above the water, a Baltimore Oriole’s (Icterus galbula) carefully woven sack swayed with every breeze, rocking either the female brooding her eggs or a cuddle of nestlings with every breeze. While we birders watched one Wednesday morning, the female arrived at the nest and disappeared into it, followed by the attentive male. This lovely photo of the male arriving at the nest was taken by Ewa Mutzenmore, a member of our group.
He gave us the eye as he leaned in to feed either his brooding mate or perhaps their nestlings.
And then, tail up, evidently unfazed, he proceeded to stuff foraged insects into a waiting beak below.
Ewa, whose Oriole photo is above, mentioned having seen a very large Northern Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon) swimming away at the pond when she was there last and suddenly Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, spotted it! Its long, thick body was wound around the branches of a willow bush just west of the dock. Though not venomous, I wouldn’t advise picking one up or harassing it; it will bite and spray you with musk to defend itself. Unfortunately, Ewa and I both could only come up with a photo of parts of its winding body; it just didn’t move a muscle. But here’s a link where you can see a photo of its dark brown head. The birds are evidently safe from it, though fish,frogs, and salamanders better beware!
As I approached the pond on a later afternoon, another impressive predator rose like a submarine from the silvery pond. A large Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) up-periscoped to check me out. Isn’t their snout a curious shape? It’s more important to be cautious around Snappers when they’re on land than in the water, because they do bite if threatened and have extremely long necks. And generally, they’re on land to lay eggs.
The head of a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) popped out of the bushes for a look around before she winged down and disappeared into her nest in a small tree just east of the dock. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A Red-winged Blackbird female peeks from a bush in the field near the pond.
She quickly disappeared in her nest to the east of the dock.
Over in the playground pond, a tiny (about silver-dollar-sized!) Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) climbed onto a log for probably one of its first basks in a spot of sunlight.
As I approached the dock one cloudy day, a lone male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) stood forlornly gazing out at the water from a floating log, not a mate in sight. When he heard my approach, his beautiful head twisted toward me with a stare that implied he’d prefer to be alone. Then he dropped into the water and glided away.
When he departed, a much tinier male landed on the dock, the Dot-tailed Whiteface Dragonfly (Leucorrhinia intacta), whose name says it all! I get a huge kick out of his Mickey Mouse-style face.
At Draper Twin Lake Park a few weeks ago, I’d seen the female Dot-tailed Whiteface, who is more elegant, if less amusing.
And one Sunday morning, while scanning Bear Creek marsh, I heard the unmistakable whinnying call of a Sora (Porzana carolina), a bird that tends to be heard and not seen. This secretive bird is evidently abundant according to Cornell Ornithology Lab, but likes to stay hidden deep in the cattails and reeds. Looking at this photo by inaturalist.org photographer by Mike Baird, you’d never guess that such a chunky bird with stubby wings had migrated here from Central or South America! And check out those feet!
Several strangely beautiful insects shelter or hunt in shady spots near wetlands, too.
A male Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) appeared for the birders at the top of the southern hill away from the wetlands, though they sometime nest along the edges of marshes and rivers. This poor fellow seemed wildly distracted by some itchy insect, probably Feather Mites (super family Analgoidea) which often infest nests in early summer. He just barely stopped preening for a moment! As a victim of biting midges in spring, I could sympathize!
Sun and Shade Meant Blooms, Juicy Leaves – and More Insects!
The birders saw four Monarch Butterfly caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) – one of them above – munching contentedly on leaves of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It’s wonderful to know that natural areas management of our parks makes them places where milkweed gets ever more plentiful – and that, as a result, migrating monarchs find their way here to lay their eggs for the next generation.
Nearby, the tiniest of Black-legged Grasshopper nymphs (Melanoplus femurnigrum) sat quietly enough that I could a good look at this little one, less than a half inch long! It’ll probably molt 4 more times before it reaches adulthood. Pretty special eyes, eh?
A Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) found a budding stem to be the perfect place to pause and scan us birders and the prey we might have stirred up as we walked among the plants in the parking circle.
In the native gardens near the parking lot and along the Walnut Lane in the center of the park, early June brought colorful blossoms and the seeds of early spring flowers that were already maturing their seeds for next year’s crop inside their fruits. Such a variety of colors and shapes! (Use pause button for time to read captions.)
A Late June Visit To See What Had Changed
Wow! The shy flowers of late spring and early summer had been replaced by the big, bold native milkweeds. Monarch caterpillars seem to have finished munching on Common Milkweed leaves and spun their chrysalises; some have yet to emerge and some may already be flying. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is ready to host any number of butterflies this summer. If you’re looking for color in your garden, Butterfly Milkweed’s a nice native choice because it remains an attractive bunch instead of spreading like Common Milkweed – and pollinators find milkweeds irresistible!
Mites must still be giving birds a hard time, though. This itchy little Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) preened just as insistently as the poor Orchard Oriole earlier in the month! This gnatcatcher is small, only a bit larger than a hummingbird and smaller than a wren and can be identified by its white-edged tail. According to Cornell Lab, they sometimes build up to seven nests in a season because they frequently give up a nest due to mites, predators and problems with Cowbirds and others that lay eggs in their nests. Hope this little one persists despite all those tribulations!
On the western slope, an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and its fledgling paused in a bush. The adult looked around checking for trouble, then hopped onto the ground, looking for seeds or insects to feed the youngster. The youngster hopped clumsily in the bush, waiting for its parent return, which fortunately resulted in something to eat!
The American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) wait until late June or July to begin their families. They will use the fluffy pappus from thistles and other plants to line their nest and they feed on the thistle’s seeds, a favorite food. It looked as though this couple was already making the most of these Field Thistles (Cirsium arvense) that are just getting started.
A bit later in the Eastern Meadow, a Halloween Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) was coping with a stiff breeze by holding tight and adjusting its wing positions to stay aloft. This one could be looking for a mate; maybe that’s why it was working so hard to stay visible on a bare perch above the wildflowers. Once it finds a mate, they’ll both head to the nearest wetland where the female will dip her abdomen into the water, leaving eggs behind.
The Black-legged grasshopper nymphs had changed a bit when I made my last visit. This one now had a bit more black-legged-ness! I assume it had gone through its second molt. I didn’t take a closeup of this one so you could see how tiny these nymphs really are.
The wetlands, as usual, were full of life too. A juvenile Green Frog (Rana clamitans) had left its youth as a tadpole behind and was sitting waiting for the nearest flying insect at the Playground Pond. The green dots are Water Meal (g. Wolffia) which covers the playground pond along with spots of Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) – aptly named since ducks do scoop up both plants and make a meal out of them!
Nearby, a tiny Amber Snail (G. Succinea) snacked delicately on the seeds of Orchard Grass (Dactylisglomerata). I wonder if those black spots on the blossoms are places where the snail has secreted extra slime to stay attached while eating?
While monitoring a vernal pool at Bear Creek, the crew brought up a tiny Crayfish (family Cambaridae). It was too tiny to determine a species but it certainly had all of the equipment it needed for surviving in its underwater world. Crayfish molt six to ten times in their first year, so this one has a long way to go before adulthood!
It was the Best of Times, It was the Worst of Times…
Summer is glorious, right? Who could argue with that? All the blossoms, birds, whispering leaves and yellow sunlight pouring over it all. Or as the poet, e.e. cummings so ebulliently put it, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees/and a blue true dream of sky; and …everything/which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”
But I wonder sometimes if migrating birds, for example, might grouse a bit about cummings’ enthusiasm and ours. Summer is a busy, hard-working time for birds! I’ve become so aware of this by monitoring bluebirds this summer and it’s true of all birds, really. First there are courtship rituals that can involve singing constantly for hours. A diminutive House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) or the Red-eyed Vireo(Vireo olivaceus) may sing their territorial/courting songs a hundred, even a thousand times in a day! Nest-making often involves long days or even a solid week of gathering material and then weaving, or scraping, or even digging a safe place for their eggs. And once eggs hatch, their young sit begging in the nest and later from every branch, crying “MORE FOOD!” Imagine having young every summer, frequently multiple broods of young, and working constantly to be sure at least some of them survive despite predators of all kinds – plus coping with those miserable feather mites!
And yet, thank goodness, they return to us each year to go through it all because the show must go on! The genes must be passed to a new generation! I’ve come to admire the sheer tenacity of nature in facing the vicissitudes of life without homes in which to retreat at night or when the weather is harsh. Learning more about the threats and difficulties that birds overcome, I’m doubly pleased to see them with their breasts turned to the sun on a cool morning, or to hear their quiet evensong calls around me as the sky grows dark. They seem to still be able to pause now and then from all the hubbub of their lives and just “be” for a few moments. I take that as a lesson for my busy life – and probably yours too.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, the passionate enthusiasts at the Facebook groups Odonata of the Eastern U.S.and Butterflying Michigan plus others as cited in the text. e.e.cummings poem "I thank You God for most this amazing" in 100 Selected Poems pub. by Grove Press
The Tomboulian family explores the area that is now Bear Creek Nature Park in the late 1960’s. (Photo from the Pontiac Press, now the Oakland Press)
Volunteers Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira monitor a vernal pool in the northern forest at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2016.
Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide recently surprised me with an intriguing document – a thorough natural history survey of what became Bear Creek Nature Park compiled in 1976 by a 14 year-old boy! Clearly, this boy was a remarkable naturalist. It turns out that’s not terribly surprising, since he is Mark Tomboulian, the son of former long-serving Parks commissioner, Alice Tomboulian, a remarkable naturalist in her own right. In 1976, the absentee landowner, Mr. Deveraux, rented out areas of his land to local farmers. The Tomboulians lived right across the road and Mr. Deveraux granted permission for exploration by the young naturalist and his family. The photo above left shows Alice and her children conducting nature study at the Deveraux property in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Mark is the center child. The right photo from 2016 shows two volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in what is now Bear Creek Nature Park. Bear Creek is still a great place to learn and explore!
As I browsed Mark’s hand-drawn maps and long lists of wildlife, I noticed birds and especially plants that no longer live in Bear Creek Nature Park, or are rarely seen. Since restoring our natural heritage is at the heart of the Parks Commission’s stewardship work, I thought I’d share with you what Mark saw in 1976 that is either missing or at best, more rare in Bear Creek Park today.
[Note: Because the birds and plants in this blog are rare or missing in Bear Creek today, I have no photos of them. So I’m using many photos by generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who permit others to share their work. Each photo is credited in the captions or text. My thanks to all these fine photographers.]
What Changed in Bear Creek’s Meadows?
The photo above was taken in 1969 as a school group went down through an agricultural field on what became the Eastern Path at Bear Creek. Mark must have traversed such a path in his childhood, too. Mark’s maps show small areas of “fallow fields” throughout the park where the native and non-native plants we see today survived in isolated patches.
Over the years since the land was purchased by the Parks and Recreation Commission, large areas of the park have steadily been restored. Controlled burns and protection from development have allowed native grasses and wildflowers to spread and flourish. The photo above of native Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) just off of the edge of the eastern path last summer is evidence that beautiful, natural meadows are thriving at Bear Creek.
It will take time to bring back the meadow and marsh birds that Mark was able to see during his childhood. When he was a little boy, the Northern Bob-white Quail (Colinus virginianus) whistled its rising two-note call, “Bob-white!” in the background of every summer day as small flocks foraged across the fields. Their numbers have declined by “roughly 85% between 1966 and 2014,” according to Wikipedia, due largely to habitat loss. Luckily, Bob-whites persist in states to the south and west in habitat where the land is disturbed by fire. These birds do well in newly grown grass that produces the seeds, cover and nesting materials they prefer. So if we’re lucky and continue restoration, perhaps we will hear their calls again on warm, sunny afternoons.
During the spring and summer 40 years ago, male Eastern Meadowlarks perched and sang on fenceposts, logs or treetops in Bear Creek’s meadows. Their descending, flute-like call with its many variations, complemented the rising call of the Bob-white. Meadowlarks usually have two, sometimes three mates at a time, so they have lots of singing to do! Today meadowlarks are quite scarce in our parks, but since they need at least 6 acres of grassland for each territory, perhaps the continued meadow restoration will provide them with more nesting opportunities.
The glamorous Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), a popular non-native gamebird, used to stride through the fields and woods at Bear Creek Nature Park. These pheasants can rise almost vertically from the grass at a speed of up to 40 miles per hour! Their cackling call was a common occurrence in 1976, but is seldom heard in our parks these days. Female pheasants prefer to scrape out their shallow nests in tall grass where overhead predators can’t get at them. So as our native grasses take hold and fill the fields, these colorful birds may spring up again from Bear Creek’s meadows .
Mark Tomboulian saw four nests of the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) in the Bear Creek marsh in the spring of 1976. I’ve only seen a solitary bird that cruised the Center Pond more than 10 years ago. The Gallinule likes complex marshes and wetlands where it can walk on vegetation with its very long toes or dabble underwater like the Mallards. The Parks Commission efforts to return the marsh to its original habitat may mean that Gallinules raise their young there again in the future.
What Changed in Bear Creek’s Oak-Hickory Forest?
In his book, Incredible Yesterdays, George Comps, who lived on the land that is now Bear Creek Park in the 1940’s, reported, “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium).” The photo above , taken in 1979 by the Tamboulians, shows Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) carpeting the forest floor 500 feet north of Bear Creek, across the road.
The photo above shows the largely bare forest floor of Bear Creek in May of 2012. Many forest wildflowers that Mark saw on the forest floor simply are no longer there. Trilliums, for example, exist only in a few small patches and in some years they don’t show up at all. What happened?
I’m afraid that a large part of the answer is deer. When Mark Tomboulian compiled his survey in 1976, deer were a rare and exciting sight in Oakland Township. But because of development and less deer hunting in the township, the deer population exploded. In the spring, hungry deer devour trillium and many other forest wildflowers before they can bloom. During the winter, they feed on the tiny, slow-growing oak saplings, a behavior that threatens the very future of our oak-hickory forest.
Mark’s survey mentions a couple of woodland birds that we don’t see anymore in the oak-hickory forest. The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is known for attracting its mate by drumming the air with its cupped wings. The drumming sound is often compared to a sputtering motor, and can carry up to 1/4 mile! (Turn up your volume and check out “male drumming” at this link.) According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, in the far north part of its range, this interesting bird dives into deep snow to roost for the night! Quite interesting bird behavior!
Ruffed Grouse need young forests for both cover and food, so the aging of Bear Creek’s forest, exacerbated by the lack of young oaks and other saplings caused by deer browsing, works against the reappearance of Ruffed Grouse at Bear Creek Nature Park.
Alice Tomboulian recently told me that Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpeserythrocephalus) used to nest on their property across from Bear Creek Nature Park, and Mark recorded seeing them on the park property in 1976. Alas, they are rarely seen at the park these days, though they are occasionally seen other places in Oakland County. These striking woodpeckers have developed some specialized skills. They can pluck insects out of the air in flight and they store nuts, seeds and the occasional grasshopper in cracks of bark for later use. Red-headed woodpeckers were plentiful in the 19th century; Audubon reported 100 shot from a cherry tree in 1840! But now their numbers are in decline and they are listed as “near threatened.” Scientific studies are needed to discover the cause and measures to increase their numbers. We can only hope that they return to Bear Creek which provides the snags (standing dead trees) they need for nesting and plenty of the acorns that they love to eat.
What’s changed most in the forests of Bear Creek since 1976, though, is that many wildflowers are simply missing. Imagine how colorful and interesting the floor of the oak-hickory forest would be if these forest flowers that Mark recorded could return to the uplands and wetlands under the forest canopy! (Click on pause button for captions.)
The Challenge of Restoring Our Natural Heritage
The meadows and marsh in Bear Creek are already well on their way to reclaiming their original diversity of native plants. Controlled burns and some invasive shrub control have already allowed many prairie and wetland plants to become more abundant. Ben and his volunteers monitor the health of the vernal pools each summer, keeping an eye on the amphibian and reptile communities. At some point, the invasive shrubs that crowd the big loop north of the Center Pond will need to be removed so that the original open meadow there can be restored. And yearly removal of invasive plants like Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) will need to continue throughout the park. But already we are enjoying the benefit of years of stewardship in these areas.
Restoring the ground cover and bird diversity in the oak-hickory forest presents a greater challenge. As long as large numbers of deer consume the wildflowers and small trees on the forest floor, the woods will age without renewal. Solutions aren’t obvious. Planting missing wildflowers or small trees is pointless if the deer population stays at its current level. Fertility control for deer is labor intensive, costly, requires continual repetition, and according to some biologists, has yet to be conclusively proven effective except in enclosures or on islands. (See the second footnote below for “pro” and “con” opinions.) Fences would have to be very high, prevent the movement of other animals and alter a park’s natural appearance, while being costly to install and maintain over such large areas. And culling and/or hunting is resisted by many people, despite negative effects of high deer density on both human well-being and deer population health. Unless effective solutions are found and proven, it seems we will eventually have to choose. We can have either an uncontrolled deer population with all of its risks, or a lower density, balanced herd that allows us to enjoy both beautiful deer and striking woodland vistas with carpets of wildflowers. Tough decisions!
Meanwhile, we continue our stewardship work, doing the best we can to steadily restore the beauty and diversity that we’ve inherited from the past, passing it forward to future generations.
1.Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Managr 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.
2.For pros and cons of controlling deer fertility, I found these three websites useful. The first is a presentation made to the Ann Arbor government by the Humane Society supporting the idea.
The second is the opposing view from a Professor CW Dick, a U-M biologist and director of the U-M Herbarium, though he stresses that in this article, he does necessarily represent the U-M's views on the subject, but his own.
The third is from Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, a group that formed to explore solutions for overabundant deer in Washtenaw County. https://www.wc4eb.org/what/herd-reduction/sterilization/