Standing hip-deep in native grasses and wildflowers is a pretty terrific way to spend a few hours on a cool autumn afternoon. Every fall our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, plans a few days for harvesting the seeds of native wildflowers to plant in our parks over the winter and the following spring.
So this October, volunteers gathered, clippers in hand, paper bags at the ready, to chat quietly as we snipped the seed heads from native prairie flowers. Can you see two of our seed-gathering volunteers in this Where’sWaldo-style photo?
It always makes me feel like a child again to stand in a field with friends and have native grasses towering over us. Here’s our township Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa Radzwion, smiling through a scrim of native grass.
On the day pictured above, we harvested seeds from Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Gray-headed Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), and several other native plants.
Harvesting native seeds is good stewardship. Ben instructs us volunteers to collect an appropriate amount for each species, leaving lots of seeds where they are to feed wildlife and renew our prairies so they look as glorious next spring as they did this year! The seeds we harvest, along with purchased wildflower seed, can then help restore more of our natural areas to their former glory. All that and peaceful autumn afternoons among wildflowers and kindred spirits. Maybe you’d like to join us next year as we lend nature a helping hand?
When we spend a lot of time in a space, the sound, shadows, and ambience almost become part of our subconscious. The creakkkk of a floorboard as we walk through the living room. The drip of coffee slowly filling the pot in the morning. The rustle of pine boughs in a favorite patch of forest. The harsh call and boastful flash of color from red-wing blackbirds in a marsh. Our happy memories in these places make them special to us.
What about the natural spaces that have (almost) ceased to exist in our everyday lives? The prairies and oak savannas of Oakland Township used to have a signature rustle in the evening breeze. Fields of brightly lit prairies were punctuated by speckled shade under oak groves, and seasonal bouquets of native wildflowers marked the transition from spring to summer to fall. Until a few decades ago, the inhabitants of our township had been intimately familiar with the sights and sounds that defined our open oak lands in southeast Michigan for thousands of years.
We now assume that all fields should eventually grow into shrub thickets, then forests. But many plants, birds, insects, and other wildlife are prairie and savanna specialists, with connections to each other that were formed by living together in this landscape. They depend on us re-awakening memories of these fantastic, forgotten fields, doing the important work of making them new.
So two weeks ago, with the help of our volunteer prescribed fire crew, that’s exactly what we set out to do. We assembled around noon at Bear Creek Nature Park. All the staff and volunteers that help on our burns have been trained to do prescribed fire, so they know the drill when they arrive. We double-checked our pre-burn list: introduce everyone on the burn crew and write names on helmets… check; call the fire department… check; walked trails around the burn unit… check; tested equipment… check; everyone is wearing the right gear… check; weather and fuels meet our burn prescription… check. After reviewing the plan for the day, we headed out to begin burning. The fine grasses were nice and dry, though small patches of snow lingered in the shade on a north-facing slope.
We started on the down-wind side, slowly letting the fire creep into the burn unit.
As we built up a safe, burned buffer on the outside of the unit, we lit parts of the interior. The mowed trails kept the fire exactly where we wanted it, though we checked them often during the burn just to be sure.
As we worked around the burn unit, we let the fire creep through patches of invasive autumn olive and multiflora rose. The slow-moving flames will do more damage to the shrubs than a fire that passes quickly.
After we got around the outside of the burn unit, we stepped back to let the fire crawling through the interior finish its work. Then we walked through the area one more time to put out anything that was still smoking.
Fire crawls through a patch of trees at Bear Creek Nature Park on March 23, 2018. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.
After burning the available fuel, the fire slowly extinguishes itself. Photo courtesy of Mike & Joan Kent.
We had a nice mix of experienced staff, returning volunteers, and new volunteers. By the end of the burn, everyone got a chance to try the different pieces of equipment and responsibilities on the burn crew. And we had fun!
The fire likely top-killed the invasive shrubs in our burn unit. We’ll still need to treat any that sprout again in the summer, but fire did a lot of work for us in a few hours. The black soil will warm more quickly than areas that haven’t been burned, extending the growing season for the plants. In a few weeks we’ll see a fresh fuzz of green growth carpeting these areas. We will spread seed of more native grasses and wildflowers so that they can establish in the newly opened soil.
That March afternoon was a fine day for making new memories. Our memories of working together as a team to restore grassland habitat are an important part of natural areas stewardship. We only care for the things we value. The township residents that walk these fields will see the dramatic change, watch the landscape grow over the summer, and make their own memories. Hopefully most of the visitors will see the signs we posted, explaining why we use prescribed fire. A few will go home a look up more information. And maybe some will join our team next time we do a prescribed burn!
On March 21, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, shared a Cornell Lab of Ornithology presentation on how to safely and accurately monitor bird nests as citizen scientists. Cornell Lab and other researchers count on citizen scientists to provide important information on the nesting success of common birds in our backyards and our parks. If you’re intrigued by this introductory information, there’s a lot more available at www.Nestwatch.org. It’s an amazing resource, as you’ll see by all of the links below!
First, the Rules of the Road
Cornell’s Nestwatch has an official “Code of Conduct” for nest monitors to ensure that the data is collected while protecting native birds, their nests, eggs, and young. It’s important that monitoring doesn’t attract predators and that parent birds don’t desert the nest.
Please don’t touch the nest, the birds or the eggs when checking nests or nest boxes! Migratory Birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They cannot be harassed or harmed. The only exceptions are those of aggressive invasive bird species like House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) that are not from North America. (See more info on predators below.)
Don’t check nests in the early morning, which is when birds typically lay their eggs. If the female leaves the nest during monitoring, the eggs may become too cool. Afternoons are best for monitoring.
Avoid nests during the first few days of incubation. Only approach if the parent bird has left the nest.
If monitoring a nest box, tap softly on the box to allow the female to leave if she’s present. Or try singing or talking softly as you approach the nest.
Don’t approach nests when baby birds are close to fledging so they won’t try to leave the nest before they are ready. Once young birds are alert and fully fledged, only observe from a distance.
Avoid monitoring nests in bad weather like cold, rain, etc., when birds need the nest or nest box for protection
Don’t check nests at dusk or after dusk when females may be returning. Again, afternoons are best. The exceptions, of course, are owls who leave their nests at night.
Approach and leave the nest site from different directions at each visit so that you don’t create a path for predators like cats, raccoons, etc.
Visits to the nest should be no longer than a minute. Take a quick look and jot notes at a distance. Use binoculars for more distant cup nests.
Check the nest every 3 or 4 days. Checking more often risks disturbing the nest; less often makes the information less useful.
Record when the first egg was laid. Birds normally lay only one egg per day, so the number of eggs tells you when she laid her first one. Easy, eh?
Record the number of eggs and any interesting bird behavior. (Cornell provides data sheets for this.)
Record your data at Nestwatch.org. If you’re working on backyard birds, start an account and you’ll be provided with an online form for entering your data. If you want to volunteer to monitor in our parks or along the Paint Creek Trail, please join our Oakland Township Parks NestWatch Chapter by contacting Dr. Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the office at 248-651-7810. You’ll need to take a brief quiz after reading the Code of Conduct material at Cornell in order to be a certified bird monitor.
Dr. Ben and Tom Korb are trying two different kind of Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) boxes in the township – the traditional ones seen above, and Petersen boxes (see left) which have a more triangular shape.
We’ll learn which style our bluebirds prefer. They’ve paired the two types bluebird boxes to see which box design our local bluebirds prefer. Paired nest boxes may also help with competition from Tree Swallows. Others have found that if Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor)occupy one box, they will live peaceably with bluebirds next door. We’ve also installed American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) boxes and a box for smaller birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, or Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea).
Predators can approach native birds from the sky and the ground. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Raccoons are native predators of bird eggs.
Native snakes like the Milk Snake eat birds eggs but need protection as a native species.
Raccoons and outdoor or feral cats are major predators for birds. A well-respected, peer-reviewed study cited by Cornell found that as many as 1.3 to 3.3 billion birds are killed by cats each year in North America. They are skilled bird hunters! And raccoons can wipe out a whole group of nests in an evening!
Keeping pet cats indoors is a great idea if at all possible.
Make sure your nest box is at least 6 feet off the ground so raccoons and cats can’t jump on top of the box. If they do, they “fish” for eggs and chicks through the hole.
Avoid leaving pet food or birdseed on the ground, which encourages predators.
Keep your nest box away from overhanging trees to keep squirrels from dropping on them and chewing the holes to get in.
Snakes can be deterred by locating nest boxes away from brush piles or by putting a metal collar/predator guard below the nest box on the pole.
Invasive and aggressive House Sparrow (photo by dlbowls (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org
Invasive European Starling
Aggressive, invasive birds, especially the House Sparrow and the European Starling, will attack and kill native birds, their eggs and their young to take over a nest box. Because they are non-native and plentiful, they are not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So how to deal with these predatory characters?
If you don’t want to deter invasive birds, please consider not putting up bird boxes. These invasive birds are already abundant and actively attack and kill our native species. Providing them with food and a nest merely exacerbates the problems for native birds.
Choosing an appropriate entrance hole size on a nest box is important. Starlings can enter and attack American Kestrels in their boxes – but starlings are too large for a bluebird box if the entrance hole is the right size. House Sparrows, however, can easily attack bluebird boxes. NestWatch has more information on passive and active means of deterring these non-native predators – from changing nest location to removing nests and eggs or trapping adult birds.
Be sure you know what Starlings look like and are able to distinguish House Sparrows with their black triangular bibs from our many species of native sparrows.
These two invasive birds make messy nests with bits of plastic, cigarette butts, paper, etc. so distinguishing them from native nests is easier once you are informed about the appearance of your native bird’s nest.
Native birds, like House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon), occasionally attack other birds to take over a nest as well. And native Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater)lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Because these birds are naturally occurring species in our area, they are protected by the Migratory Bird Act and should not be removed or harmed.
Bees, wasps, squirrels and mice can inhabit nest boxes at various times of the year. Nestwatch has info on coping with them, too.
So Why Become a Nest Monitor?
Helping our native birds raise their young in safety is crucial to slow the declining numbers of many bird species. Bluebirds, for example, were threatened until citizens began a campaign of installing and monitoring bird boxes for these azure beauties. The data from nest monitors since NestWatch began in 1965 has provided vital information on over 600 species and resulted in 133 scientific articles and 9 ongoing studies. With the data the public collects, researchers can detect shifts in bird populations related to landscape and climate change. Saving native birds is important to preserving the beauty of our local natural history.
But beyond all that, c’mon! What’s more delightful than baby birds? Being a friend to native birds is always good for us, as well as for our feathered friends.
Shortly after acquiring the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, volunteers and staff with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation began the process of clearing invasive shrubs in January 2006. This was the scene exactly eleven years ago at one of our unique local prairie remnants, tucked back off the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Rd. As we create new paths for the sunlight to reach the ground each year, prairie plants flower in greater abundance, growing seed to reclaim ground occupied by autumn olive.
Watch the prairie change from 2004 until today in a few pictures below. Our prairie, our heritage, ours to protect.
Whether it be over hours, days, or even years, we observe change over time in a variety of ways. Observations can be made in a changing landscape, how fast our kids grow up, the expansion of a town’s business district, etc. There may be old photos of a building when it was first built in the 1800s which we compare to how the same building may look today. In my own experience, a photo has been taken on my first day of school in the same spot every year by my mother. She now has the photos in an album showing how much I have grown up since the first day of kindergarten to the first day of college. I have found that over the years my favorite color to wear all of those years has been pink… and the funny thing is, it still is today! Ha! In what ways have you seen or documented changes over time?
Recently, the Stewardship Crew has been busy conducting point photo monitoring in the parks around Oakland Township. Photo monitoring is using photos (just like my first day of school photos!) to document the changes of a specific area in our parks over time. We may want to see how our work is reducing the abundance of invasive Phragmites, or see how which a patch of autumn olive is expanding.
The materials needed to do these observations are pretty simple and easy for anyone to acquire: a camera with a tripod, a zebra board as a scale to measure growth, GPS or map with the locations of the photo points, a compass to face the correct direction, notebook to record information, and a identification card for the site being photographed. Expense for these materials is relatively low, making repeat photography a favorable monitoring tool for land managers. Some of the materials can be seen in the photos below.
Photo monitoring is a great tool to show the changes in a landscape over time – how different management strategies change an area, how fast invasive species can take over, or a prescribed burn affects the plant community. Check out some of the photos from our parks over the years!
Bear Creek Nature Park – Interpretive Node
Wow, the autumn olive and trees are filling in quickly! Better stick that on the list of things to do.
O’Connor Nature Park – Phragmites patch
We treated the Phragmites in 2014 and 2015. Looking a lot better!
Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie
Official photo monitoring began in 2011. The photos before 2011 were taken at approximately the same location as the photo monitoring point.
Photos should be taken in the same place at specific intervals, whether it be once each season, once a year in summer, or once every five years, etc. Over time the changes in vegetation can be observed and assessed by land managers to help inform future management goals or changes in management practices. Only time can tell what changes in an area or what will stay the same.
This is a great activity for local residents interested in volunteering with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation to participate in. It is a great way to see the parks in a different light, go to places in the parks you may not have seen before, and maybe learn something new about the native flora and fauna! If you are interested in volunteering with us, comment below or call the Parks and Recreation office at 248-651-7810.