On a gray day in mid-December, while buzzing about trying to complete a myriad of Christmas errands, a message appeared on my phone from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager. He wanted me to know that he and a small crew were working in the woods at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie.
Aha! Ben knows that restoration of that particular woods is of special interest to me! So when a free moment appeared, I grabbed my camera and headed north on the trail from Silver Bell Road to see the transformations taking place in one of my favorite restoration projects.
A Reminder about an Historic Change in Paint Creek
As I’ve explained in a previous blog, for eons Paint Creek wandered through the floodplain west of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road. But in the late 19th century, the stream bed was moved to accommodate the railroad that ran along what is now the Trail. Since then, the water in the original bed comes from rain, snow melt, and some groundwater. After human intervention dramatically altered the water flow (or hydrology) of the area, non-native bushes, vines and trees invaded the wet meadows and moist open woodland along the former stream bed.
The new, non-natives had distinct advantages. Their predators – insects, fungi, animals – were left behind in their countries of origin. They could easily compete with native plants whose predators are also native. The open tree canopy closed, and the woodland floor darkened. And over the next century, invasive shrubs and vines gradually choked off or shaded out most of the native plants that had bloomed for millennia in the woodland and wet meadows and along the former creek bed.
The Restoration Process Begins to Unfold
Most of the work at the Wet Prairie since its acquisition in 2003 had concentrated on the core wet-mesic prairie and the wet meadows to the south. In 2018, a parks prescribed burn contractor conducted a controlled burn in the north half of the park which top-killed huge thickets of non-native brush. Restoration was off and running! But much more was needed, of course, and heavy equipment was impractical in a delicate, very moist area.
So in late 2020, Ben, stewardship specialist Grant VanderLaan, staff from Six Rivers Land Conservancy, and volunteers took on the monumental task of cutting and carefully burning as many non-native bushes and vines as possible in the northern wet meadows and woodland. In some areas, careful application of herbicides to stumps and small re-sprouts followed in order to eliminate invasive species while doing as little harm as possible to any native plants still struggling to survive beneath the non-native thickets. It was an exhausting, laborious process, but what a transformation was taking shape!
This past autumn, the crew’s goal was to continue to increase light reaching the woodland floor to help the special mix of woodland wildflowers, grasses, and sedges return. To do this they reduced the number of fallen ash trees caused by emerald ash borer damage, removed any last invasive shrubs, and thinned trees that were choking out the remaining oaks in the area. As they’ve done annually for several years, volunteers also collected and cleaned a record amount of native wildflower and grass seed from local populations. The Wet Prairie woodlands were an ideal location for sowing some of it once this fall’s work was completed.
Small Winter Fires of Brush and Fallen Logs Release Nutrients Back to the Soil
In mid-December, Ben’s message appeared on my phone with a photo of a small part of the work area. Amazed at what I saw, I left Christmas prep behind and headed to the Wet Prairie. The work crew was small by then – just Ben, Grant and hard-working volunteers George Hartsig and Jon Reed. They had removed a remarkable amount of non-native shrubs and vines and piled them along with the ash deadfalls and thinned saplings in open areas where low fires on moist ground could not reach the canopy. Then they’d set the piles ablaze on the wet soil and tended the fires until they had turned to ash. Wet winter days are ideal for this work and I was happy to see plumes of white smoke rising in multiple spots throughout the woodland when I arrived.
I was delighted to see the woods opening further with the restoration work. Now patches of sunlight and rain could nurture the woodland floor, and struggling wet meadow plants could grow. Another part of the moist woodland could breathe again.
The “Comeback Kids”: Native Plants Return and an Iconic Bird Responds to Restoration
Though invasive plants had decimated many of the native species that once bloomed on the forest floor and along the banks of the stream bed, a few hardy survivors appear each year as restoration continues. Last year, in an area along the Paint Creek Trail formerly blanked by thickets of bittersweet, privet, glossy buckthorn and autumn olive, a gorgeous carpet of native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) emerged on its own! Imagine how long those native wildflowers had waited for the sun and the rain!
Last summer, the stewardship crew spotted a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) exploring a possible nesting cavity on a dead tree at the Wet Prairie. These birds prefer woodlands with open canopies and plenty of standing dead trees, just the conditions that restoration work had provided over the years (with some help from the emerald ash borer, in this case.) A hopeful sign that restoration will encourage the return of other species!
During my December visit, Ben pointed out some of the remaining green leaves or dry stems of sturdy native plants that have emerged since restoration granted them their days in the sunshine and rain.
A Final Step for this Year: Sowing Native Seed
Sadly, few native plants survived the long years of domination by non-native species. Ben would like to return more native wildflowers and grasses to this special woodland. So as the fires burned low this winter, Grant used a leaf blower to open patches around the cleared area to allow native seed to reach the soil. And George spread the collected seed mixes in the woods – a mesic savanna mix for consistently moist areas and a sunny wet meadow mix for wetter spots.
Isn’t it cheering that native seed prefers to be sown in the coldest months? It’s so counter-intuitive and I love that! In fact, many native seeds need the cold to germinate. Then these hardy native plants spend about three years growing deep roots until they fully bloom, ready for Michigan’s unpredictable weather. We’ll have to be patient, but with luck, the wait will be worth it. Here are a few of the plants we can hope to see taking up residence in the woodland at the Wet Prairie once they’ve established their deep root systems. (Click on black boxes at the edge of the frame to move through the slideshow below.)
Looking to the Past to Help the Future Flourish
As I watched the fires on that gray December day, I felt that Ben and his stewardship plans were not only restoring an ancient ecosystem that nature had developed over thousands of years. Restoration will also make it possible for nature, with a bit of help from us, to once more determine what will develop and thrive there in the future. At an online workshop I attended in November, Gregory Nowicki of the US Department of Agriculture summed up restoration with a quote he found that perfectly captured what I felt as I watched those fires slowly burning down in the Wet Prairie Woods.
“Restoration uses the past not as a goal but as a reference point for the future. If we seek to recreate the temperate forests, tall grass savannas, or desert communities of centuries past, it is not to turn back the evolutionary clock but to set it ticking again.” (Falk 1990)”
Yes! Nature knows best and humans, even with the best intentions, have interfered with ancient processes that supported a healthy, highly varied habitat. Those carpets of invasive plants appeared in our parks because humans moved them here from distant lands. But in Oakland Township, we are lending nature a helping hand, letting it get back to work at filling our parks and natural areas with healthy habitat that supports the birds, animals, and insects that share the benefits of nature’s bounty with us. What a Christmas gift Ben gave me when he sent me that text!
Welcome to the final post in this series! In the first post, we discussed the unique geological processes that form prairie fens. Then in the second post, we presented plant species that we can use to discover prairie fen habitats. Lastly, we will be discussing the threats prairie fens face, what we are doing on-site, and why our efforts are so important.
My time at the parks has come to a close. Having arrived in the early spring and leaving in the early fall, I have witnessed lots of change. I followed the life stages of plants as they transitioned through the seasons. From emergence to bloom to death, I got to be a part of it all. Just as amazing, this was the first position where I was able to actually see the results of our stewardship efforts.
I personally have felt the most fulfillment from working at the prairie fen off the Paint Creek Trail. Oakland Township’s portion of this fen is only about a half-acre, but the larger fen habitat extends up and down Paint Creek. Even with its small size and history of fragmentation and disturbance, our little fen patch is resilient. We hope to restore our park’s prairie fens to their full biodiversity capacity.
Threats and restoration
Our Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen can be used as a case study of the major threats these natural communities face. Our fen was once a part of a larger wetland complex extending to its south and west, but the connections to this wetland and the surrounding uplands have been damaged over time. Due to the parcel’s small size, there is little buffering it from encroaching development. The smaller a site, the more vulnerable it may be to changes in the surrounding landscape and threats. These threats mainly include a lack of fire, invasive species, nutrient pollution, and changes inhydrology.
Just like our oak lands and prairies, thesuppression of fire on the landscape and the removal of indigenous land management practices have changed the composition of our prairie fen. The loss of fire has compacted the sedge meadow zone of the fen while increasing the woody zone (check out the previous post to learn more about fen vegetation zones).
Interestingly, the majority of our fire-dependent landscapes in Michigan that have held on after European colonization have been along railroads. In the late 19th century a railroad was built on what is now the Paint Creek Trail, cutting right through the fen. As mentioned in Cam Mannino’s previous blog post, fires sparked by passing trains spread into the surrounding landscape, maintaining natural communities like oak savanna, prairie, and prairie fen.
With the decommissioning of the railroad in the late 1970s, we now need prescribed fires to maintain the integrity of the prairie fen. We try to use controlled burns every 3-5 years to preserve the remnant prairie fen. The burns control invasive woody shrubs and remove dead stalks of Phragmites and invasive cattails after treatment. In addition, fire encourages plants to bloom more profusely and allows seeds of fen plants to germinate. The last controlled burn at the site occurred in 2019.
Invasive species may proliferate due to problems, like fire suppression, nutrient pollution, or hydrology changes. Often, though, invasive species both exacerbate these problems and create new issues of their own. Both invasive cattails and Phragmites grow more vigorously in wetlands with lots of nutrients. The dense stands of Phragmites and cattail, and the thick layers of dead thatch that accumulate, crowd out fen plants. Invasive woody shrubs like glossy buckthorn and common buckthorn often invade fens that have dried out due to hydrology changes that result from building a trail, berm, or road through a fen, fo example. However, these invasive shrubs can also change conditions in a fen to facilitate their own invasion.
When our Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen was acquired over a decade ago, large areas had already been encroached by invasive woody shrubs, narrow-leaved cattails, and Phragmites. We have prioritized saving the core area of our fen by controlling invasive Phragmites and cattails over the last five years. Fen plants like shrubby cinquefoil, Kalm’s lobelia, and grass-of-Parnassus are growing again in areas that used to be dense Phragmites or cattails.
Now we’re starting to work on the invasive shrubs that are spreading into the fen from the edges. In one area glossy buckthorn shaded out a nice Grass-of-Parnassus patch. This year the stewardship crew started clearing the glossy buckthorn so it may return.
Our fen-specialist plants are adapted to growing in alkaline, low-nutrient environments. Increased nutrient inputs from farm runoff, lawn fertilizer, leaky septic tanks, or deposited from the atmosphere through rainfall really change the function of a prairie fen by favoring more generalist wetland plants and invasive plants that can take advantage of increased nutrient levels. Left unchecked, Phragmites, invasive cattails, reed canary grass, and purple loosestrife that like high nutrient levels often grow in dense stands with no other plants, patches that we describe as “monocultures.”
We often can’t address past or ongoing nutrient pollution issues directly if they happen off our property, so try to limit the damage from high nutrient levels. The last three years the stewardship crew has been working at selectively treating narrow leaf cattail stands. To learn more about how this treatment is done, check out a past blog post. I have hailed it as being one of the most taxing yet most rewarding stewardship tasks. I know that each treatment causes the cattails to shrink away and reveal more prairie fen habitat.
Change in Hydrology
The steady supply of cold, calcium, and magnesium-rich water in fens really is their lifeblood. Unfortunately, many property owners don’t realize how special fens are and permanently damaged them by digging ponds. In addition to scooping up valuable fen, digging ponds lowers the water table by creating a low spot in the wetland where water can collect. This creates drier areas that become establishment hotspots for invasive species like glossy buckthorn and other invasive shrubs.
Other changes can affect fen hydrology directly or indirectly. In the past, many fens were dried out by the installation of drain tiles and ditches to “improve” them for agriculture. Building roads, driveways, and trails disrupt the flow of water through a fen by acting like a dam, creating wetter conditions above and drier conditions below. Extracting water with wells for irrigation or other uses can also deplete aquifers that feed fens. It is critical that we partner with surrounding landowners to protect the water that charges the prairie fen.
Why Put In the Effort?
Although our fen is small, it has many high-quality specialist plant species present. Fen ecosystems also support a plethora of rare insect and animal species. In fact, several insect species rely entirely on prairie fen communities and would go extinct without them. You can check out the rare plants and animals associated with prairie fens at Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI).
With our fen off the Paint Creek Trail, it only becomes increasingly difficult to buffer it from the effects of habitat fragmentation. This is especially true for prairie fens, as they often blend into surrounding uplands, wetlands, and bodies of water. However, even in the face of fragmentation, species may be able to persist if they can move between small high-quality parcels. As you might imagine, this may be more difficult for a slow-moving species like a turtle than it is for a flying insect like a butterfly.
A restored prairie fen right next to the Paint Creek Trail is also an excellent educational opportunity for trail users. Since it is only half an acre, the site is manageable and able to show the significance of our stewardship work. As with any restoration project, it is imperative that objectives are well-defined. In the case of thePaint Creek Heritage Area, our team is working to maintain high-quality habitat that trail users may be able to see and learn from. With our invasive shrub removal efforts near the trail, we hope the prairie fen will become more visible to folks passing by. We also hope that other township residents and neighboring properties join us as prairie fen stewards. The more we protect the surrounding area, and the more we get people involved to protect our fen, the greater the impact of our little half acre will have.
Each Action Makes a Difference
Stewardship work is often laborious and ceaselessly repetitive. The blood, sweat, and tears our stewardship crew spent at the half-acre fen parcel have been rewarded time and again by our encounters with fen dwellers. Whether it is the noisy flush of a spooked woodcock or the silent presence of a butterfly, visits to the fen never felt lonesome. While treating our last group of narrow-leaf cattail for the season, fellow steward Cassie spotted a baby Blanding’s turtle. After she set the baby down, she turned to me and exclaimed how happy she was to have seen that turtle. We had been selectively hand-wicking cattails all morning. We were tired and hungry for lunch. But after releasing the prehistoric baby back into a pool of groundwater, we continued our tedious task with newfound ambition. Our work was making a difference.
Summer’s slow demise in late August/early September urged me to acknowledge the need for letting go. Tiny warblers seem to suddenly disappear as they head south. Canada geese begin their practice runs, forming loose “V’s” while trumpeting across the sky. Hummingbirds feed ravenously at any available nectar, gaining 25-40% of their body weight before the long journey to Mexico. Some fledglings still flutter, cry and pursue their parents for a meal; others hone their newly acquired foraging skills. Spiraling through the trees, they seek out the feast of eggs or caterpillars that the pollinators left behind. The meadows quiet down as molting birds hide their bare heads in the greenery hoping to be unseen. Wasps buzz above our outdoor meals, struggling to supplement diminished sources of food.
I spent quiet hours at the newer, eastern section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park during these waning days of summer. Come join me in the thinning sunlight and share the ebullience of young birds, the sprays of grasshoppers beneath my feet, and the persistence of butterflies on late summer blossoms that are hallmarks of this transitional season of the year.
Birds, Experienced and Not-so-experienced, Forage and Flutter
I spent my days at Stony Creek Ravine exploring the open fields visible from the top of the Outlook Hill in the eastern section of the park. Much of this area is fenced in to protect small shrubs and trees planted in the re-emerging wetlands. Thousands of native plants were sown there when the old drainage tiles from previous owners were broken to allow water to flow again to the surface. In the spring, pools form and migrating waterbirds glide in for a bit of R&R.
Right now, though, the fenced-in sections are moist but little standing water remains after a hot summer. Social birds flock to the fences to chatter together. Solitary birds, some unusual ones this season, forage within the fence boundaries. Other just need a place to periodically perch while scouting for seeds among the tall grass and flowers within or around the fencing. My photographer friend, Bob Bonin, generously shared some of his excellent photos of birds he came across while patiently waiting near the fence line. It was the right place to be, as you’ll see below!
Young Fledglings Practice Their Foraging, Flying and Landing Skills
One of my mornings at Stony Creek Ravine was in the company of Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s Wednesday bird walks. As we entered the park, we spotted several young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) whisking in and out of the shrubbery, bits of blue on their wings shining in the sunlight. Three of them spent a remarkable amount of time exploring a hole in a distant snag. We wondered if, being cavity nesters, they were just curious about holes in general or if this hole might have been the one from which they fledged only weeks before.
On another visit, an adult Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) regally surveyed the area from the tallest branch of a bare tree. Perhaps the adult I saw (below left) was keeping its eye out for its offspring, a juvenile that Bob Bonin saw a few days earlier (below right.) Both birds will shortly be heading to forests in South America where they will feast on fruit during the winter. [Click on photos to enlarge.]
Bob also spotted a female Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps one of her offspring. Like their bright orange relatives, the Baltimore Oriole, these birds build pouch-like nests. They breed in our parks each year but are less noticeable to most of us. The male is a dark russet orange and black and the female is yellow. Orchard Orioles depart for their overwintering grounds earlier than many other birds, so by now they’re on their way to Central America.
I fell instantly in love with this little puffball. Local bird expert, Allen Chartier, tells me it’s a juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). This young bird can relax a bit longer than the distance migrators. Song Sparrows travel around just enough during the winter to keep themselves out of the worst of Michigan’s cold season.
A few other small birds appeared for me along the fence line. A little Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) sings one of the most recognizable calls of a summer day– the rising “Pee – weeeee?” that sounds like an oft-repeated question. Birdsong beginners, like me, appreciate a song that identifies this little flycatcher who can be difficult to spot otherwise. Bob Bonin spotted a little Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) who’ll be heading off to Florida before long. And he also saw a young Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its telltale pink/orange beak and feet.
Breeding Season Over, Adult Summer Visitors Relax Before Migration
My friend Bob brings patience as well as skill to his photography. He caught sight of two birds at the park that people rarely see and waited until he got the shot he wanted. One was a “leucistic” Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) which means that it had partial pigmentation loss. Unlike the complete loss of pigmentation of albinos which also causes white, pink or red eyes, leucistic animals have partial pigmentation loss and their eyes are dark. Bob also waited over two hours for a closeup of another unusual bird, a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) as it foraged for spiders and insects down in the dense grass, sedges and small shrubs within the fence. This is ideal habitat for Sedge Wrens, but since they are unpredictable nomads, we can’t count on seeing them every year.
Stony Creek Ravine hosts some more common summer residents as well – and we’re always glad to see them as well.
The plaintive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fell from the trees around a marshy area filled with sedges (genus Carex), ancient, grass-like plants that thrive in moist ground. When it suddenly appeared overhead, I caught it twice with my camera, once like a magnificent arrow streaking across the sky, and once in mid-scream from a prey’s eye view. Glad I’m too big to be carried away for dinner!
Down Below, Butterflies, Bees and Late-Season Grasshoppers Harvested the Last of Summer’s Bounty
One of late summer’s most glamorous residents appeared in August, the glorious Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), North America’s biggest butterfly. If you’d like to attract some to your garden, two of its favorite native plants are Rose/Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and all of the goldenrods, both of which bloom in late summer and early fall If you can also tolerate thistles, they seem to favor them quite a lot more than we do!
At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the black and gold-spotted dorsal ( upper) sides of the Giant Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes,) especially if they’re flying. But compare the ventral (lower) side of the wings. The underside of the Giant Swallowtail’s wings are yellow and the Eastern Black’s (below) are black. I was lucky to see both feeding at thistles during my visits to Stony Creek Ravine.
Smaller butterflies and moths float and flutter in the grass as well, of course – and one well-fed caterpillar just chews its way along.
As regular readers know, I’m intrigued by insects of many kinds and want to convince all comers to just enjoy them. So here are some of my other favorites during late summer at Stony Creek Ravine.
Hardy Native Wildflowers Mix with Plentiful Non-natives until Restoration Advances.
Though the fields in the eastern section of the park have been cleared of many non-native shrubs, native wildflowers are not plentiful yet in the fields at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The long stretch of native wetland Black-eyed Susans in the photo above is a glorious exception. Restoration of a healthy habitat with more diversity has begun with seed planting at this large park, but it will take several years to come to fruition. So I have to smile seeing sturdy native blooms holding their own amidst the non-native plants on the Outlook Hill, in the surrounding fields and near the wetlands. Here are some of the other stalwart native competitors declaring their presence at this amazing 268 acre park.
One native plant that’s rampant at the park this year may not please everyone – Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia.) So if you suffer from hay fever, now is not a good time for your visit! Please remember, though, ragweed pollen is dispersed by the wind; that’s why it ends up in noses. So please don’t blame your sneezing on innocent goldenrods that bloom at much the same time. Their pollen is heavy and falls right to the ground, far from sensitive noses!
Oh! And One Creepy Fungus that I Just Have to Share!
One of the benefits of being in a birding group is having more eyes and ears seeking out interesting details in the landscape, plus access to other people’s areas of expertise. For example, the energetic, hardworking summer natural areas stewardship technicains each year provide me, at least, with younger eyes and ears, youthful enthusiasm and a knowledge base more updated than mine!
In late July, while walking up the path to the ravine, Emma Campbell, one of this summer’s technicians, stopped to comment on a spiky bump in the trail that most of us stepped around, assuming that it was just a sharp piece of root. But Emma carefully broke off one small portion and finding it white inside, correctly identified as a fungus spookily called Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). Evidently it’s a common fungus that grows from rotting wood; as you can see below, this one emerged around the remains of a stump. What a Halloween-ish discovery! Thank you, Emma! Wish I could have creeped out some friends with this one when I was a kid!
The “Oohs” and the “Ughs” of Nature’s Impulse to Keep Fostering Life
Unless you are a hopeless romantic, every close observer of the natural world knows that nature is not all “sweetness and light.” The lives around us in nature can be both big and beautiful like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) or small and homely like the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea). It can be full of tenderness, like birds tirelessly feeding their young or ruthless in its need to survive, like a hawk tearing the flesh of its prey. It can be inspiring like a flight of fall geese or macabre like the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus. But whatever qualities it has for us humans, nature itself doesn’t judge and never despairs. Against all odds, nature just proceeds eon after eon in service of sustaining life, whatever that takes. The “nature of nature,” as it were, is to adapt, survive and assure the existence of the next generation.
We humans, as just another species, would do well to take a lesson from the creatures and plants that surround us. We cannot afford to despair as our behavior changes the climate, threatening life on this special blue planet. Generations could stretch on into the future indefinitely if we would do as all other creatures have evolved to do – adapt, change, survive and above all, work hard to ensure that long after we’re gone, life continues on a healthier path than we’re on right now. If we do, our grandchildren and their descendants will honor our efforts and that honor will be well deserved. Let’s not disappoint them.
As bright green leaves emerge each May, stewardship in our parks kicks into high gear. During the last two years, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide restored two wetlands with help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and our township stewardship crew and volunteers restored a fragile woodland with a lot of muscle power and hard work.
In the last few weeks, work has moved forward, which will bring even more life and beauty to these three natural areas. And the changes wrought have already encouraged surprising new visitors and a renaissance of sorts. Come see….
At Blue Heron Environmental Area, A Rare Visitor and A First Sowing of Wild Seed
On May 4, as I passed Blue Heron on my way to monitor bluebird boxes, I saw Ben in the north field with my gifted photographer friends, Bob and Joan Bonin. Hmm… A few minutes later, I received a quick text from Ben that they suspected they were looking at a Willet, a bird I’d never heard of! Well, monitoring completed, I made a beeline to Blue Heron and yes indeed, it was a Willet (Tringa semipalmata), a shore bird rarely seen in Michigan. Be sure to click on the photos below to enlarge them so you can appreciate the detail the Bonins achieved!
Willets generally winter along the east and west coast of North America, the Caribbean islands, and the north coasts of South America. The eastern subspecies breeds during the summer farther up the northeast coast. The western birds breed out in the high plains area of the western U.S. and Canada. Our Willet had lighter colored feathers, so it appears to be a “western” bird. So it’s a mystery how this bird found its way to Blue Heron, but we are so glad it did! Evidently it needed some R&R after its wanderings and stopped by to rest on the shore of this blue oasis. The marshy edges of the new wetland were rich with food. Bob caught the moments when the Willet extracted a worm and when it latched onto what appears to be an insect larva from the water. Restoration of this wetland two years ago provided this wayward Willet with a safe haven. Ah, the rewards of good stewardship!
A few days later, the US Fish and Wildlife Service folks arrived to seed the north end of the field at Blue Heron. (The south end will still be farmed for now.) Native grass and wildflower seed sprayed from waggling, vibrating tubes at the back of the small tractor and a drag behind covered them with just a thin layer of dirt. The seeding happened a bit later than the stewardship crew had planned due to a busy season for USFWS. But Ben still hopes to see some new growth this summer. Native seed can take 3-5 years to reach full bloom.
Other Water Birds Dropped Down to the Pond for a Visit this Year
Last spring, the early arrival migrators were Black Ducks and the Greater Yellowlegs. Along with the Willet, other water birds arrived during this spring’s visits: a Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria) poked about in the shallows during the seed planting before continuing its journey to Canada. And a female Hooded Merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), who likely lives in the area year ’round, lifted off from the pond as I skirted the shore.
Reliable Wetland Summer Residents
A few other creatures shared Blue Heron with me this spring – the ones that tend to show up since Ben restored the wetland. Slideshow below:
Watershed Ridge Park Receives its Blanket of Native Seed as Summer Residents Arrive
The little USFWS tractor also tracked across the sloping landscapes of the two north fields of Watershed Ridge Park, depositing native wildflower and grass seed. Once the seeds germinate and begin growing, they should help prevent erosion into the newly restored wetlands – as well as adding a lot of beauty for us visitors! The following day Ben did some hand sowing of wetland seed and came across a lovely surprise at the edge of a wetland!
My favorite surprise during my visits was a glorious male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) high in a tree near the parking lot. His more modestly dressed mate poked about a snag nearby, but flew away as I slowly turned to take her portrait. Wood Ducks can nest as far as 50 feet up in trees and have hooks at the back of their webbed feet to navigate up in the canopy.
I think Mrs. Wood Duck probably decided that the snag was not close enough to a wetland, since she prefers a location in a tree near a wetland. Ideally, there her young can make a soft landing in deep leaves when they jump from the nest and then trundle after her into a nearby pond – with only the help of their mother’s encouraging quacking! I’ve included below the photo of a female Wood Duck that I saw at Bear Creek Nature Park a few years ago. If you can spot her on the limb, you’ll notice her subtle attire.
Migrators at Watershed Ridge Park Find A Stopping-off Site or a Nesting Spot Near the Wetlands
Besides the Grackle, other migrators peeked from hedgerows or sang in tangled greenery near the restored wetlands. Slideshow below.
At the Wet Prairie an Open Canopy Creates Ideal Habitat for Two Special Visitors
Please Note: No trails exist in the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, but you can enjoy the wildflowers from the Paint Creek Trail, which runs along its entire eastern edge. In this sensitive natural area most stewardship work must be accomplished by hand to carefully preserve the unusual prairie and wetlands. So please, enjoy these special natural areas from the trail. I’ll give you a closer look at them below or feel free to search for other posts about the Wet Prairie on this website.
Birds often choose very specific habitats for breeding and foraging. For example, Cornell University’s ornithology website, allaboutbirds.org, identifies some of the most popular breeding habitats for species like the Red-Headed Woodpecker that seek out “deciduous woodlands with oak or beech, groves of deador dying trees, river bottoms, burned areas, recent clearings…” How lucky, then, that the open, moist woodlands near the Wet Prairie (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) turn out to be just such a habitat.
Though oaks stand tall in this forest, the canopy was thinned over the years by non-native infestations of Emerald Ash Borer and Dutch Elm disease that left dying trees and snags (standing dead trees). In this habitat, sunlight slips between the trees, dappling the earth below where woodland flowers and small native trees like oaks can thrive in the partial shade .
This open woodland also features the very “river bottoms” mentioned by Cornell. The original bed of Paint Creek (before the railroad moved it east into a straight channel) – filled now by snow melt, rainwater and rising ground water – still winds its moist path across the forest floor. In May, it flourished with Marsh Marigolds!
And even the required “burned areas” and “recent clearings” that Cornell lists exist here! In fall of 2020 and the following winter, the stewardship team worked long, hard hours to clear a dense jungle of invasive shrubs and vines in the forest near the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. Non-native shrubs like Privet, Common Buckthorn, Glossy Buckthorn, Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet vine were hand cut and huge piles of them were safely burned atop the winter snow.
Two Visitors Came to Check Out this “Open Woods” Habitat
And guess what? All of those conditions that Cornell mentioned did indeed attract a Red-headed Woodpecker to our open woods this spring! In late May, this bird’s call and drilling attracted the gaze of Lisa, a volunteer pulling invasive Garlic Mustard with Ben and the summer stewardship technicians. Listen to the third call at this link to hear what the crew heard.
At first glance, she thought she was seeing the much more common male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) with its brilliant red crest and nape (On left below). But no, the busy bird drilling a hole in a snag was indeed a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus!) Check out the differences.
According to Cornell’s Birds of the World migration maps , Red-headed Woodpeckers are more likely to be passing through our area to breed farther north in the top half of Michigan’s “mitten.” But some do nest here and we may have seen one that will finish its hole and raise a family near the Wet Prairie! Fingers crossed!
During my visit, another bird that seeks out open woodlands, the Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), landed in a tree near the woodpecker and was spotted by Camryn, our sharp-eyed summer technician. Luckily it paused for a look around. It’s also a cavity nester so let’s hope it decides to raise young here as well.
These fairly common flycatchers, with their distinctive “wee-eep” and vibrating “burrrr” calls, love to hawk insects from high in the canopy, making them hard to see. So what a treat to see one at the tip of a snag! It didn’t sing or call for us, but the sight of its chocolate brown head and back and that lemon yellow breast, plus the sighting of the Red-headed Woodpecker, definitely made my rush down to the trail worth the effort! Thanks to Lisa for spotting the woodpecker and to Camryn for spotting the flycatcher and taking me near the location for both!
Native Wildflowers Stage a Comeback after Invasive Shrub Clearing
This May, spring’s rain and pale sunlight once again reached native wildflowers that had been buried under the tangle of non-natives for many long years. And like a miracle, they emerged in the forest’s dappled light and bloomed! Whenever this happens after clearing or prescribed burns, it fills me with delight. Some already existed as single blooms and now spread in glorious profusion, like the Golden Ragwort above. Others may not have been seen here for years. Here’s a sampling of the plants that waited so long for their days in the sun.
Restorations Require Death – and then, New Life!
One of the odd aspects of stewardship work is that it involves removing living plants so that others, plants that nourish our local food web, re-emerge and thrive. But it’s occurred to me lately that gardeners have experienced this dilemma for centuries. Gardens require the removal of plants and grasses that infiltrate the borders. Sometimes even beloved but too exuberant flowers need to be thinned for their own health and the health of plants around them.
So inevitably, restorations mean eliminating aggressive, invasive non-native plants and trees that, if left in place, would eventually blanket a whole prairie or forest. Our stewardship crew spends days and weeks clearing invasive, non-native plants brought to America for their beauty or usefulness by settlers, landscapers and gardeners or as unseen hitchhikers in overseas shipments. Without the competition, predators and soil conditions of their Eurasian habitats, they can quickly smother, shade out, or choke off native plants.
The importance of native plants can’t be overemphasized. Because they evolved and thrived here for aeons, they can survive droughts, freezing temperatures, even fire. In fact many native plants require freezing winters or periodic fire to germinate! But they have no defenses against the rapid spread of non-native plants, because they’ve only been living with them for decades or perhaps hundreds of years, rather than thousands of years. Adaptation and evolution are very slow processes.
When native wildflowers and trees flourish, so does all other life around them. Native bees and butterflies can be attracted to non-native blooms, but their caterpillars can’t feed or develop normally on them. The leaves of native plants provide rich nutrition for caterpillars, the little creatures that nourish nearly every baby and adult bird we see. Later in the year, the berries of native plants provide migrators and winter birds with much more energy and nutrition than berries from non-native plants. Nature worked out an interlocking system of sustenance and shelter for life that we humans have altered dramatically over long years.
So what a delight it was to see that funny little tractor shaking out native seed at Watershed Ridge Park and Blue Heron Environmental Area! Or Ben and his crew hand spreading native seed collected right here in the township. Or even watching the removal of invasive thickets one year – and the next, seeing the plants nature intended rising from the soil after having waited decades to feel the rain, the sun, and the wind once again! I hope it’s not impious to describe those moments as little miracles, little resurrections – because that’s how they feel to me. I hope they lift your spirits as they did for me.
Quite a transformation, eh? In March of this year, I posted a blog concerning the progress of wetland restorations in Oakland Township. In the fall of 2020, the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area had been planned and constructed by the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, and his colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By spring of 2021, the berm built as part of that restoration had created a truly startling change. Where Ben had noticed a significant wet area in a farmed field, a large pond now lay like a slice of blue sky dropped into the sere March stubble.
So I returned this fall curious to see what nature had since contributed as our partner in the restoration project. The surrounding field was still striped with furrows left by a local farmer harvesting his crop; his work keeps the fields free of invasive plants until Ben can restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once grew there. When I crested a slope above the pond, though, I broke into a grin and whispered, “Wow!” The pond was now encircled by swaying green cattails and among them stood a Great Egret. I could tell from a distance that smaller plants had already populated the muddy shore as well, creating new habitat for wildlife. As I picked my way slowly through the wet ruts in the stubble, I hoped to see even more life flourishing around this newly restored pond – and I was not disappointed! ,
Summer Birds Forage In and Around the Pond, Preparing for Migration
When I got my first glimpse of the pond this autumn, what a delight to see the glorious Great Egret (Ardea alba). [Click on any photo to enlarge.]
This elegant bird waded slowly and carefully around the southern shore of the pond searching for prey. Finally it plunged its head into the water and came up with something to eat! But evidently the bird had extracted its prey from the mud below because it quickly dipped its catch back in the water, flicked its head about to give it a few vigorous swishes in the air and swallowed it down that long elegant neck. Then my glorious companion moved on into deeper water.
As the egret approached deeper water, it stretched its neck vertically as if to get a good look around – or maybe it needed to “get the kinks out” after fishing so long with its head down. Who knows? As the water reached its breast, it took on a slower, even more careful gait, thrusting its neck forward with one step and looking carefully downward with the next. It appeared that the thrusting neck helped it move forward in deeper water and the slowness made it easier to spot potential prey.
I turned to look down the lake and heard a splash behind me. When I quickly turned back, the egret’s big yellow beak was filled with a stringy mess of wet greenery which it impatiently tossed aside. The egret had missed its prey and I’d missed a shot of an exasperated egret.
High overhead that afternoon, a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) flew south, following the leader of their flying chevron. In autumn, geese seem to do frequent practice runs before migrating. I noted that eight of them seemed to be tagging along behind one leg of the “V.” When eight geese flew back north a minute or two later, I couldn’t help imagining that these eight were the stragglers from the “V” who had decided they’d worked out enough for one day and turned back for a quick snack.
Each time I visited this pond, the piercing cry of a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) fell from high above me. Finally the two landed during my final visit. These dapper little characters spend the summer with us, scraping out their shallow, seemingly vulnerable nests in any bare earth they can find. Luckily, their striped heads and brown backs make them almost invisible in a vegetated field which apparently is enough to keep the Killdeeer and their young alive; I see them in the same fields year after year. I caught this one approaching a puddle in the grass and then turning its orange eye skyward, perhaps checking for predators who could snatch it up in flight, like Cooper’s Hawks and others in the genus Accipiter.
A pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) stood surrounded by a small flock of Canada Geese on the south shore of the pond. The geese flew away, but the Cranes slowly moved off into the field. One of them balanced with its wings while trying to navigate those water-filled ruts! After quietly grazing a bit, poking their beaks into the soil, they too took off heading south.
Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) kettled in a spiral above the forest west of the pond. Biting midges killed several deer in Michigan during our warm, wet fall. I wondered if the vultures, important members of nature’s clean-up crew, had found one dead near a forested wetland. Later a solitary vulture flew overhead while I watched a small flock of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) enjoying the quiet sunlight on the North Pond. And as I left one day, a Savanna Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) hopped and pecked its way along a tractor rut, plucking up whatever appeared to be edible.
A Mammal, Fish, Amphibian and even Crustacean Also Explored the Pond’s Possibilities
Besides the ubiquitous White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that leave their hoof prints in the mud around the pond, a few other creatures are evidently trying out this habitat. I’d noticed some cattails draped across a log on my first visit and thought perhaps a muskrat had pulled them to the surface, since cattails are a favorite food. Ben later showed me an area where a muskrat may have tried to burrow into the berm that holds the wetland water, although the berm isn’t sturdy enough for winter quarters. Ben also pointed out an area where cattails had been felled and piled into what looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a muskrat’s feeding platform – a place to get out of the water to eat.
A week or so later, the log I had seen earlier had more cattails on it and something else quite unusual that I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought that it might a large fungus. But a helpful member of the Mushroom Identification Facebook group told me it looked like Cyanobacteria (genus Nostoc). Hmm… considering its common name, Blue-Green Algae, I wondered how that flat green stuff on ponds could look like this?
My curiosity piqued, I eventually found my way to Michigan State University Extension Educator Beth Clawson who confirmed that it was indeed cyanobacteria and sent me some useful research links. It turns out these very ancient organisms can also form dome-shaped colonies on the bottom of lakes and ponds. The ones at North Pond, Ms. Clawson informed me, are harmless, unlike the summer algae blooms that can be toxic. So it seems most likely that the muskrat pulled up cattails to eat their roots and these clumpy cyanobacteria colonies came up with them.
Imagine! These bacteria are descendants of the very ones that changed life on our planet 3.5 billion years ago! As these particular cyanobacteria performed photosynthesis, they produced oxygen unlike other organisms that didn’t. As cyanobacteria thrived in the early oceans, the environment became ever richer with oxygen, making the evolution of oxygen-breathing creatures like us possible. So, funny-looking blobs on a log set me thinking about the origins of life on ancient earth! No wonder I love doing this blog!
By the way, the muskrat never showed up on any of my visits. Perhaps I just missed it, or perhaps it didn’t find suitable winter housing in this newly restored wetland and moved elsewhere. Or maybe the food sources beyond cattails were too scanty. Muskrats usually supplement their largely vegetarian diet with frogs, crustaceans and fish. Evidence of all three of its prey species exist at the pond but some may be in small numbers.
Prey Species at the North Pond that Might Interest Water Fowl or Muskrats
In late August, heavy summer rains were causing the pond to flow out toward the woods on the northeast edge of the pond. Ben noticed a small fish swimming upstream, against the current toward the pond! Evidently some fish from a nearby forested wetland had discovered the stream and decided to give it a try. We don’t know how many made it there, but what a discovery! I hope these adventurous little fish arrived and remain in their new habitat. If they did, though, they may be providing a dietary supplement for egrets or the elusive muskrat.
On my first three visits to North Pond, I repeatedly heard little “plops” as I walked the watery edge of the wetland, but didn’t see a frog. Once I heard the telltale squeak of a startled Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) but no sightings. During my last visit, though, my sharp-eyed husband spotted one traversing the uplands near the pond.
The other possible prey for a muskrat or bird is crayfish. In spring, their “chimneys” erupt from the soil as they climb out of their underground burrows to lay eggs. They can be found all over the field and around the North Pond. At this point, crayfish may be the most numerous food source for creatures visiting this wetland. We have crayfish species in Michigan, but unfortunately the most prevalent is an invasive one, the Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus). I can’t be sure if that’s the species that built the chimneys at the North Pond. According to MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife website, for most of the year “they build and occupy a deep and complex subterranean tunnel system that goes at least as deep as the ground water table.” So that’s probably where they are now. Below is Ben’s photo of a Rusty Crawfish taken at Bear Creek Nature Park and mine of last spring’s slightly worn chimney at the North Pond in October.
Wet-footed Plants Settle In, Creating Habitat
The cattails that encircle the North Pond are not our native ones, but the aggressive, non-native Narrow-leaved Cattails (Typha angustifolia) that grow near the road. They may take over the pond eventually, turning it into a marsh. Fortunately, though, many native plants have also found their way to the pond. A seed of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) must have arrived stuck to a bird’s foot or in its droppings; I only saw a single stem in late September. Until mid-October, Nodding Bidens (Bidens cernua) ringed the pond with both seed heads and a few bright yellow blooms. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) sported tiny yellow blossoms. If they are pollinated and produce seed pods, they will be able to project their seeds up to several feet away from this original plant and add more Sorrel to the wetland habitat. Ben introduced me to Celery-leaved Buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), a look-but-don’t-touch plant; crushing or bending its leaves raises lesions on human skin. But as long as we leave it alone, it produces interesting leaves and cheery little yellow flowers from May to September. And of course Duckweed (genus Lemna) covers parts of the water surface like sprinkles on a cupcake.
I first got acquainted with two of the North Pond’s native plants at Watershed Ridge Park in August. When I saw Southern Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) there, I admired its tiny white blooms on delicate stems. And I also admired the polka-dot effect of its seed heads at North Pond in October. Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) made a nice contrast to the Water Plantain with its spiky stalks springing up like green and yellow fireworks both around the pond and in the field.
Ben decided to try adding to the pond’s plant life by bringing in rhizomes, the underground stems and roots of two native aquatic plants: Whorled Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) and Yellow Water-lily (Nuphar variegata). The Whorled Loosestrife is a native plant as opposed to the invasive species Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Ben planted the cuttings he took from Draper Twin Lake Park into the mud below the water close to shore, its preferred habitat.
The Yellow Water-Lily rhizome required deeper water to float its leaves. So Ben moved to the bank at the deepest part of the pond, tucked a few rhizomes in the mud and tossed any remaining small pieces far out from shore. It’ll be great to see if either of these settle in at the North Pond next summer!
Insects Dancing, Posing and Staring Me Down!
Insects, as I’ve noted before, could be real pests this year – but fortunately, the ones I encountered at the North Pond had no interest in me. Some were beautiful, others especially interesting. Let’s start with the ballerina of the group.
When I consulted Dr. Gary Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, he informed me that the crane fly that I’d seen pause in its frenetic fluttering to cling to a grass stem was a male. Its blunt abdomen was the clue. But since hundreds of look-alike crane species from five different families live in Michigan, he couldn’t identify this one from a photo.
Close by, a larger female Crane Fly performed what I dubbed “The Dance of the Hundred Eggs.” She hopped above the bright, green moss, her body held vertically, wings outstretched, as she poked individual eggs into the ground with her ovipositor. Dr. Parsons tells me the eggs will hatch there, the young will scavenge, and then larvae will pupate before emerging as adults next year. If only I had the appropriate music to accompany this skipping choreography!
I have a particular fondness for Katydids, especially when they pose for me on a grass stem. Their antennae are astonishingly long and their green, cartoon-like faces look slightly humorous to me. Katydids are active July to September when they mate, lay flat eggs on stems, soil or leaves and hatch the following summer. For me, the best way to tell katydids from grasshoppers and crickets is their long antennae, often 1.5 times longer than their body. Grasshoppers and crickets have shorter antennae, usually only half to 2/3 of their body length or less. Anyway, let me introduce you to the little female Meadow Katydid (genus Orchelimum) that I saw by the North Pond. I love her beady, yellow eyes and red, extravagant antennae!
On my visits, I repeatedly came across one species of dragonfly, a male Meadowhawk (genus Sympetrum), and one damselfly, a male Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). (Click on the damselfly to see his spiky surface!) I remain hopeful that their variety and numbers will increase next summer if I get there in warmer weather. A Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) gave me a baleful stare in the field nearby.
Given a Chance, Nature Shares the Work of Native Habitat Restoration
Nature itself is the very best stewardship partner. Here at Blue Heron Environmental Area, Ben began restoration by creating a berm to hold the water in the middle of a field. Once it was built, nature got to work. Thunderstorms repeatedly brought water down from the sky and up from the water-soaked earth. Cattails by the highway sent seeds sailing on stormy winds toward the muddy edges of the pond where they quickly took hold. Taking advantage of the plentiful moisture, seeds thrust their way out of the seed bank, arrived on the wind or were left at the pond edge by thirsty creatures. Seeing this rippling, blue expanse from above, birds dropped down to the pond to probe the shore for food or spend the night safely hidden among the cattails. A muskrat may have crossed the road late one night, survived the traffic and slipped into the dark water. Frogs, fish and flying insects found the new pond by hopping, swimming or winging their way from nearby wetlands or hatching from the wet soil as the summer progressed. Gradually, a small community of plants and wildlife made a summer home at Blue Heron’s North Pond. This fall we hope to seed native plants into the uplands around the pond, and next summer sprigs of native grasses and wildflowers will help knit the uplands to the wetland.
The outcome of restoration can be unpredictable. Yet working to recreate and preserve nature’s complex, interdependent web of life is always worth the effort. I am surprised and delighted by how quickly nature joined us in restoring the North Pond. I’ll be eager to see what else nature contributes to its restoration in the coming year. I hope you’ll be here, watching with me.