Summer Resident Birds in Oakland Township

This post was written by Katri Studtmann, Land Stewardship Technician.

As winter turned to spring and the days got longer and warmer, I started to get excited because I knew our summer residents were on their way back from their southern wintering grounds. As their sweet songs rang again in my neighborhood, I knew spring was on its way. Where I grew up in Minnesota, the first birds back that I typically noticed were the American Robin and the Red-winged Blackbird. Every spring, my family has a contest on who will see the first robin. There are rules to this contest, of course, you must either have photo proof of the robin or someone must be able to vouch that you saw it, otherwise it does not count. My dad took the title this year, spotting and sending a picture of a robin on February 27th. Here in warmer climate of Oakland Township in southeast Michigan, American Robins are year-round residents.

As March turned to April and April turned to May, I started to notice more and more of our summer residents showing up. Many migratory birds have spectacular and vibrant breeding plumage, so it’s fun to spot these beautiful balls of color shining in the trees. Spring is one of my favorite times to bird because the trees are not quite leafed out, so the birds are easier to see. Also, with the rapid influx of migratory birds, you are never sure what you will come across on your outdoor adventure.

Migration Mysteries

The past month has been particularly fun in the parks of Oakland Township for birding since May is typically peak bird migration season. When you take a second to watch and listen, you can notice birds you have never seen before. But why do birds migrate, and where do they spend winters? These are great questions that previously puzzled many people, but with extensive research on migratory birds, we have started to learn their secrets.

Male and female bluebirds standing guard over their nest box. If you look closely, you can see the female has some food for her chicks in her beak. In Oakland Township Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Some birds like the American Crow, Blue Jay, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Cardinal stick around Michigan all year long, but other birds travel great distances every spring and fall. In North America, there are over 650 species of breeding birds, and of those over half will migrate! Scientists have a few theories on why some birds migrate and some do not. The two main reasons birds will migrate are for food and nesting spots. As it becomes spring in Michigan, millions of bugs start to hatch – a fantastic food for many birds. Many migrant birds are insectivores (eat insects as a primary food source), so with the high influx of insects hatching in northern areas, this is inviting for many birds to make the trek north.

If the migrants stayed south in the tropics, there would be more competition for resources with the native tropical birds, making it harder to raise their chicks. Scientists theorized that many birds head north to breed because the more moderate temperatures make it easier to hatch their delicate eggs and rear chicks. Also, the longer days in the north give birds more time to feed their young every day. Then in the fall, when the days get shorter and colder and resources start to diminish, migratory birds make the trek back south for the winter.

Common Yellowthroat perching momentarily in a tree. Warblers are often difficult to spot because they don’t sit still long enough to get a good look at them. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Of the birds that migrate, there are short-distance, medium-distance, and long-distance migrants. Some examples of short-distance migrants are Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, American Woodcock, and Red-winged Blackbirds. They are usually the first birds back in the spring since they are only migrating a state or two south. In Minnesota, most American Robins migrate a little way south, but in southern Michigan, many Robins stick around all winter.

Some medium-distance migrants include the Green Heron, Great Egret, and Gray Catbird. These birds typically migrate south but just barely. They overwinter anywhere from Virginia to the southern U.S. Long-distance migrants are the truly impressive migratory birds because many of them flying to Central or South America every year.

Some long-distance migrants include the Tree Swallow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Wood Thrush, Orchard Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbird, and Yellow Warbler. During the spring migration, there are some birds you may see for only a few days or weeks. These birds are migrating further north than Michigan to breed and are only stopping over for a few days on their journey north. This makes them especially a treat to see since the window to spot them is very small. Some migratory birds that stopped through Oakland Township this spring include the Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Palm Warbler, and White-crowned Sparrow. There are also some birds that winter in Michigan and then migrate further north to breed. A couple of examples of birds that winter in Michigan includes the American Tree Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco.

A White-crowned Sparrow at Charles Ilsley Park. Taken by Cam Mannino in May 2017.

Special Birds of Interest

A couple birds in particular that have fascinated me this spring are the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I spotted my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak this spring around May 14th. We were doing a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail, and my job for the first part of the burn was to stand on the trail and inform people about what was happening. As I was standing, I noticed a bird singing a sweet, complicated song. I started trying to dial in where it was coming from, then noticed the bright red chest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak sitting in a tree not too far from me. I played his song on my Merlin bird app, and suddenly, he swooped in above my head and landed on a branch near me. I continued playing his song, and he swooped me a couple of more times. It was so cool to watch! Eventually, I stopped bothering him, and he flew away to sing his sweet song elsewhere in the woods.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak flying off of a branch and over my head.

About two weeks ago, I started hearing the unmistakable song of the Eastern Wood-Pewee in Charles Ilsley Park. My favorite part of the Pewee song is how they sing their name, “pe-weee, pe-weee.” They are tricky birds to spot with their gray-brown color. A few days later, I was at Lost Lake Nature Park and finally spotted one singing his song high on a branch. I watched him for a while, singing his little heart out high in a tree. Both the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Eastern Wood-Pewee migrate from Central or South America or the Caribbean every year to raise their chicks in the north.

Discovering the World of Birds

The next time you are walking about in one of the parks, take a moment to watch and listen to the birds singing in the trees. You might see one of our summer residents that are only here for a few months. And if you are lucky, you might even spot a bird migrating through to its nesting location further north, or to wintering grounds further south.

If you are new to birding, you have several options to become more comfortable spotting and identifying the birds you see. One great option is to come to our bird walks every Wednesday morning. Another is to find a friend who knows their Michigan birds well. I find the best way to learn how to identify birds is to go with someone who is experienced in birding. If you don’t have any friends that are adept at birding, there are some great resources to help you determine what birds you are observing. A simple field guide is always helpful, but I enjoy using bird apps like the Merlin bird app. With this app, you can look at birds that are likely in your area, pictures of the birds, and hear what sounds they commonly make. Hopefully, the next time you are in one of Oakland Township’s parks, you will see a bird you have not seen before!

Wednesday Bird Walk Link: https://oaklandnaturalareas.com/volunteer-calendar/birding-walks/

If You Restore It, They Will Come: Water Birds Discover Our Newly Restored Wetlands

At Blue Heron Environmental Area, a Moist Patch Becomes an Impressive Pond!

Last fall, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, worked with with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to restore a wetland in the north section of Blue Heron Environmental Area along Rochester Road. Ben had noted a significant wet area in the current agricultural field and guessed that years ago, a farmer working there had drained a wetland. The hope was that building a small berm would capture and hold the water running off the field, filtering out nutrients and sediment before it entered the beautiful wet forest immediately to the west. Meri Holm, a wildlife biologist with USFWS, designed a small berm that was installed in late September 2020.

Well! On March 31, I stopped by to see what that smallish excavation at the north end of the field looked like now – and here’s what I saw!

The newly restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area expanded beautifully this spring!

Needless to say, I was astonished! This graceful expanse of water now stretched far beyond the original excavation site! As my binoculars swept across this blue expanse, I thought I saw two small lumps on a log near the pond’s center. I approached slowly and discovered that the two lumps were two sleeping ducks and not only ducks, but ones I’d only seen once before, American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes). Though I stood near the road’s edge, they moved off the log to swim slowly down the pond. Once there, they tucked their heads beneath their wings and went back to sleep while floating.

Two American Black Ducks on the newly restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

American Black Ducks have traveled a hard road to survive. According to local birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, their numbers plummeted during the 1930’s when southern Ontario, Canada converted large areas of wetlands to agriculture. These changes meant a loss of habitat for the Black Ducks but created favorable habitat for Mallards. Mallards and Black Ducks can interbreed and since Mallards evidently have the stronger genes, biologists feared that the Black Ducks would slowly become extinct. Mixing with Mallards as much as they do, Black Ducks also were taken in large numbers by duck hunters until 1982. At that time, the Maine Audubon Society and the US Humane Society sued to protect the Black Duck and as a result, today their numbers have stabilized! A victory for conservation and the American Black Duck! So here they are now enjoying the new wetland envisioned by Ben and supported by our Parks and Recreation Commission. Excellent news!

I came back several times to watch from a distance to see if the Black Ducks stuck around. A week later, they were tails-up in the water, eating greedily while being watched by a pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) who’d stopped by that afternoon. The ducks may ultimately search out a more secluded wetland in which to nest, though. Cornell’s All About Birds website says they prefer a “well-concealed site” and this lovely wetland is too new to have developed much cover for them this spring.

The two American Black Ducks fed enthusiastically beneath the restored wetland while two Canada Geese calmly looked on.

A few days later, I noticed some smaller shorebirds at the north end of the pond. I thought at first they were Killdeer but as I began to pull away in my car, I realized they were much taller birds. And then I saw their bright yellow legs and quickly pulled off the road to investigate. To my delight, two shorebirds had discovered this new wetland – what appeared to be a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), possibly accompanied by a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) to the left in the stubble. (It’s camouflaged quite nicely so look carefully!)

Yellowlegs in the restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area.

I consulted with Ben VanderWeide and Ruth Glass and we all felt confident that the one standing on the log is a Greater Yellowlegs. It’s a larger bird with a long sturdy bill and now, in its breeding plumage, it has bars extending behind its leg. The one to the left in the stubble may be the Lesser Yellowlegs because it appears to be smaller, a bit daintier and has a slimmer bill – but we can’t be sure when so much of its body is hidden. Both birds spend the winter in marshes along the southern edge of the U.S. and pass through Michigan on their way to mosquito-rich bogs and fens in or near the boreal forests of northern Canada. They are partial to shallow wetlands in fields as they travel, so keep an eye out for them as they migrate through our area.

On each visit, I saw other water-loving birds hanging out at the new wetland as well. In the cattails near the road, a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds were doing a bit of foraging and courting. The male of course burst forth periodically in his signature trill to announce his territory. He used a lot force to do so, plumping himself up, raising his red epaulets and shouting out his call. The female listened calmly from a stalk a bit farther down the road. She looks very different from the male – richly striped in dark brown and white. [Click photos to enlarge.]

Much of the area south of this restored wetland is still being planted by a local farmer. The crops prevent the growth of invasive plants until the area can eventually be restored to prairie. But a diverse prairie seed mix with native grasses and wildflowers will be installed in the uplands around the restored wetland later this spring! Down in last year’s stubble near the pond, several Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scooted about, probably negotiating territory, foraging and getting a look at potential mates. Killdeer prefer to nest on bare ground near a wetland, so we’ll see if they can find a suitable spot at the wetland this year. I’m fond of the Killdeer’s dapper look and its orange eye rim that matches the splash of orange over its tail in flight.

A Killdeer makes short runs through last year’s stubble as it forages and decides on mates and nest sites at the edge of the newly restored Blue Heron wetland.

I’m excited that we’re seeing waterfowl and shorebirds in this wetland during the first spring after its restoration! It looks like Ben’s idea is already bearing fruit.

Restored Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park Become a Waterfowl Sanctuary

Back in 2019, the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission used its Land Preservation Fund, with a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, to extend Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park by 208 acres of former agricultural fields and forests. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) holds the wetland “conservation easements,” there. They began the project by constructing low berms and breaking the agricultural drainage tiles, allowing water to again flow to the surface. They also planted thousands of wetland shrubs grasses, sedges and wildflowers within the protective fence that they installed to protect the young plants from voracious deer and us humans. Once the wetlands emerged within the conservation easement, water-loving birds wasted no time in making use of them. When I arrived in early April this year, flocks of birds were scattered across the ponds.

The northern section of the fenced Conservation Easement at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Through my binoculars, I was delighted to see at least four species of ducks in the flocks. I walked down close to the fence and thrust my 400mm lens through an opening, trying to see which species were visiting. The first ones I saw that made me grin were the Northern Shovelers (Spatula clypeata). Their large bills reveal the origin of their name. These dabbling ducks swish their heads from side to side under water to filter out seeds, tiny crustaceans and invertebrates with the comb-like edges of their very large bills. Once they rest and recharge, the Shovelers will head north to breed in Canada. It’s wonderful that these wetlands that were drained long ago have emerged again to provide these striking birds with a safe stopover on their way north.

A pair of Northern Shovelers rest at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park on their way to their breeding grounds in Canada.

Three other species of dabbling ducks cruised about the conservation ponds, but some were far off within the protected area and too small for me to take a decent photo. So I’m grateful to the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who shared their photos with me below.

The Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), the smallest duck in North America, is such a beautiful little bird. I watched a flock of these little ducks flow down to a distant pond within the fence. The small patches of florescent green on their secondary wing feathers (not visible below) sparkled brilliantly in the late afternoon sun. The vertical stripe on the “shoulder” of the male Green-winged Teal also helps identify them from a distance.

Green-winged Teal, the tiniest of North American ducks, may pass through our area to breed a bit farther north in Michigan and on into Canada. Photo by David Martin (CC BY-NC).

Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) also joined the the flocks of ducks exploring these restored wetlands. The males’ large, white crescents on either side of their bills make them easy to spot from a distance. Aren’t those speckled bodies amazing, too? These small ducks breed in our area before returning to the southern coasts or the Caribbean in the fall.

Two male Blue-winged Teal with the distinctive white crescents on either side of their beaks. Photo by Melainewall (CC BY-NC).

Of course, the ponds rippled with the relaxed pumping of the Mallards’ orange feet as well. Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are larger than the Teal and the ducks that seem least worried by my presence. I couldn’t resist a quick photo as I watched a particularly glamorous pair in their fresh breeding plumage swim in my direction. What fine specimens of their species!
An elegant pair of Mallards in their fresh breeding plumage.

Out in the tall grass within the conservation easement, a flock of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) foraged quietly together. One lone crane stood near me in the plowed field. As it kept an eye on me, I wondered if it was a sentinel or perhaps was just a less social member of the flock. Eventually, though, it flew down to join the others. Ruth Glass thought perhaps one pair that she saw here were looking for a nesting site. I’ll keep an eye out for that! I’d love to see a young crane start its life at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Recreating Lost Habitat

Restored wetland at Watershed Ridge Park with one Canada Goose resting at its edge. Its closeup photo is below.

Time after time I’ve read that the numbers of various insects, birds, native plants and animals are declining dramatically. And most often the first reason given is “loss of habitat.” Native plants are being crowded out or even actively killed by invasive species that take over their habitat. Pollinators and other insects are in severe decline worldwide partly because the native plants on which their young must feed are disappearing from their habitats. The numbers of many birds are in a nosedive and what do scientists think is the cause? Right, one of the factors, along with climate change, is habitat lost to cultivation, drained wetlands, development and the proliferation of non-native plants.

But here in our little corner of the world, we’ve begun to recreate habitat. Abandoned farm fields full of non-native flowers, trees and shrubs are being reclaimed and transformed into rolling meadows of native wildflowers.

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, July 12, 2018, restored from a former agricultural field.

Residents are gradually introducing more native plants into their gardens, providing crucial sustenance for caterpillars which either mature into butterflies, moths and other pollinators or provide the best of baby food for hungry little nestlings who rely on them each spring.

In the wetlands that Ben and his stewardship team are restoring in the township, land once drained of its water now hold glistening pools that provide a haven, a food supply, a safe nesting area and a cool drink on a hot day to the creatures that share our landscape with us.

Nature spent eons carefully refining complex and closely interdependent native habitats. We humans have changed them dramatically, especially in the last two hundred years. The result has not been good for thousands of the creatures and plants that live with us here. Maybe we can’t reverse all the habit destruction around us. But here in Oakland Township, thanks to our Parks and Recreation Commission, the Land Preservation Fund and stewardship efforts, we are doing what we can. If we all continue to “do what we can,” who knows what we might be able to accomplish in restoring the environments that nature designed for us.

A solitary Canada Goose enjoying the water and spring sunshine at the restored wetland at Watershed Ridge Park.

Cranberry Lake Park: Traveling Through Time in the “Outer Space” of Nature

The Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park on a winter day

Will you forgive me if I take you back to February for a few minutes? Today it’s 60 degrees, the snow is melting even in the shadows and longer days remind us that the spring equinox is less than a week away. But I’d like to take you back for a few minutes to those days when, for me, walking the trails meant staring downward at icy ground to keep my footing. Calf-deep in February snow, I found myself prompted to recall a summer visitor. I took a turn toward a woodland pond and discovered a hidden world. And I saw and heard the harbingers of spring. Three snowy walks at Cranberry Lake Park lured me out into another realm for a few hours, where I mentally traveled to the past, through the present, and into the near future. So I hope you’ll strap on your mental snowshoes and join me for one last winter outing.

A cross-country skier on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

A Warm Memory on a Snowy Day

The trail into the park in February was a bit of a trudge one afternoon, negotiating my way among the icy footprints of visitors who’d come before me. But luckily near the first trail intersection, I looked up long enough to notice an exquisite little piece of architecture. A small, sturdy nest had been securely anchored in the upright fork of several branches of a small shrub. Though the nest was about four inches long, it was only about an inch and a half deep and about two and a half inches wide inside – a nest for a very small bird! [Click photo to enlarge.]

I know that Black-capped Chickadees nest in cavities rather than in cup nests out in the open. So my mind wandered back over the small cup-nesting birds I’d seen there last summer. Consulting both Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website and my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds’ Nests, I discovered that the depth of the cup was too shallow for either the Song Sparrow or Field Sparrow, which were my first guesses. But then I remembered a small spark of sunshine that frequents that corner of the park each summer, a lemon yellow visitor who arrives from the Caribbean. This nest met all the measurements my sources listed for the nest of one of my favorite warblers. The female Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is my candidate for architect of this little marvel. She needs only four days to gather materials and weave her nest of plant fibers and spider webs, lining it with plant down. If this nest is hers, it’s survived a tough winter remarkably well! It probably won’t be reused, though; most birds build a fresh nest each year. But what a warming memory of last summer! Since I’m no expert at nests, I’m open to input if any of you have a different candidate for the creator of this little nest.

A female Yellow Warbler who may have built the nest I saw this winter.

Nearby on the Hickory Lane on another afternoon, my husband and I stood admiring a very shaggy Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) with long shards of bark angling off its trunk. These wonderful trees can grow as high as 100 feet and can live as long as 350 years, according to Wikipedia. Shagbark Hickories reach maturity and start producing nuts at age 10. They don’t produce large numbers of them until they are 40 years old, but can continue until the ripe old age of 100. I remembered walking the lane last autumn with the crunch of hickory shells underfoot. Getting a wild hickory nut isn’t easy for us humans. They are too favored by squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits and birds, including wild turkeys, wood ducks and mallards.

A candidate for the shaggiest Shagbark Hickory on the lane at Cranberry Lake Park

In late winter for the last few years, I’ve ventured out to Cranberry Lake on the east side of the park to see whether the Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been restocking their food stores. Some years if they have not stockpiled quite enough leafy branches thrust down inside their lodge or in ice nearby, they come out on warm winter days to add a bit more. Beavers consume the leaves and the outer layers of bark from trees, along with some rhizomes (underground stems) and other plant material stored inside the lodge when the weather was warmer. This year I remembered those pointed stumps that I noticed a few years ago and headed out to check near the lodge. But I didn’t find any newly gnawed tree stumps near the edge of the lake. So this year, the beavers’ larder must have been stocked enough to get them through this snowy season..

A beaver lodge at the edge of Cranberry Lake with branches and tree trunks for food protruding from the lodge and on or in the ice nearby.

Wintry Adventures in the Present

The trail near three connected ponds at Cranberry Lake Park

Readers may remember my fondness for imagining how tracks get left in the snow. Noticing some at the edge of the Hickory Lane conjured a possible small drama. My husband and I came across a set of mouse prints leading to a small nook created by overhanging bark at the base of a tree. The tracks were blurry and seemed to be going in two directions. I wondered if perhaps a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had scooted across the trail, turned back for a moment, spotted a potential threat and dashed toward this hiding place again. In any case, its tracks back out of the nook looked to be at a more normal pace, leaving tiny leaping footprints and tail marks in the snow. Of course this is all guesswork on my part. If you have another interpretation, please share it in the comments!

During the January walk with the birding group, a few of us ventured out onto the ice of a small pond along a trail that we take back toward the parking lot. I keep an eye on this pond in the summer because it’s frequented by Wood Ducks regularly and sometimes by Great Blue Herons as well. But on this trip, the ice was plenty thick enough to permit me to explore a bit further afield.

The northern section of the hidden pond where I look for Wood Ducks during the spring and summer

Doing what a friend calls “boot skating,” I slipped across the ice to find a vantage point from the middle of the northern part of the pond. Instead of the narrowed strip of water I’d peeked at from the forest in the summer, a second large section of the pond expanded out before me!

The second section of the hidden pond with a small outlet far at the left.

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, brought up a map of this area on his cellphone to show me that this pond actually had three sections, the farthest south connected to the others by a narrow stretch of water. I was instantly intrigued! After six years of hiking here, I was seeing something that I hadn’t know existed!

The ponds within the trail loop at Cranberry Lake Park

I couldn’t investigate that morning but my husband Reg and I returned several days later to begin exploring these unseen sections of the pond. What fun to shuffle and slip across the icy surface! Near the eastern edge of the pond, a giant tip-up loomed at the water’s edge. It turned out to be the combined roots of 3 tall trees that had been uprooted by a strong wind at some point in the past. I’d never seen a tip-up this big before!

My husband Reg near the three tree tip-up at the edge of the hidden pond’s second section.

Nearby, an old Black Willow (Salix nigra) slanted up out of the soil at a precarious angle. The roots appear to have been alive last year since a whole series of suckers protruded from the tree’s surface. But it was the amazing pattern of the aging bark that fascinated me, like the wrinkled skin of an ancient face.

An elderly Black Willow with wonderfully wrinkled bark

Moving south, we arrived at the narrow outlet that led to the third part of the pond.

The narrow outlet between the second and third sections of the pond

Stepping out of the narrow, tree-lined passageway, I felt a little thrill, as if I were entering a small, hidden world all its own. There was nothing spectacular about this shallower third pond really, except that it seemed more isolated , fringed with forest and farther from the trails that I normally take in and out of the park – a secret place ripe for discovery.

The third section of the hidden pond, surrounded by wetland and woods

We walked tentatively around the ice because it looked softer, perhaps shallower, and the edges gave way to water underfoot. I wondered if the pond would disappear in summer heat, sinking back into the wetland that lay around and beyond it. In warmer weather, it will be more challenging to reach this pond through dense trees, shrubs, tall grass and the mud that will surround it – but I hope to try.

We left by gingerly stepping from clump to clump of Tussock Sedges (Carex stricta) at the western edge of the pond. Sedges can look like grasses, but their triangular stems are different from the hollow, round stems of grasses. During the summer, the two-foot stems of Tussock Sedge produce seeds which, when carried by the wind, end up feeding Northern Cardinals, Wild Turkeys, Mallards and those Wood Ducks that I see in the spring.

Tussock Sedge produces wind-carried seeds that feed many species of birds. Photo by Frank Mayfield at inaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

They also spread vegetatively into colonies through rhizomes. As the leaves wither, they drop onto the live plant below forming what look like plump, brown cushions during the winter.

The tall stems of Tussock Sedge fall onto the living plant below when they die, adding to the clumps that spread into colonies through underground rhizomes.

Looking Forward to Spring and Beyond

Two harbingers of spring greeted me on the way back to the parking lot last month. Despite the snow, the buds on a Silver Maple tree (Acer saccharinum) along the path were already swelling.

Silver Maple buds swelling as spring approaches

And nearby two male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) participated in a singing competition, probably establishing their territories. One was perched off in the distance in a marsh, but the one near the trail paused his singing and posed for a moment.

One of the two cardinals announcing their territories by countersinging at Cranberry Lake Nature Park

Here’s an older recording I took of two cardinals doing the same thing.

The Tussock Sedges near the third hidden pond are host plants for the caterpillars of three butterflies: the Eyed Brown (Satyrodes eurydice), the Black Dash (Euphyes conspicua), and the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris). I’ll be looking for them next summer nectaring on native wetland wildflowers and shrubs like Swamp Milkweed, Button Bush or Joe Pye, though some also get nutrition from bird droppings or tree sap. Knowing who might be there makes going next summer even more inviting!

The Thrill of Discovery in Another Realm

A massive “mackerel” cloud above the Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

My friends will tell you that I’m fascinated by the new rover that landed on Mars recently. Watching the NASA video of the Perseverance robot being lowered to the surface or listening to the recording of the wind blowing on Mars completely delights and fascinates me. But really, we have a largely unknown world available to us right outside our doors. When I step into a new environment like the hidden pond at Cranberry Lake Park, I’m in another realm, too – a wild one very different from my human habitat. And that immediately delights and engages me. I wonder “What grows here and what part does it play in this habitat? Which creatures make their homes here in the summer months? Which birds will nest in this secret wetland out of sight from the trails? Could I find an active Yellow Warbler nest near the pond next summer now that I’ve learned to recognize one? What can I discover that I’ve never before seen, or if seen, not noticed?”

Maybe the impulse that drives NASA researchers to Mars is, in some small way, the same impulse that pushes me out the door on a snowy day to see what I can discover. For a few hours, I leave behind the warm, safe, enclosed human realm to experience the wildness of the other realm that surrounds me. In this nearby “outer space,” trees, wildflowers and grasses thrust themselves out of the ground, using sun, water and earth to grow and reproduce. In the cold, heat, rain and wind, wild creatures scurry, soar, leap, run, crawl and swim day and night year ’round. And when I leave their world behind and arrive back in my human one, I feel awake and alive. Thanks for traveling to nature’s “outer space” with me. I love having you along to share what I’m learning.

Draper Twin Lake Park: Work Begins to Restore a More Natural Landscape

Restoration north of the parking lot in the west section Draper Twin Lake Park

Ask anyone in my family if I’d ever be celebrating the felling of trees and they would look at you incredulously and start laughing. Cam? The original (occasionally literal) tree hugger?!

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I had a favorite 100 year old sugar maple that befriended me as a child and I spent happy hours high in the branches with my books and snacks. When that tree and others were being felled for a housing development in the field next door, my mother – not a born nature lover – went to bat for those trees, even contacting the governor’s office since “environmental protection” was in its infancy then. But to no avail.

So imagine my astonishment at finding myself standing in the western section of Draper Twin Lake Park with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, delighting in the scene pictured in this video!!

A Forestry Mower Removing Non-native Trees and Shrubs at the west section of Draper Twin Lake Park



Restoring the Habitat of the Past to Provide for a Healthy Future

The trail to Twin Lake before restoration began

My pleasure, of course, stemmed from my growing understanding and appreciation of restoration. That monster of a machine, a forestry mower, was removing a gigantic glut of non-native trees and shrubs. (See the photo above!) For decades, this natural area of grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced native trees had been farmed. The bare soil, depleted of its native diversity, suffered an invasion when farming stopped in the 1970s; trees, shrubs and other plants from Europe and Asia made the most of a great opportunity. Escaping from farms, flower gardens or landscaping, invasive plants found their way to this habitat. Benefiting from the absence of the competitors or conditions they had to contend with at home, they spread wildly. Our local plants and trees couldn’t compete. They didn’t evolve with these new arrivals and so had no defenses for countering their steady increase. It would take millennia for our native insects, birds, diseases, and plants to eventually evolve and adapt to these new plants, too long for the survival of the many species that depend on them.

That’s where our stewardship crew steps in. Ecological restoration attempts to give our local trees, grasses and wildflowers a fighting chance to thrive. When it succeeds, native plants can then provide for the whole food web that evolved with them. As you can see below, the forestry mower opened up fields and forest, beginning the process of restoring the landscape that nature designed eons ago.

The trail to Twin Lake after this fall’s restoration began

It’s not that non-native trees and shrubs are “bad”; they functional beautifully in their home environments. But they aren’t able to effectively nourish and protect the creatures that live and evolved here in Oakland Township. Butterflies may sip at non-native garden flowers, but their caterpillars generally can’t eat non-native leaves or fail to reach maturity if they do. Birds may eat non-native berries but they almost universally feed their nestlings nutritious caterpillars which are full of fat and protein. Fewer native plants means fewer caterpillars which means fewer birds, a ripple effect that then moves on through the food web. Restoring native plants to an area means lots of nature gets fed and sheltered.

Meet the Most Common (and Pesky) Invasives at Draper Twin Lake Park

Invasive shrubs lining the trail to Twin Lake before restoration this fall

So let’s get more familiar with the highly invasive shrubs and vines that ended up dominating so many of our natural areas, including Draper Twin Lake Park. For the most part, they started out in nurseries which unwittingly (or occasionally wittingly) sold them to landscapers and homeowners as decorative additions to their gardens. Some of the most infamous and tenacious invasive shrubs in our parks include Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), shrubs that produce plentiful fruits which unfortunately provide scant nutrition for our birds. Generally non-native fruits provide sugars (carbohydrates) for wildlife but don’t have the fats (lipids) that birds, for example, require for migration or winter survival. Research at Michigan State University has shown that birds prefer native fruits when they can get them, but will eat the less healthy non-native fruits if nothing else is available. Once eaten by birds or other animals, invasive trees and shrubs spread far and wide through their droppings.

The fruits of Oriental Bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) are particularly pernicious. The outer yellow skins peel back to reveal red fruits, attracting both birds searching for a late season food source, and humans who unwittingly use them for decorative purposes. Birds enjoy the sugars in their fruit during late fall, but since its seeds can last a long time in the guts of birds, the plant can be spread long distances. Once established, the vine climbs quickly, reaching for light in the treetops. As the vine spirals up the trunk, it girdles and slowly strangles the tree. When the vine reaches the crown, its foliage shades out the tree’s leaves, weakening the tree. Its weight makes the tree’s crown heavy and vulnerable to toppling in high winds. It’s a real femme fatale, this vine with its pretty fruits and its deadly growth pattern.

Many invasives quickly form dense thickets in a field or woods through underground stems (rhizomes) or root suckers. Their density chokes out the sun, rain and space that our native plants require. Below is a photo from Bear Creek Nature Park that demonstrates the density that once surrounded a pine tree, killing its lower branches. And on the right at Draper Twin Lake Park, a young oak had the same problem until the restoration began this fall.

Some invasives, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), produce giant quantities of seeds which can be carried on the wind and once sown, the trees grow incredibly quickly. Growth of 3.5 to 6 feet each year of its first four years is considered normal! It also releases toxins into the soil to prevent or inhibit the growth of plants around it. In the photo on the right below, Ben placed his hand where the second year growth of one of these trees began! Faster growth means that these trees shade out neighbors and mature faster than others, allowing them to spread quickly.

You might be as surprised as I once was to learn that even some of our common and long-beloved bushes can spread invasively. That’s part of what happened at Draper Twin Lake Park. Ben found huge thickets of non-natives like Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from Asia and Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) from southeastern Europe on the western section of Draper; they both probably once surrounded the house when a farm was located here.

The Removal of Invasives Goes Beyond Mowing

Once the forestry mower has done its work, hard work lies ahead. Stumps of invasive shrubs that the mower missed are cut and carefully dabbed with herbicide to prevent re-sprouting. Some, like the persistent Tree-of-Heaven, will require further treatment and periodic mowing to discourage new growth. Oriental Bittersweet can only be removed by cutting the vines and then carefully treating the roots to prevent regrowth. New sprouts will also need to be treated repeatedly for some time, a tedious but necessary process. Some larger trees are treated by a process called “drill and fill” in which holes are drilled around the tree and herbicide is introduced. When the tree dies, it will still remain standing, storing its carbon for years to come and providing shelter for woodpeckers and other cavity nesting animals, like red squirrels or raccoons. The stewardship staff will spread native plant seed to help bring back what was choked out by the invasive trees and shrubs – native grasses first, then wildflower seed in a year or two after the invasive shrub re-sprouts have been controlled. Further down the road, prescribed fires may be used to encourage our fire-adapted native plants.

Winter Wildlife and I Explore the Newly Restored Landscape

On one of my visits to the western section of the park, Ben showed me the remains of a beaver dam and the small pond this industrious builder had created. The dam consisted of a few small trees and some plant material patched together with mud. Though we saw a few pencil-shaped stumps in the area, Ben’s guess is that when the beaver began this project a couple of years ago, it couldn’t find enough small willows or cottonwoods, its preferred building materials, to meet the beaver’s need, so it abandoned the idea. However, the beaver did create a lovely little pond behind the dam. And the little dam slowed the water down enough that Ben was surprised to find much drier footing further south in the marsh while doing a plant survey in 2020!

In the fields east of the trail, a few winter birds kept me company as they sought out frozen insect eggs or larvae in the trees newly liberated from the crush of invasive shrubs.

A small group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browsed between the newly thinned trees in the forest. Deer consume dry grasses, but unfortunately they much prefer acorns and small oak saplings in fall and winter, affecting the quality of our forests. According to a Tufts University website, in winter they also rely on insulation from stored fat and more of the coarse dark hairs in their coats called “guard hairs.” Glands in their skin produce oils that help their coats repel water, an advantage on snowy days.

Deer browsing for grasses, twigs and small trees in the thinned forest after restoration.

One snowy morning, I spent twenty minutes or so tracking a small animal. Its prints lay in a single line, which usually indicates a fox or coyote. Wild canines, unlike domestic dogs, place their hind foot carefully into the track of the front foot on the same side, making a neat row of single, or “direct register” tracks. The tracks that I was following intrigued me because they were much smaller than most that I’d seen. After puzzling a bit, I suddenly noticed that the tracks had no nail prints at the end of the toes. And with that, I remembered that wild canines share direct register tracks with another group of animals – cats! What I’d been tracking was the small, roundish, direct register prints of a house cat! Cats, unlike canines, walk with their toenails withdrawn in order to keep them sharp for hunting – or they may have had them removed by pet owners. I shook my head, laughing at myself for tracking a cat and went back to the trail.

Squirrels and squirrel tracks were everywhere that morning! Their tracks usually appear as a block of four prints like the ones below. I think these belong to the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), because the larger five-toed tracks of their hind feet are slightly in front of the four-toed tracks of their front feet; that’s the pattern left when these little guys take off and land, pushing down with the front feet while swinging the hind feet forward. I also saw a larger Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) high up in the small branches of a tree, probably making a meal of the tiny leaf buds.

Down by the Lake, a Little Avian Hysteria

Twin Lake with perfect ovals, possibly caused by warmer water flowing upward and rotating during a thaw-freeze cycle.

Winter silence had descended when I arrived at the dock on Twin Lake one cloudy afternoon. In the deep quiet, I got intrigued by strange ovals on the lake surface. It was fun to imagine a squadron of flying saucers landing on the surface, but I was curious to do some research when I reached home. From assembling the hints I could find online, I’m guessing that they may be caused by rotating convection currents created by warm water rising and cold water falling during a frost/freeze cycle, inhibiting ice formation. But if you have better information, please let me know in the comments.

Suddenly far across the lake, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) began circling high above the trees. I caught one with my camera as it spiraled lazily. Red-tail hawks are believed to mate for life, though they quickly choose another mate if one of them dies. This pair may be nesting in the area since the Wednesday bird group saw two of them in the trees across the lake a couple of weeks later.

One of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks far above the trees across Draper Twin Lake.

Just as I spotted the hawks in the distance, a screech of alarm calls broke out from a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) nearby. They flashed out of the trees in a large group, flying away to the south. Evidently, the hawks must have gone unnoticed in the forest until they rose into the air to do a little scouting together. Their appearance startled the crows who were too flustered to harass or “mob” them as they often do. My camera managed to catch one in mid-caw after it launched off a limb.

A crow cawing in sudden flight as two red-tailed hawks appear over the treetops.

After the noise subsided, I turned to look at a Muskrat lodge (Ondatra zibethicus) off the side of the dock. Muskrats may have been dozing inside since their metabolism slows way down in the winter. Or it may have left its dry sleeping chamber above the water line, swum down through its underwater entrance and begun cruising slowly along under the ice, searching for a meal. Note that unlike beavers who build their much larger lodges with trees, branches and sticks, muskrats build with mud and cattail stems or other aquatic plant material. This one was also surrounded by graceful stalks carrying the dried pom-poms of Whorled Loosestrife seed heads (Lysimachia quadrifolia). A tidy winter abode, I think.

My Evolving Understanding of “Letting Nature Takes Its Course.”

The path leading back to the parking lot after restoration began

It took me a few years of working in the parks with Ben before I fully understood the beauty and power of restoring our natural areas. I approached restoration suspiciously at first, having grown up with the ethos,”Let nature take its course.” How could altering the landscape through mowing, felling trees and shrubs, and the occasional use of herbicides be good for nature?

Remembering the Landscape of My Childhood

The first step to understanding restoration was noticing what was missing today. One day early on as a Parks volunteer in 2015, I asked Ben what birds might return if we restored the Oak Savannah landscape – grass, trees and widely spaced oaks – that had existed here before European settlement. Among other birds, he mentioned the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Ah! That name instantly brought back memories of the two-note song of that quail whistling from summer fields around my parents’ home on Lake George Road when I was a child. I live very near my family home now, but I haven’t heard a Bobwhite sing for more than 50 years. The native Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) that towered over my head as a little girl was replaced by housing and short, green, non-native lawns in my teen years. As ground feeders and nesters, the Bobwhites needed that tall, stiff grass to protect them and their young from hawks and other predators and they no doubt fed off the seeds that fell from those dry stalks in the autumn. The increasing use of pesticides in farming plus habitat loss have both contributed to an 85% decline in the numbers of the Bobwhite Quail since the 1970’s. I miss them.

Northern Bobwhite Quail by Robin Gwen Agarwal (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Listening to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, at a Michigan Wildflower Conference in 2019, I was reminded of the moths that used to dance in groups around our porch light on summer nights – or splattered against the windshields of my parents’ car. I suddenly realized that I don’t see as many moths clinging to our porch windows or fluttering in the headlights now as I did years ago. The reason, I learned, was that the caterpillars of most moths and butterflies need native plants in order to feed and mature into adults; my yard, like most of my neighbors, was filled with decorative plants, shrubs and trees native to places all over the world – like Norway and Japanese Maples – but fewer of the ones more common in my childhood. Native oaks and other native trees provide sustenance for the caterpillars of many species of butterflies and moths. Here are two examples of what we may be missing: Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Pagoda/Alternate Leaf Dogwoods are the preferred hosts for many insects including the spectacular Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora Cecropia). Oaks are especially generous, hosting the caterpillars of hundreds of species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), including the impressive Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

When I was a child in Oakland Township, seeing a White-tailed Deer was a rare treat. At that time, large expanses of active or abandoned farm land surrounded by woods allowed them to stay out of sight. Today development has crowded deer closer to our homes and gardens and on to our roads. The forest floor, once covered in wildflowers like trillium are more often choked with non-native shrubs or vines that take advantage of the open ground left by herds of deer browsing on the tender sprouts of wildflowers in spring or saplings in winter.

So it turns out that I was wrong. The non-native plants that fill our fields and surround our personal property were not a matter of “letting nature takes its course.” Quite the opposite, in fact. The carpets of invasive plants were the effect of humans unwittingly but actively changing our native habit over the last two hundred years.

The Good News? We Can Work to Restore What Nature Created
The trail nears the lake which now can be seen through the trees

So finally I understood that what humans had done could in some measure be undone. True, we can’t completely recreate nature’s original landscape design on any large scale or in such rich diversity. But the people of Oakland Township have made an ongoing commitment to preserving and restoring natural areas here wherever possible. Thanks to them, Ben and his crew are systematically decreasing the invasive plants in our natural areas and giving the plants that nature provided eons ago a chance to thrive again. Homeowners like us are choosing to integrate native plants and trees into our landscapes and turning turf into meadows and wildflower gardens. If enough of us create native neighborhoods, perhaps I will live to hear the whistle of the Bobwhite once more.

That’s why I, an inveterate tree lover, could celebrate the felling of invasive trees that day at Draper. What I was seeing as the forestry mower cleared away the brush was stewardship – restoring and caring for a productive, diverse ecosystem that nature took thousands of years to perfect. As the old hymn goes, I “…was blind but now I see.”

Looking east over the marsh that divides the west and east sections of Draper Twin Lake Park

Watershed Ridge: Changes Afoot!

The field above the western marsh at Water Ridge in late autumn

Until now, Watershed Ridge Park’s 170 acres have been a challenge to explore. A visitor needed to be ready for waist-high fields and of course our township’s wonderful wetlands in all their wet-footed glory. But in early November, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the Oakland Township stewardship manager, laid out its first trails which were created by the maintenance crew. The new trail skirts the edges of fields still sown and harvested by local farmers who keep invasive species at bay until this rolling landscape can be restored to the wildflowers and grasses that are part of our historical legacy. But even in the autumn, the hedgerows and woods that edge the fields provide shelter and sustenance to a variety of birds and this November, even one special migrator, as you’ll see below. And in summer, birds sing and nest, wildflowers bloom in profusion and butterflies, moths, bees and other insects enjoy the bounty.

Text & Photos by Cam Mannino

So come take a walk with me along the edges of the newly created path which starts from the parking lot. It’s a very muddy path right now, so I recommend wearing old shoes! Or maybe you can walk just off the edges in the tall grass to save the grass seed planted on the paths in anticipation of next spring. Follow along on the map that Ben’s provided to show you the route.

I’ll introduce you to a few creatures that make their home here and some that are just passing through. But mostly, I want to give you the “lay of the land,” and show you some stewardship projects underway that will make this park even more beautiful for us and nourishing for wildlife as the years go on.

Follow along by looking for the letters in the blog post indicating spots of interest on my hike.

The Path West to (what I’m calling) Southwest Field 1 (A on map)

The new trail crossing Southwest Field 1 to the hedgerow cut

This trail begins in the parking lot, follows Buell Road west and then gently curves north. The parking lot on Buell can be a great place to stand quietly and look for birds in the tall trees and in the tangle of vines that weave through them. On my first November visit, I watched European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) wheeling down into the treetops. Eventually one moved close enough for a photo. Its iridescent breast glowed emerald in late afternoon sun, accenting the white dots of its winter plumage. Despite being aggressive birds, their swooping flocks, called “murmurations, ” that rise, fall, flow and ripple through the sky are truly mesmerizing.

A solitary European Starling in its winter garb. Quite a beak, eh?

A House Finch pair (Haemorhous mexicanus) peered out from the vine-covered shrubbery. The male’s cherry red head and breast gets its color from the pigments in the food it eats. For that reason, red fruits are particularly favored since the brown and white striped females prefer the males whose red is most vivid. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

I followed the curving path to where it cut between Southwest Field 1 and the next one north, which for now, I’m calling Southwest Field 2.

Creating a Wetland Extension (B) in Southwest Field Two (C)
The hedgerow cut between Southwest Fields 1 and 2

As I stepped between the two fields, a small bird landed on a shriveled wildflower lined with seeds. At first, the red patch above its eyes made me think it was an oddly colored House Finch – but, no. I knew that scarlet crown, pinkish breast and dramatic striping had to be some unfamiliar bird – one I’d never seen before. It turned out to be the Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), a winter finch that rarely comes this far south in Michigan; this little guy flew all the way from the Arctic, the boreal forests of Canada’s far north or Hudson’s Bay! In fact, Cornell Ornithology Lab says a Redpoll banded in Michigan once showed up in Siberia! (Check out the link for other amazing facts about these little birds!) Redpolls are unpredictable, erratic migrators. This year significant numbers of them chose to land in our area, according to Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire. I feel very lucky to have seen this one!

A Common Redpoll which is not so common in southeast Michigan which is the extreme southern edge of its winter range.

Once past the hedgerow, I walked over to the edge of the slope to look down on one of Watershed Ridge’s new wetlands. Ben, our Stewardship Manager, wanted to restore wetlands in some of the fields that have been agricultural for so long, often in areas that had been tiled or ditched to drain wetlands when the area was first farmed. The restored wetlands will capture and filter nutrients and sediment from the water before it enters creeks, streams and lakes downstream. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) helped design the grade of the slope around the new wetland to gather the rain water that runs down from the fields above. They also provided the crew and equipment to insure that the grades of the slopes were created accurately according to their design so that they would hold water. The construction took place in October and seems to have worked beautifully; the pool was beginning to fill nicely after late autumn rain.

The expansion of the wetland in Southwest Field 2

Now the stewardship team will wait to see how the wetland works over the next year. For example, will it dry like a vernal pool or have some standing water all year? Then Ben can decide which plants will thrive in or around this new water feature. It may look like a modest pool at the moment, but in time, we can hope it will flourish with aquatic and wetland plants that will feed and protect wildlife.

A flock of other winter visitors, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), fluttered from one corner of this huge field to the other. A solitary Junco let me capture its portrait at the shadowy edge of the woods to the north. In contrast to the Common Redpoll, this sleek, black-and-white sparrow with its white outer tail feathers is a regular winter visitor from the Canadian forests.

Dark-eyed Juncos are often the first winter migrants to arrive from northern Canada.

Nearby a year ’round resident of the area, a male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) spiraled around a branch searching for food beneath the loose bark. It looks like it’s given this perch a good going-over! These little woodpeckers often like to hang out with mixed flocks of birds for protection from predators.

A Downy Woodpecker drilling for insects or insect eggs on a dead branch

When I visited Watershed Ridge Park in early November, some insects still kept me company. At the muddy edge of a tilled field, a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) crept slowly over the furrows, perhaps looking for the soy beans left after the harvest. The least destructive of locusts, these insects do eat grasses but sometimes beans are their preferred diet, according to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station.

A Carolina Locust may have been looking for soybeans left behind after the farmer harvested them.

The Field Two trail turns back east and heads for Field Three (E) just east of the parking lot by cutting through a hedgerow (D).

Cut through the hedgerow from Southwest Field 2 to Field 3
Following the Trail into Field Three (E), Then Off Trail Through the Forest (F)
Trail from Field 2 through the hedgerow to Field 3

From the hedgerow cut, the trail runs alongside the forest and then circles the field to return to the parking lot. But my choice one November afternoon was to go off trail through the woods. This moist woods is alive with frog song in the spring months. But now it’s almost silent, so that the crackle of my footsteps on the deep layers of Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and White Oak (Quercus alba) leaves sounded loud and a bit intrusive.

Red Oak leaves have pointed lobes tipped with bristles and White Oak leaves have rounded lobes.

Among the leaf litter, I noticed a Northern Red Oak leaf with a peach-colored pom-pom attached. With help from Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Entomology Department, I learned that it was a Woolly Oak Leaf Gall, the winter abode of a very tiny insect larva called a gall wasp. Callirhytis lanata, this particular gall wasp, would look like a dot on your finger tip; it’s only 1-8 mm long, about a third of an inch! When the wasp lays her egg on a Red Oak leaf, either she or the larva which hatches from egg secretes a substance that stimulates the leaf to create these gall tissues that form the pom-pom. Inside the gall, the larva eats those tissues, pupates, and a tiny new adult wasp emerges in the spring. If the gall isn’t invaded by a predator, the fuzzy little pom-pom is a safe, cozy spot to spend the winter!

A Woolly Oak Leaf gall forms a warm, enclosed getaway where the larva of tiny wasp can spend the winter.

Farther east in this woods, I was confronted by what appears to be the deadly effects of invasive species, those life forms that may be relatively harmless in their native lands, but become destructive where they are not native. I came across a graveyard of large trees (G) that had died and fallen rather than been cut by humans. Ben’s best guess was that they were likely Ash trees (genus Fraxinus) decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis). Ash trees in the native range of Emerald Ash Borer in northeast Asia share evolutionary history with this insect and can protect against damage; trees in North America and Europe are naive to this insect and not yet resistant. Since it was discovered in our area in 2002, Emerald Ash Borer has killed millions of ash trees just in southeast Michigan. Ben tells me that this insect infestation continues to be a problem in our township. In the same way that Dutch Elm Disease affected elms years ago, it is still killing small ash trees before they get a chance to mature. So please don’t transport firewood from our area which can further spread this kind of devastation!

A large area of fallen ash trees killed by the Emerald Ash Borer between 2002 and the present.

Lichens and moss appear on fallen logs throughout this forest, but I tend to notice them most in the austerity of autumn. Wikipedia describes lichens as “self-contained mini-ecosystems” or composite organisms made up of a variety of fungi and either cyanobacteria or green algae along with other tiny microorganisms. (Their scientific names vary based on the fungi species within them.) These tiny ecosystems survive on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of habitats, all over the world. Though they are not plants, the algae or cyanobacteria in lichens can produce sugars through photosynthesis to feed the fungi and the fungi in turn create a protective structure that gathers in the water and minerals needed for the photosynthesis, a symbiotic relationship. Some lichens are thought to be the oldest living organisms, settling in on the bare rock of the early planet.

This may be a “cructose” lichen with flakes on the surface that Wikipedia describes as “a bit like peeling paint.”

In November, the mosses (Bryophyta) at Watershed Ridge Park were thinning and less lush. But when I took a moment to focus on them, I could imagine the small community they host on each log. In her book, Gathering Moss, bryologist (a botanist specializing in mosses) and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes moss as “the most ancient of land plants.” These tiny plants inhabit nooks and crevices worldwide and in doing so, Kimmerer compares their roles in the forest to the roles corals play in oceans – removing water impurities and hosting within their structures a myriad of tiny creatures necessary to the larger ecosystem in which they exist. Mosses also slowly help process logs into soil over decades and even rocks into sand over eons. I’d love to see the tiny creatures moving within these land-based “reefs” of moss, in the same way fish and eels inhabit an ocean reef. But I’ll need a magnification loupe and a lot more training before I can do that!

Mosses purify water and host tiny invertebrates that play their role within the life of a forest.

Off in the distance, at the eastern edge of this forest, a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) huddled over, apparently eating prey on the forest floor. Suddenly it flew up, skimmed quickly along the tree line and then headed out for the larger forest beyond the field.

A Red-tailed Hawk foraging just beyond the forest at the edge of the Eastern Field.

Years ago a farmer had dredged a ditch to drain the eastern wetland that stretches behind the eastern fields. To this day, the ditch carries water to another wetland. I turned to follow that stream back west to explore the area around and beyond that western marsh.

Water running through an old drainage ditch from the eastern to the west marsh.
Exploring the Meadow (H) Above the Western Marsh (I)
The slope above the eastern marsh, now covered with Showy Goldenrod

Walking back west, I arrive at a restored meadow that slopes down to the Western Marsh. During the summer, this lovely hill is covered in grasses and wildflowers. In this season, the field becomes an expanse of burnt golds and browns with the dried flower heads of various goldenrods. I’m learning to recognize wildflowers during their seeding season and this autumn, I mastered a few more. So here are four goldenrods in the sloping meadow as they appeared in the summer and as they look now, for those of you who share my interest in knowing the names of the plants and animals that share our local habitat with us.

As I stepped from the forest, a small orange butterfly popped up from among the goldenrods and sailed off into the distance. I pursued it, of course, but it never settled again. Luckily, I think I recognized it from its pattern, size and color. The small, orange and brown Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) produces two generations each year and they look slightly different. The adults that emerge from logs or tree hollows in early summer have orange forewings, but much darker hindwings like this one:

The summer form of the Eastern Comma

The summer adults produce the winter adult that I saw at Watershed Ridge Park, which has similar patterning, but the hindwings are more orange. I think what I saw was a member of the winter generation which either overwinters or sometimes migrates. These butterflies feed on rotting fruit, tree sap or sometimes dung or carrion (!). So it’s not entirely surprising that I saw one fluttering above the goldenrod on a cool November day. Here’s a photo taken in November of a winter form Eastern Comma by a photographer just named “thoughton” at iNaturalist.org.

Winter form of the Eastern Comma by iNaturalist photographer “thoughton” (CC BY-NC)

A few days later I was treated to a sight that I’m learning to anticipate in autumn – the dance of the Winter Crane Flies (genus Trichocera). These fragile little insects rise from dead grasses in cool weather and bob up and down in small mating swarms of mostly males. Females evidently only join in to find a quick mate and then lay eggs in the ground. The adults overwinter in logs or under leaf litter and emerge in the late afternoon of warm spring, fall and occasionally even winter days.

The blurred wings of Winter Crane flies dancing in a swarm in the the meadow above the marsh

With some persistence, I was able to follow one of these crane flies to where it rested for a few moments on a blade of grass. Now I could see the delicate legs and body of this cool weather dancer. Winter crane flies are harmless and completely ignore humans. In fact, as I walked on, I strolled right through a troupe of them that just continued bobbing up and down around me. Such a light-hearted performance to a human eye!

A closeup of the Winter Crane Fly as it rests on a plant stem
Extending the Western Marsh

The farmer who built the ditch running from the eastern marsh to the western hoped, I imagine, to drain both to gain more tillable ground. So the drainage ditch water used to quickly run on beyond the western marsh – but not anymore.

Back in October, the Fish and Wildlife Service helped Ben created an elegant plug for the ditch (J) which will keep water in the western marsh and let it rise to the level it likely obtained before the farmer’s ditch lowered the water level. The Wildlife Service also scooped out a shallow spillway that will allow the water to flow around the plug and slowly re-enter the ditch beyond the plug. That will keep the plug from being eroded if the water rises too high in the marsh. Look how attractive and useful this new barrier is! (Marsh to the right, ditch to the left.)

The large plug created to hold more water in the marsh also makes a path between two fields.
The Northern Field and Its Newly Created Wetland (K)

Until recently, I didn’t know this huge agricultural field was part of Watershed Ridge Park!

The long agricultural field off Lake George Road constitutes the northern section of Watershed Ridge Park

One afternoon in early October, my husband and I walked the long length of the north field to see if we could catch a glimpse of the north edge of the familiar western marsh. We walked carefully along the edge of the farmer’s field in order to preserve his crop and then headed into the woods. Just a few steps from the field, we were immersed in a lush, green area of the park that neither of us had never seen.

My husband, Reg, in the woods above the western marsh

A little more sorting our way through the undergrowth and we were rewarded by a lovely sight – the north side of the marsh with abundant tall reeds and surrounded by large trees. I can’t wait to see this area in the spring and summer!

The northern side of the western marsh in October

Ben thought of a third water project for this park. As part of the October work, he asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to design a new wetland in the northern field, near the ditch plug. By mid-November, it had already begun to collect runoff from the slopes above. Like the other projects, the goal of this hydrological restoration is to regain wetlands that were lost to tiling farm fields and ditching streams. The restored wetlands will capture runoff from the adjacent fields and filter the water. What a sight to see this wetland full enough to reflect an autumn sky!

New wetland in the northern meadow at Watershed Ridge Park

It appears that wildlife is already taking advantage of a new water source. Deer tracks encircled the water’s edge. No doubt other smaller animals and birds will make their way here once the wetland is surrounded by plant life, rather than the wide open agricultural field. But that change won’t take place for a few more years.

Deer tracks surrounding the new northern field wetland.
Making Watershed Ridge Park More Welcoming – for Us and Other Species!
Acres of wetland surrounded by natural berm in the forest at the far eastern edge of Watershed Ridge Park.

Stewardship is a multi-faceted effort in our township: removing invasive species, mapping and surveying natural areas, monitoring vernal pools, sowing native seed, restoring native landscape, educating the public so they can more fully enjoy the nature around them, and so much more. And now Ben, our Stewardship Manager, has added the restoration of degraded wetlands to that list of tasks.

These pools, though relatively small now, will be a welcome addition to the parks, enriching the diversity of plants and animals around us. Water is just as crucial for other creatures as it is for humans. That’s why I always seek it out, muddy shoes and all, when I explore our parks. If they function as we hope they will, in the future butterflies, dragonflies and other insects will flutter and dash above these wetlands, courting, mating and producing young. Birds will dip their beaks on a hot summer day and the deer at the water’s edge will be joined by more nighttime creatures eager to slake their thirst in the darkness. Nature will find a warm welcome once the rolling landscapes sway and dance again with a rich assortment of native flowers and grasses .

And of course, with our new trails (and more to come), we humans can more easily be there too, enjoying that diverse natural world. Once the trails turn green, I hope you’ll find the time to follow these very accessible, gentle trails and perhaps venture beyond them to see all this remarkable park offers. It will grow only more beautiful in the years to come.

A solo dance by one Winter Crane Fly near the western marsh