Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg
A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!
Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.

Holiday Greetings from the Natural Areas Notebook!

Tree Line Between Prairies Ilsley

Another trip around the sun. Transitions from bitter winter to resplendent spring, from riotous summer to fall splendor, from year to year. You’ve been here with us, reading our musings and celebrating our natural areas.

Transitions help us consider what’s important and appropriate, both in our personal lives and on our land. Transitions rarely come or go easily, especially if we really liked how things were, or had just done it that way for a long time. Trees grow, turning field to forest. We plant wildflowers where crops once grew. Wetlands rise from fields that were once drained. And through it all we come together, a community of people who care about restoring our connection to nature.

When I reflect on the transitions in my life, the ones I remember joyfully happened in community. We’re thankful for you, our community, and the support you give as we launch big transitions in the natural areas of Oakland Township’s parks. Even though we recognize the noble goal of restoring habitat, change is messy and hard. But since we work together as a community, we reflect on this past year with satisfaction and look forward to the next with joy.

Happy Holidays!

Gallagher Creek Park Native Landscaping: Year 1

Things are happening at Gallagher Creek Park! This little park in the southwest corner of Oakland Township spans 15-acres at the headwaters of Gallagher Creek, an important water resource in the township which was home to a remnant native brook trout population just a few years ago. Outside the developed area near the parking lot, wetlands at Gallagher Creek Park host a variety of birds and wildlife, and prairie plantings installed between 2016 and 2018 blanket the upland areas.

In 2018 Oakland Township Parks and Recreation added a playground, picnic shelter, and rain garden at Gallagher Creek Park, and expanded the parking lot. All this work wrapped up just as fall set in last year. This spring we added finishing touches with installation of native plant landscaping around the playground. Join me, Ben VanderWeide,  for a tour of the first year of our new landscaping!

Parents and kids at Gallagher
Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park in fall 2018.

Native Plants for a Better World

We use native plants throughout our parks because they are important for a healthy environment. Native plants provide food resources and habitat for pollinators, and filter runoff and sediment from storm water flowing from developed areas of the park before  it reaches Gallagher Creek. Check out great books by Doug Tallamy if you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of native plants.

The landscaping surrounding the playground and picnic pavilion creates a transition from the play area to the existing natural community in the park, connecting visitors, especially young children and their parents, to nature. We designed this transition landscape to be visually appealing by using low-growing plants, showy flowers, and neat edges. Check out our plant list here. Our native plant landscaping is a free, publicly accessible resource for educators, nature centers, and anyone who wants examples of how to use native plants.

GCP_Landscaping_DesignConcept
Native plant landscaping design for Gallagher Creek Park.

Site Preparation

After the playground and other improvements were finished in 2018, we were left with fairly compacted soils. Some areas had fill dirt and one spot had a thin layer of soil over driveway gravel! We didn’t have the time or resources to loosen the soil, so we just hoped the roots of our tough native plants would break through the hardpan. Our site preparation mostly involved removing sticks, large rocks, and any existing plants. The total area of the native planting is about 9,000 square feet.

IMG_0438
The east side of the playground at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. April 12, 2019
IMG_0437
The north side of the playground at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. April 12, 2019

The area near the parking lot had been accidentally seeded to turf the previous year, so we had to kill the grass first.

IMG_0602
The temporary grass cover on south side of the playground near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. May 9, 2019

A few weeks before we started planting, we celebrated the grand opening of the playground equipment and other improvements. Jane Giblin was there representing both The Wildflower Association of Michigan and Rochester Garden Club, two organizations which provided grants to help us buy plants. Stephanie Patil also generously gave us a donation to help purchase plants. Thanks!

IMG_0740
Jane Giblin represented the Wildflower Association of Michigan and the Rochester Garden Club at the Gallagher Creek Park Grand Opening on May 23, 2019. Both organizations gave us grants to help install the native plant landscaping.

The last thing we did before planting was place the log edging. We used black locust logs left over from another project. Black locust resists rot, making it favorite choice for fence posts by farmers of the past. What a great use of this invasive tree!

IMG_0810
We used aged black locust logs left over from another project as the edging for our landscaping. The edging helps give the landscaping a neat, yet rugged appearance.

Planting!

All that preparation got us ready for the main event, planting! We put out the call for volunteers, and many of you showed up! The slideshow below shows our process. We first marked out each planting zone, then dug holes using a bulb planting bit on a gas-powered drill.  After placing the plants in the holes, we carefully packed dirt around the plugs to eliminate air gaps. We mulched around the plants and gave them a good soaking. Finally, we put small identifications signs throughout the landscaping to help people learn the  names of the species we’d planted.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Weeding and Watering Through the Summer

Even with careful site preparation and a few inches of mulch, we prepared ourselves for a big flush of weeds from our post-construction soils. The worst weed problem the first year was annual grasses, but we had to be vigilant as seedlings of cottonwood, Canada thistle, quack grass, and crown vetch emerged.

As summer began, we watered about twice per week to help the plants establish. Ample rain fell during the second half of the summer, so we only watered as needed. The seasonal stewardship staff did great work hauling water to the site in a large tank and keeping the weeds down. Thanks Alex, Marisa, and Grant! I know a few volunteers also stopped by to help with weeding. We couldn’t have done it without you!

IMG_1059
Watering the new plants during the first season helps them establish deep roots. After the first season we won’t need to continue watering, though we’ll scan for weeds regularly.

Monarch Butterflies Love the Plants!

As plants grew larger, we found monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed, and adults enjoying the nectar of blazing star. Hurray for pollinator habitat!

IMG_1531
Plants like northern blazingstar (Liatris scariosa) were favorite nectar sources for monarch butterflies, while nearby butterfly milkweed provided hosts for their eggs and caterpillars.
IMG_1365
Build it and they will come! Monarch butterflies wasted no time finding our butterfly milkweed. This caterpillar we found on August 27 might be overwintering in Mexico right now!

From Small Plugs to Big Plants

Our little plants didn’t look so small by early September! The sedges and grasses did especially well, providing nice texture and structure. Some forbs (wildflowers) did well and even flowered their first year; others invested their energy in putting down deep roots. We weren’t able to get some species in the spring, so we planted a few additional species in the fall – western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis), round-leaved ragwort (Packera obovata), and nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum). Fall plantings don’t need to be watered as much, and the plants get a head start for the next year!

IMG_1522
By the middle of September, the small plugs we’d planted were robust plants. The sedges and grasses did especially well the first year.
IMG_1523
Flagstone paths provide routes to explore the colors, textures, smells, and sounds of the native plant landscaping. I can’t wait to see what this corner looks like next summer! September 13, 2019
IMG_1528
Flagstone pathways allow children to play on the playground or explore the beauty of the native landscaping.
IMG_1795
As summer turned to fall, the colors and textures of the grasses and sedges provided seasonal interest. In this picture we have muskingum sedge, little bluestem, Carex brevior, and prairie dropseed showing off different textures and shades of green. October 13, 2019
IMG_1851
In October the interesting textures and shades of green from grasses and sedges replaced the pop of color that wildflowers provided during the summer. October 25, 2019.

Looking Ahead to Next Year

Next year we won’t have to plant everything again, so we’ll be switching gears to long-term maintenance. In 2019 we mulched the plantings to help retain moisture and suppress weeds, but we’re planning to reduce or eliminate additions of new mulch in the plantings over the next few years. We included several species that spread by rhizomes or stolons as part of our “green mulch” strategy – allowing the good plants to create a dense canopy that resists  the establishment of new weeds.

Next year we won’t need to water, unless we have a severe drought. At that point,  the plants should have established deep roots, and will be able to handle the normal fluctuations in moisture and temperature for southeast Michigan – another advantage of native plants!

Weeding will continue to be important until we’ve reduced the weed seed bank and established our green mulch. I’ve found that a few years of intensive weeding can reduce the weed pressure to almost nothing.  Only a few quick scans will be required every month to catch problems before they become big ones.

Every year we’ll evaluate the species mix in our plantings. What’s doing well? What didn’t grow much? Do we have consistent blooms to support pollinators throughout the growing season? We’ll add species and thin others, fine-tuning our native landscaping.

IMG_0931
The tenacious crew on the last day of planting. Thanks to all the parks staff and volunteers that worked so hard to bring beauty to our residents and food to our pollinators.

We’re looking forward to the challenge and joy of watching our native plant landscaping change and grow over time. We hope you’ll join us, whether you’ve been a gardener for decades or are just interested in native plant landscaping.  All are welcome!

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: From 60 Beautiful Acres to 268 Spectacular Ones! Wow!

Looking north from E. Snell Road into new Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park expansion

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park has always been amazing. Its original 60 acres feature open meadows full of wildflowers and butterflies and a shady woods plunging down into a deep ravine with the West Branch of Stony Creek sparkling below. Now, thanks to our township Land Preservation millage, a willing owner and a grant from the Michigan Nature Resources Trust Fund, the Parks Commission added 208 more spectacular acres to the park in late September this year.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

The first time I saw this land in 2016, I stood on the Overlook Hill and looked down on a huge, flat field encircled on three sides by deep mature forest.  I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was!

Forests surround the heart of the park on three sides

But what I didn’t appreciate then is abundantly apparent now. Long ago large ponds at the heart of this land had been tiled and drained for a farmer’s crops, a common occurrence in the 19th and 20th century. Beneath the soil, the water flowed away rather than rising to the surface. Water waited to emerge, water that could restore the wetlands that fed plants, dragonflies, frogs, turtles, butterflies, abundant bird life and thirsty mammals that once had gathered there.

SCRNP_Update_20190923_Annotated

Restoring the Land:  First Steps

Now that the purchase is complete, wetland restoration has begun. The former landowner is creating wetland mitigation banks, which are restored wetlands that help somewhat to offset wetland losses due to development in other places. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ) holds wetland “conservation easements” on these wetland restoration areas. The folks designing the wetlands determined that they needed to fence off these areas for 5-10 years to make sure that the native trees and shrubs they plant are able to grow. Otherwise our abundant deer would kill them by browsing. As a start to restoration, low berms were created to capture and hold the water, “habitat structures” were placed throughout the fields, and the drainage tiles purposely broken so that water could once again flow to the surface. And wow! Big beautiful ponds have already begun to form in both areas!

A large pond is already forming on the north wetland where it was previously drained for farming.

Within the wetland restoration areas, 4,000 tiny wetland plants were sown this autumn. You’ll notice stumps, logs and branches left within these areas for now.  Those are the  habitat structures which allow wildlife to find cover or perch while the trees and native plants grow back.

A smaller wetland has formed on the south side of the park along E. Snell Road. The logs, brush etc provide structure for wildlife while restoration continues.

Birds Already Flock to the Renewing Wetland Areas

One of the huge benefits of this expansion’s location is that its directly across from Stony Creek Metropark. That helps create a larger “wildlife corridor” where local creatures can spread out and find more habitat in which to stay and raise their young. Migrating birds and insects will also find a larger area to rest and replenish themselves in spring and fall. On my two visits to the park in late November, birds were everywhere! Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) ratcheted out their prehistoric cries as flock after flock soared above me.

Multiple flocks of sandhills croaked out their raspy voices overhead.

Some, of course, settled to feed at the edge of the forming ponds.

A flock of sandhill cranes rest and forage at the edge of the newly re-formed wetlands.

A flock of  20-30 Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) cruised back and forth in the shallow pond forming at the north end of the field.

Mallards enjoying the newly restored wetland pond at the north end of the field.

And of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) found their way to the rising waters as well!

Canada Geese make the most of the open water now at the surface in the park.

Outside the easement fence, other birds also found plenty of sustenance. A flock of winter visitors, American Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea), had arrived from the Arctic tundra to spend the winter here. Their call-and-response twittering keeps them in contact with the group as they dash into the grass to feed and then back into the trees to look around. [Click photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A dozen Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) poked along at the outside edge of the wetland fence, their red and blue heads pumping with every step. One of them repeatedly showed off her impressive wingspan as she walked. Not quite as impressive as the male’s dramatic display of tail feathers, but still quite a show!

The Farmer’s Woodlot to the East

On the east side of the field, some wise farmer left a large tract of beautiful woods as a woodlot. Woodlots provided a source of lumber or firewood, if sensibly managed over the years. They also provided habitat for wildlife that could be hunted for sport or for the dinner table in hard times. The woodlot at the Stony Creek Ravine expansion is a beautiful example.

The Woodlot on the east side of the park was a farmer’s source for lumber and prey.

The small woodlot is different from the larger western woods. Its trees are mostly oak and maples and its understory is less tangled and bushy than the woods on the west. Perhaps that’s because for years it was managed by the farmer who left it next to the field. It’s a peaceful, open woods where you can see from the shade out into the sunlight. I like to imagine that the farmer or his wife also just enjoyed having a quiet place nearby to listen to the birds and where the children could play within earshot of the dinner bell.

Dr.Ben VanderWeide, the township Stewardship Manager in the woodlot with the field in the distance.

The sensible farmer also had the good sense to leave a beautiful old White Oak (Quercus alba) on the west edge of the field. It must have been a great place for a picnic on a warm day. Now it’s also wonderful habitat. According to Douglas Tallamy’s useful book, Bringing Nature Home, oaks are unmatched in their ability to provide food and shelter for wildlife. Blue Jays, deer, turkeys, squirrels consume large amounts of acorns. Cavities in giant oaks make nesting sites and winter shelter for chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, bluebirds and others. They support a huge number of species of butterflies and moths, their caterpillars providing soft, nutritious food for hungry little birds all summer long. I’m glad these giants are our national tree!

An old White Oak at the western edge of the fields

The Deeper Forests on the West and North Host Some Less Familiar  Trees (to me anyway…)

I’d already seen a beautiful American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) at the edge of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in the original 60 acre parcel. What a beauty with its smooth gray bark that looks almost unreal! And those graceful, toothed leaves!

An American Beech stands just over the edge of the ravine on the 60 acre parcel, so you can feel you’re in the treetops! Such smooth bark, eh?

When Ben showed me the northern woods that connects to the high ridge of the in the original park, I began to see more beeches. These trees favor moist air and germinate well in the shade. They host even more species of butterflies and moths than the oak. And like oaks, beech nuts are high protein food for lots of wildlife. We came across a big one in a group with two other mighty trees. Look at the size of this one’s “foot!”

The great big “foot” of a large American Beech in the woods in the new 206 acre parcel

A tall wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) stood nearby, with its dry flowers still clinging to the topmost branches! Tulip Trees are fast growing and can reach 80-120 feet here in Michigan, nearly 200 feet in the South! Their yellow flowers always bask in the sunlight in the crowns of the trees, making them difficult to see for everyone but the birds!

A very tall tulip tree with the dried flowers still showing at the top of the tree.

Between the Beech and the Tulip Tree stood a big Red Oak (Quercus rubra) – three large, beautiful hardwoods standing in just one small area of the forest.  The red oaks are distinguished from the white oaks by having leaves with pointed tips with bristles, rather than the rounded lobes of the white oak. Their acorns, unfortunately, are not particularly tasty to wildlife like the ones on the white oaks are. (The yellow leaves in the foreground below are probably from small beech saplings.)

A Red Oak rounded out a trio of big, beautiful hardwoods in one small area of the forest.

The forest is full of little wetlands like the vernal pool below.  You can see that the forest floor in the woods is a bit more  wild than the woodlot;  saplings, bushes, fallen logs and snags (standing dead trees) provide a diverse habitat for all kinds of wildlife.

The  logs and standing snag in this forest wetland create habitat for wildlife.

Even though Ben and I visited in November, green plants still flourished in the forest. A trailing vine of Bristly Greenbrier (Smilax hispida) was a new plant to me. It drapes over bushes and low branches of trees in moist thickets and attaches itself with tendrils. The dark blue/black berries provide food for game birds, song birds and many mammals during fall and winter. Luckily, it’s not a killer like non-native Oriental Bittersweet; Greenbrier climbs over shrubs but doesn’t wind around trunks and choke its hosts like Bittersweet .

Greenbrier is a trailing vine whose berries provide food for birds and mammals throughout the autumn and winter.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) added a lovely spray of green beneath our feet. This pretty evergreen plant can be identified through its scaly stalk and its leathery leaves. It’s also a new plant for me. Who knows what else I’ll see for the first time when spring and summer arrive in this 268 acres?

Deer only nibble occasionally on Christmas Fern  during the winter, though its tender spring fronds are food for turkeys and grouse. It’s awfully pretty against the russet leaves, isn’t it?

So Much More to Explore, but Patience is Required For Now

Gazing into the treetops in the woodlot

This is just a first taste of what this new 208 acre parcel has to offer. In 2020 park staff plan to add a small parking lot and a few rustic trails following existing two-tracks that wind through the park. More investigation will be required, though, to know where to locate additional paths and other improvements without harming valuable wetlands or special stands of fragile, protected plants. Inventories of plant life will need to be taken, drainage issues dealt with, prescribed burns conducted and perhaps thousands of native plants need a chance to mature and spread without disturbance.  The Parks Commission and staff have years of work to do on any piece of land to add improvements that work with nature – and this park expansion is a huge one! Plans are in the works to restore native habitats to the remaining farm fields throughout the park.

I’m already dreaming of how magnificent this park will be when the fences come down and trails lead you and I from one spectacular habitat to the next. Imagine those ponds reflecting a blue sky surrounded by native grasses and wildflowers bowing and dancing in a summer breeze. Imagine animals slipping through the surrounding greenery at the pond’s edge for a drink, while dragonflies zip through the air and turtles bask on logs. Envision those 4000 native plants and trees becoming tall and full enough to create nesting spots for birds we now rarely see. Some day we may wander along a winding path through the beech and maple forest to the tap-tap of woodpeckers or the burbling spring song of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

I feel a deep sense of contentment and gratitude that this land is being restored rather than “developed.” Now, after decades of producing crops, it can return to its first assignment –  providing food, shelter and comfort for wildlife. And that restoration of our natural heritage will eventually result in a beautiful and peaceful retreat for us and future generations as well.  It’ll be worth waiting for.  I’m sure of that.

Coexisting with Coyotes: Keep Them Wild!

A coyote among wildflowers by Jonathan Schechter

The cartoons and legends about coyotes were right about one thing: coyotes truly are wily tricksters, though perhaps a better phrase is clever survivors. While their original habitat was the dry, open areas of the western half of the continent, coyotes gradually moved into every state but Hawaii and are in every county of Michigan. I imagine they might still prefer open fields, but coyotes now live successfully within suburban neighborhoods, the heat of the desert, the humidity of the tropics, the snow of Alaska,  and the hustle and traffic of huge urban areas as well. Curious but shy, these daytime (diurnal) animals have learned to be most active at night in order to avoid us loud and slightly scary humans. Their complex, coordinated howling can allow a few coyotes to sound like a sizeable pack. That’s a lot of adaptation!

Text
by Cam Mannino

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Stewardship Manager, has hosted two well-attended, useful coyote presentations for Oakland Township residents. The first took place in 2016 with naturalist educator Laura Zoet who founded Nature on the Go, and the second earlier this month with Jonathan Schechter, a nature education writer for Oakland County’s blog, “The Wilder Side of Oakland County.”

We’ll soon be entering the mating season for coyotes in Michigan, which runs from December through February or March. That’s when you’re most likely to see two coyotes trotting along in the distance, see two sets of single tracks in a snowy meadow or hear a pair howling and barking in the dark. The breeding and pup-raising season is when most human-coyote interactions take place. So now’s a good time to get better acquainted with coyotes.

Let’s Start with the Facts about Our Northeastern Coyotes

Their DNA: Are They Part Wolf?

You’ve probably heard the term “coywolf” applied to our Northeastern Coyotes (Canis latrans thamnos). Well, our coyotes are much more coyote than wolf. When the wolf populations in eastern Canada and New England were decimated by European settlers, western coyotes migrated east seeking abandoned territories and mates among  the few wolves that survived. As a result, according to an article published in the National Library of Medicine of the National Institues of Health, the current DNA of coyotes in our area is about 66% western coyote, 24% eastern and western wolf and 11% domestic dog. (Rarely, if ever, does a coyote mate with a dog these days. Those genes are quite far back in their genetic history.) The wolf DNA has resulted in our coyotes being somewhat larger than western coyotes. But they are still far smaller than wolves and have a different appearance and behavior. Here’s a useful link from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for comparing the appearance of wolves and coyotes.

The Size of Our Coyotes : Less Than Half of the Size of a Wolf

Though Northeastern Coyotes look large from a distance, they are mostly skin and fur and seem bigger because of their long legs. (Photo by Jonathan Schechter)

Though our Northeastern coyotes can look large from a distance, their bone structure is actually slighter than most domestic dogs. As you can see above, the size effect is created by their thick fur and long legs. People compare them to wolves, but wolves can weigh 70 to 150 lbs., whereas coyotes weigh 15-40 lbs. That means that our coyotes are slightly smaller than a German Shepherd and on average, less than half the size of a wolf.

Identification: The Tail Carried Low is a Good Clue

Yellow eyes, upright pointed ears and a tail that droops downward are distinguishing features of Northeastern Coyotes.(Photo by Jonathan Schechter)

Three of the most common field marks for coyotes are: yellow eyes; pointed and upright ears; and a bushy tail carried below the back, nearer the ground. (Coyotes do not have the muscles needed to raise their tails like dogs do.) Their long legs and narrow muzzles with a small nose pad are other distinguishing features. The coyote is known for its short, high- pitched howl which most often is mixed with yips and barking. They use it to bring their family group together during individual foraging, or to announce their territory to other coyotes.

The Coyotes’ Diet: Varied and Always Aimed at the Most Food for the Least Effort

A smaller Western Coyote probably hunting a mouse or even a grasshopper! Photo by Franco Folini (CC BY-NC-SA) at iNaturalist.org. Notice how much less fur it has than our coyotes!

Any wild animal wants to expend as little energy as possible in getting food. As a result, the main diet of our coyotes are rats, mice, and deer carrion. In summer, they also eat fruits, frogs, insects, snakes, goose eggs or goslings. Some birds and small mammals like squirrels, rabbits, and chipmunks can make a meal year ’round. Coyotes will occasionally take down a fawn, but rarely an adult deer unless it’s already injured or ill. After all, dead deer along our roadsides are sadly plentiful and require little effort on the coyote’s part. Feral or outdoor cats with their twitching tails in the night are an occasional food source for coyotes; some research indicates less than 2% of their diet. Unaccompanied, unleashed small dogs are an even lower percentage. Larger dogs are generally more trouble than they’re worth to a coyote. You can prevent your small pets from becoming prey by keeping them indoors or accompanying them outside, especially at night.

Hunting Style and the Famous “Howl”

A Western coyote approaches a crow. Photo by makriverside (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org.  I’m betting on the crow to survive this encounter!

Coyotes don’t hunt in large packs like wolves, but in mated pairs. They may venture off alone for a short distance while hunting and then rejoin their mate as the hunt continues. In late summer or early fall, a family group of adults and youngsters (which can resemble a pack) may hunt together but most of the work is done by the adults. Between October and December, the young disperse, seeking new territory.

A pair or small family of coyotes can sound like a much larger group! According to Dr. Scott Henke, a researcher at Texas A&M University, coyotes use many different sounds and pitches in one howl. As a result, two yipping, barking and howling coyotes can sound like eight. Or three coyotes can sound like a dozen! Coyotes pick up scents up to a mile away, run up to 39 mph, jump 4-6 foot fences, swim and have figured out traffic patterns on our roads and highways. Coyotes, in other words, have all the skills they need to survive.

The Threat to Humans? The Animal on the Left is More Dangerous to You!

Only two human fatalities from coyotes have EVER been documented in North America.   Deer inadvertently cause 200 deaths EVERY YEAR in approximately one million car collisions. According to the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, even domestic dogs cause 19 deaths each year.  It’s wise not to take chances with any wild animal, especially in urban areas where coyotes become more habituated to humans and food sources are plentiful. Coyotes are predators, but our caution with coyotes needs to be proportional  to the actual threat.

How Do We Humans Coexist with Such a Successful Predator? Keep Them Wild!

Wild coyotes avoid humans. You’ll usually see them walking away.

Coyotes will be with us from now on, but luckily they are naturally shy around humans.   A wild coyote will take one look at a human and head the other way. It’s our job to keep them that way! We don’t want them to become accustomed to being close to us and our habitats, i.e.,  our yards, parks, playgrounds or neighborhoods. Our goals must be to  remove what attracts them to our surroundings and to scare them away when they venture too close to humans. Here are the strategies the presenters recommended.

Hunting Doesn’t Work Well to Lower the Number of Coyotes

As of 2016, coyotes can be hunted year ’round in Michigan. (See “Fur Harvesting” regulations at this link.) But as a method for reducing the population, hunting is ineffective. According to naturalist Laurie Zoet, there is some evidence that when coyote numbers begin to decline, the females produce more pups and the juveniles breed at a younger age. Other research indicates that the rebound of coyote populations after hunting is due to other coyotes simply moving into empty territories. Hunting or trapping can only temporarily decrease their numbers. So what to do? Read on!

Remove Temptation!

A Coyote sniffs for a vole near a bird feeder. Photo by Jonathan Schechter

For starters, NEVER INTENTIONALLY FEED A COYOTE! You want coyotes to avoid you and your home if you are to protect them, your family and your pets. Be careful to eliminate food sources that attract coyotes or that attract their most common prey. Don’t leave dog or cat food out in the open, especially at night. If coyotes are a problem in your yard, consider eliminating your bird feeder – which attracts mice, squirrels and chipmunks, some of the coyote’s easiest meals. If you can, put your garbage out for pick up in the morning rather than at night. If it has to go out at night, be sure it’s in a tightly sealed can. Other ideas include:

  • Wood and brush piles are good shelter for small mammals and birds and so are often attractive to coyotes.
  • Bird baths are water sources so if you’re worried, remove them, too.
  • Close off crawl spaces under decks which might look like a cozy place for a den.
  • Outdoor motion-sensor lights can also be a deterrent in some instances.

Nature lovers need to remember that you are not being heartless by keeping coyotes at a distance! You are keeping an animal wild and very likely saving its life, because coyotes that don’t fear humans usually end up dead.

If a Coyote Approaches You or Others, or is Seen Near Humans or Your Pet, Look and Sound Big and Fierce!  Don’t Retreat! And Be Consistent.

If you see a coyote on a playground, in your yard, near a school, visiting a neighborhood during the day, it shouldn’t be there. It should not approach you or engage you in any way; it should be turning to leave as soon as you appear. These behaviors mean the coyote is getting comfortable around humans. So this is your chance to act crazy and obnoxious in public – and be appreciated for it! We all need to be consistent about keeping these bright, curious canines wild, i.e., uncomfortable when close to humans. The acronym that’s been created to help us remember the most effective system in keeping coyotes wild is S.M.A.R.T.

S:  Stop, establish eye contact and perhaps make a firm stopping gesture. Don’t run.  Don’t hide.  Don’t retreat.  You want to establish that you are the scarier animal.  Running, hiding or speaking softly makes you look like prey.

M: Make yourself look big!  Spread your arms over your head.  If you have a rake, large stick or golf club at hand, wave it overhead or pop open an umbrella.  If you’re on a trail, shake a can full of pennies (great trail accessory for kids) or let off a pocket air horn.  Throw things toward the animal (not food!), but don’t try to hit it.

A:  Announce yourself. In other words, shout!  “HEY! GET OUT OF HERE”  will work – or whatever you want really – as long as its fierce, forceful and loud!

R:  Repeat the shout over and over again, while making yourself look as huge as possible until the coyote turns and leaves.

T:  Teach others to do the same, including family and friends.

This strategy makes sense to me and both presenters assured us that it will work! Check out this video to learn more. Remember, coyotes are naturally intimidated by humans.

The Exceptions:  If a Coyote is Cornered, Injured, at its Den or with Pups, Don’t Threaten It!

In the above cases, if you inadvertently come across a den or a coyote with pups and are with a pet, pull the pet close or pick it up if possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away. If alone, make yourself look as large as possible and SLOWLY, quietly back away.

Coyotes are Curious Creatures – So Are We!

Coyotes are curious who are always looking for food. Photo by Jonathan Schechter

Predator animals are hard for many of us to love and can seem frightening. But sometimes we scare ourselves simply by the language we use. As Jonathan Schechter wisely pointed out at his presentation, coyotes are not “lurking” at the edge of your property. They’re usually standing, looking, being naturally curious. I’d add, despite what a reporter might say, they are not “skulking” across a field; they’re exploring and searching for food. Are they “devouring their prey,” or simply eating a meal and thereby keeping the numbers of  rodents around you in check? Words have power to create fear or understanding.

Remember that if you see a coyote in the distance at one of our parks or natural areas and it is simply pausing to look at you from afar rather than approaching, there is no reason to frighten the animal. Remember SMART while you watch to the coyote to see if it will continue on its way. It’s probably looking for a mouse, a grasshopper, a mole, some fruit, or other easy prey – not you.

It’s sensible to be wary of coyotes as predators. After all, we’re predators from their perspective and they’re very wary of us!  They don’t like us near their young or their dens.  We don’t like them near our young or our homes either.  A certain respect and caution is called for on both sides.  All that’s required by residents is to avoid tempting this curious and hungry predator with food and  to consistently encourage it to keep its distance. Ultimately, like most animals,we need to protect our young and our territory, and by doing so we can continue to  respect and enjoy the continued existence of our wild neighbors.