What can we say? With your continued support we continued to care for the land and water in our township parks. You can read the summary below and the linked report, but to really see what we did in 2019, here are a few spots to put on your hike list for this spring and summer:
Charles Ilsley Park – the prairies continue to look good, and the new connector trail on the west side winds through meadows, past ponds, and through peaceful woodland.
Draper Twin Lake Park – the planted prairie in the northeast corner is looking good after its fourth growing season, and forestry mowing has knocked back invasive shrubs around the kettle wetland just to the south of the prairie.
Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park – we added 208 acres to the original 60 acres. Wetland restorations are already in full swing, with plans in motion to plant the farm fields to native wildflowers, grasses, and sedges in the next 3-5 years.
Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2019 Annual Stewardship Report. (Click link to view). The table of contents in the PDF is hyperlinked to help you navigate the report.
Volunteers contributed 1284 hours in 2019! Volunteer workdays focused on garlic mustard (May), invasive shrub control (July to November), and seed collecting (October). Volunteers also monitored nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and the Paint Creek Trail; monitored vernal pools at Bear Creek Nature Park; and monitored water quality at Lost Lake and Twin Lake. We had fun at summer and winter potlucks!
We continued the nest box monitoring program, expanding to Bear Creek Nature Park with six new boxes. We added predator guard to all the boxes. Thanks to our volunteers who monitor the next boxes using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch protocols!
The stewardship blog continued to thrive, with regular posts from Cam Mannino. The seasonal technicians also wrote weekly posts about recent stewardship work. We published 47 posts (+2 from 2018) and had 8378 visitors (+2145), with 14,776 page views (+3032).
Stewardship talks included presentations on New Zealand Mud Snails, monarch butterfly ecology and conservation, coyotes, and bird nest box monitoring. We enjoyed a pleasant April evening at our annual Woodcock Watch at Bear Creek Nature Park. We also held weekly bird walks every Wednesday morning.
Phragmites Outreach Program
We continued the Phragmites Outreach Program to help township residents get Phragmites treated on their property. We received about 31 requests for no-obligation cost estimates, and treated about 26 properties with a contractor, PLM Lake and Land Management.
Alex Roland graduated from Michigan State University in May 2018 with a degree in environmental biology/zoology. In 2018 she completed an internship with the Student Conservation Association in Idaho doing backcountry conservation work, and she previously served as a Stewardship Coordinator Intern for the Thumb Land Conservancy. Grant Vander Laan graduated from Calvin College in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. He previously worked as a land management fellow for Pierce Cedar Creek Institute and as an Ecosystem Preserve Steward for Calvin College. Marisa Kaddis has been a life-long resident of Oakland County and had just completed her first year of study in Natural Resources Management at Grand Valley State University. Marisa’s dream is to study tropical rainforest ecology and endangered species restoration.
Alyssa Winters (Radzwion) continued as the Stewardship Specialist until August, when she took a full-time position with the Blue Water Conservation District. Grant Vander Laan applied for the Stewardship Specialist position, was offered the job, and accepted the position to continue his work in October.
All of our annual reports can be found on the About page.
Welcome back to Watershed Ridge Park for our second virtual hike through this as yet pathless 170 acre park. (If you missed the first hike, click here.) This week’s exploration will take us to the western area of the park, which is a little easier to explore than the east. Starting in 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township natural areas stewardship manager, started habitat restoration in old farm fields which had grown into thickets of invasive shrubs. Forestry mowing eliminated the standing shrubs, and follow-up treatment and brush mowing knocked back the invasive plants and shrubs in this area of Watershed Ridge. He then sowed in some wonderful native plants, including grasses which add a golden sheen right now to the upland slopes in the west of the park, as you’ll see a bit further into our walk.
Starting from the parking lot on W. Buell Road (A), we’ll walk along the grassy edge (B) between two fields and head back into the woods to pay a visit to a pond full of singing frogs (C). Emerging from the woodland edge, we’ll enter a big, wild meadow that slopes to a small marsh (D). We’ll follow the forest stream from last week’s hike that burbles its way out of the large marsh to the park’s northeast (H). It meanders from marsh to marsh before exiting under Lake George Road (E). Our return will take through the western farm fields (F,G) and back to the parking lot. So please, lace up your virtual boots and join me!
The Woods Filled with Frog Song!
As I headed out of the parking lot to the north one afternoon, a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) advised me from deep in a tangle of vines, to “Cheer up! Cheer up! Cheer up!” (Listen to the Cardinal under “Duet” at Cornell Lab.)
Feeling even better than I did when I arrived – thanks to his greeting – I headed toward the woods north of the field to my right. Halfway there I realized that the ice had melted in the wetlands since my last visit, because I heard…frog song!
Arriving at the muddy edge of the pool, I spotted the concentric ripples that I was looking for. At the center of each was a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Wood Frogs spend the winter frozen solid under a log or in leaf litter. Miraculously, they thaw out as the weather warms and rush to nearby water to mate. Imagine how good it felt for this little frog to be stretched out floating at the surface on a spring day. The one below was just beginning to kick and recreate the ripples around him.
The whole throng of amorous Wood Frogs floated with their legs extended and kicked their back legs occasionally which kept the concentric circles ripping outward. Vernal pools tend to dry in warm, summer weather so the frogs start to mate quickly in early spring. They benefit from the absence of fish in vernal pools who might make a nice meal of the frogs’ eggs if they were present. Throughout the process of my observations, Wood Frogs make a throaty chuckling sound, as if they are as amused as I am by the whole spectacle.
Out of the Woods and Into the Big Meadow!
The big sloping, meadow that appears as you step out of the woods has been in the process of restoration for several years. Now in early spring, the meadow is sere, brownish gold and easy to traverse since winter snow tamped down last year’s stalks and new growth has barely begun. The marsh at the bottom of the slope (D) is edged in scarlet stands of Red Osier (Cornus sericea). This wetland is fed by the stream that runs out of the much larger marsh (H) in the northeast section of the park.
In the summer, the Big Meadow is a challenging hike because the native grasses and wildflowers can grow waist-to-shoulder high. A view of the water is even more obscured in warm weather when the shrubs that surround the marsh leaf out. But what a glorious sight the meadow is on a summer day! Butterflies, dragonflies, and summer birds flutter, zip and soar above its changing summer palette of emerging wildflowers.
The Dry Uplands of the Big Meadow and Water Meandering Out of the Marsh
What’s loveliest about the uplands of the Big Meadow right now is the golden glow of large stands of Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus), a native grass that the stewardship crew seeded onto these graceful slopes.
The uplands of the Big Meadow are dotted by a variety of trees. One of my new favorites has three different common names: Hop-hornbeam, Ironwood or Musclewood (Ostrya virginiana). I love the latter because doesn’t the wood look like a muscular arm?
I came across something in the uplands that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t initially identify. It think it was a deer rub, a spot on a tree where a deer has rubbed the area between its forehead and antlers. The sweat glands there will deposit a scent during the annual rut in order to “communicate a challenge to other male deer,” as Wikipedia puts it. The bark certainly looks like it’s been torn upward from below. If a naturalist or hunter has any other idea about how this shredded bark happened, though, please educate me!
On a visit to the uplands on a sunny day in early March, I was surprised to find a patch of orange, gilled mushrooms. Mushrooms when the ice had barely started to clear from the marshes? My helpful friends at the Mushroom Identification Facebook page identified them for me as Flammulina velutipes, commonly called Winter Mushroom. According to the website fungusfactfriday, “it particularly likes warm spells in the winter and cold snaps during other seasons.” Though it’s theoretically edible, it’s evidently easily confused with a highly toxic mushroom called Gallerina marginata. So unless you are an expert, don’t try these if they show up on your own property. And please don’t pick any mushrooms in our parks; they are a food source for squirrels and other animals. I found more detailed information on these fungi at a University of Wisconsin website.
Down near the marsh, the stream that found its way from the large northeast marsh moves on. It runs west at the bottom of the meadow, leaving a soft muddy surface perfect for the earliest of spring wildflowers, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). These strange, pungent blossoms rise just above the mud; the stems remain below. This ancient and almost alien-looking flower produces temperatures from 27-63 °F, which assists the plant’s reproduction in a couple ways. The heat melts the snow around the emerging mottled hood (spathe). Early pollinators – flies and some bees – are attracted to the carrion-like smell which the heat carries out of the plant. The plant also provides them with a warm refuge from the cold – and while inside, the insects pollinate the flowers on the spike (spadix). Skunk cabbages are an ancient plant and live a long time because their roots contract each year, pulling the stems deeper into the soil. So as Wikipedia notes, ” in effect [skunk cabbage} grows downward, not upward”! How’s that for an amazing feature!
Before long the flowers will wither, but huge green leaves will emerge, using photosynthesis to provide the energy for the underground growth. Here’s what the leaves looked like at a wetland in Bear Creek a few years ago.
Near the edge of the marsh, a deer had met its end, probably serving to feed the coyote pups or the adults that I heard in the eastern woods last week. Not being a hunter, I’d never looked closely at deer teeth before. These were accompanied by a skull and some ribs; no doubt both the coyotes and the crows had picked them clean. A strange, melancholy sight, but then deer are so over abundant here that I don’t begrudge the coyotes a good meal at the end of a long winter.
The stream keeps flowing west toward Lake George Road through a drainage ditch excavated by a farmer at some point in the past. Leaving the meadow, it carves its way into the woods, creating mini-ravines that I needed to navigate in order to keep exploring. Along the edge of these ditches, trees have adapted in a variety of odd ways, like the snail-shaped tree (right below). Some of this flow, Ben says, will be strategically plugged in upcoming wetland restoration work, and in some wet parts of the western farm fields small berms will be placed to slow down water running off the fields, allowing the water to recreate the shallow ponds and saturated soil of years ago. [Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.}
Eventually, the water finds its way into a small marsh right at the edge of Lake George Road (E on the map), between W. Buell and Stony Creek Roads. On the left is the view of the marsh from Lake George Road, the way I’ve seen it since childhood when I rode my bike past it. On the right is the view I finally got after 60 years or so – looking east from the wooded slope of Watershed Ridge Park toward the road. A fun moment for me.
Looking east toward the small marsh from Lake George Road
Looking west from the woods inside the park across the small marsh
The stream runs under Lake George Road, taking a turn as it flows west toward Paint Creek. And in the shallows, multiple blossoms of Skunk Cabbage popped up like small bouquets from the muddy soil. A fine spring display!
Heading Back through Steeply Rolling Farm Fields
Stepping out of the woods, into a farm field in the west of the park (F), I carefully negotiated my path across a small stream and around a little wetland, when I saw a small brown bird sail into some shrubs nearby. It turned out to be a returning Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia); you can discern the spot at the center of its striped upper breast. This may have been a tired male scouting territory, since it wasn’t singing its spring song of several bouncy notes followed by a trill. Cornell Lab of Ornithology recordings demonstrate that Song Sparrows in other parts of the country sing somewhat different versions of the spring song. So I guess some birds have “dialects,” too!
This is one of the fields that the Ben hopes to slowly restore with the prairie plants that were here before European settlement. Wet areas and steep slopes that erode when tilled to expose bare soil will be planted with deep-rooted native grasses and wildflowers. Prairie plants provide food and cover for all kinds of birds and butterflies so those sloping hills will be not only a gorgeous sight, but productive as habitat. Portions of the western fields and the big fields on the east side of the park, however, will continue to be farmed.
A beautifully shaped Eastern Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) graces the edge of this field if you walk up the tree line – or if you see it at a distance as you head north from the parking lot. I love the delicate tracery of the branches now and wonder if it will look as beautiful to me once it’s leafed out. I’ll let you know.
In the field nearest the road intersection (G), a small wetland provides a good spot to look for birds. One shiny, late afternoon, my husband and I spotted a crouching Killdeer within the glare off the water. I think it must have been a loner without a nest yet, since it didn’t immediately fly away, keening its high-pitched call over the fields.
After stumbling into the open through some feet-snagging brambles between fields on another day, I startled a solitary Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) who’d settled peacefully on the little pond.
And farther up the hill, I missed getting a photo of two Sandhill Cranes that must have been feeding there. Frustrating! But then, overhead, a Cooper’s Hawk sailed right above me and I just managed to get my camera pointed upward in time! A lovely compensation for scaring off three beautiful birds!
And with that lovely finale, I headed back to my car.
Nature’s Uncomplicated Generosity
Thanks for traveling with me this week and last at Watershed Ridge Park. I still want to explore the eastern woods, but I’ll probably wait until drier weather to find my way around the large wetland there. And I’m anxious to see if the deer have left any woodland wildflowers in those moist woods. So perhaps May will be a time for Virtual Hike #3 at Watershed Ridge. We’ll see.
A friend of many years recently wrote that lovely phrase “nature’s uncomplicated generosity” when describing the solace of the wild. She let me borrow it here because it expresses two qualities I always appreciate when under a big sky – especially one with a sleepy moon in it! Wildness exists purely in the present moment; it doesn’t regret the past or anticipate the future. It just is. When we venture into nature, it offers itself to our senses with no real effort and yet is generous enough to sustain a continuous flow of experiences. For the hours I’m out exploring, my attention is drawn from one detail to the next, crowding out all the noisy thoughts that normally push me through the day. If you can get out in the fresh air in any way during this self-enforced exile, please do. Putter in your early spring garden, let a breeze cool your cheeks near an open window or outside your back door. Or during this solitary time, hike on the path that poet Robert Frost eventually chose, the one “less traveled by.” I think you’ll find, as I do, that it can make “all the difference.”
Doesn’t dealing with the possibility of a highly invasive virus in our private ecosystems sometimes feel like a pathless wood? An adventure we’d just as soon have done without? Well, maybe you could consider my favorite antidote – a real pathless wood or meadow that offers adventure all along the way.
Skirt an unexpectedly wide wetland by crunching along on any dry stalks you can find. Listen to coyotes singing in the moist shade of a spring forest. Wend your way through tall, graceful native grasses. Navigate through, or preferably around, prickly brambles that grab at your sleeve. Hop over one of many streams that flow in every direction – or use a log as a mossy bridge if you dare. It’s all available at Watershed Ridge Park. I can guarantee that for the time you’re there, you’re unlikely to think of anything but what’s underfoot, over the next slope or landing in the next tree.
My Advice: Get Oriented First and Use the Compass in Your Phone as Necessary!
The Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) has created a fine parking lot on West Buell Road, but will not be able to create the first park trails until later this year. They are planned to follow the edges of some of the farm fields in the southwest corner of the park. So for now, you’ll need to ramble along muddy field edges in the spring, climb over fallen logs in the woods year ’round and hike your knees up high to navigate the meadow’s tall plants in the summer. If you visit Watershed Ridge Park now, I’d recommend sturdy boots, a high tolerance for mud, a jacket that doesn’t collect burrs or get snagged easily by thorns and a compass of some kind. This blog is the fourth I’ve written on Watershed Ridge, and I’ve gotten disoriented twice there over the years. Even our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, got turned around on an early trip to Watershed Ridge Park!
So to begin, I want to show you an aerial map of the whole park so you can envision where I’m walking as we take two vigorous virtual hikes together this week and next.
The green line on the map marks the boundaries of the park. The little pink squares off West Buell Road mark the area around the township’s pole barn situated at the edge of a large agricultural field. The yellow line shows the approximate route for our virtual hike!
NOTE: It’s important when exploring Watershed Ridge Park not to tread across planted fields. For now, the Parks & Recreation Commission (PRC) rents land for farming on the big eastern fields and at the northeast and southwest corners of the park, because they want to preserve farming in the area as a cultural feature. Farming provides the benefit of controlling invasive plants until a restoration plan is implemented.
On the west side of the park, the PRC is hoping to get some habitat restoration going in the next year! Partnering with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, they are hoping to restore how the water moves (hydrology) in certain areas. In some spots, they will strategically plug some of the drainage ditches dug years ago. In other areas small berms will be built to slow down water running off the fields, recreating the shallow ponds and saturated soils that were eliminated to make way for farming years ago. Some of the farm fields will also be planted with native grasses and wildflowers, focusing on areas that are often too wet to farm, or so steep that the soil erodes easily. As a huge prairie fan, that pleases me mightily. Once you picture these rolling fields restored to waving native grasses and wildflowers, I hope you’ll agree. For now, though, please stay on the edges of the farm fields to avoid hurting the crops.
Trodding the Edges of a Rolling Farm Field with Forays into the Forest
After walking east from the parking lot along Buell Road, my husband and I headed out one Sunday along the grass edge between the two farmed fields on the eastern edge of the park (north of the “firewood pickup area”). The ridge after which the park is named runs roughly diagonally across the large center field; this watershed ridge means that streams on the park’s western side flow to Paint Creek and streams in the east flow toward the west branch of Stony Creek.
It appeared that a raccoon had been treading the same ground the night before.
Off in the field, beyond a slope, we heard the keening cry of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), those smartly striped Plovers that wing their way here each spring. They winter in southern climes as far away as the West Indies, Central America and the northern regions of South America. There they enjoyed beaches and coastal wetlands or fields. So it must feel like a bit of a comedown to settle here in a muddy field with low vegetation – but that is their preferred breeding area. They need the insects, crayfish and worms that our area produces once warmer weather arrives in order to feed themselves and their young.
Near the northeast section of the field, we took a short foray into the deep woods. In the dimness, we could see the tip of a large wetland and a tall, sloped hummock that faced northwest. We suddenly heard a high, squeaking howl, which we at first took for two trees rubbing together. But the squeals were followed by soft barking! Coyotes! (Canis latrans var.) Our guess was that one of these clever canines had built their well-protected den on the south side of the large hummock handily located near water and also therefore, potential prey. What a sound in the dim light! (No photo there, I’m afraid; I was too excited and the tree density made it hard for the camera to see the sloping hill beyond – so please feel free to use your imagination!) The notes were high, keening and not as powerful as usual and we wondered if we were hearing pups. Coyote pups are born in March or April, so it’s possible, but unlikely. Perhaps a female was agitated by our scent. Impossible to know, but intriguing!
Later in the week, in the far distance near another wetland, I saw the haunches of a coyote, its tail hanging low, as it loped around the edge of dry reeds near the water and disappeared. I wonder if it was one of the family we’d heard? The photo above is by Jonathan Schechter, wildlife photographer and writer of his fine blog, The Wilder Side of Oakland County, which is currently on hiatus so the county can concentrate on emergency virus information.
Coming out of the woods, we spotted dark Polypore/Shelf mushrooms decorating a snag (standing dead tree). These fungi will slowly recycle the nutrients and carbon dioxide sequestered in the wood over many years. The mushrooms do their part to slow down the release of carbon into the atmosphere caused by the death of a tree.
One of the delights of this hike was the sight of a Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) feeding contentedly on the bright red buds of a Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum). Now that’s a real spring tableau!
Near the maple, a small thicket of orange-tipped Gray Dogwood (Cornus racemosa) contributed a bit of color to the early spring landscape. They hosted galls formed by an insect called the Dogwood Club Midge (Resseliella clavula) which laid its eggs in the stems last year; the plant then obligingly grew round them to create a safe hideaway! In the fall, the larva drilled their way out of the gall and burrowed into the ground to emerge this spring. They don’t harm the wild shrubs and provide food for some other creatures, I expect. Very elegant, those Dogwood Club galls! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
The heads of some curious White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) popped up over the edge of a slope in the field. Look at that series of attentive ears!
And of course, a couple of trees were dotted with an American Crow family (Corvus brachyrhynchos). As I moved slowly toward them, they flew off as usual, leaving one family member to pass by a bit closer to execute a quick inspection of us humans below.
As we approached the northwest corner of the field, we stepped once more into the woods for a closer look at a mysterious swamp. The term “swamp,” as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, is any wetland dominated by woody plants,” meaning trees and shrubs. The large wetland to the north drains into this woodland, and the water spreads out among many trees and shrubs. Imagine the size of the tree that left that crenelated stump!
Exploring the Woods to the West of the Big Center Farm Field
Inside the woodland edge, a female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) darted from branch to branch, occasionally looking into tree holes that might make a suitable nesting spot in a few weeks.
Once inside the wood, giants appear everywhere – large Oak trees with big mossy feet!
It occurred to me as I walked this lovely forest that I might see the butterfly that always seems to emerge first each spring, the Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). Shortly thereafter, one flew up behind me and sailed right above my right shoulder and off into the distance! Mourning Cloak adults spend the winter under tree bark and are well camouflaged for it. They will mate and lay eggs this spring and their offspring will spend next winter in the woods at Watershed Ridge Park. Here are photos I took in other years of the upper (dorsal) and lower (ventral) side of their wings.
An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) had left behind its torpid winter state. Chipmunks don’t exactly hibernate. This little one repeatedly slept from 1-8 days at a time this winter and woke periodically to munch on the nuts in its larder, before sleeping again. Wikipedia informs me that the word “chipmunk” is derived from an Objibwe word for “one who descends trees headlong.” And indeed that is exactly what this little one did before it paused for its portrait.
A Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)darted down from high in a tree and began spiraling up the bark, looking for insects or insect eggs. If you see movement like that, a bird spiraling up one tree, and then flying down to the bottom of the next, you can be quite confident even at a distance that you’ve seen one of these tiny, well-camouflaged birds. It’s often mistaken for a White Breasted Nuthatch, but the Nuthatch hops both up and down the trunk and doesn’t usually start at the bottom of a tree. My little Creeper didn’t stick around, but last week, the fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, caught a lovely photo of one up-close with her skill and a steady hand on her super long lens. What a shot!
A Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) hunting for insects appeared to be tattooing a design into the surface of a snag. As you can see, this male was very intent on foraging – or maybe he was contemplating his artwork! Males Downies drum in the spring to attract mates, but this one’s soft taps were intermittent rather than the continuous drumming or whinnying calls usually employed by a Downy male to capture a female’s attention.
On the northeast side of this woods, a stream runs out of the very large wetland in the north of the park. The stream bed was probably excavated years ago by a farmer trying to drain more land for agriculture. It runs from that huge wetland to a smaller one at the bottom of a meadow and then on to Lake George Road and ultimately Paint Creek.
On the day I visited, the ice had just begun to melt and in places where the sun hit, I could listen quietly to the glorious spring sound of bubbling water! Watch for the Skunk Cabbage shoots along the bank in my video below.
So Much to Explore, but Enough for Now…
Virtual Hike #1 comes to an end. You and I wend our way south, back to the parking lot. We emerge from a part of the woods that we’ll explore more in Hike #2 next week. Being careful to stay on the grassy edge of a smaller farm field, we stop to admire an EasternGarter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) cleverly camouflaged among the fallen stems.
Our steps make the snake slide into a clump of dry grass, but then it feels the need to peek out. Its head is striped like a barber pole by the shadows of grass stems.
That’s the kind of beautiful little moment – the snake’s cautious peek and spiraling shadows briefly forming on those iridescent scales – that, for me, makes a lovely end to a long, challenging walk. I hope it feels like that to you, too!. Stop back next week and we’ll explore more of big, untamed Watershed Ridge Park. I’ll be glad to have your company!
Do you mind if I briefly take you back to February? I know we’re all getting itchy to step into spring. But here in southeast Michigan, the line between the two seasons blurs a bit in late February and March.
So I want to remember that the tail end of winter has it charms – and then spend some time relishing the early signs of spring before the Equinox.
FEBRUARY: Sparkling with Ice, Patterned with Prints and Revealing the Shapes of Slopes and Seedheads!
Accompanied by our familiar year ’round birds and a few winter visitors, bundled against bitter days, I spent most of February in two parks – Cranberry Lake Park and Charles Ilsley Park. I puzzled over prints in the snow, admired ice patterns and worked at re-identifying last year’s wildflowers by their winter architecture.
Wild Neighbors Make Brief Appearances on a Winter Day
It’s always a great comfort to me on a winter walk, when my numb fingers resist taking photos, that birds and animals keep me company. At Charles Ilsley Park, an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) scrambled onto a branch near me with its mouth stretched around a large nut, perhaps a walnut that had lost its outer covering since dropping last fall. The squirrel was so intent on conquering its prize nut that I got a quick shot before it jumped out of sight.
On a Cranberry Lake Park walk in February, through the thicket of tree branches, the birding group caught sight of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) on a perch near the lake, scanning for prey. It had plumped up against the cold and looked just a bit disgruntled. Perhaps that morning had brought slim pickings.
AmericanTree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) visit us just for the winter and are everywhere now. With their gray breasts centered with a black spot and a nice chesnut cap and eyeline, they’re by far the most obvious sparrow in the parks in winter – and they make a friendly twitter when they’re flocking. On my coldest day at Cranberry, I saw one huddled in the dry stems of a field as an icy wind ruffled its feathers. It would venture out periodically to grab a few seeds and then hunker down again in the grass. But on a sunnier day, one perched quite calmly on a dry stem of non-native Common Mullein. At Ilsley, several whooshed up from the fields in small flocks and dispersed as I passed. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]
A tree sparrow stayed near the ground, under weeds, as an icy wind ruffled its crown.
On a warmer day, a Tree Sparrow perching on Common Mullein.
Part of a flock of Tree Sparrows here for the winter in Ilsley Park
Across Ilsley’s central prairie, high up on a tall snag, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker(Dryocopuspileatus). If you click on the left photo, you’ll see its head peeking above a short branch in the crotch of the dead tree. I began to take a series of slow, cautious steps in its direction, but it spotted my camera raised and sailed off into the distance, the large white patches under each wing flashing in the sunlight. To the right you can see those white under wings in a fine photo by dpdawes at inaturalist.org, who got a lot closer to her/his bird than I did to mine!
Near Ilsley’s north prairie, a lengthy repetition of the “Kwirrrr” call alerted me to my constant winter companion, the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). Hitching along a distant tree trunk searching out insect eggs or larvae, this male multi-tasked, firmly establishing his territory with calls while continuing to forage. I clicked the shutter in a hurry when he paused to check for any threats or other males in the area.
At Ilsley, I followed a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) as they surged from one treetop to the next. Eventually one ventured close to me, as if checking my intentions. From what I learned in the Cornell crow class, this is likely an older member of a crow family since it has a few white feathers.
And then there are creatures who just have a faulty sense of timing. Somehow, my husband and I spotted this tiny fly perched on the edge of a boot print at Charles Isley Park. Dr. Gary Parsons from Michigan State identified it for me as a Snail-eating Fly (family Sciomyzidae, possible genus Dictya), so named because the larval young of this fly have a preference for snails. He guessed that it probably “woke from it winter nap” prematurely, fooled by a warm, melting winter day. I like its intricately patterned wings and legs!
Some Wild Neighbors Leave Only Hints of their Presence
Part of the fun in a winter walk is trying to figure out a creature’s presence only from the prints they leave behind. Walking down the Hickory Lane, I saw the flash of an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) as it dashed across the trail and into a tree hole so slim it seemed impossible that the squirrel could fit inside! But it left its tracks behind as it approached the tree and leapt toward the trunk.
A Gray Squirrel I saw back in 2015.
The track of a Gray Squirrel as it leapt onto a tree trunk.
The incrediby slim hole of a Gray Squirrel
A large mammal left clues to its activity down near Cranberry Lake. I approached the lake on an icy day. I wanted to see if the beaver I’d seen evidence of last year had come out of its den again to find some extra tree bark to chew on this winter. As I approached, bright scarlet fruits caught my attention, vivid against the silver of a frosty morning. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, later identified them as the rose hips of a Swamp Rose(Rosa palustris). Color is such eye candy in the winter months! And just beyond, as I prowled the frozen ground near the lake, was the evidence I sought – a tree stump recently gnawed to a point by what could only be a North American Beaver(Castor canadensis).
I cautiously stepped out onto the ice, but it held. Off in the distance, the snow lay like white satin on the lake’s surface. Around a bend in the shore, the beaver’s den loomed a bit larger this year and yes! I could see the raw end of a recently cut log protruding from its den. How the beaver stuck it in there mystifies me but the bark should make a cozy meal for the beaver/s inside on a cold day. A few other recently added sticks protruded from either side.
Pondering Snow Prints
Tracks of all kinds filigree the landscape on a winter morning. The birding group noticed the small canine tracks of what we guessed was some sort of Fox probably a Red Fox (Vulpesvulpes) since it was in an open area rather than a woods. A neat line of single prints usually means a wild canine and these were rather small as they curved around the turkey breeder building at Cranberry Lake Park. The coyote’s tracks at Charles Ilsley Park have the same features but are considerably larger. Coyotes are mating now so you’ll see more of their twisty, fur-filled scat along the trails as they mark the boundaries of their territory. (I’ll spare you a scat photo….)
Lots of smaller creatures are scurrying about on the snow during the night. An indecisive White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) left its “sewing machine” tracks in the snow as it apparently darted out into a trail twice, retreated each time and then finished dashing across to dive into a tiny hole on the far side. I’m wondering if the strange track in the center photo is that of a Meadow Vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) that nosed about just under the surface of the snow. I’m guessing that from the fact that Voles stay closer to the surface when they burrow in the grass, leaving larger furrows than the smaller mice. But if anyone has a better idea, I’m open to it. And by the size, I’m guessing that tidy little squirrel print on the right is probably that of a pausing American Red Squirrel.
And can anyone guess what made this pattern of polka-dots all over the snow around Cranberry Lake Park one February morning? My first guess was snow melt dripping from the limbs, but I’ve seen a lot of thawing snow and I’ve never seen this tapioca design before. Maybe air bubbles being driven up from below? Anyone have a theory on this one?
Admiring the Stark Architecture of Last Year’s Wildflowers
One of my goals is to be as familiar with wildflowers in winter as I’m becoming in summer. I love the linear designs they make against the sere backdrop of a winter field. Here are a few examples paired with their summer finery.
MARCH: The Sweet Song of Running Water,Migrators Appear, Buds Swell – but Can It Last?
Is it spring yet, or the last hurrahs of winter? It was hard to tell on an early spring day when snow still lay beneath the russet tapestry of dry plants on Charles Ilsley Park’s west prairie. But a brisk wind chased the cloud shadows across the field and it sure felt like spring. (Turn up your volume to hear the wind and the Blue Jay calling.)
First Bursts of Irrepressible Spring Song!
A good pre-spring sign is that male birds have already begun trilling their familiar mating songs. A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) flew down near me and threw back his head to let forth his song. As usual, he turned 180 degrees to sing in both directions, in an effort, no doubt, to broadcast his presence as widely as possible!
We’re all pretty familiar with the Black-Capped Chickadee’s call (Poecile atricapillus). After all, “Chickadee-dee-dee” is how it got its name! But oddly, in spring they sing a very simple, two note song to establish territory or attract a mate. I couldn’t get a good shot of the lothario that I watched hopping manically from limb to limb at Ilsley, so the song recording below is his, but the photo is from an early spring in 2016.
The Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) have been around off and on all winter. But just lately, they’ve started checking out the bluebird boxes in our parks. Here’s a female evaluating the real estate at Charles Ilsley Park.
Not all spring sounds, though, are mating calls. Our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, heard the exquisitely high, piercing call of two Golden-crowned Kinglets (Regulus satrapa) at Cranberry Lake Park during the bird walk last week. Cornell tells us that “This is one of the first bird songs that people stop being able to hear as they age.” Ahem…that’s me, I’m afraid. I did see them quickly through my binoculars but never got a camera on them. Here’s a photo of one of these pretty little migrators taken by cedimaria, a photographer at iNaturalist.org. Sometimes these Kinglets appear during the winter in our area, but it’s more likely that the one we heard and saw was on its way north to breed at the tip of the Mitten, or in Canada.
Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) flew far over head at Ilsley, braying their prehistoric call and by the first week in March, a male Red-winged Blackbird burst forth with his buzzing trill on a thistle stalk. The females will arrive in a few weeks.
The Trickle of the Thaw and Buds!
At Ilsley, water seemed to be finding it way everywhere as the ice melted in various wetlands. Within the eastern prairie, a narrow rivulet appeared to have sculpted a beautiful little ice cave under the snow. My husband and I were mystified as how it formed. We thought perhaps the water beneath the ice had drained away along the narrow line to the right and part of the ice had dropped, because the inside of the cave was bone dry. But we’re just guessing. Anyone have a better theory?
I could envision that a small creature might shelter overnight in this wee cave for protection, since the ground within was dry!
Elsewhere at Ilsley, the trickle of water signaled hope for spring. Over in the woods, one of the ice covered wetlands had melted enough that a stream ran away from it into the trees.
And nearby, a brilliant spear-shaped mound of moss took advantage of all the water and glowed in the thin sunlight.
The swelling, red buds of Silver Maples(Acersaccharinum) always give me hope in March so I keep checking on them each time I explore the path into Ilsley from the west. And in Cranberry Lake Park, Ben spotted the first cottony plumes of Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) breaking into the cold spring air. I’ve loved those fuzzy signs of spring since childhood when they bloomed right outside my family’s kitchen window.
Silver Maples red buds against a clear blue sky in March
Pussy Willow blooming on a cold March morning at Cranberry Lake Park
The Best Kind of “Social Distance”
As I finish this blog, the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in Michigan and we are instructed to avoid crowded places and keep a “social distance” from others for at least the rest of the month. That certainly makes perfect sense, but it can make all of us feel a bit isolated. Luckily, nature invites us out into the fields and woods where no threats exist really, except maybe wet feet and some spring mud. Wildlife has always believed in “social distance” so no problem there; they consistently respect my space by taking off when they see me – as my camera can attest!
So now’s the ideal moment to re-acquaint yourself and your family with the infinite variety of the natural world. Leave behind the confines of a centrally heated home and let the moist, cold air of March tickle your nose and redden your cheeks. Open a door and listen to the dawn chorus of the songbirds. (Listen for Sandhill Cranes down in the marsh at the end!)
Watch for bursting buds and catch your own reflection in a mud puddle. Discover the joys of darkness and silence while watching the stars on a clear, moonless night. Maybe we can rediscover all that we’ve been missing in the hubbub of a “normal” day. And that way, we can turn our “social distance” into an adventure in the wild for ourselves and our children.
It’s admittedly a worrisome time for those of us who love our small, blue planet. Devastating fires, raging floods, 30 billion fewer birds in the last 50 years, a UN report that 100 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades. According to Eduardo Brondizio at Indiana University, half a million species have “insufficient habitat for long-term survival.” Their best hope is restoration of their habitat.
Aha! Now here’s something you and I can do something about! And we can do it without leaving home, or participating in protests or influencing recalcitrant politicians. We can enrich the habitat right beyond our kitchen windows. And it won’t take sacrifice – in fact, it’s rewarding! It won’t take giant sums of money or raising taxes. All it takes, dear kindred spirits, is adding native plants to our gardens and yards – as many as we can plant each year. By doing so, we can make a HUGE difference to the survival of species. Stick with me here. The news keeps getting more hopeful as we move along.
Is Your Yard Full of Non-native Plants? Mine Is…
I’m betting your garden is a lot like mine – filled with non-native trees, grass, shrubs and flowers that evolved in distant countries. I’m thinking of common garden plants like Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) from the Balkans in Southeastern Europe, Forsythia(Forsythia intermedia) from eastern Asia, or Vinca (Vinca minor) from Europe, Africa and Asia. Take a short world tour in this slideshow and discover where a few of our most popular garden plants originated. [Use pause button for time to read captions.)
Our non-native, international gardens look lovely; butterflies sip nectar from the flowers and insects never leave a hole in the leaves. The turf grass looks like a seamless green carpet if we fertilize it and water it regularly. So what’s the problem?
Well, in their homelands, our non-native plants were not a problem. They did just what nature asks plant to do – pass on the sun’s energy (through photosynthesis) to all the other organisms in their habitat that can’t do that. In its native Europe, invasive Phragmites (Phragmites australis subspecies australis), for example, supports over 170 insect species. But not here! Here the invasive, non-native grass crowding every wet roadside supports only 5 species – and it’s been here for centuries!
Problem: Our Gardens are Missing One Essential Feature – Plentiful Caterpillars
Now you may be thinking, “Caterpillars eat holes in leaves! The lack of caterpillars is not a problem!!!” Well, actually, it is. Like me, you’ve probably always thought of your garden or lawn as an artistic or decorative enterprise. And it should be! We all need beauty around us. But nature needs our garden flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to be productive, as well as beautiful. Our yards also need to nourish creatures large and small who live around us. The sad truth is that most of our gardens are green, colorful food deserts that leave nature hungry and malnourished. Luckily, we can easily change that!
Insects: “The Little Things that Run the World”
Insects, including butterflies, moths, and many other pollinators keep an ecosystem fed. They really are, as the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, “the little things that run the world.” An insect’s chubby caterpillars chewing and hunching along a plant stem provide essential food for the whole web of life. Birds stuff them down the scrawny throats of baby birds; caterpillars are soft and filled with the fat and protein nestlings need. Adult birds snag insects from the air, pluck them off the ground, and snatch them from leaves. They even spend winter days probing loose bark looking for frozen insect eggs or caterpillars to get the protein that helps keep their small bodies warm on icy nights.
Without enough caterpillars, birds won’t lay a full clutch of eggs in the spring. Their young will not be as large and healthy. And they need a lot of them! Chickadees, for example, need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise their clutch of nestlings! Caterpillars are simply the most important food source for birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and some mammals. Seeds and fruits contribute to food webs too – but caterpillars are essential.
So Why Are Our Yards Missing So Many Caterpillars?
Ninety percent of our native caterpillars, the young of daytime butterflies and the moths who maneuver through the night, are picky eaters! They can only eat plants with which they co-evolved. They are specialists who, over eons, have overcome the chemical defenses of particular native plants and are now adapted to eat them and nothing else. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to switch to what’s available. It would take thousands of years of evolution to make that possible. So if our caterpillars don’t hatch out on a native plant, they generally die of malnutrition before reaching adulthood.
The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), of course, is the classic example; its caterpillars can eat only one genus – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias). Monarchs will sip nectar from all kinds of flowers, but their caterpillars need one of the milkweed species for food that will nourish them to adulthood. And 90% of all our insects face the same challenge of finding the native plants their young can eat. Not enough native plants means not enough insects and their caterpillars, which means not enough birds, not enough amphibians – and on it goes as hunger spreads through a habitat’s food web.
A Beautiful, Simple Solution: Plant More Native Flowers, Grasses, Shrubs and Trees
So many environmental issues are beyond our control. But we can control our yards, our gardens, the fields and woods on our land. And we can turn around the declining numbers of butterflies, pollinators, birds and more by nourishing wildlife around us with beautiful native plants. They come in all kinds of colors and shapes. Some thrive in wet areas, some in dry. Some need the sunshine, some the shade. Some bloom in only one season, some in more than one. Some are even green all winter! Here’s just a tiny, rainbow sampling to whet your appetite!
Our Gardens and Yards Can Change Gradually, Right?
We don’t need to overhaul our gardens overnight. I plan to just gradually add in more native plants each year. Ideally, our goal is to reach at least 70% native – but any increase in native plants benefits our local habitats. For example, I can’t afford to eliminate the non-native woods of invasive Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) next to our driveway – but I can remove its invasive sprouts wherever I come across one. And maybe year by year, we can remove a bit more of the Vinca and Lily-of -the-Valley that have choked out native woodland flowers on the forest floor. I’m thinking of removing Locusts that are crowding the few native Wild Black Cherry Trees (Prunus serotina) in the woods and perhaps adding in a few native understory trees to help out the birds and insects.
Three years ago, I started taking on the invasive Garlic Mustard(Alliariapetiolata) that has encircled our yard and infiltrated the woods for years. Pulling them out by the roots is quite easy; my 4-year-old neighbor enjoyed doing it with me! And the reward at our house is that beautiful, native White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) now rises out of the earth each autumn wherever I pulled the Garlic Mustard in the spring! (Have a look at the beautiful bank of white blossoms below!) I’m anxious to know what else may be hiding in the seed bank under the forest floor!
If placed in the right environment, native plants are less fussy than non-native plants we usually get from the garden store. They’ve evolved in our ecosystem so they don’t need the regular watering, fertilizing or soil amendments that non-natives usually do. In fact many of our native plants do better in poor soil! Rain generally provides enough water for them, except in severe droughts. You’ll need to experiment to see what works, just as you do with non-native plants. Some will grow more vigorously than you’d like and need to be thinned; consider sharing them with neighbors! Others will need to be moved to a new location. That’s OK! It’s all a learning process, right?
A Word about that Lawn…
Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, a sort of “bible” for native gardeners, points out that millions of acres in America are covered by our lawns. In fact researchers say that the American lawn covers an area the size of New England! Turf grasses are non-native and require huge amounts of water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep them green. Mowing them frequently also uses lots of fossil fuel.
Now neither Doug Tallamy nor I are not advocating that you ignore your lawn and let it grow into a fallow field full of invasive plants! What Tallamy and other conservationists are asking is this: Could you do with less grass and plant more native gardens? Could you plant a native White Oak (Quercus alba) in your front yard? (White Oaks can support over 500 different insect species and still look great! Could you put native shrubs along your driveway? Maybe you could plant a more formal native garden in the front with drifts or masses of native plants that love to be planted close together. (No need for mulch!)
Grass paths could be used to guide you through your landscape; turf grass is great to walk on. If your children play outside (and I fervently hope they do!), leave a play area but surround it with native wildflowers or flowering native shrubs. And where you have slopes or large open areas with plenty of sun, consider taller native grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a variety of sun-loving prairie plants. Native grasses and shrubs provide artistic structure in a garden, but also give caterpillars safe places to spin their chrysalises and cocoons. The possibilities are endless.
An Inspiration for the Future: The “Homegrown National Park”
In his newest book, Nature’s Best Hope, Dr. Tallamy proposes a glorious vision of what a dedicated nation could create for its people and its wildlife. He envisions all of us together creating huge swaths of native habitat by linking our native-growing neighborhoods into a “Homegrown National Park.” Imagine that! Our new national park could be as large as 20 million acres if we all reduced our lawn areas by half. Wow! An audacious idea, but theoretically possible. For the moment though, our goal can simply be to enhance the habitat around our own houses and perhaps eventually a network of houses and neighborhoods full of both life and beauty.
Imagine Your Native Garden as Living Landscape, a Beautiful Habitat Where Nature Thrives
February is a great time for garden dreaming. Envision the possibilities outside your kitchen window. A green path wends it way between native gardens that change with each season. Warm patches of sunlight bring butterflies looking for nectar. Perhaps fledgling bluebirds beg to be fed beneath your native flowering shrub. In the shade of the native tree canopy, migrating birds stop by to sing while looking for caterpillars or to pluck a few berries on their way south for the winter. I’m finding a whole new set of yard dreams myself. I hope you conjure up a few too, and add some natives to your yard this year.
Ready to Plant Some Native Plants this Spring and/or Fall? We Can Get Them for You Wholesale!
Starting last year, our Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, created a new native plant sale for township residents. All the information for this year’s sale is right at this link or under “Native Plant Sale” at the top of the Natural Areas Notebook home page. Butyou need to order by March 4th!
Need More Detail about Native Plants, In-Depth Information or Answers to Frequently Asked Questions?
Get hold of a copy of any of Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy’s books: Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press); Nature’s Best Hope – A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press), and one he wrote with native landscaper, Rick Darke, TheLiving Landscape – Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.