Tag Archives: acorns

A Short Walk: Through the Blue at the Wet Prairie

I thought I’d experiment with periodic pieces that feature all the great natural features and creatures to be seen on a short walk in our township parks and natural areas. I expect that some of you feel too busy for a longer stroll (though I highly recommend trying to find the time when you can).

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So now and then, I’ll share what I’ve found in just a 20 – 30 minute hike, with the hope that you’ll be inspired to take some brief excursions into nature to renew yourself in the midst of life’s everyday hubbub.

A sign on the west side of the Paint Creek Trail, just north of Silverbell Road, marks the location of the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie

The Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail is located a short distance north of Silverbell Road, just west of Orion Road. It’s a delicate habitat without trails into it, so I thought I’d take you on a short virtual walk through its spatters of blue flowers on a sunny autumn afternoon.

The prairie here is called “wet” because the water table is near the surface, keeping the ground fairly wet for a good part of the year. In some areas the unique soils won’t let water penetrate deep into the soil. So in the spring, water pools on the surface, but later in the summer summer it’s very dry. Like many prairie plants, the beautiful wildflowers here evolved to cope with those changes. They also thrive after fires, since both lightning and the trains that  ran along the trail years ago caused plenty of them. If given relief from non-native plants, these  hardy, adaptable native blooms flourish and spread. Many of the plants at the wet prairie are specialists to soils rich in calcium, or calciphiles.

An area full of blue Fringed Gentians on the Wet Prairie

At the moment, the Wet Prairie is dappled in blue. Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) grow enthusiastically across this grassy area. As each blossom unfolds, you can see the delicate fringe that lines the deep azure petals. Look for them on a sunny day, because they don’t open when it’s cloudy.

A Fringed Gentian just opening its fringed petals.

When I first began coming to the prairie about 5 years ago, Fringed Gentians were scarce – a few here, a few there. But thanks to the prescribed burns, systematic removal of competing non-native plants by our Stewardship crew, and probably some luck from the weather, their numbers seem to be very good this year. What a sight now to see groups of them blooming among the native grasses!

One of several groups of Fringed Gentians that have emerged after dedicated stewardship efforts from the Parks Commission.

Another azure beauty blooms among large rocks on the southwest side of the prairie. Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) has an unusual, closed blossom that never opens.  Instead, the sturdy Bumblebees need to push their way inside, taking pollen with them when they pop back out and head for the next flower. It’s a clever strategy for enticing a highly effective pollinator like the bumblebee, but excluding the small insects that might take nectar, but not do much serious pollinating!

Bottle Gentian blossoms are pollinated primarily by bumblebees, a great pollinator big enough to get inside the blossom which never opens.

Like most prairies right now, the Wet Prairie also hosts other blue beauties, like the Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). The flowers of these two asters have very similar color, so you have to check the leaves to tell them apart. Smooth blue aster has smooth leaves with leaf bases that wrap around the stem, while Sky Blue Aster (also known as Prairie Heart-leaf Aster) has rough leaves with bases that don’t wrap around the stem. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, a fount of useful information on Midwestern flowers, these little asters feed a huge number of native bees, as well as providing seeds for one of my favorite winter visitors from the far North, the Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea).

Sky Blue Asters provide their lavender blue to the scene as well as pollen and nectar for bees and seeds for birds and other creatures.

Along the Paint Creek Trail near the park, and in the fenced exclosure at the back of the prairie, the hardy, vivid New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) glow in the sunlight – and migrating Monarch butterflies (Danaus pleixippus) feed avidly on them.

New England Asters seem to be a favorite plant with Monarch butterflies during the fall migration.

Some very unusual, white wildflowers sit close to the ground in many spots around the Wet Prairie right now. The delicate, dark green-striped Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) blooms are almost at the end of their season, but they’re still shining up from the grass in many places. I’ve never seen this wildflower in our other parks so I’m always happy to learn it’s blooming here in late summer/early fall. I think that in the photo below, the small orange and green satellite next to the flower is a very cool Grass-of-Parnassus seed head!

Grass of Parnassus is close to the ground – an unusual wildflower!  Next to the blossom is one that has gone to seed.

We have our own little orchids blooming in the Wet Prairie too.  Small, spiraling stalks of native Ladies’ Tresses (genus Spiranthes) bloom here and there on the north end of the prairie. Actually, according in U-M’s Michigan Flora website, seven Spiranthes orchids and many other orchids bloom in various areas of Michigan  – a surprise to me! Many of these orchids are in decline because of illegal harvesting and high deer densities, so please just look when you see an orchid.

A small spiraling stalk of Ladies Tresses’ orchid is right at home on the Wet Prairie in the autumn.

A Few Extra Treats

The big butterflies are almost gone here, but I was lucky enough to see a beautiful small one that I’d not come across anywhere for about 3 years. The Common Buckeyes (Juonian coenia) love yellow flowers for some reason and that’s right where I saw one, poised at the tip of Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis). Buckeyes migrate to Florida and other southern destinations for the winter, so this one may have just been passing through. I’m glad I happened to cross its path!

A Common Buckeye probably on its way south for the winter.

The Common Buckeye isn’t common for me, but the Clouded Sulphur actually is, especially at this time of year! I enjoy these small yellow butterflies because they have a lovely flutter in the grass at the end of the year, when so many other flying beauties have disappeared. I just learned this year that these tiny butterflies also migrate south. They’re actually found all over North and South America at various times of the year!

Clouded Sulphurs fly south for the winter after breeding in our area.

Near the edge of the trail right across from the Wet Prairie, a large, dense patch of acorns lay underneath a small White Oak (Quercus Alba) and what I think was a mature Black Oak (Quercus veluntina). I assumed initially that these two trees had dropped the acorns directly below them. But later my husband suggested that perhaps  this big dense patch of acorns was an attempt by a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) to begin its cache for the winter. Maybe? Red squirrels do make piles of nuts at the foot of the trees in which they nest and then defend them from other creatures. I’m just not sure that a cache is likely so close to the trail –  but who knows? A nice autumnal sight in any case.

Could this be the winter cache of an American Red Squirrel, or just the result of acorns dropping from the nearby oaks?

Maybe Take a Nature Break?

So as you can see, a short walk can reap some nice rewards. A 20-30 minute walk in our parks in any season will offer up delightful surprises deep in the grass, hovering in mid-air, climbing up a shrub or perched high in a tree while you take a refreshing break from your daily routines. And crisp autumn days with cool cheeks, white sunlight and less biting insects are a real tonic after hours inside. So consider treating yourself to even a small dose of nature this week. I’m betting it will do you good. It always does for me.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: A Golden Marsh, Frogs Meditate, Squirrels Munch and Mushrooms Arise!

Foot of a tree
The foot of a wet-footed tree at the north end of Bear Creek

This week we’ll leave the sunny Old Fields and spend more time in the north of the park where there’s more water and shade.  The marsh, like so much of the park, is now full of gold as fall flowers bloom along its margins. The Canada Geese are starting to emerge from the reeds with completely new sets of feathers.  The Snapping Turtle still cruises just beneath the water’s surface while dragonflies hover and soar above it.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

In the pond  at the edge of Gunn Road, a few frogs hop between the toes of giant wet-footed trees,  while others sit quietly contemplating the coming season.  Squirrels and chipmunks gather acorns and nibble at colorful mushrooms that  mysteriously appear and disappear in the Oak-Hickory forest.  Let’s watch how the north end of Bear Creek settles gracefully into early fall.

The Marsh – All Golden and Green

The green of the marsh – its reeds, its duckweed-covered water, the backdrop of trees – is suddenly offset by the bright yellow of Nodding Beggar-ticks (Bidens cernua), another lovely native wildflower with a singularly homely name!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1
In September, golden flowers with the strange name of Nodding Beggar-ticks surround the northern marsh.

These sunny flowers surround the water in the marsh, lining the northern dock and the edge of the reeds in the distance. Dr. Ben tells me that they are an annual that “can grow from a seed to a big flowering plant in just a few short months or weeks after the water recedes. They are really well adapted to the changing water levels of wetlands!”  Look at these flower faces which are currently full of bees!

bee on Nodding Beggar-tick marsh
Bees are constant visitors at the oddly-named Nodding Beggar-tick plants in the northern marsh.
Spray of Nodding Beggar-tick_edited-1
Nodding Beggar-tick are native flowers that nod a bit as they age.

The reeds and flowers are a great backdrop for the Canada Darner dragonfly (Aeshna canadensis), who likes to hover above the water searching for insects,  just as it does above the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

Canada darner flying marsh2
A Canada Darner finds the air above reeds and marsh flowers just as profitable for finding insects as the wildflowers in the Old Fields.

The Common Cat-tails (Typha latifolia) take on all kinds of strange shapes as they produce seed for next year. The male part at the top has fertilized the brown fuzzy female part below to produce seeds.  And cat-tails also grow by rhizomes, or underground stems.

Cat Tail seeding1 Cat tail seeding 3

Out in the water are the usual inhabitants.  If you come after a rain has cleared some of the surface plant life, you might see the ridged back (or carapace) of a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina).  Its head  emerges several inches ahead of its body as it cruises leisurely across the marsh, stopping to dip down and feed on submerged vegetation.

snapper swimming
A Snapping Turtle moving slowly and deliberately across the marsh, stopping to eat submerged vegetation.

Of course, if you come on a hot, sunny afternoon when the duckweed and other surface plants crowd the marsh surface, you’ll have to look for  the trail of  two slowly moving blobs of green.

Snapper in the marsh2
On a sunny day with the surface plants thick and rich, look for the Snapper’s water trails to find the slowly moving green blobs of its shell and head.

If the sun is warm on a cool fall morning, you might see a small Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) sunning itself, all four legs, head and tail extended to soak up maximum warmth.

Baby turtle sunning
A small Painted Turtle suns on a log, all four legs stretched out to catch the sun’s warmth.

Some of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis ) have now finished their molt.  This one seemed to be waiting for other family members to emerge from the reeds.  When they do, they’ll get some practice flying with their completely new feathers, wheeling about the sky and calling noisily.

Canada Goose after molting
A Canada Goose seems to be waiting on the edge of the reeds for the rest of its family group to finish their complete molt.

I’ve noticed this plant in the marsh for a while and finally learned its name.  Ben tells me that it’s Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed (Persicaria lapathifolia).  It’s common in moist, disturbed ground.  I quite like its graceful droop!

Nodding Smartweed or Willow-weed
Nodding Smartweed (or Willow-weed) droops gracefully in the muddy flats at the edge of the marsh.

The Pond at the North End:  Mighty Trees, Their Munched Acorns and Small Frogs

If you wander away from the marsh toward Gunn Road, you’ll end up at another much quieter pond.  It’s the one in which so many Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica) were courting in the spring. Some of these frogs breed more than once which might explain seeing two tiny Wood Frogs near the pond at this time to year. Wood Frogs can vary their skin color from brown to green/gray but they are always in or near the trees (as their name implies) and sport a dark eye mask.

Tiny wood frog
A tiny Wood Frog in its  brown color stretches out a hind leg to cling to a log.
Tiny wood frog near Gunn
A tiny Wood Frog in its green color  on a Bur Oak leaf near Gunn Road.

Nearby, as the sun dipped low, a male Green Frog (Rana clamitans) sat quietly on the end of a log, staring steadily into the distance.  It’s rare for me to see one so still and silent.

Green frog male in evening light
In the late afternoon, a male Green Frog stares quietly into the distance from a log in the pond near Gunn Road.

An Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae) had rather daringly hung its web out over the water, attaching it to four different trees quite a distance away.  It looks as though it managed to snag a moth.

Orb spider web pond near Gunn
An Orb Spider web suspended between four trees over the pond near Gunn Road.

Some creature had dug a fairly large hole, with accompanying small ones, at the roots of a gigantic Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa). An Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) perhaps?   Here you can see one hole beneath a Bur Oak leaf and the remainder of the tree’s acorn with its bristly cap laying nearby.  Bur Oaks, a member of the White Oak family,  don’t produce large acorn crops every year.  Instead, they produce huge numbers of acorns some years in the hope that the squirrels and blue jays will not be able to eat them all and a few will survive to propagate new trees.

Leaf with burr oak nutshells
Bur Oak leaf with scattered acorn pieces and the bristly Bur Oak acorn cap half-chewed on the left.

Here’s a clearer look at the acorns from a Bur Oak that’s just south of the shed near Snell Road.

Burr oak acorn and leaves
The acorns of a Bur Oak with their bristly caps

But the one at the north end is very tall – and incredibly straight – with its crown so far up that you can’t see its acorns even with binoculars!  Or at least, I couldn’t.

Huge burr oak near Gunn
A very tall Bur Oak near Gunn Road with its straight trunk and branches only at the crown.

Eastern Chipmunks (Tamias striatus) are certainly dashing about the park collecting nuts and seeds to put in the storage chambers of their burrows.  This one started filling its pouch near the Center Pond in a previous fall.

Chipmunk Bear Creek_edited-1
An Eastern Chipmunk with his cheek pouches starting to bulge with the food he will store in his underground burrow

The Oak-Hickory Forest and its Mysterious Mushrooms

Dappled sunlight in the woods

The Oak-Hickory forest is blooming – with colorful mushrooms! I learned this week that there are fungi in the earth beneath those trees year ’round. Right now we can see parts of those fungi because they’re making spores above ground in what we commonly call “mushrooms.”

Some fungi break down dead materials to obtain nutrients.  Other fungi form relationships with living plants, including trees,  which generally are mutually beneficial.  This symbiotic association between a fungus and a living plant is called a mycorrhiza.  Mycorrhizal fungi feed on sugars from tree roots and trees in turn can get more minerals and water from the soil through their fungal partner.  According to BBC Earth, some scientists have shown that trees use this system to share nutrients with other trees, including their own saplings, in what some scientists refer to as the “wood wide web!” This web may include both the fungal network and tree roots that are actually grafted together.  I love this idea. Of course,  problems can spread through this web too ( just like our internet!) which is why we published the blog on preventing the spread of Oak Wilt.

Having missed the Parks mushroom workshop last weekend, I can’t identify most of the mushrooms I’ve seen lately. (Drat!)  They look so other-worldly and fascinating. Unless accompanied by a real expert who can make an absolute identification, though, please don’t try to eat them!  Wild mushrooms are notoriously difficult to identify and many are toxic to humans. And in any case, it’s always best to leave the park just the way you found it so we can all enjoy its beauty and surprises.

This amazing mushroom, which may or may not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dappled light of the woods.

Yellow and orange fungus
This mushroom, which might or might not be a Sulfur Shelf mushroom, glowed in the dim forest light.

Several of these pale orange mushrooms emerged from the wet soil near the pond at the Gunn Road entrance.

orange mushroom near Gunn
Pale orange mushrooms like this one appeared in the moist soil near the pond by Gunn Road.

Some animal’s taken a nip out of this little one.

Brown and white mushroom
Some animal’s tried a nip of this mushroom which may or may not be a Reddening Lepiota.

Someone’s been eating these red mushrooms, too.

red mushrooms?
These unidentified mushrooms may have been eaten by some small woodland animal, perhaps the American Red Squirrel.

One of the likely consumers of mushrooms in the forest is the  American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) which can safely eat some that are toxic to humans.

Red squirrel
The American Red Squirrel can eat mushrooms that are toxic to humans.

Speaking of “fruits,”  the Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina),  seen in early summer on southern end of the western forest path, has left a lovely fruit, known as a “rose hip.”

Rose hip pasture rose
A Pasture Rose has fruited, leaving a “rose hip.”

Bear Creek offers so much variety – the buzz and sway of the meadows, the shady walnut lane, the small ponds, the big, wild marsh and the dappled light of the woods.  A niche for every mood.  Hope you find the time to sample  some of them soon!

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; Stokes Nature Guides:  A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.