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 Eastern Garter 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!