On a frigid late afternoon a week or so ago at Draper Twin Lake Park, I came upon a large stand of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glowing in the sunlight. It turned out that I was not the only one enjoying that warm patch of sunlight backlighting plumes of goldenrod. That sunny curve in the trail was alive with winter birds!
Feasting on Seeds
Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twittered cheerfully back and forth in the grass below the plants, foraging with the sunlit stems swaying above them. These cheery-voiced winter visitors from the far north were landing on the goldenrods and nibbling at the seed heads.
That made some of the seed fall to the ground, where the tree sparrows prefer to feed, so the tall grass below rippled with busily foraging members of the flock.
And Tree Sparrows hung out in the bushes and trees nearby waiting their turn, some gathering a little warmth on their breasts from the setting sun.
They weren’t the only species enjoying that patch of sunlit goldenrod, though. Another winter visitor from Canada, a Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis), swooped into the lit plumes and began sampling the seed heads.
In the background, a tentative American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its sedate winter plumage, waited its turn too. So many birds being fed at once! I imagine they all enjoyed the faint warmth of the winter sun shining through the plumes as they ate their evening meal.
Foraging for a Frozen “Dessert”
A male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobatespubescens) preferred to look for insect eggs or larvae in the stems of Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). He moved quickly from plant to plant pecking furiously. Later in the winter, I often find goldenrod galls with neat holes in them where Downys have excavated larva from their winter hideaway inside. But this Downy Woodpecker was searching for something inside the stems themselves.
A pair of Eastern Bluebirds seemed to be checking out possible real estate for the spring. The female sat on the box for some time, occasionally fluttering down to poke her head inside. The male waited calmly nearby, taking periodic foraging trips down into the grass. (Click on photo to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Later I saw a female – perhaps the one from the nest box? – pecking on a branch until she loosened a frozen, tiny green caterpillar, which she then promptly swallowed. She was so busy pounding on its hard surface that I never got a clear photo of the caterpillar in her beak – but here she is just after eating her frozen dessert. Looks like it might have felt a bit chilly on the way down, doesn’t it?
In the same clump of bushes, a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) performed acrobatic feats while trying, it appeared, to extract some kind of insect from the end of a twig. Here it is hanging upside down as it pecked diligently for its supper. I love its feathered leg-warmers.
So whether a bird prefers seeds or likes to finish the day with a cold bug or two, Draper Twin Lake Park has food ready and waiting. Nice how nature works like that…
Wow, what a tough April – for us and for wildlife! I even considered the possibility at one point that our thermometer was broken, since it seemed to be stuck at 32 degrees! The intrepid birding group went out in a snow squall the first week of the month. Despite cold and driving wind, we still came across flocks of early migrators, like the Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) pictured above, along with more than 60 robins foraging in the meadows.
We got a couple of brief respites in which it was possible to imagine a normal spring day with birdsong, fragile leaves, turtles warming in the sun. Then it was back in the freezer. Wildlife and plant life coped with cold wind and sleet, soaked up whatever sun was available and waited for change. We humans harnessed the warmer days for stewardship projects. And then voilà, spring arrived (I hope) last weekend.
Despite the Icy Cold, Birds Arriving, Leaving, and Braving the Cold, Plus a Tough Little Willow Tree.
Experts tell us that bird migration depends more on the length of spring days, than it does on the temperature. As a result, our first summer-only birds arrived to find snowy fields rather than the first greening of spring. What could they or our year ’round residents do but cope?
This Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) hid among the grasses at the edge of the marsh as the snow fell on the birders the first Wednesday in April. She’s probably been back for a few weeks and is well-equipped to deal with the cold. Normally by this time, though, she’d be picking nest sites, but I doubt this thin spot at the edge of the marsh was being seriously considered.
In a tree at the south end of the marsh, a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) looked dismayed by the cold wind ruffling his crest. His staring eyes seemed to suggest that he was as stunned by the freezing temperatures as the bundled-up birders below him!
Birders spotted the silhouette of a Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)hunched in a branch near the marsh. No doubt it was hoping to have some clean-up work soon. After all, its job and its food source is seeing that all the carrion in the park is dealt with quickly and efficiently. I had to wonder if it regretted having left southern Ohio, or points even farther south.
During a brief pause in the snowfall, a Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), who may have spent his winter in southern Ohio, stared out into the white landscape. It’s likely he arrived with other males and a mixed flock of Red-wings and Brown-headed Cowbirds, frequent traveling companions this time of year.
Over at the Playground Pond, a shy little Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)huddled on a branch, twitching its tail over the water, as the snow fell. Having perhaps wintered in Tennessee, this little bird is usually one of the earliest flycatchers to arrive in Michigan. So it’s hardy enough to brave the cold – though maybe, like us, it have would preferred better April weather. Look closely; it’s nicely camouflaged against the branches and behind the veil of falling snow!
Our sturdy, native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) survives even in Alaska and northern Canada. So it bravely thrust forth its fuzzy white catkins in the southern part of the marsh as the snow swirled around it. The bright, bare branches of native Red Twig/Red-Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea) added a nice dash of color to a dark morning.
Some of the winter-only visitors are still stocking up before leaving for points north. Small flocks of American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) twitter among the bushes, getting last minute meals before heading to Hudson’s Bay or the Arctic tundra for the summer. They certainly seem to relish cold weather! I’m glad Bear Creek Nature Park seems to have provided enough winter food for this small long-distance flyer.
During a brief snow melt last week, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis)also seemed busy preparing to depart northward for the summer. They foraged among the newly sprouting grass where the prescribed burn had taken place in March. They don’t travel quite as far as the Tree Sparrows, perhaps only into Ontario.
Short, Warm Respites Meant Birdsong, Frog Song, Turtles and More
For a few short days, off and on, we had sun and some genuinely spring-like temperatures. The Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica)thawed out from their winter freeze. The low, chuckling call of the Wood Frogs joined the constant, rhythmic peeping of the Chorus Frogs, featured in the blog a couple of weeks ago. Here’s a photo of a Wood Frog taken last November as they began hibernation. The black patch near the eye underlined with light yellow, plus ridges down the back are the field marks for this small frog.
The clucking or chuckling sounds in the foreground of this recording from a week ago are those of the Wood Frog. The higher-pitched calls in the background are from Western Chorus frogs. Be sure to turn up your volume!
On a cold but sunny afternoon, the male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) chirped his burbling refrain as the wind ruffled his feathers and carried his melodious tune out across the Eastern Meadow.
On the recording below taken ten days ago, he sings loudly twice with a bit of a rest in between.
When the temperature rose to sixty degrees, all kinds of plants, animals and insects seemed to come to life at once! When Ben ventured out into the park about 8:30 pm one evening, he heard the buzzing “peent” call of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). This call from the ground precedes an aerial display in which the Woodcock spirals up into the sky and then chirps on the way down, plummeting the last several feet before landing right where it began. All this happens just before dark in small open fields near wetlands at Bear Creek and Cranberry Lake Parks. For the whole sequence of sounds during this mating flight, try this link at Cornell Ornithology Lab. (Wait for the “peent!” at the end. It will surprise you!). Though I’ve heard and briefly seen the Woodcock, here’s a photo by talented photographer Jerry Oldenettel at iNaturalist.org who’s had much better luck than I at getting a good photo!
A pair of Bluebirds (Sialis sialis)seem to searching out nest sites at Bear Creek. I saw a male one snowy afternoon peering down into the grass for possible food and a female surveying the Eastern Meadow.
A male bluebird scanning the grass for something to eat.
A female bluebird surveying the eastern meadow
This male Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)finds all kinds of good things to eat as he tap, tap, taps on a tree trunk. Though they’ll eat seeds and fruits, their preference is for insect larvae, so they’re very good stewards of trees, ridding them of bark beetles and other insects. According to Donald W. Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.1), if we hear a quick, loud, regular beat in its drumming, that’s a mating call. When the drumming is lighter and irregular, the Hairy is either feeding or starting to excavate a nest hole.
Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater)foraged in the fields as well. These handsome birds don’t create nests, but rather lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. Cowbirds aren’t really irresponsible parents. Having evolved to constantly follow western buffalo herds, they had no time to care for young. So the cowbirds who took advantage of the nests and care of other birds carried on the species!
The Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta marginata), who’d been hibernating in the cold mud on pond bottoms all winter, climbed onto logs all over the park on the first warm day. In the photo below, nine of them were basking in a patch of sunlight within a shady wetland, letting the sun soak into their dark shells. Aahhh, that must have felt sooo good!
While hand sowing native seed, we discovered Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) twisted around each other in a wriggling hug as they mated in the brown grass. The female, according to Wikipedia, is larger than the male. They may have evolved this way because garter snakes bear live young. The more little snakes they can carry, the more likely their genes will go on to another generation.
With temperatures so low, insects are still scarce in the fields right now. But I noticed what appears to be a Sexton/Carrion Beetle (g. Nicrophorus, fam. Silphidae) clambering through grass and leaves one warm-ish afternoon. It was probably sensing a dead mouse or bird and heading to bury it as a source of food for its larvae. These small members of the “cleanup crew” are large and colorful, usually dark with red on the forewings and fancy club-shaped antennae.
I saw two plants making go of it in the cold April air. The perennial Skunk Cabbage(Symplocarpus foetidus) thrust it bulbous, purple bract (spathe) up through the mud. The bract envelops a long spike (spadix) which holds the flowers. Early flies and bees are attracted by its pungent (and skunk-y, not very pleasant) odor. Interesting that the leaves on this plant show up after the flowers.
The skunk cabbage’s flower within its spathe emerging from the mud on March 31.
Its leaves beginning to form by April 18.
At this time last year, another of the earliest spring flowers, Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) had already presented their pink- and white-striped blossoms in the forest. This year, though, in the middle of April, their spindly leaves were just starting up around the roots of large trees. Perhaps the warmer weather will hurry them along, too!
Spring Beauty is slow getting going this year.
Look for its tiny blossoms under forest trees as the sunlight increases.
Stewardship Projects Proceeded
A few cold but clear days provided suitable conditions for Dr. Ben’s VanderWeide’s park projects. Along with the prescribed burn in March and hand-sowing the fields of Bear Creek with native seed, Ben, Alex Kriebel (stewardship specialist with Oakland Township Parks), Ian Ableson (a new stewardship employee at Six Rivers Land Conservancy), and 4 volunteers began the yearly monitoring of vernal pools. As part of a larger project of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, Ben monitors these biodiversity hotspots three times over the summer. What a collection of unusual creatures! They wake and feed or quickly hatch, mature, mate, lay eggs and expire in these temporary ponds that dry over the summer. Great to know our vernal pools are teeming with life! (Click on pause button if you need more time for captions.)
The Promise of Full-fledged Spring
We humans know how to take advantage of spring-like weather, just as the wildlife does. One warm, cloudy afternoon, a small girl brought her kite to test the April winds. This youngster got her long-tailed kite flying high and kept it there. So great to see parents bringing young children out to play surrounded by nature in our parks.
Last weekend, I think most of us dared to hope that “real spring” had finally arrived. The air was softer, the temperature more normal for late April, and a brighter sun warmed our upturned faces from a blue sky. Leaf buds that have waited on branches all winter have begun to swell. Soon more of those buds will open and our world will slowly dress itself in spring’s lovely shade of green. More migrators will navigate hundreds or even thousands of miles, making use of the sun, the stars and earth’s magnetic fields to find their way back to us. Mornings and sunsets will be filled with more chatter and birdsong. So try to keep your eyes and ears alert! Spring’s full-fledged arrival is just beginning to burst forth in full glory.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, and others as cited in the text.
As the township birding group departed Cranberry Lake Park last week, the bugling call of Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) filtered down through the frosty air. Looking up, Ben drew our attention to a huge V-shaped flock of striking black and white birds arrowing across the cold November sky. Gifted local photographer Bob Bonin quickly captured this very special sighting .
The Tundra Swans are so-named because they spend the summer on their breeding grounds above the tree line on the Arctic Circle. On river deltas, near large bodies of water, they build their nests on the chilly ridges formed by the thawing and freezing soil. During the 24 hour sun of an arctic summer, they feed themselves and their young on the lichens, mosses, and grasses of upland or wet meadow tundra. When the long dark of a far north winter started to set in, the swans we saw began their journey south. They passed over our area along their route, likely on their way to the eastern coast of the United States for the winter months.
But another much more modest arctic migrator arrived in the last month – the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea). (Many thanks again to Bob Bonin for sharing his photos!)
This brown and gray sparrow with a black spot on its breast also raises its young on the arctic tundra. After the male has attracted a mate by singing from the stunted, shrub-like trees of the Arctic, the pair construct a nest of white ptarmigan feathers right on the tundra itself. During the Arctic’s long summer days, they feast and feed their young on insects. But here these modest brown birds, who have traveled so far to spend the winter with us, become vegetarians, peacefully searching out seed in the snow beneath our feeders. (Despite their name, Tree Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground or in shrubs.)
So while we humans may grouse about cold winter days, birds from the arctic must find our area quite balmy. High above, magnificent Tundra Swans wing their way to America’s east coast, bugling cheerfully along the way. And humble Tree Sparrows, leaving behind a dark, frigid arctic winter, treat the blizzards of a Michigan winter like a Florida vacation! Everything, as they say, is relative.
From early autumn until the first really cold weather, nature is busy preparing for winter – and so is the Parks Commission. While plants disperse seed and mushrooms release spores for next spring’s growth, our stewardship manager, Ben VanderWeide, is sowing native seed as well. As the trees drop leaves to prepare for spring growth, Ben and his contractors clear away invasive shrubs to provide spring sunlight for native grasses, bushes and wildflowers. So this week, please join me for some short visits to several parks to see how nature and the Parks Commission work together to prepare for winter snow and the spring to come.
Bear Creek Nature Park: Seeding, Feeding and Choosing a Mate
Bear Creek made a glorious exit from autumn. In late October, it burned with autumn gold and red.
As usual, the Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) “fell asleep” before the other trees; they “wake up” late in the spring, too. I like to think they need more rest than other trees!
The Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were busy with two kinds of preparation: finding a mate for the spring and eating to store up fat for the winter. Happily, both could be accomplished at once. Males, now in courting colors, cruised the Center Pond with females, going “up tails all” while feeding below the surface.
Mallards choose partners in the fall and then mate in the spring. So eventually they begin to pair off like these two did as the setting sun gilded the pond.
Plants, of course, are dropping seeds and fruits. The white fruits of Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) have either been eaten by birds or dropped to the ground to produce a dense thicket of more dogwood next year. On the right are the bare red pedicels in November. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At the edge of the wood, I spotted a Gilled Mushroom (order Agaricales) within a dead stump. It will drop its spores from the gills beneath the cap to produce more mushrooms next year.
Lost Lake Nature Park: Shedding Leaves and Seeds
Fall is a time when trees shed their summer leaves. The apparent path of the sun lowers toward the horizon from September to Winter Solstice (December 21). So, the days grow shorter. Less daylight means that leaves lose the chlorophyll that makes them green and allows them to photosynthesize. This process of photosynthesis stores energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of sugars. Trees use these sugars to grow during spring and summer, and many times sugars are stored for the future as starch. In the fall leaves change color as the chlorophyll recedes, their job completed for the season. Eventually lower light signals the trees to create “abscission cells” which grow between the stem and the branch, separating them. Down come the leaves. (“Abscission,” by the way, has the same root as the word “scissors!”)
Leaf carpets are useful as well as beautiful. As they decompose, leaves release nutrients back into the soil and provide the spongy humus that helps the soil hold water. And of course, they can act as protective mulch for the roots of forest plants and trees. Here’s a colorful carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake.
Out in Lost Lake, the big flat leaves of Fragrant Water Lilies are fading for all the same reasons as other leaves. Their graceful simplicity against the dark water was eye-catching.
In the forest, near the top of the sledding hill, some native plants were still preparing to drop their seeds. Showy Goldenrod’s (Solidago speciosa) seeding plumes still stood tall in the forest light under the trees. And a stem of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) had yet to let go of its awn-tipped seeds. The grass fruit flies through the air and lands on the ground like tiny arrows, carrying their cargo of next year’s seed.
A flock of restless American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) swooped and dove near the western edge of the lake and foraged over the grassy area near the former stable. Tree Sparrows, summer residents of the Arctic, are experienced foragers. They spend the winter here finding edible seeds, fruits, insect larvae – whatever they can find in a snowy Michigan winter.
At the end of the walk, human prep for winter becomes apparent. Jeff Johnson, the Parks Commission’s Maintenance Tech, spent about a day and a half preparing the sledding hills for winter use. He marked off the big hill, the kiddie’s hill and the boundaries of the upward trek. Just in time for the big snowfall!
Cranberry Lake Park: Pond Ice and Puffballs
In the center of Cranberry Lake Park is a large pond where I’d seen herons and mallards feeding together one early fall afternoon. When I went back to explore in late fall, the pond was beautifully still and silent. A light skim of ice had formed on one end.
Near the pond, a large colony of tiny Puffball Mushrooms (genus Bovista) had finished releasing their spores. These tiny puffballs tend to grow in groups like this.
A few years ago, I saw these little mushrooms covering a stump at Bear Creek. They were plump in early autumn, filled with spores. When the spores are mature and are tapped by falling raindrops, small creatures or the occasional curious human – poof! – the spores pop out of the open center to be carried on the air so more mushrooms appear the following year.
The little mushrooms at Cranberry Lake were spent; their center holes had opened, releasing the spores. Quite a come-down in appearance, I’m afraid.
Stewardship: Lending a Helping Hand to Nature’s Winter Prep
The Wet Prarie on the Paint Creek Trail: Birds Gather Seeds and So Do We
The Tree Sparrow at Lost Lake is not the only creature foraging for wild seed this autumn. Ben and a crew of volunteers spent a peaceful morning at the Wet Prairie off the Paint Creek Trail gathering native grass and wildflower seeds for planting in other areas of the township.
Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks: Seeds Sown by Plants and People
While the native plants are dropping seeds to prepare for spring abundance, so our Township Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide is busy sowing native seed around the township. During the first week of December, parts of two parks, Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks, were planted with native seed that Ben had gotten through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. The land had earlier been prepared in Gallagher Creek’s west section by clearing invasive shrubs and plants through selective treatment, mowing, and prescribed burns. Now a no-till native seed drill, designed to handle the varying sizes of native seeds, went to work. Discs cut a thin furrow in the ground to a pre-determined depth and simultaneously, seeds were dropped into the thin furrows.
At Charles Ilsey Park, the machine sowed more native seed after last year’s more extensive prairie planting. Here’s a YouTube video of the native seed drill at work.
Watershed Ridge Park, the Wet Prairie and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Trees and Humans Prepare for New Growth
Just as trees prepare for spring by discarding their old leaves in the autumn, Ben and his contractors are working on ridding our parks of shrubs and underbrush to encourage new native growth. After cutting invasive woody shrub sprouts on the Wet Prairie, Ben carefully treated stumps to prevent them from re-sprouting next year. Invasives are persistent, so Ben has to be too!
At Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Ben brought in a contractor with a forestry mower to clear invasive shrubs from the current entrance. What a difference! Though not taken at exactly the same place, the photo just below will give you an idea of the density of the invasive shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine before removal – and below that is the wonderfully open look it has now. A lovely view from the beautiful stone bench in the distance.
But the biggest, most impressive “clearing the decks” project this fall was the beginning of habitat restoration process at Watershed Ridge Park. Just a month ago, the rolling slopes of this park were tangled with invasive shrubs that in many places were impenetrable. However, Ben noticed sun-loving native grasses and wildflowers struggling to survive under the heavy cover of overhanging limbs and vines – plants like the delicate orchid Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species),Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and three kinds of native Goldenrod.
So the first week in December, restoration began. A contractor’s forestry mower cleared 10.5 acres of invasive shrubs from among the trees. Now the contours of the land can be seen, dotted with oak, ash, elm and cherry trees.
The land slopes down from east to west to a marsh and a pond, both fed by a stream running from the large marsh that’s to the north of the park.
Now the stream, the marsh and the pond, which extends as far as Lake George Road, can be approached easily without fighting through dense, invasive shrubbery and vines. Once trails are created, this will be a lovely spot to watch for water wildlife!
In the forest at the edges of the cleared area are Red, Black and White Oaks. Here’s an old White Oak (Quercus alba) within the cleared area. Probably because of the crowding from shrubs and small trees, it never had the chance to spread its limbs wide in the sunlight, like the White Oak we all enjoy near Bear Creek’s Center Pond. But it’s still pretty impressive!
I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the orange Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) Ben spotted sprouting from a fallen long nearby. Turkey-tails come in a wide variety of colors!
In case you’re interested, this is the contractor’s forestry mower that cleared the shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine and also at Watershed Ridge.
What an exciting beginning to restoring this piece of land and creating a park that the community can enjoy! It will take time to develop trails and any other amenities that are appropriate to this beautiful land with its woods, slopes and wetlands. We’ll try to keep you posted on developments.
Nature and Parks Stewardship: Partners in Fostering Our Natural Heritage
I’ve come to see that stewardship supports nature by mimicking it in so many ways. Seeds that create new growth each year drop to the ground or sail away on the wind to take root and grow into more life. And we gather native seed and carefully sow it in narrow furrows to do the same. Trees drop their leaves to make way for new ones next spring. We too clear away invasive plants and shrubs to make way for new life. Native seed, lying dormant in the underground seed bank for years, will now sense exposure to sunlight and moisture on the earth above, crack open and begin to sprout. And with those plants, eventually will come butterflies, other insects, and birds that eat or nest in those native plants, restoring the diverse habitat that is part of our area’s natural history. So much life from simply giving nature a helping hand!
Footnote: My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); 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 insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.
Wow! When Ben told me that they’d been removing shrubby, invasive plants and preparing ground for seeding at Gallagher Creek Park, I didn’t picture such a great transformation. When I stepped from my car in the parking lot, I was at first shocked and then, as I explored, really thrilled!
The big changes are that the park is much more open, its gently rolling terrain revealed, and the creek is now visible almost all the way through the park! Where it once was hidden by both summer growth and impenetrable thickets, now the little creek can be observed, meandering across the meadows toward Paint Creek. In this open landscape, a hardy wildflower defied the frost, as did a tiny butterfly and an unfamiliar grasshopper, while a woodpecker drilled away at his winter home. Let me show you.
New Open Spaces
Maybe these photos of Ben’s will begin to give you a feel for how much more open the park is now. The cleared areas in the foreground of these two photos (the upward slope to the west) will be seeded with wildflowers and native grasses or sedges this month. The rest of the area, recently cleared, is scheduled for seeding next year. The native plant seed is being provided through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The area beyond the tree line in the distance in the above photos has been cleared all the way to the edge of the marsh that borders Silverbell Road. Eventually, once everything is replanted and the terrain is more settled, there may be paths into this area.
Below on the left, you can see some of the bushes that used to block our view of the creek edge – and on the right, is how it looks now that the shrubs have been removed. Some of these were native shrubs, Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina). When it sprouts in the spring, Ben plans to let some of it grow again. But it needed to be cut back to prevent these aggressive shrubs from taking over the field along with Autumn Olive and other invasives!
Now you’d think with all that cut wood and dead grass, the park would feel quite abandoned by wildlife. But no. Despite the frost, my husband spotted Bottle Gentians still blooming on the west side of the park. These somewhat rare wildflowers and others should bloom more profusely now that the shrubs are removed and the Gentian’s seeds can benefit from increased sunlight.
Here are other rare native wildflowers that we hikers can hope to see in greater abundance once the restoration is complete.
The multi-colored wings of a native Common Buckeye Butterfly (Junonia coenia) glowed in autumn light against the deadwood one sunny morning last week. Isn’t the wing pattern beautiful on this small butterfly?
Nearby, we spotted a grasshopper that I’d never noticed before. Its dark brown body and forked “cerci” (area just above the end of the abdomen) make me think it’s a Broad-necked Grasshopper (Melanoplus keeleri luridus). According to the Orthoptera of Michigan (a link sent to me by a kind reader), this grasshopper is around until early November which is another indicator. Nice surprise!
I admit to being a bit worried about the long term survival of this long Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) weaving its way through the drying grass. It’s pretty vulnerable to hawks or owls until the plant life returns!
Up in a snag on the southwest side of the park, a slightly comical Downy Woodpecker was making its repetitive “squeek” as it excavated a series of holes in a snag. Just above its head , you can see the wood chips flying as it tossed them out of the hole. It may have a couple left in its beak as well. Busy bird, popping in and out of different holes.
Of course a group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) stared curiously at me from the edge of the park. I don’t think I’ve ever come to this park without seeing deer on the eastern side. Watch out for them when driving in November and December as they get quite heedless during the rut!
A couple of oddities showed up, too. Here’s a large Puffball Mushroom (phylum Basidiomycota) that was a bit beyond its expiration date, so to speak – though it appears some animal or bird may have sampled it.
The hole of what was probably a Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus) appeared as well.These aggressive crayfish used to live only in the West, but were transported to our area, it’s believed, as bait. This may be the same hole our birding friend Antonio saw in May, but it’s taller now with fresh, wet mud on it.
Gallagher Creek Itself is Now Visible!
My husband and I had fun tracking along as much of the creek as we could once we realized its path could be followed through the park. It enters through a culvert under Silverbell Road at the west and flows down past the viewing platform. In the summer, its current is hidden among tall grasses. Autumn, however, reveals its meandering journey, making multiple pools that join up farther down.
It was impossible to get close to the river before. Both non-native and native grasses grew shoulder high and the thickets of shrubs were impenetrable. Now we can watch the creek find its way along the meadow.
In the “riparian corridor” formed by the stream meeting the meadow, we spotted what I think is an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), though the stick that was right in front of its eye made it hard to tell before it took off!
Gallagher Creek joins up with two other small streams that cross Silverbell farther east and flow into and out of the marsh toward the creek. They create a more quickly flowing stream by the time the creek reaches the new Pinnacles development to the east where a lovely bridge crosses over it. (Thanks to our birding friend, Nancy Russell, for the tip on where to find it!)
By the way, wasps evidently thought the bridge made a nice location and built across from the bridge. I guess all the houses, even the insect ones, are elegant and huge in this development!
From there, Gallagher Creek flows down behind private homes, until it appears again, to flow from west to east through a culvert under Gallagher Road, just above the Paint Creek Trail.
And once it’s crossed the road, it flows along Gallagher, eventually running through a culvert into Paint Creek near the cider mill.
According to the Southeast Michigan Department of Natural Resources newsletter in 2011, Gallagher Creek was “home to one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.” At the time that newsletter appeared, development around the park had decreased this native fish’s population dramatically. “The brook trout density found in this survey was about 50 per mile, down from 300 per mile in 1990 and 1998. This decline in abundance is likely due to siltation of the stream from the development along the creek.” I wonder if brook trout are still spawning in Gallagher Creek, the young still making their way to Paint Creek. Perhaps the DNR will do another survey that will let us know their fate.
Now we can look with anticipation to next year at Gallagher Creek Park. The land should bloom with new flowers and grasses planted this fall and next spring. Native seeds that have waited in the seed bank below the ground for years may now emerge as sun reaches the soil. With more flowers, come more butterflies and other insects, and then more birds and other wildlife. So keep your eye on this little gem of a park. It’s on its way to being a great resource for families in the south end of the township!
Footnote: My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); 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 insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org; An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.