Tag Archives: Big Blue Stem

Two (or so) Magical Acres: Our Wet Prairie

Off the western side of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road, a sign indicates that you’re passing through a “wet prairie.”  Big Blue Stem grasses bend in the wind while all kinds of beautiful wildflowers flourish in the grass below.  If you ever thought “native wildflower” just meant Canada Goldenrod or Black-Eyed Susans,  you’re in for a treat.

Sign for wet prairie
The Wet Prairie is located north of Silver Bell Road on the Paint Creek Trail.

As many of you know, most native plants in this area are adapted to fire because of thousands of years of natural fires and regular burning by Native Americans for purposes of clearing and fertilizing the land.  Once the trains came through in the 19th century,   the sparks from the tracks, where the trail runs now, regularly started fires in the area.  Native prairie and savanna plants survived because they had adapted to fire; non-native plants were less likely to do so.

Once the trail replaced the train tracks, stewardship was required to preserve this very special environment.  Over the years, the Parks Commission has worked to restore this patch of wet prairie and its beautiful native plants.  Last year, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and his crew worked long hours from Silver Bell  Road to the Wet Prairie,  removing Autumn Olive and other non-native plants, trees and shrubs that lined the trail and crowded the field, shading out native plants. We thought you might enjoy seeing  a small sampling of the beauty that’s begun to flourish in this special area because of those efforts.

Native Wildflowers of the Wet Prairie

Flowers in wet prairies like this  are special – and very lovely.  Bring binoculars so you can scan the field since the area is too fragile for hiking or paths at this stage.

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

I was lucky enough to be introduced, very carefully, to this magical place by Dr. Ben who let me take photos so we could share the native beauty that exists in this special area.

 

We saw deep sky blue Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) in several stages of unfurling.

Fringed Gentian bud
A Fringed Gentian bud with its fringes curled around it.
Fringed gentian opening1
Fringed Gentian buds starting to open
Fringed gentian opening 2
Fringed Gentian bud a bit further along

And finally, an open one!  Look at the square opening made by the four leaves!

Fringed Gentian3
The four leaves of the Fringed Gentian make a lovely square opening at the center of the blossom.

Another deep blue beauty, Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), never opens its blossoms,  but Ben saw a native Bumblebee pry one open and climb inside to get at the pollen!

Bottle Gentian Wet Prairie
The flowers of Bottle Gentian never open so bumblebees just pry them open and squeeze inside!

And here’s Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian at Gallagher Creek Park.  Quite a moment to catch, eh?

Ben's photo of bumblebee bottle gentian
Dr. Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian blossom that it squeezed into.

Tiny orchids appear here and there in the Wet Prairie as well.  Who knew we had orchids?  You can see where it got its name, Prairie Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum). It looks like a spiraling french braid.

Ladies tresses orchid
A native orchid with the lovely name, Ladies Tresses

One of my favorite Wet Prairie wildflowers is Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) but until this week I’d only seen one or two blooms.  Here’s a closeup from a few years ago of one with its dark green stripes.

Grass-of-Parnassus
A green-striped Grass-of-Parnassus bloom, a native wet prairie wildflower.

Now, thanks to the stewardship efforts of the Parks and Recreation Commission, they’re sprinkled all over the prairie!  They’re a bit beyond their peak now, but they’re still lovely.

Grass-of-Parnassus
A group of Grass-of-Parnassus blooms last week, just a bit beyond peak bloom but still striking with their dark green stripes

White Snake Root  (Ageratina altissima) grows in the prairie and it’s plentiful on the east side of the trail, flowing downhill toward the creek.

White Snakeroot
White Snake Root spills down the hillside that leads to the creek across the trail from the prairie.

Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), another native plant that was plentiful a couple of weeks ago on the Wet Prairie, is finishing up now, but here are a few late blooms and then its very lovely fruit in the photo just below.

Blazing Star
Cylindrical Blazing Star with a few blooms left on the stalk

The fruits of the False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) add a touch of fall color to the prairie.

blazing star fruit_edited-1
The fruit of False Asphodel  with very fitting fall colors

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), with its descriptive  if not very elegant common name,  is another special plant in the Wet Prairie. It can also be found in other high quality wetlands in our area.

Turtlehead
Turtlehead is a very practical name for a rather elegant wet prairie plant.

Of course, familiar native wildflowers are present in this prairie as well, like Canada Goldenrod.  But there are other kinds of goldenrod here too, like Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) which is much less common because it frequents wetlands, including wet prairies, rather than dry fields and roadsides.

Riddell's Goldenrod
Riddell’s Goldenrod is less common in our area than our old friend, Canada Goldenrod.

And across the trail from the prairie, we saw Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida).  I love the way the soft leaves clasp the stalk.

Stiff goldenrod?
Stiff Goldenrod is also less common than the familiar Canada Goldenrod we see along the roadsides and in dry open fields.

The dry Old Fields in our parks tend to have non-native Cinquefoils but the Wet Prairie hosts a native Michigan species, called Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) which is often used in landscape settings as well as being found in wild wet areas.

Shrubby cinquefoil native
Shrubby Cinquefoil is a native cinquefoil rather than the non-natives that frequently show up in abandoned fields.

We saw another old friend, one late bloom of  the gorgeous orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). 

butterfly weed3
We saw a late bloom of Butterfly Milkweed, a native wild flower found often in dry areas.

Most of the the Butterfly Milkweed plants, though, are past blooming and are producing their elegant tapered pods, the fruits that contain their seed, seen below spilling onto the ground to be carried by the wind for next year’s crop.

Butterfly Milkweed pods
These slender, tapered pods are the fruit that contains the seeds of Butterfly Milkweed
Butterfly weed seed
Butterfly Milkweed seeds with the silk that will help them disperse when the wind catches them.

Although its small white flowers are done for the year, I love the deep purple stems of Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale), which are still standing among the flowers.

Northern Bedstaw
Northern Bedstraw’s white blossoms are gone, leaving these deep purple stems.

Creatures of the Wet Prairie

A Monarch butterfly(Danaus plexippus)rested in the shade of a tree after flitting across the Wet Prairie.

Monarch on dead leaf
A female Monarch butterfly rested briefly on a leaf after flitting across the Wet Prairie.

A curious European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)  paused on a Little Bluestem stalk where she might have been planning to lay eggs, as these non-native insects do in September.

Praying Mantis 2 Wet Prairie
A European Praying Mantis may have been planning to lay eggs on a hole in a grass stem.

A Green Darner (Anax junius), a large, very agile dragonfly,   took a break from patrolling for insect pray and rested in the shade.

Green Darner2
A Green Darner, a large dragonfly, escapes the noonday sun.

And a tiny Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) hatchling, about the size of a 50 cent piece, tried  to make it across the trail.  We gave it a little lift to the grass in the direction it was heading.

Snapping turtle hatchling
A tiny Snapping Turtle hatchling struggles to get across the trail.

Native Grasses of the Wet Prairie

Native grasses thrive in the Wet Prairie as well.  Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii), a classic native prairie grass, towers over everything with its characteristic turkey foot.

Big Blue Stem in the wind
Big Blue Stem, a classic prairie grass, towers over the other grasses and wildflowers.

But Dr. Ben made me aware of other native prairie grasses that I’d wouldn’t have noticed without help:

Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.

Canadian Wild Rye
Canadian Wild Rye bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the scientific name of this grass, Sorghastrum nutans, means “a swaying, poor imitation of Sorghum.”   I think I prefer the common name, Indian Grass!

Indian Grass
Indian Grass is the common name for this native grass in the Wet Prairie

It’s not difficult to see where native Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) got its name!

Bottlebrush grass
A native plant aptly named Bottlebrush Grass.

Restoring and preserving the very special habitat of the Wet Prairie is a way to preserve our history for future generations and to encourage plant diversity.  But it takes a lot of effort!  Please keep an eye on the “Stewardship” tab on our home page here at the Natural Areas Notebook for volunteer opportunities.  Perhaps you can help Dr. Ben with the PRC’s ongoing effort to care for the Wet Prairie with its unusual selection of beautiful wildflowers and graceful grasses.

*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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Small Surprises as Summer Wanes

Cam at BC1
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Nature is always full of great little surprises.  This week again, nature sprung a few on me – the unfamiliar appearance of a familiar bird, a sky full of dragonflies, and a park visitor who has touched the soft fuzz on a sleeping bee!

But the predictable is comforting, too. Queen Anne’s Lace has begun sharing the Old Fields with tufts of Goldenrod, all of them swaying and dancing in the wind.  Glorious days for a walk in Bear Creek!

goldenrod western path2
Queen Anne’s Lace now shares the western slope with burgeoning Goldenrod.

An Avian Surprise (at least to me…)

The molt that I discussed last week continues.   Groups of young House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) are still hiding in bushes within the park, waiting for the fall migration.  You can hear their persistent scolding as you walk by .

wren in bushes 5
Groups of young wrens hide in bushes around the park, waiting for the fall migration.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) hopped restlessly in a bare tree looking south, as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

Eastern Kingbird3
An Eastern Kingbird looking south as if dreaming of his winter home on the Amazon.

But here’s the SURPRISE!  Now does this look like a male Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) to you?

Male mallard in eclipse plumage
A male Mallard in its “eclipse plumage” after the molt.

If so, congratulations!  It didn’t to me.  This is actually what the glamorous green-headed male Mallard looks like after his mid-summer molt.  It’s called “eclipse plumage. ” The flight feathers are molted at the same time,  so during the molt, he was temporarily flightless.  Courtship for Mallards begins in the fall,  so in a few weeks the reddish- brown head feathers will be molted again into the brilliant green the male needs for attracting his mate.  The clue to gender in mallards, by the way, is the bill,  which is olive green/yellow in the male and orange with black in the female.  Eclipse plumage!  Who knew?

A Surprise in the Woods:  Green Rain!

Last Sunday, entering the Oak-Hickory woods, my husband and I began to hear what sounded like raindrops, pit-patting around us in the leaves and on the ground.  Puzzled, we finally realized that small green chunks were raining down on us. High in a Red Oak (Quercus rubra) sat a black squirrel.  Here’s one NOT at the top of a tree!

black squirrel2
This squirrel is a probably a black Fox Squirrel rather than a black Gray Squirrel since it is not pure black.

Black squirrels are just a color variant of the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) or the Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger). Of course, the Surprise –  “green rain” –  was a  shower of green acorn pieces that lasted several minutes as the black squirrel munched high above.  It took us a minute to catch on and we had a good laugh. Here’s an un- chewed Red Oak acorn; the mature ones are nut-brown.

small green acorn
The source of the “green rain,”  pieces of Red Oak acorn, fell around us from the munching of a black squirrel high above.

Another small surprise:  According to Wikipedia, North American squirrels were mostly black before Europeans came here, because forests were huge and shady and being black offered protection against predators and the cold.  With deforestation, the gray and brown varieties flourished. Now black squirrels are appearing more often in northern areas that have colder winters.

A Surprise in the Air:  A Swarm!

A squadron of about twenty-five darners (genus Anax), large dragonflies, swooped and dove over the western Old Field on Sunday, looking like Harry Potter in a quidditch match. Quite a surprise, since we’d never before seen more than two or three darners at a time in Bear Creek.  Probably we were seeing a feeding frenzy since lots of insects were foraging on abundant wildflowers below.    I only managed to photograph  6 in this one small section of the sky.

Squadron of darners
Squadron of darner dragonflies over a field full of insects.

According to an article by Michael L. May in the Journal of Insect Conservation, some dragonflies, including some (but not all) Green Darners (Anax junius), annually migrate in huge swarms, traveling “hundreds to thousands of kilometers north to south.”   Really?  Another small surprise for me!  I wonder if this squadron will migrate with a larger swarm? See Green Darners in an earlier TWBC post.

So what was in the fields below the darner swarm?  Despite the hush from the molting birds, Bear Creek is humming with insects.  The Carolina Grasshopper (Dissosteira carolina), now full grown ( see the nymph in the July 30 blog),  makes a dry whirring sound as it flies short distances along the trail on its dark wings. It also sings, or stridulates, by rubbing  its rasp-like hind leg against its forewing .

Carolina grasshopper
The Carolina grasshopper now has its copper color and makes short flights along the trail with its dark wings.

Most of the Red-Legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) are developing a bit later than usual this summer.  So this male nymph will need to molt into an adult before we hear it singing in September.

Later instar red-legged grasshopper
This is a late summer nymph of a Red-Legged Grasshopper who probably has not starting “singing” yet.

Grasshoppers have short antennae.  Crickets and katydids have lo-o-o-ng ones!  Here’s a female Shieldback Katydid (genus Atlanticus) that may be contributing to the hum in the fields or at the edge of the woods.  Look at the length of both her antennae and that very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.  (Hint: it looks like a tail.)

Shieldback Katydid genus Atlanticus
A Shieldback Katydid with the long antennae of all katydids and a very long ovipositor with which she lays her eggs.

Annual Green Cicadas  (Tibicen canicularis) drone in the trees, looking like some sort of alien.   (This one, however, was handily on our garage door!)

Cicada
The drone of the Annual Green Cicada is part of the familiar late summer hum.

Last weekend, bees buzzed from flower to flower in the western Old Field, balancing gracefully on the stems.  Another recent surprise for me was learning that the common Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is a non-native brought here from Europe in the 1600’s.  Here’s one with the “pollen baskets,” (corbicula) on her hind legs bulging after foraging among the goldenrod.

Honey bee with jodpurs
A Honey Bee, a non-native bee,  fills the pollen baskets on its hind legs as it forages on goldenrod.

As you’ve no doubt heard, Honey Bees have fallen on hard times, suffering from  multiple causes of  “Colony Collapse Disorder.” So it’s great to see them buzzing in the sunlight on so many late summer flowers in Bear Creek.

And speaking of bees…

Surprise Information from a Fellow Bear Creek Walker

One of the pleasures of being a Volunteer Park Steward is meeting so many other people with nature knowledge and experience.  A kindly woman named Mavis told me this week that she sometimes sees our native Bumblebees (Genus Bombus) sleeping under Goldenrod fronds or leaves at sunset.  She said she very gently reaches up the palm of her hand and touches their fuzzy bodies! Imagine what that might feel like!

I’ve read since then that a sleeping bumblebee is probably a drone, a male.  The female workers generally return to the hive at night to feed the queen, other workers and the larvae (baby bees). Males don’t even have leg baskets for gathering pollen.  They simply buzz about feeding themselves (thereby pollinating plants) and wait for a chance to mate with the queen – so they have no need to return to the hive.

So now I have another new goal – to feel the fuzz on a sleeping bumblebee.  The female Bumblebee worker below is filling her pollen basket by burying herself in a plume of Meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) in one of the native flower beds.

Meadowsweet closeup w bumblebee
A female bumblebee is almost buried in Meadowsweet as she fills the pollen baskets on her hind legs with its pale pollen.

Another Surprise:  Four Different, Very Tall Yellow Wildflowers in the Native Bed.

The native beds near the shed are full of tall yellow flowers – in fact four different ones! Thanks to Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, I’ve learned to distinguish between these giant beauties rather than seeing just “tall yellow flowers.”  It seems that these plants, like the asters,  have “composite flowers,” i.e.,  each apparent “petal” is actually a separate ray flower (or floret) and at the center are the disk flowers with a seed attached to each.

I’ve featured one of the yellow giants before, Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum). It’s super tall, up to 10 feet,  with a composite flower, ball-shaped buds on bare stalks and GIANT leaves near the ground.

prairie dock flower
Prairie Dock can grow to up to 10 feet high and features ball-shaped buds and huge leaves right at ground level.

Another I’ve mentioned before, False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) also has a composite flower.  It grows about 8 feet high with leaves along the stalk. Here you can see the disk flowers in bloom.

False sunflower flowering
The disk flowers at the center of this False Sunflower are in bloom.

Then there’s the characteristic drooping ray flowers of the Cut-Leaved Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata)  that grows 6 to 8 feet high. Here a bumblebee has its proboscis in one of the tube-shaped disk flowers.

green cone flower w insect_edited-1
Cut-leaved Coneflower with a bumblebee enjoying the disk flowers.

And rounding off the group of yellow giants is  Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) which grows 3 to 9 feet tall.  Obviously, Honey Bees and Bumblebees love them, too!

Bees on tall coreopsis
Two bumblebees and a Honey Bee  busily  probe blossoms, pollinating the Tall Coreopsis.

While we’re discussing native giants,  have a look at  the big tufts of Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) which are now showing the pronged seed heads which gave this tall prairie grass its other name, Turkey Foot.  I remember walking through a field on Lake George Road as a child with these giants towering over my head.  So it’s great to see them back again since the prescribed burns in Bear Creek!

big blue stem1
Big Blue Stem, a native prairie grass that can grow 10 feet tall,  has reappeared in the park since prescribed burns.

Coming Attractions:  Asters!

The purples and lavenders of native Asters are beginning to appear in Bear Creek.  Here’s this year’s first glimpse of three that will be much more prolific in the coming days.  Asters, like the yellow giants above, all have composite flowers as well.

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae)near the center pond:

New England Aster
The first dark purple New England Asters of 2015 with their composite flowers.

Smooth Asters (Symphotrichum laeve) on the western sloping path are lighter lavender and have a more delicate look than the New England Aster.

Smooth aster
The more delicate, lavender Smooth Asters have “petals” that are really individual ray flowers with disk flowers at the center.

And finally, I believe these are Panicled Asters (Symphytrichum lancelotaum) with small, white to  lavender ray flowers and yellow to lavender disk flowers.  My wildflower experts will check on this for me next week.

Panicled aster?
The small Panicled Asters have whitish lavender ray flowers (petals) and yellow or lavender disk flowers at the center.

A Fond Farewell:

The striking red Cardinal Flower is almost done for the year.  If you have time, take the path that leads north from the playground and have one last look on the southern side of the marsh boardwalk that’s on your left a short way down.

Cardinal flower end of August
The Cardinal flower is finishing its gorgeous red bloom near the marsh north of the playground.

So, if you like Surprises,  nature always obliges – especially at Bear Creek Nature Park. Literally, never a dull moment!

*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 and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.