Tag Archives: big bluestem

Worried About the Planet? Let’s Make a Difference One Garden at a Time.

It’s admittedly a worrisome time for those of us  who love our small, blue planet. Devastating fires, raging floods, 30 billion fewer birds in the last 50 years, a UN report that 100 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades. According to Eduardo Brondizio at Indiana University, half a million species have “insufficient habitat for long-term survival.” Their best hope is restoration of their habitat.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Aha! Now here’s something you and I can do something about! And we can do it without leaving home, or participating in protests or influencing recalcitrant politicians. We can enrich the habitat right beyond our kitchen windows. And it won’t take sacrifice – in fact, it’s rewarding! It won’t take giant sums of money or raising taxes. All it takes, dear kindred spirits, is adding native plants to our gardens and yards – as many as we can plant each year. By doing so, we can make a HUGE difference to the survival of species. Stick with me here. The news keeps getting more hopeful as we move along.

Is Your Yard Full of Non-native Plants?  Mine Is…

I’m betting your garden is a lot like mine – filled with non-native trees, grass, shrubs and flowers that evolved in distant countries.  I’m thinking of common garden plants like Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) from the Balkans in Southeastern Europe, Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from eastern Asia,  or Vinca (Vinca minor) from Europe, Africa and Asia.  Take a short world tour in this slideshow and discover where a few of our most popular garden plants originated. [Use pause button for time to read captions.)

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Our non-native, international gardens look lovely;  butterflies sip nectar from the flowers and insects never leave a hole in the leaves.  The turf grass looks like a seamless green carpet if we fertilize it and water it regularly.  So what’s the problem?

Well, in their homelands, our non-native plants were not a problem.  They did just what nature asks plant to do – pass on  the sun’s energy (through photosynthesis) to all the other organisms in their habitat that can’t do that.  In its native Europe, invasive Phragmites (Phragmites australis subspecies australis), for example,  supports over 170 insect species. But not here! Here the invasive, non-native grass crowding every wet roadside supports only 5 species – and it’s been here for centuries!

Burning won’t kill phragmites! Here, we’re using controlled burning to remove dead Phragmites that was treated in fall 2014. We remove dead material in the hope that native plants may emerge.

Problem: Our Gardens are Missing One Essential Feature – Plentiful Caterpillars

Now you may be thinking, “Caterpillars eat holes in leaves! The lack of caterpillars is not a problem!!!” Well, actually, it is. Like me, you’ve probably always thought of your garden or lawn as an artistic or decorative enterprise. And it should be! We all need beauty around us. But nature needs our garden flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to be productive, as well as beautiful. Our yards also need to nourish creatures large and small who live around us. The sad truth is that  most of our gardens are green, colorful food deserts that leave nature hungry and malnourished. Luckily, we can easily change that!

Insects: “The Little Things that Run the World”

Insects, including butterflies, moths, and many other pollinators keep an ecosystem fed. They really are, as the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, “the little things that run the world.” An insect’s chubby caterpillars chewing and hunching along a plant stem provide essential food for the whole web of life. Birds stuff them down the scrawny throats of baby birds; caterpillars are soft and filled with the fat and protein nestlings need. Adult birds snag insects from the air, pluck them off the ground, and snatch them from leaves. They even spend winter days probing loose bark looking for frozen insect eggs or caterpillars to get the protein that helps keep their small bodies warm on icy nights.

Without enough caterpillars, birds won’t lay a full clutch of eggs in the spring. Their  young will not be as large and healthy. And they need a lot of them! Chickadees, for example, need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise their clutch of nestlings! Caterpillars are simply the most important food source for birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and some mammals. Seeds and fruits contribute to food webs too – but caterpillars are essential.

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So Why Are Our Yards Missing So Many Caterpillars?

Ninety percent of our native caterpillars, the young of daytime butterflies and the moths who maneuver through the night, are picky eaters! They can only eat plants with which they co-evolved. They are specialists who, over eons, have overcome the chemical defenses of particular native plants and are now adapted to eat them and nothing else. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to switch to what’s available. It would take thousands of years of evolution to make that possible. So if our caterpillars don’t hatch out on a native plant, they generally die of malnutrition before reaching adulthood.

The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), of course, is the classic example; its caterpillars can eat only one genus – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias).  Monarchs will sip nectar from all kinds of flowers, but their caterpillars need one of the milkweed species for food that will nourish them to adulthood. And 90% of all our insects face the same challenge of finding the native plants their young can eat. Not enough native plants means not enough insects and their caterpillars, which means not enough birds, not enough amphibians –  and on it goes as hunger spreads through a habitat’s food web.

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A Beautiful, Simple Solution: Plant More Native Flowers, Grasses, Shrubs and Trees

So many environmental issues are beyond our control. But we can control our yards, our gardens, the fields and woods on our land. And we can turn around the declining numbers of butterflies, pollinators, birds and more by nourishing wildlife around us with beautiful native plants. They come in all kinds of colors and shapes. Some thrive in wet areas, some in dry. Some need the sunshine, some the shade. Some bloom in only one season, some in more than one. Some are even green all winter! Here’s just a tiny, rainbow sampling  to whet your appetite!

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Our Gardens and Yards Can Change Gradually, Right?

We don’t need to overhaul our gardens overnight. I plan to just gradually add in more native plants each year. Ideally, our goal is to reach at least 70% native – but any increase in native plants benefits our local habitats. For example, I can’t afford to eliminate the non-native woods of invasive Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) next to our driveway – but I can remove its invasive sprouts wherever I come across one. And maybe year by year, we can remove a bit more of the Vinca and Lily-of -the-Valley that have choked out native woodland flowers on the forest floor. I’m thinking  of removing Locusts that are crowding the few native Wild Black Cherry Trees (Prunus serotina) in the woods and perhaps adding in a few native understory trees to help out the birds and insects.

Dense woods of non-native Black Locust

Three years ago, I started taking on the invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that has encircled our yard and infiltrated the woods for years. Pulling them out by the roots is quite easy; my 4-year-old neighbor enjoyed doing it with me! And the reward at our house is that beautiful, native White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) now rises out of the earth each autumn wherever I pulled the Garlic Mustard in the spring! (Have a look at the beautiful bank of white blossoms below!) I’m anxious to know what else may be hiding in the seed bank under the forest floor!

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If placed in the right environment, native plants are less fussy than non-native plants we usually get from the garden store. They’ve evolved in our ecosystem so they don’t need the regular watering, fertilizing or soil amendments that non-natives usually do. In fact many of our native plants do better in poor soil! Rain generally provides enough water for them, except in severe droughts. You’ll need to experiment to see what works, just as you do with non-native plants. Some will grow more vigorously than you’d like and need to be thinned; consider sharing them with neighbors! Others will need to be moved to a new location. That’s OK! It’s all a learning process, right?

A Word about that Lawn…

Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, a sort of  “bible” for native gardeners, points out that millions of acres in America are covered by our lawns. In fact researchers say that the American lawn covers an area the size of New England! Turf grasses are non-native and require huge amounts of water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep them  green. Mowing them frequently also uses lots of fossil fuel.

Now neither Doug Tallamy nor I are not advocating that you ignore your lawn and let it grow into a fallow field full of invasive plants! What Tallamy and other conservationists are asking is this: Could you do with less grass and plant more native gardens? Could you plant a native White Oak (Quercus alba) in your front yard? (White Oaks can support over 500 different insect species and still look great! Could you put native shrubs along your driveway? Maybe you could plant a more formal native garden in the front with drifts or masses of native plants that love to be planted close together.  (No need for mulch!)

Grass paths could be used to guide you through your landscape; turf grass is great to walk on. If your children play outside (and I fervently hope they do!), leave a play area but surround it with native wildflowers or flowering native shrubs. And where you have slopes or large open areas with plenty of sun, consider taller native grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a variety of sun-loving prairie plants. Native grasses and shrubs provide artistic structure in a garden, but also give caterpillars safe places to spin their chrysalises and cocoons.  The possibilities are endless.

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An Inspiration for the Future:  The “Homegrown National Park”

In his newest book,  Nature’s Best Hope, Dr. Tallamy proposes a glorious vision of what a dedicated nation could create for its people and its wildlife. He envisions all of us together creating huge swaths of native habitat by linking our native-growing neighborhoods into a “Homegrown National Park.” Imagine that! Our new national park could be as large as 20 million acres if we all reduced our lawn areas by half. Wow! An audacious idea, but theoretically possible. For the moment though, our goal can simply be to enhance the habitat around our own houses and perhaps eventually a network of houses and neighborhoods full of both life and beauty.

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Wild geranium and wild columbine make a stunning spring combo

Imagine Your Native Garden as Living Landscape, a Beautiful Habitat Where Nature Thrives

February is a great time for garden dreaming. Envision the possibilities outside your kitchen window. A green path wends it way between native gardens that change with each season. Warm patches of sunlight bring butterflies looking for nectar. Perhaps fledgling bluebirds beg to be fed beneath your native flowering shrub. In the shade of the native tree canopy, migrating birds stop by to sing while looking for caterpillars or to pluck a few berries on their way south for the winter. I’m finding a whole new set of yard dreams myself. I hope you conjure up a few too, and add some natives to your yard this year.

RESOURCES:

Ready to Plant Some Native Plants this Spring and/or Fall?  We Can Get Them for You Wholesale!

Starting last year, our Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, created a new native plant sale for township residents.  All the information for this year’s sale is right at this link  or under “Native Plant Sale” at the top of the Natural Areas Notebook home page.  But you need to order by March 4th!

Need More Detail about Native Plants, In-Depth Information or Answers to Frequently Asked Questions?  

  1. Get hold of a copy of any of Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy’s books:  Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press);  Nature’s Best Hope – A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press), and one he wrote with native landscaper, Rick Darke, The Living Landscape – Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.
  2. Listen to this podcast of Dr. Tallamy being interviewed about native plants.
  3. Find native plants for your county by using this national database and putting in your zipcode!
  4. Check out the somewhat more comprehensive blog about native plants that I wrote last year after attending the Wildlfower Association of Michigan annual conference.

THIS WEEK IN STEWARDSHIP: Wetland Grass Identification is Fun!

While the crew was hard at work, one of the members, Grant, attended a wetland grass identification workshop through Michigan Wetlands Association. Dr. Tony Reznicek from the University of Michigan taught the class – he is widely considered a sedge expert (and a good teacher!), so it was quite a treat to learn from him. Over the two days of the workshop the group visited several wetland habitats to examine the wetland grasses occurring there. The class members were from different parts of the state, different organizations, and different stages in their careers, which made the workshop a great place to learn.

The first day the class visited a fen wetland where they identified a rich diversity of grasses. At this particular fen they found little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), blue-joint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis), marsh wild-timothy (Muhlenbergia glomerata), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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At the Bakertown Fen the class found little bluestem, bluejoint grass, and Indian grass. Too bad that wall of glossy buckthorn is creeping in!

The next stop that day was a bog, where they saw a different set of grasses that grow in a bog compared to a fen. At this bog some of the highlight species were cotton grass (Eriphorum virginicum) and wool grass (Scripus cyperinus), as well as other species of plants like poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).

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Entering the Buchanan Bog. Cotton grass (Eriophorum virginicum) and wool grass (Scirpus cyperinus) were highlights here, while avoiding poison sumac!

The final stop for the day was on the St. Joseph river, where they not only found an abundance of wetland grasses, but also the biggest ragweed (Ambrosia) field anyone in the class had ever seen!

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Ahhhh-choo! The biggest giant ragweed patch ever 😦

The second day started at Warren Dunes State Park where the class got to see the many different grass species found in forested wetlands. During this stop, they saw rice cutgrass (Leersia oryzoides), deer tongue (Dicanthelium clandestinum), wood reed (Cinna arundinecea), and fox grape (Vitis labrusca, a rare viney species).

Then the group hiked through the dunes to an interdunal wetland, where one of the smallest bladderwort species in Michigan lives (Utricularia subulata), as well as Lindheimer panic grass (Dichanthelium lindheimeri), and Tickle grass (Agrostis hyemalis).

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Checking out the interdunal wetlands at Warren Dunes State Park

The final stop for the workshop was one of the best tamarack fens in Michigan. At this spot we saw many tamarack trees (Larix laricina). This stop has many species we had previous seen at different stops like Big blue-stem (Andropogon gerardii), Marsh wild-timothy (Muhlenbergia glomerata), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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Unfortunately many of our wetlands are being degraded by invasive species like invasive Phragmites. Dr. Reznicek is holding a stem of this large wetland grass here.

Through this workshop, Grant got hands-on experience with many species of grasses. He also got to practice his grass ID skills – grasses can be some of the most difficult plants to identify! We continually improve our land stewardship skills so that we care for the natural areas in Oakland Township’s parks.

Lost Lake Nature Park: Fishers of all Kinds, a Tree’s Generous Afterlife and a Lively Meadow

Fragrant Water Lilies (Nymphaea odorata) in Lost Lake

Lost Lake Nature Park, a small 58 acre park probably best known for its sledding hills, hums with life in every season. Right now, fishers of all sorts – birds, animals and humans – are testing their skills against the fish in its 8-acre kettle lake. In the meadow that slopes upward along the sledding hill, dragonflies bask on dried flower heads in early fall sun while a crane fly dances over the soil, laying her eggs among tall native grasses and bright wildflowers. And deep in the woods that cover the slopes, an old tree stump sustains a vivid collection of life. On every short trip this month, Lost Lake sent me home with a little something special.

Around the Lake: Fishers, Flowers and Frogs

On each of my visits, Green Herons (Butorides virescens) foraged and flew at Lost Lake. On my first visit, a young Green Heron stood at the corner of the dock, surveying the eastern pond in the late afternoon sun. The telltale field marks are the streaked side of its head and breast, its greenish yellow legs and its smaller size. Two adult Green Herons flew overhead, giving their distinctive alarm flight call (at this Cornell link under “advertising call”) and later I saw them more  closely in a wetland down the road. The adults are a bit more glamorous than their young, I’d say.

A young Green Heron peruses the far side of the pond from the dock.
A mature Green Heron flew to a marsh nearby

On my second visit, the herons were only visible through binoculars on the far side of the lake. But the third time, I was rewarded. A very young green heron, about half the size of an adult, landed in the pond, flew to a mud flat fairly near the dock and began to fish. I watched this skillful youngster successfully snag a meal twice, and then watched as it struggled to swallow its trophies, as you’ll see in the slideshow below. (Use pause button to read longer captions.)

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On my last visit, a small green heron again appeared, perhaps the same one, this time flying above the head of a fishing  Great Egret (Ardea alba).

A small Green Heron flies behind a fishing Great Egret

The egret was also a successful fisher, though swallowing took no apparent effort for this elegant bird with a long graceful neck. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I was leaving the deck one afternoon, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned, an American Mink (Neovison vison) paused at the end of the dock before slipping away into the tall grass. I’d never been that close to a mink before. Quite exciting! Mink always live near water and do lots of fishing, eating crayfish, frogs, and fish as well as rodents and occasionally birds or their eggs. A mink coat, with its dark sheen of guard hairs, looks best on this little creature, I think. Since the mink moved too quickly for a photo, I’ve borrowed one from a gifted and generous photographer at iNaturalist who uses the name DigiBirdTrek.

An American Mink, photo by DigiBirdTrek (CC-BY-NC-SA) found at iNaturalist.org

On two afternoons over Labor Day weekend, human fishers showed up at Lost Lake as well – a threesome one day and a young couple another.  Not sure if they were as successful as the green heron!

Human fishers enjoy Lost Lake as well.

With all those fishers, it’s not surprising that this tiny green frog squeaked and leapt into the pond as I walked off the dock one afternoon. It may have been a young Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus), since it has a fold around the tympanum rather than a ridge running back from the eye, which would indicate a Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans). Small bullfrogs are also more prone to squeaking when alarmed; I’ve never heard a squeak from a small green frog.  I’m open to correction, though, since we can see so little of this small frog.

Admittedly, the pond is not at its best right now in terms of flowers. Many of the water lilies closest to the shore have withered into a brown mass and the brown leaves of some Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) stalks protrude from the water near the shore. But in the distance, the water lilies float on a bed of green (see above) and in some places, the lovely lavender plumes of the pickerel weed still stand tall with their huge, graceful leaves. Along the shore, the sunny ball-shaped heads of Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) nod in the breeze near the delicate purple chevrons of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

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Down the road, at the same wetland where I saw the mature Green Heron, an elusive family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) caught my eye. On each trip, I’d notice a threesome of young ducks being shepherded by the male parent.  This dad wanted nothing to do with me and quickly herded his family around a bend, or behind greenery at the edge of the water. But one day I was able to catch two fairly good shots of dad and his three offspring.

Into the Woods: A Blackened Stump with Vivid Life and Some Clever Seeds

The path into the woods at Lost Lake in dappled afternoon light

The path into the woods starts at the end of the driveway that runs in front of the caretaker’s home, and you’re welcome to use it.  It’s a short, uphill path that is quite steep at the end and then runs quickly downward as you descend the sledding hill. The forest floor is deep green and beautifully dappled by sunlight.

On the dry, wooded hillsides,  some native grasses and wildflowers are beginning to create and disperse seed. The long graceful pods of Sicklepod (Boechera canadensis), a native member of the mustard family, crack open when dry, releasing a long line of seeds to the wind. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), another native, is appropriately named; according to the Minnesota wildflower site, its seed “jumps off the stem at the slightest touch,” sometimes as much as 10-13 feet. Cluster-leaved Tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) makes cool fruits called loments that have little pods with one seed each that travel by sticking to anything that comes close. And an old fave, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), sends its seeds flying on arrow-shaped “awns” that can actually stick upright in the earth when they land. Plant evolution has produced some very creative ways to spread seed!

At the bottom of the hill, in the deeper shade of a wetland, I discovered an old black stump that hosted a variety of brightly colored life. According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the insect and fungal life of felled stumps and logs help the forest by breaking down the nutrients held in the trees’ wood for hundreds of years. The process of decomposition can take as long as the life of the tree – in the case of oaks, up to 300 years! And eventually those released nutrients feed the tree’s offspring and other trees and plants. Well, this old tree stump, a White Pine (Pinus strobus), was busy doing just that. Its surface presented all kinds of colorful life that was busy working to break down its nutrients or using it for shelter.

A tree stump hosting lots of life in the forest at Lost Lake – harvestmen, ants, moss and mushrooms.

What originally caught my eye was a group of tiny, deep orange/red mushrooms.  I couldn’t determine the species of these mushrooms, though they could be an early stage of the Jack-o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) featured recently at Bear Creek. A few minutes later a second spot of red caught my eye. A group of Harvesters (order Opiliones, suborder Eupnoi), which are arachnids, but not spiders, scrambled around the inside of the stump. The one below came festooned with tiny bright red mites! And then I spotted a ruby red ant, whose species I was unable to discern.  And a lovely patch of green and orange moss with its sporophytes tipped with the capsules that contain its spores graced the flat top surface like a miniature forest. Quite a colorful bunch of creatures, bryophytes (mosses), and fungi working and living on this old stump!

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Down the Hill to the Meadow – Basking Dragonflies, A Dancing Crane Fly, Wildflowers and Native Grasses

A soft lavender bank of Bee Balm (Monard didyma) still blooming near the caretakers’ lawn before you enter the woods

Wildflowers are still blooming in glorious color on the steep sledding hill, the small meadow below it and a short distance from the pond. A few Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) hang on nearby, their drooping petals still golden in early autumn light, along with some Smooth Asters with their dark red or yellow centers (Symphyotrichum laeve). Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), both late summer/autumn wildflowers, are being visited by native bumblebees. Pale/Thin-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus), that love the forest edge,  shine bright under the trees as you approach the wood. An Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), with its four-parted stigma forming the characteristic x-shape, stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. Near the entrance to the woods, the slender pods of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of shady savannas, will eventually dry and break open to release their seeds to the wind. Among the flowers, native grasses sway, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is now flowering and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which has started to form its seeds.

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Among these grasses, a group of Autumn Dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) rested on dried flower heads, needing a bit more sun on cool days. This species has a little cloud of yellow near the base of the hindwing. They hatch out in August and September, providing more late summer color. Mature males are the easiest to spot with their red abdomen. Juvenile males (in closeup below) have a yellow thorax and a yellowish brown abdomen, according to Wikipedia. And the females (second and fourth from the left  in the photo at the far right below) have a brown thorax and a brownish/red abdomen. I find it hard to distinguish between females and juvenile males in Autumn dragonflies,  so feel free to correct me!

One of the oddest sights at Lost Lake occurred on my last visit. I saw something with very long legs dancing vertically, up and down, above small holes in the earth between the grass stems. Eventually, after developing and cropping a lot of photos and doing online research, it became clear that I’d been seeing a Tiger Crane Fly (Tipula dorsalis) laying her eggs in the soil. Taking photos of a crane fly rapidly jumping up and down is a bit challenging, but if you look closely, I hope you can see her curving, vertical body as she pokes the needle-sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen into the soil. Her narrow wings and very long legs were splayed in every direction as she danced from one hole to another, laying potentially hundreds of eggs. Click this link  from bugguide.net for a much better photo than mine!

A Tiger Crane fly holds herself vertically as she jumps into and out of a hole in the earth, laying her eggs.

By the way, crane flies are gangly, harmless creatures who can’t bite or sting humans or animals as the unrelated mosquitoes do. Crane flies live only 10-15 days and drink nectar, if they eat all (some don’t!). The only damage they do is in their larval form, when the caterpillars, called “leatherjackets,” do eat some turf grasses and agricultural plants.

The Persistence of Life

Despite the ravages of early September – hurricanes one after another, wildfires, earthquakes – here in the protected natural areas of Oakland Township, life persists. The young green heron successfully fishes its food from among the water lilies. In forest shade, the flowers and grasses produce seed, relying on another spring to foster the next generation. A crane fly dances above the earth, seeing to it that their offspring still float over the grass stalks when summer comes again. And what about us?  Well, of course, we’re members too in that community of life on earth. I like the thought that as you and I foster and nourish that community, we’re doing our part to see that life persists on this little blue planet.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben;butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Young Birds, a Tiny Forager in Disguise and So Many Wildflowers!

Boneset and Joe Pye in the Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek

Late summer wildflowers nodded and swayed in the meadows, woods, wetlands and native gardens at Bear Creek this August. Monarch butterflies paused on the blossoms, competing mostly with industrious native bumblebees. And all over the park, young birds were feeding on their own – or in a few cases, still getting fed by doting adults. In the center pond, a tiny creature foraged in disguise!  

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

So take a wander along the trails, as goldenrod transforms the park from green to gold, and enjoy the bright beauty of summer’s last hurrah!

 

Like Some Human Youngsters, A Few Avian “Adolescents” Stick Close to Mom or Dad

A young Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) hid in a shrub in the eastern meadow, insisting loudly about being fed.  No parental response was forthcoming from the adult on a shrub some distance away. So eventually, the youngster ventured out into the field, looking about with curiosity. Seemingly satisfied with this move toward independence, the adult flew in to feed the youngster. And then they shared the bush a while until the adult flew farther off again. (Click on slideshow’s pause button for captions.)

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Two groups of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were escorting their young around the Center Pond. In one group, two males and a female floated along with a small juvenile. The males are now in their late summer “eclipse plumage” which makes them look very much like the females – except that the males have yellow bills, while females’ bills are orange and black. The males will change back to their glamorous, iridescent green head feathers later in the fall when Mallards choose their mates for next spring. I guess these two males on the right were sticking close to this female just in case she made an early decision!

A Mallard duckling accompanied by a female (orange bill) and two adult males in eclipse plumage (right with yellow bills)

Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.

A female Mallard escorting her four ducklings with no male companionship

A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) seemed remarkably calm at my approach as he concentrated on gathering seeds in his beak. Usually they dash off at the first sight of me when they’re on the ground. He wasn’t crushing the seeds, so I assume he had a nest nearby since cardinals can have up to four broods in a season. That’s a lot of parenting in just a few months.

A male cardinal who seemed to be gathering seeds to take to his young rather than eating them right away.

A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) plucked buds from native Canada Goldenrod  (Solidago canadensis) which is just beginning to bloom. He may have been feeding his young as well, since this is the nesting season for goldfinches.

An American Goldfinch plucking buds from Canada Goldenrod, perhaps feeding nearby nestlings since they breed in mid-to late summer.

While Adults Molt, Young Birds Forage on Their Own

Many bird species molt from mid-August until mid-September, including Field Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and many others.  The Eastern Kingbird, featured feeding its young above, doesn’t molt until it reaches its winter territory in South America. It’s occurred to me that since birds go into hiding during the molt, perhaps their young have to be a bit more independent sooner than other birds. Just a guess. In any case, a lot of young birds are out and about, clumsily trying to forage on their own.

I saw what I think is an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) just beginning its molt. The bird’s feathers looked oddly fluffed out and it was picking at its breast in a persistent way. It might be a male since they molt a bit earlier than females. Below, a group of young song sparrows hopped along the trail, seeing what they could find in the grass before flying up into small trees nearby.  (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Downy Woodpecker adults (Picoides pubescens) are molting now too. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol II) says “[Downy] Fledglings in general can be told from adults by the clearly new, white feathers on their breast. Adult have gone in and out of the nest hole hundreds of times by this stage and look very worn, with bits of black showing through their white breast feathers.” The feathers on the young female I saw looked wonderfully fresh as it tried to drill into a branch, so I’m guessing it’s a foraging juvenile.

Down at the Center Pond, a Green Heron rested calmly on a log. Since spring, I’ve repeatedly seen a Green Heron in that very place, so I’m thinking it’s a mature bird. Cornell contends that Green Herons are sometimes found in colonies. But I’ve never seen more than one of these solitary birds at a time.

A solitary Green Heron on the log where it was harassed by two geese in the spring
The same heron flew up onto a bare limb, staring into the water.

Two other solitary birds could have been adults or juveniles. It’s hard to distinguish with the House Wren and the Black-capped Chickadee once they’re out on their own. The House Wren may have been a youngster since it was clearly curious, but the Chickadee appeared to be a sophisticated contortionist as it probed a stick for insects.

Glorious Wildflower Color, Exuberant Vines and a Few Pretty-but-Toxic fruits in the Woods and Shady Wetlands

Though wildflowers are not generally as numerous on the shady paths of Bear Creek, you don’t want to miss them. So keep an eye out for their exotic shapes and vivid colors shining out of the greenery as you make your way, especially near wetlands. I just learned from Wikipedia that the Jack-o’lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?

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Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and Native Gardens

A spray of Purple Coneflowers in one of the native gardens

In the native gardens, the center of the parking lot, and scattered across the sunny meadows, native wildflowers bloom among the Canada Goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace. The monarchs seem to be enjoying them. A female sipped nectar from the Purple Coneflower and a male spread his beautiful wings on the Joe-Pye. (The field marks for males are bulges in the veins on their hind wings.) Here’s a sampling:

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A Quarter-sized Creature Dons a Bubble Disguise

One cloudy afternoon, my husband spotted a very small clump of bubbles, green Water Meal  (Wolffia coumbiana) and Duckweed (Lemna minor) moving slowly around the water of the center pond near the dock.

A moving patch of Water Meal, Duckweed and bubbles on the Center Pond caught our eye.

At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) peeked out of the bubbly mass.

The tiny head of a Painted Turtle emerged from the bubbly greenery floating in the pond.

At last, we could see this tiny creature – a turtle about the size of a quarter – who’d found a nifty disguise to wear while munching on the Water Meal and Duckweed greenery that covers the pond. I’m betting on this little one to survive to adulthood!

A Painted Turtle – about the size of quarter! – brings its head and shell into the sunlight.

Perhaps when this baby gets a little bigger, it can join the Painted Turtles who hang out on this log at the east end of the pond almost every warm day. Last Saturday, this group seemed to be doing a slow motion version of the Hokey-Pokey (“You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out”), except for that one member who is not quite with the program!

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Painted turtles line up on a log

 The Delight is the Details

Western slope of Bear Creek in mid-August

Meadows like the one shown above on the western slope are an eye-full on a summer day. The sweeps of green, yellow and white against a blue sky soothe the spirit like a cool hand on a fevered brow.  Soak it in.  You can feel yourself unwinding.  Then look a little closer.  So much of the delight in nature comes from noticing small things – like the turtle in its bubble disguise, the scarlet cardinal flower shining in a shady wetland, or a parent bird feeding its young on a leafy branch. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to see in nature’s landscapes than what comes quickly to the eye. So perhaps spend a few quiet minutes looking down into the water or into the tall grass. Scan the treetops through your binoculars. The smallest discovery can add just a little more joy to a walk in the park.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; 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; other sites as cited in the text.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: LOST LAKE – Big Birds, Big Hill, Big Diversity of Life

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Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Until recently, I’d visited Lost Lake Nature Park (on Predmore west of Cranberry Lake Park) only in the winter and marveled at its amazing sledding hill. I’d spent a delightful snowy afternoon taking action shots of kids and adults as they whizzed by on their sleds during Winter Carnival. Fun place! I’d visited once in spring with  the birders and seen a cloud of Yellow Warblers whisking through the trees at the top of the hill.

But it occurred to me that I didn’t know what this 58 acre park had to offer in the summer. So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent quiet hours watching water birds as I explored around the 8 acre “kettle lake.” I hiked up through the woods after a rain and was astonished by colorful mushrooms of all shapes emerging at every turn in the path. I ambled down the sled hill in the sunshine among native wildflowers and swooping dragonflies. Let me show you a sampling of what I found.

Lost Lake Itself and Its Wetlands

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Lost Lake is a “kettle lake” left by a retreating glacier.

As the audio sign near the lake explains, about 10,000 years ago, an “isolated block of glacial ice melted and filled a depression, or ‘kettle,’ in which it sat.” Kettle lakes are “natural wells, refreshed by groundwater springs.” Wetlands encircle the lake. Right now, the cat-tails and reeds near the water are fringed with early fall wildflowers. A sapphire blue one , with a name that sounds like an exclamation – Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) creates a striking contrast against the yellow Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii).

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Great Blue Lobelia is plentiful on  the southern edge of Lost Lake.

The cheerful blooms of Nodding Bur-Marigold/Nodding Beggar-Tick (Bidens cernua) edge the shore near the floating dock. It’s a native annual that spreads through re-seeding in the fall.

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Nodding Bur-Marigold, also called Nodding Beggar-tick, is a native annual.

In the water nearby, graceful spikes of lavender rise above the water. These lovely native plants have the unlovely name of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), clearly named by a fisherman who appreciated his catch more than the flowers nearby! Found in “high quality wetlands,” according to the Illinois Wildflowers site, it produces large fruits occasionally eaten by ducks.

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This graceful. aquatic native, has the unlovely name, Pickerelweed!

Lavender and yellow seem to autumn’s chosen colors when it comes to wildflowers. The Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) of summer that edge the parking lot are waning and the Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) are beginning to emerge among them.

Large portions of the pond are dotted with native Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata). I couldn’t catch their sweet scent, but lots of little creatures – beetles, small bees, flies –  evidently can. These elegant blooms produce abundant pollen. Turtles, beavers, muskrats and the occasional deer wade in to feed on the huge, round leaves.

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Fragrant Waterlilies produce abundant pollen for insects and their leaves provide foods for muskrats, turtles and beavers.

According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, Waterlily blooms last 3 or 4 days, but once the petals wither, a fruit develops whose stalk bends downward so it can mature underwater. When the seeds are ripe, they are released and float to the surface where they’re carried by water and wind until they sink to the bottom for germination. I saw new blossoms on every trip because of buds like these (love the  neatly-folded, small green bud below the big yellow one!).

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A Yellow Waterlily (Nuphar advena) bud about to open with a closed small green bud next to it.

[Edit:  I forgot to include a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans[) that I caught peeking from between the lily pads.  Like the juvenile birds who seem to grow into their beaks, I wonder if little frogs like this one need to grow into their enormous eyes! Lovely how the sunset that evening colored its small world.]

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A small Green Frog came out from between the lily pads as the setting sun turned the water golden.

Under the water, I saw small fish of various sizes schooling. The audio sign indicates that several different species live in the lake, including bullhead, blue-gills, perch, bass and northern pike. What I saw, I think,  were Minnows (family Cyprinidae).

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Evidently perch, bass, blue-gills and others live in Lost Lake but I  saw only Minnows.

Twice as I approached the lake, I was greeted by the site of large water birds. One morning two Great Egrets (Ardea alba) stood at the eastern edge of the lake.

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What appears to be an adult egret with a juvenile at the eastern edge of Lost Lake.

I thought perhaps the larger was an adult and the much smaller was a juvenile. The larger one preened and both foraged for frogs and small invertebrates in the mud at the edge of the pond. After 20 minutes, the large one took off flying and the small one followed. They simply circled for a few minutes and then landed to eat again. I wondered if the older was helping the younger strengthen its flight muscles for migration. Just a guess, though.

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The egrets took off and circled for a few minutes before settling to eat again.

While watching the egrets, a large flock of Canada Geese flew overhead, calling to each other. The egrets looked up and watched, just like I did. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

On my second visit to Lost Lake,  a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) waded and foraged in exactly the same area that the Great Egrets had used on my previous visit. Sandhills are grey birds, sometimes with what Cornell Lab calls a “rusty wash.” I’ve read, too, that they use mud to preen which often makes them appear brown. Seeing them dancing gracefully up in the air and floating down when mating in the spring is a sight to behold.

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On the following visit, a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraged in the same area as the egrets.

The Woods: An Oak-Pine Barren

Near the pond, a wide variety of trees tower overhead – Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), White Oak (Quercus alba) which is already producing bright green acorns and a variety of pines, including huge White Pines (Pinus strobus). The dry, sandy acidic soil here support an Oak-Pine Barren, a special plant community where the most common trees are widely spaced pines and oaks. To mimic the frequent fires that maintained the open tree canopy, the Natural Areas Stewardship crew burns the woodlands at this park every few years with careful use of prescribed fire.

The path to the woods goes west from the lake, beyond the vehicle barrier signs in front of the Nature Center. Along the way, a native perennial, Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) fills a sunny spot along a fence line.

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Bee balm along a fence on the way to the woods at Lost Lake

On a moist morning after a downpour, I followed the short path that winds up through the woods toward the top of the sledding hill.

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The path that starts west of the lake leads through the woods to the top of the sledding hill.

The warmth and moisture had caused the appearance of an astonishing variety of mushrooms, which are the “fruiting bodies” of the fungi living under the soil. Mushrooms produce the fungi’s spores above the soil surface so that they can be scattered for reproduction. In that way, they are like the blooms of flowers carrying the seeds for next year’s crop. But what a diversity of shapes and colors on one morning alone! Below is a gallery of mushrooms, some beautiful, some homely, but all ready to disperse spores on the same damp morning.

Click on the photos to enlarge but I’m afraid I can only tentatively identify a couple of toxic ones. The tall, thin white one with a cap appears to be an early stage of  the dramatically named Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) mushroom. It belongs to the toxic genus Amanita, which probably also includes the  red or red-and-white mushrooms pictured hereAnd the green mushrooms on tree bark are probably a shelf fungus called Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).

Along with oaks and pines, the woods has many Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) with their distinctive 3-pronged leaves that smell like root beer when plucked. Sassafras evidently thrives in the sandy soil which underlies a Oak-Pine Barren like this. Here are the huge leaves of a tiny sapling trying to make the most of the forest light.

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The large leaves of a tiny Sassafras sapling

Nearby by, a black lump of mud seemed to jump in deep shade. Looking closer, I spotted a  very small Eastern American Toad nicely camouflaged against the forest floor. See if you can spot it; it took me a minute when focusing my camera!

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An Eastern American Toad is perfectly camouflaged against the moist forest floor.

Here it is up close.

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Here’s the little creature up close.

Near the top of the sledding hill, at the edge of the forest, native Bottlebrush Grass makes an appearance. The unusual shape of its “awns” (bristle-like appendages) seems to mimic the pine needles nearby and its pale stalk lights up in the smallest amount of sunlight.

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Bottlebrush grass at the forest edge catching the sunlight with its awns that look like pine needles.

Back Down the Big Hill: Sunshine and Prairie Plants

Emerging from the forest shade and descending into the bright sunlight at the bottom of the hill, you’re suddenly surrounded by dry prairie plants of all kinds. Right now,  plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glow in the fall sunshine and native Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hover among the blossoms, making the most of late-season nectar.

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A Bumblebee moves among the blossoms of Showy Goldenrod searching for nectar.

All kinds of native grasses thrive from the top of the hill to the bottom – Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum rubicundulum) kept me company as I descended the hill, even quietly posing for a closeup on a beautiful stalk of Big Bluestem.

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A Ruby Meadowhawk poses on a stalk of Big Bluestem.

What I think was a Violet Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) hovered along the path as well. Damselflies seem to love places where a forest meets an open meadow.

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What I think is a Violet Dancer damselfly on a dry grass stalk on the sledding hill at Lost Lake

Stopping back at the lake at the end of one walk, some frantic activity at the edge of the water caught my eye. Amazingly, four pairs of Ruby Meadowhawks were mating simultaneously! Linked together, each of the four pairs rose and fell, quickly dipping into the water and then zooming upward again. Here’s the best blurry photo I could get of the 4 pairs enacting their dragonfly drama.

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Four Ruby Meadowhawk pairs beginning the mating ritual at the same time.

A male begins the mating ritual by grasping onto the female right behind the head with pincers at the end of his abdomen. Then the two bend toward each other so that the female can extract sperm from the male’s abdomen, forming the mating wheel that I posted at Gallagher Creek a few weeks ago. I did get one closeup of one pair showing the male grasping his mate. Quite a sight, eh? Not much romance among dragonflies, it seems – but then they are called “dragon” flies…

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A male Ruby Meadowhawk initiates mating by grasping the female behind the head with pincers at the end of its abdomen.

In a large White Oak near the pond, the impressive paper nest of Common Aerial Yellow Jackets (Dolichovespula arenaria) hung among the leaves. This Yellow Jacket species is distinct from the ground-nesting Yellow Jackets of the species Vespula with which I’m more familiar. Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculatamake these gorgeous exposed nests too. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the inhabitants of this one, flying in and out, definitely have the yellow and black pattern of the Yellow Jacket. Isn’t it amazing how these insects chew wood pulp and shape it into these graceful spheres, filled with perfect hexagons and sturdy enough to survive all kinds of summer weather?

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Aerial Yellow Jackets entering and leaving their nest

Four Seasons of Varied Recreation

I’ve featured here the natural richness of Lost Lake Nature Park.  But beyond wonderful winter sledding (there’s a warming house too!),  other recreational opportunities are also available. Kayaks for exploring the lake more closely can be rented from the Parks Department by registering at least one week in advance. Check info at this link. Whether you rent or bring your own kayak, there’s an easy-to-use launching platform on the floating dock that also makes kayaking easily accessible by people with disabilities.

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Kayak launching is easy from the floating dock.

Consider bringing a lunch to eat at the picnic tables in the shade near the water.  Or fish in the sunshine from the floating dock (with a current license, of course).

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Picnic area next to Lost Lake

The house you see from the parking lot is the home of the caretakers’ family and is a private residence.  But on the lower level is the Nature Center which houses a project workroom and  a display of taxidermy which allows children to see a coyote, skunk, owl, fox, heron and others up close.  (Photo,  copyrighted by CMNTv,  is a screen shot from a YouTube video.)

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-3-48-50-pmThe Nature Center is not open on a daily basis,  though plans are afoot to expand its use with open houses and children’s day-camping.  The PRC contracts with Dinosaur Hill to host field trips for Rochester school children each year.  This year,  area kindergarteners will be invited.

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Nature Center at Lost Lake on the lower level of the caretakers’ private residence.

Lost Lake has lots to offer in any season.  The PRC holds a variety of events here, including this fall,  Yoga by the Lake, a Marsh Bird workshop, a Pumpkin Bowling Event and more. See the details in the Fall 2016 newsletter at this link.  I hope to explore the edges of the lake and its wetlands in a kayak before winter comes. Maybe you’d enjoy a picnic after fishing, watching water birds or simply gazing into the golden heart of a waterlily. The short, steep trail through the forest to the top of the sledding hill and down will get your heart pumping in shady woodland landscape. Look for the hole of a local Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) near the top of the hill. Or come sledding on a snowy Friday night under the lights or on a winter weekend afternoon with the kids. It’s your park so I hope you take time to enjoy it!

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.