Spring is an incredibly busy time for our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide. So many projects demand attention at once – and they all depend on so many variables! Planting native seed has to happen while the ground is still cold and wet. Prescribed burns, however, have to happen when the wind is low and from the right direction, and the plants are dry.
Meanwhile volunteer training and supervision is going on for vernal pool monitoring, nesting box monitoring and burn crews. Whew! Here’s a sample of what went on in late March and April at just one location – Bear Creek Nature Park.
Seeding Mowed Areas with Native Seed
In late March, Dr. Ben and Stewardship Specialist Alyssa Radzwion began a project to spread the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers in the areas cleared by forestry mowing last fall. The hope is that these native plants can help prevent some renewed growth of the invasive shrubs that were removed. It’s a project that will take years of persistent work, but they made a good beginning.
Monitoring the Life in Vernal Pools
In mid- April, the stewardship staff, a stewardship tech from the Six Rivers Land Conservancy (see Ian below) and a group of volunteers, including Parks Commissioner Dan Simon and his wife pulled on tall boots and waders and ventured into the vernal pools in Bear Creek’s forest. The purpose is to monitor the health of these temporary pools, which are biodiversity hotspots in our forests.
As usual, the crew found a surprising variety of creatures. Spring frogs, salamanders and many insects choose vernal pools as a good place to mate and lay eggs because they are free of hungry fish. The pools dry up and disappear in warmer weather, preventing fish from establishing if they are introduced.
Nest Box Monitoring
For the second year, Dr. Ben has organized and trained a group of volunteers to monitor nest boxes from first nesting to the flight of fledglings. We “citizen scientists” report our data to Cornell Ornithology Lab’s “NestWatch” program. This year Ben added six boxes in Bear Creek Nature Park to the ones in Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. And I’ll be the Bear Creek monitor this year, which will be great! I’m hoping to count Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, and possibly Black-capped Chickadees or House Wrens where the nest boxes are closer to trees and shrubs. We might have Brown-headed Cowbirds to count too if those characters lay their eggs in any of the other birds’ nests!
The boxes were only up a day or so when Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) began to explore the boxes. I’m betting they are impressed with the real estate – new construction, a southeast exposure and a security system (metal predator guards to keep out raccoons, snakes, etc.). Between raindrops last Thursday, I watched a pair of Tree Swallows courting on one of the new boxes. They were doing their wet gurgling call to each other the whole time and touching beak-to-beak, while the male performed fancy wing displays. The male had just chased off a competitor, so he seemed excited! It looks like an argument in the photo below, doesn’t it? But I think it was just a lively prelude to mating.
I also found two completed Bluebird nests made of dry grasses in the new Bear Creek nest boxes, but didn’t get to see the female doing the building. However, here’s a little Bluebird female I saw at Charles Ilsley Park the week before bringing nesting material to her box.
Much to my delight, four days later at Bear Creek Nature Park, I found the first egg in one of our new boxes – a Bluebird egg. They lay one egg each day for 3-5 days and won’t start incubating them until all the eggs are laid. The eggs then generally hatch on the same day, making feeding the nestlings more efficient for the adult birds. Remember, please, that only trained and certified volunteers are allowed to monitor the bluebird boxes so as not to cause too much disturbance at the nest!
Holding Prescribed Burns Using Trained Volunteers
The township uses prescribed burns to periodically refresh our fire-adapted native plants, which benefit from periodic fires. Some of these burns are complicated and require hiring professional burn crews. But many are conducted by a group of volunteers trained and supervised by Dr. Ben. In late April, previous volunteer crew members and some new volunteers practiced their skills with two small burns at Bear Creek Nature Park in the native gardens near the parking lot. Volunteers are an important part of the stewardship program and the teamwork is an great way to meet local people who care about the natural world. Consider joining us!
And a Celebratory Dance to End a Busy Month
Toward the very end of April, Dr. Ben arranged our annual Earth Day/Spring celebration: The Woodcock Dance Watch – and wow! This year’s dance was spectacular! This odd bird, with big eyes toward the back of its head, a stout body and a huge beak, does its unique aerial mating dance at dusk.After a short review of information about the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor), we toasted marshmallows while waiting for the sun to set. (Thanks to iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith for sharing his photo.)
This year, one of our birding group members had been making almost nightly visits to Bear Creek Nature Park to watch one particular Woodcock who faithfully danced on the path near a certain puddle. So, as the sky darkened, ten of us gathered on the slope designated by our birder friend, Vinnie, and waited.
Suddenly, very close to us, the Woodcock landed on the path and started his dance. He began with a very odd bug-like buzz called a “peent” call while turning in circles, as he attempted to attract any available female. Then he took to the air with whirring wings, flying in lazy circles high in the air while burbling a different call. Finally he plopped back down right where he started. Without pause he started the “peenting” again, and the dance continued. It was an exciting performance! We all came away feeling it had been an evening well spent celebrating the spring rituals of the natural world.
A Busy Month for Nature and its Stewards
Ah, Spring! Little creatures slip into and out of ponds to begin mating. Seeds await the moisture and warmth they need to thrust new stems into the sunlight. Birds are busy migrating north, establishing territory, finding mates, building nests – even dancing! And we humans are busy studying, recording and preparing their habitat for another glorious summer!
Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Looking west from the dock at Draper Twin Lake Park in fall 2015.
Looking east from the dock at Draper Twin Lake Park.
Welcome to a new occasional series here at Natural Areas Notebook.
Having spent a year writing “This Week at Bear Creek,” (which continues, but perhaps with a little longer pause between blogs), we decided it would be fun to periodically have a look at other parks in Oakland Township. So this week, please join me as I explore Draper Twin Lake Park.
Getting Acquainted with Draper
Draper Park shares some similarities with Bear Creek – marsh land, birds, wildlife, old fields and trails. But it offers very different opportunities for exploration as well. To me, the park seems to have three distinct parts, each with a different character. The central section is one giant marsh, full of cattails, sedges, muskrat lodges and birds. It stretches from Draper Twin Lake to Inwood Road (where it can be viewed from your car) and beyond.
The east and west sections, which cannot be connected by a trail, have attractions like hiking trails lined with summer flowers leading to a fishing platform on a lake much larger than Bear Creek’s Center Pond, trails around a “floating mat” marsh, a newly planted prairie and as you’ll see, a lively mix of wildlife and plant life. As of April 2016, nearly 80 bird species have been observed at Draper Twin Lake Park.
Here’s a map to get oriented. The green outline is the whole park. You can see the western trail running down to Twin Lake on the left. The purple section at the center is the long marsh and McClure Drain (a marshy creek) running south from the lake. And the trail in the eastern section runs all the way from Inwood Road to Parks Road, and a loop encircles a smaller and quite unusual marsh, passes the newly planted prairie (in light green) and continues through old fields at the eastern edge of the park.
The Western Section: A Winding Trail to the Lake
Look for this sign where Hadden and Inwood meet and you’re at the parking lot on the western end of Draper Twin Lake Park. Until last week, a large Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) stood there, but when a giant limb had to be removed, it was discovered that the whole tree was too fragile to remain. Luckily, I got there there after the limb was removed and before the cutting of the tree and got to see something quite fascinating!
Once the limb had come off the tree, it exposed the winter nest of a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) deep down in the trunk. It was like looking through a window into the hidden world of this chattery, hyper little squirrel! The nest was clearly visible inside, full of pine cones and nut shells. Its winter nut cache was spread out at the bottom of the trunk. Red Squirrels don’t bury nuts like other squirrels but make piles on the surface near their nests. Have a look by clicking on these photos to enlarge them. (Hover with your cursor for captions.)
The resident Red Squirrel had moved to a nearby tree. This is a photo from Seven Ponds last year.
A closer look at the nest inside the tree.
The winter nut cache of empty shells at the trunk’s base.
I’m sorry the tree is gone, but an arborist consulted by the PRC said the tree was too fragile for a parking lot. But at least we got to peak into the life of one squirrel before its nest disappeared! The squirrel, by the way, appears to be exploring another tree nearby.
Along the trail to the lake in late summer, we’ll see some lovely native wildflowers, like Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) and Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana) I saw there last August.
For now, early spring butterflies danced around my feet one morning as I walked. The smallest were a pair of Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) twirling in a mating dance above the path.Their tiny wings created lavender-blue blurs as they spun around each other. But when they landed for a few seconds, they folded their wings and almost disappeared, matching the beautifully patterned gray undersides of their wings to the nearest twig or leaf for protection. If you click on the leaf photo, just between the wings you can see their lovely blue upper surface. Faint blue stripes on the lower surface of the wings appear in the photo on the twig.
An old friend, a Cabbage Butterfly (Pieris rapae), fluttered along the path as well. This one’s a female since she has two spots on her forewings instead of one, as the male does.
Late last week, a male Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) on the lake trail was doing a simple “chewink” call (second entry under “calls” at the link) rather than singing like the one I’ll show you below in the eastern part of the park. These birds are particularly susceptible to the predation of cowbirds who lay eggs in their nests. Unlike many birds, they don’t seem to recognize cowbirds eggs or remove them. Cowbirds evolved to follow buffalo herds out west and so had to make use of other birds’ nests in order to move on. But as farming replaced forests in the eastern US, they moved here. According to the Cornell Lab, “In some areas cowbirds lay eggs in more than half of all towhee nests. ”
Sandhill Cranes mate for life and stay together year ’round. According to Cornell Lab, their young can leave the nest only 8 hours after they are born and are capable of swimming. Ben tells me they nested last year in the marsh on the eastern side of Draper, but I haven’t seen them there yet this year.
While birding on Wednesday, Ben’s group introduced me to a Cooper Hawk’s nest they’d seen the previous month. There appeared to be tail feathers sticking out of the nest.
A few moments later, we were lucky enough to see the hawk itself on a branch near the nest, just carefully keeping an eye on things.
One of the special recreational features of Draper Lake is the fishing dock at the end of the trail. Fishermen tell me they catch Bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus), Crappie (genus Pomoxis), Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)and Northern Pike (Esox lucius). I just sit on the benches provided and watch for water birds.
On one of my solo trips to Draper, I saw a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) standing among cattails at the far end of the pond, but my camera couldn’t quite reach it. Finally, it took off and I got a slightly blurred photo of its huge, blue wings.
Both Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows swooped and darted on the opposite side of the pond – visible through binoculars but not a camera. I could see two big Canada Geese near their nest – one either moving eggs or feeding young, and the other standing guard.
On Wednesday, one of the birders and I watched Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata)apparently courting up in the trees along the trail. What was probably two males bobbed up and down on their thin legs for a female on a nearby branch. According to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), this bobbing “is often done in courtship flocks by more than one bird at a time.” I wonder which male’s bobbing she found most impressive?
Now let’s head off to the eastern part of Draper Twin Lake Park. The western and eastern sections aren’t connected by a trail because of the huge marsh in between. So walk or drive just a short way down the road and you’ll see a small utility building to your left. You can park there.
The Eastern Section: A Special Marsh, a Rolling Prairie and a Circular Path through the Old Fields
The eastern section of Draper Lake is still a “work in progress” and for me, that’s part of what makes it interesting. The trails are still being opened up and the prairie is planted on the northern side. This part of the park offers a peaceful place to hike and would be a beautiful, easy place to cross country ski in the winter.
I usually head off to the west (left of the utility building) on the path pictured above which was recently widened to eliminate woody invasive shrubs like Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). At this time of year, it looks a bit rough since the stumps are still visible and brush is ragged from the cutting machine. Ben plans to seed it with Little Blue Stem (Schizachrium scoparium), a native grass, and treat whatever stumps try to re-sprout. The curving sweep of this wider trail get us closer to the marsh – in fact particularly close to last year’s nesting site for Sandhill Cranes. On my first spring visit, a beautiful Great Egret (Ardea alba) rose from the marsh. I didn’t move fast enough for a great photo but here’s one during the summer at Bear Creek Marsh to give you a feel for what I saw.
The open water areas around the edges of the marsh are now filling with various water lilies, sprouting from rhizomes deep in the muck after a long winter. The center area of the marsh has a very special floating sedge mat. The sedge mat is best viewed from the edge of the marsh since walking on it is very precarious and would damage the sensitive plants.
Frogs leapt in as I approached the marsh on my first visit and huge round tadpoles wriggled just under the surface. But they eluded my camera. I did see a blur of blue diving into the water way over on the far side of the marsh and heard the rattling call of the Belted Kingfisher. Glad I had an extra photo of one from Bear Creek!
On my second trip, I came upon a young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) who seemed to be making its way over a log. Perhaps it was a female preparing to lay eggs, or maybe it had left the large central marsh for the relative seclusion of this smaller marsh to the east.
This week, Ben saw a Blanding’s Turtle (Emys blandingii)at Draper Lake as well. Last year my husband and I stopped along the paved part of Buell on the way home from Draper to take a photo of this one. We helped it off the road by grabbing its shell at the back and moving it in the direction it was going, as we’ve been taught. Blanding’s Turtles are listed as threatened in Michigan so we want to save as many as we can! Note the yellow chin and neck which is characteristic of these turtles.
Ben and the birders spotted the flight of a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) at this marsh on Wednesday. These short, stocky birds sometimes lure their prey with little sticks or insects and then “zap!” – they catch them with their spear-like bills. Here’s one hunting from a log at Bear Creek.
If you continue on the circular trail in this eastern section, you come to a beautiful sight – the rolling contours of what is about to become a native prairie. Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide has been working for two years to turn what used to be an overgrown farm field into the prairie grass and wildflowers that are native to our area. Last fall it was planted with native seed purchased with a grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Maintenance mowing keeps the annual weeds under control for the first two years, so it will take about 3 or 4 summers before it looks like a full-3blown prairie. These sunny native plants like to sink their roots deep before they flower. I can’t wait to see what comes up this spring, though.
At the western edge of the prairie, eagle-eyed Ben spotted a migrating Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) twitching its tail feathers in distant brush on the west side of the prairie. Warblers are small and elusive so we birders were happy to know one was passing through on its way to its breeding grounds in Canada.
As you complete the circle, you find yourself in an old field overlooking the eastern edge of the marsh. The center of the marsh, Ben tells me, is a “floating mat” which, according to an article from Loyola University “consists of tightly entangled plants and their roots, mixed with peat.” Apparently, it may look like any other marsh, but water is floating beneath it though plants and even bushes may be growing on top.
Right now, several Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have begun their burbling song in the trees above the marsh. This one was throwing his head back in full courtship mode! I haven’t spotted any females yet, but I’ll keep looking, since this guy clearly expects one!
Here’s his version of the famous Towhee “Drink Your Te-e-e-e-ea” song. This recording was made by my new birding friend, Antonio Xeira.
Eastern Bluebirds perched and sang (Sialia sialis) high in the trees, too high for a great shot. So here’s a closeup of a male with either nesting material or breakfast in his beak from another spring.
And everywhere at Draper, you now hear the melody of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia).Here’s one in a small tree at Draper this week and another recording of a Song Sparrow that my friend, Antonio Xeira, made with a good directional microphone.
A mighty White Pine ((Pinus strobus) stands sentinel toward the end of this circular trail around the marsh. Draper Twin Lake Park has lots of these native trees; their soft needles make a soft, hushing sound in a breeze.
I look forward to knowing Draper Twin Lake Park better. I’ll keep visiting with Ben’s birding walks, and on my own, watching for spring and summer wildflowers, looking for fish below the dock, water birds in the lake and of course, enjoying the slow coming of that beautiful rolling prairie. Maybe I’ll meet you there some sunny morning, perhaps fishing for bluegills, or strolling the paths, or maybe even on skis some snowy winter day! They’re our parks, after all, so come and explore!
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.