Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide recently surprised me with an intriguing document – a thorough natural history survey of what became Bear Creek Nature Park compiled in 1976 by a 14 year-old boy! Clearly, this boy was a remarkable naturalist. It turns out that’s not terribly surprising, since he is Mark Tomboulian, the son of former long-serving Parks commissioner, Alice Tomboulian, a remarkable naturalist in her own right. In 1976, the absentee landowner, Mr. Deveraux, rented out areas of his land to local farmers. The Tomboulians lived right across the road and Mr. Deveraux granted permission for exploration by the young naturalist and his family. The photo above left shows Alice and her children conducting nature study at the Deveraux property in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Mark is the center child. The right photo from 2016 shows two volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in what is now Bear Creek Nature Park. Bear Creek is still a great place to learn and explore!
As I browsed Mark’s hand-drawn maps and long lists of wildlife, I noticed birds and especially plants that no longer live in Bear Creek Nature Park, or are rarely seen. Since restoring our natural heritage is at the heart of the Parks Commission’s stewardship work, I thought I’d share with you what Mark saw in 1976 that is either missing or at best, more rare in Bear Creek Park today.
[Note: Because the birds and plants in this blog are rare or missing in Bear Creek today, I have no photos of them. So I’m using many photos by generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who permit others to share their work. Each photo is credited in the captions or text. My thanks to all these fine photographers.]
What Changed in Bear Creek’s Meadows?
The photo above was taken in 1969 as a school group went down through an agricultural field on what became the Eastern Path at Bear Creek. Mark must have traversed such a path in his childhood, too. Mark’s maps show small areas of “fallow fields” throughout the park where the native and non-native plants we see today survived in isolated patches.
Over the years since the land was purchased by the Parks and Recreation Commission, large areas of the park have steadily been restored. Controlled burns and protection from development have allowed native grasses and wildflowers to spread and flourish. The photo above of native Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) just off of the edge of the eastern path last summer is evidence that beautiful, natural meadows are thriving at Bear Creek.
It will take time to bring back the meadow and marsh birds that Mark was able to see during his childhood. When he was a little boy, the Northern Bob-white Quail (Colinus virginianus) whistled its rising two-note call, “Bob-white!” in the background of every summer day as small flocks foraged across the fields. Their numbers have declined by “roughly 85% between 1966 and 2014,” according to Wikipedia, due largely to habitat loss. Luckily, Bob-whites persist in states to the south and west in habitat where the land is disturbed by fire. These birds do well in newly grown grass that produces the seeds, cover and nesting materials they prefer. So if we’re lucky and continue restoration, perhaps we will hear their calls again on warm, sunny afternoons.
During the spring and summer 40 years ago, male Eastern Meadowlarks perched and sang on fenceposts, logs or treetops in Bear Creek’s meadows. Their descending, flute-like call with its many variations, complemented the rising call of the Bob-white. Meadowlarks usually have two, sometimes three mates at a time, so they have lots of singing to do! Today meadowlarks are quite scarce in our parks, but since they need at least 6 acres of grassland for each territory, perhaps the continued meadow restoration will provide them with more nesting opportunities.
The glamorous Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), a popular non-native gamebird, used to stride through the fields and woods at Bear Creek Nature Park. These pheasants can rise almost vertically from the grass at a speed of up to 40 miles per hour! Their cackling call was a common occurrence in 1976, but is seldom heard in our parks these days. Female pheasants prefer to scrape out their shallow nests in tall grass where overhead predators can’t get at them. So as our native grasses take hold and fill the fields, these colorful birds may spring up again from Bear Creek’s meadows .
Mark Tomboulian saw four nests of the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) in the Bear Creek marsh in the spring of 1976. I’ve only seen a solitary bird that cruised the Center Pond more than 10 years ago. The Gallinule likes complex marshes and wetlands where it can walk on vegetation with its very long toes or dabble underwater like the Mallards. The Parks Commission efforts to return the marsh to its original habitat may mean that Gallinules raise their young there again in the future.
What Changed in Bear Creek’s Oak-Hickory Forest?
In his book, Incredible Yesterdays, George Comps, who lived on the land that is now Bear Creek Park in the 1940’s, reported, “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium).” The photo above , taken in 1979 by the Tamboulians, shows Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) carpeting the forest floor 500 feet north of Bear Creek, across the road.
The photo above shows the largely bare forest floor of Bear Creek in May of 2012. Many forest wildflowers that Mark saw on the forest floor simply are no longer there. Trilliums, for example, exist only in a few small patches and in some years they don’t show up at all. What happened?
I’m afraid that a large part of the answer is deer. When Mark Tomboulian compiled his survey in 1976, deer were a rare and exciting sight in Oakland Township. But because of development and less deer hunting in the township, the deer population exploded. In the spring, hungry deer devour trillium and many other forest wildflowers before they can bloom. During the winter, they feed on the tiny, slow-growing oak saplings, a behavior that threatens the very future of our oak-hickory forest.
Mark’s survey mentions a couple of woodland birds that we don’t see anymore in the oak-hickory forest. The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is known for attracting its mate by drumming the air with its cupped wings. The drumming sound is often compared to a sputtering motor, and can carry up to 1/4 mile! (Turn up your volume and check out “male drumming” at this link.) According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, in the far north part of its range, this interesting bird dives into deep snow to roost for the night! Quite interesting bird behavior!
Ruffed Grouse need young forests for both cover and food, so the aging of Bear Creek’s forest, exacerbated by the lack of young oaks and other saplings caused by deer browsing, works against the reappearance of Ruffed Grouse at Bear Creek Nature Park.
Alice Tomboulian recently told me that Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) used to nest on their property across from Bear Creek Nature Park, and Mark recorded seeing them on the park property in 1976. Alas, they are rarely seen at the park these days, though they are occasionally seen other places in Oakland County. These striking woodpeckers have developed some specialized skills. They can pluck insects out of the air in flight and they store nuts, seeds and the occasional grasshopper in cracks of bark for later use. Red-headed woodpeckers were plentiful in the 19th century; Audubon reported 100 shot from a cherry tree in 1840! But now their numbers are in decline and they are listed as “near threatened.” Scientific studies are needed to discover the cause and measures to increase their numbers. We can only hope that they return to Bear Creek which provides the snags (standing dead trees) they need for nesting and plenty of the acorns that they love to eat.
What’s changed most in the forests of Bear Creek since 1976, though, is that many wildflowers are simply missing. Imagine how colorful and interesting the floor of the oak-hickory forest would be if these forest flowers that Mark recorded could return to the uplands and wetlands under the forest canopy! (Click on pause button for captions.)
The Challenge of Restoring Our Natural Heritage
The meadows and marsh in Bear Creek are already well on their way to reclaiming their original diversity of native plants. Controlled burns and some invasive shrub control have already allowed many prairie and wetland plants to become more abundant. Ben and his volunteers monitor the health of the vernal pools each summer, keeping an eye on the amphibian and reptile communities. At some point, the invasive shrubs that crowd the big loop north of the Center Pond will need to be removed so that the original open meadow there can be restored. And yearly removal of invasive plants like Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) will need to continue throughout the park. But already we are enjoying the benefit of years of stewardship in these areas.
Restoring the ground cover and bird diversity in the oak-hickory forest presents a greater challenge. As long as large numbers of deer consume the wildflowers and small trees on the forest floor, the woods will age without renewal. Solutions aren’t obvious. Planting missing wildflowers or small trees is pointless if the deer population stays at its current level. Fertility control for deer is labor intensive, costly, requires continual repetition, and according to some biologists, has yet to be conclusively proven effective except in enclosures or on islands. (See the second footnote below for “pro” and “con” opinions.) Fences would have to be very high, prevent the movement of other animals and alter a park’s natural appearance, while being costly to install and maintain over such large areas. And culling and/or hunting is resisted by many people, despite negative effects of high deer density on both human well-being and deer population health. Unless effective solutions are found and proven, it seems we will eventually have to choose. We can have either an uncontrolled deer population with all of its risks, or a lower density, balanced herd that allows us to enjoy both beautiful deer and striking woodland vistas with carpets of wildflowers. Tough decisions!
Meanwhile, we continue our stewardship work, doing the best we can to steadily restore the beauty and diversity that we’ve inherited from the past, passing it forward to future generations.
1.Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Managr Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.
2.For pros and cons of controlling deer fertility, I found these three websites useful. The first is a presentation made to the Ann Arbor government by the Humane Society supporting the idea. The second is the opposing view from a Professor CW Dick, a U-M biologist and director of the U-M Herbarium, though he stresses that in this article, he does necessarily represent the U-M's views on the subject, but his own. https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/cwdick-lab/2016/04/17/the-pseudoscience-of-non-lethal-deer-management/ The third is from Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, a group that formed to explore solutions for overabundant deer in Washtenaw County. https://www.wc4eb.org/what/herd-reduction/sterilization/