Cranberry Lake Park: Traveling Through Time in the “Outer Space” of Nature

The Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park on a winter day

Will you forgive me if I take you back to February for a few minutes? Today it’s 60 degrees, the snow is melting even in the shadows and longer days remind us that the spring equinox is less than a week away. But I’d like to take you back for a few minutes to those days when, for me, walking the trails meant staring downward at icy ground to keep my footing. Calf-deep in February snow, I found myself prompted to recall a summer visitor. I took a turn toward a woodland pond and discovered a hidden world. And I saw and heard the harbingers of spring. Three snowy walks at Cranberry Lake Park lured me out into another realm for a few hours, where I mentally traveled to the past, through the present, and into the near future. So I hope you’ll strap on your mental snowshoes and join me for one last winter outing.

A cross-country skier on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

A Warm Memory on a Snowy Day

The trail into the park in February was a bit of a trudge one afternoon, negotiating my way among the icy footprints of visitors who’d come before me. But luckily near the first trail intersection, I looked up long enough to notice an exquisite little piece of architecture. A small, sturdy nest had been securely anchored in the upright fork of several branches of a small shrub. Though the nest was about four inches long, it was only about an inch and a half deep and about two and a half inches wide inside – a nest for a very small bird! [Click photo to enlarge.]

I know that Black-capped Chickadees nest in cavities rather than in cup nests out in the open. So my mind wandered back over the small cup-nesting birds I’d seen there last summer. Consulting both Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website and my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds’ Nests, I discovered that the depth of the cup was too shallow for either the Song Sparrow or Field Sparrow, which were my first guesses. But then I remembered a small spark of sunshine that frequents that corner of the park each summer, a lemon yellow visitor who arrives from the Caribbean. This nest met all the measurements my sources listed for the nest of one of my favorite warblers. The female Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is my candidate for architect of this little marvel. She needs only four days to gather materials and weave her nest of plant fibers and spider webs, lining it with plant down. If this nest is hers, it’s survived a tough winter remarkably well! It probably won’t be reused, though; most birds build a fresh nest each year. But what a warming memory of last summer! Since I’m no expert at nests, I’m open to input if any of you have a different candidate for the creator of this little nest.

A female Yellow Warbler who may have built the nest I saw this winter.

Nearby on the Hickory Lane on another afternoon, my husband and I stood admiring a very shaggy Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) with long shards of bark angling off its trunk. These wonderful trees can grow as high as 100 feet and can live as long as 350 years, according to Wikipedia. Shagbark Hickories reach maturity and start producing nuts at age 10. They don’t produce large numbers of them until they are 40 years old, but can continue until the ripe old age of 100. I remembered walking the lane last autumn with the crunch of hickory shells underfoot. Getting a wild hickory nut isn’t easy for us humans. They are too favored by squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits and birds, including wild turkeys, wood ducks and mallards.

A candidate for the shaggiest Shagbark Hickory on the lane at Cranberry Lake Park

In late winter for the last few years, I’ve ventured out to Cranberry Lake on the east side of the park to see whether the Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been restocking their food stores. Some years if they have not stockpiled quite enough leafy branches thrust down inside their lodge or in ice nearby, they come out on warm winter days to add a bit more. Beavers consume the leaves and the outer layers of bark from trees, along with some rhizomes (underground stems) and other plant material stored inside the lodge when the weather was warmer. This year I remembered those pointed stumps that I noticed a few years ago and headed out to check near the lodge. But I didn’t find any newly gnawed tree stumps near the edge of the lake. So this year, the beavers’ larder must have been stocked enough to get them through this snowy season..

A beaver lodge at the edge of Cranberry Lake with branches and tree trunks for food protruding from the lodge and on or in the ice nearby.

Wintry Adventures in the Present

The trail near three connected ponds at Cranberry Lake Park

Readers may remember my fondness for imagining how tracks get left in the snow. Noticing some at the edge of the Hickory Lane conjured a possible small drama. My husband and I came across a set of mouse prints leading to a small nook created by overhanging bark at the base of a tree. The tracks were blurry and seemed to be going in two directions. I wondered if perhaps a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had scooted across the trail, turned back for a moment, spotted a potential threat and dashed toward this hiding place again. In any case, its tracks back out of the nook looked to be at a more normal pace, leaving tiny leaping footprints and tail marks in the snow. Of course this is all guesswork on my part. If you have another interpretation, please share it in the comments!

During the January walk with the birding group, a few of us ventured out onto the ice of a small pond along a trail that we take back toward the parking lot. I keep an eye on this pond in the summer because it’s frequented by Wood Ducks regularly and sometimes by Great Blue Herons as well. But on this trip, the ice was plenty thick enough to permit me to explore a bit further afield.

The northern section of the hidden pond where I look for Wood Ducks during the spring and summer

Doing what a friend calls “boot skating,” I slipped across the ice to find a vantage point from the middle of the northern part of the pond. Instead of the narrowed strip of water I’d peeked at from the forest in the summer, a second large section of the pond expanded out before me!

The second section of the hidden pond with a small outlet far at the left.

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, brought up a map of this area on his cellphone to show me that this pond actually had three sections, the farthest south connected to the others by a narrow stretch of water. I was instantly intrigued! After six years of hiking here, I was seeing something that I hadn’t know existed!

The ponds within the trail loop at Cranberry Lake Park

I couldn’t investigate that morning but my husband Reg and I returned several days later to begin exploring these unseen sections of the pond. What fun to shuffle and slip across the icy surface! Near the eastern edge of the pond, a giant tip-up loomed at the water’s edge. It turned out to be the combined roots of 3 tall trees that had been uprooted by a strong wind at some point in the past. I’d never seen a tip-up this big before!

My husband Reg near the three tree tip-up at the edge of the hidden pond’s second section.

Nearby, an old Black Willow (Salix nigra) slanted up out of the soil at a precarious angle. The roots appear to have been alive last year since a whole series of suckers protruded from the tree’s surface. But it was the amazing pattern of the aging bark that fascinated me, like the wrinkled skin of an ancient face.

An elderly Black Willow with wonderfully wrinkled bark

Moving south, we arrived at the narrow outlet that led to the third part of the pond.

The narrow outlet between the second and third sections of the pond

Stepping out of the narrow, tree-lined passageway, I felt a little thrill, as if I were entering a small, hidden world all its own. There was nothing spectacular about this shallower third pond really, except that it seemed more isolated , fringed with forest and farther from the trails that I normally take in and out of the park – a secret place ripe for discovery.

The third section of the hidden pond, surrounded by wetland and woods

We walked tentatively around the ice because it looked softer, perhaps shallower, and the edges gave way to water underfoot. I wondered if the pond would disappear in summer heat, sinking back into the wetland that lay around and beyond it. In warmer weather, it will be more challenging to reach this pond through dense trees, shrubs, tall grass and the mud that will surround it – but I hope to try.

We left by gingerly stepping from clump to clump of Tussock Sedges (Carex stricta) at the western edge of the pond. Sedges can look like grasses, but their triangular stems are different from the hollow, round stems of grasses. During the summer, the two-foot stems of Tussock Sedge produce seeds which, when carried by the wind, end up feeding Northern Cardinals, Wild Turkeys, Mallards and those Wood Ducks that I see in the spring.

Tussock Sedge produces wind-carried seeds that feed many species of birds. Photo by Frank Mayfield at inaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

They also spread vegetatively into colonies through rhizomes. As the leaves wither, they drop onto the live plant below forming what look like plump, brown cushions during the winter.

The tall stems of Tussock Sedge fall onto the living plant below when they die, adding to the clumps that spread into colonies through underground rhizomes.

Looking Forward to Spring and Beyond

Two harbingers of spring greeted me on the way back to the parking lot last month. Despite the snow, the buds on a Silver Maple tree (Acer saccharinum) along the path were already swelling.

Silver Maple buds swelling as spring approaches

And nearby two male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) participated in a singing competition, probably establishing their territories. One was perched off in the distance in a marsh, but the one near the trail paused his singing and posed for a moment.

One of the two cardinals announcing their territories by countersinging at Cranberry Lake Nature Park

Here’s an older recording I took of two cardinals doing the same thing.

The Tussock Sedges near the third hidden pond are host plants for the caterpillars of three butterflies: the Eyed Brown (Satyrodes eurydice), the Black Dash (Euphyes conspicua), and the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris). I’ll be looking for them next summer nectaring on native wetland wildflowers and shrubs like Swamp Milkweed, Button Bush or Joe Pye, though some also get nutrition from bird droppings or tree sap. Knowing who might be there makes going next summer even more inviting!

The Thrill of Discovery in Another Realm

A massive “mackerel” cloud above the Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

My friends will tell you that I’m fascinated by the new rover that landed on Mars recently. Watching the NASA video of the Perseverance robot being lowered to the surface or listening to the recording of the wind blowing on Mars completely delights and fascinates me. But really, we have a largely unknown world available to us right outside our doors. When I step into a new environment like the hidden pond at Cranberry Lake Park, I’m in another realm, too – a wild one very different from my human habitat. And that immediately delights and engages me. I wonder “What grows here and what part does it play in this habitat? Which creatures make their homes here in the summer months? Which birds will nest in this secret wetland out of sight from the trails? Could I find an active Yellow Warbler nest near the pond next summer now that I’ve learned to recognize one? What can I discover that I’ve never before seen, or if seen, not noticed?”

Maybe the impulse that drives NASA researchers to Mars is, in some small way, the same impulse that pushes me out the door on a snowy day to see what I can discover. For a few hours, I leave behind the warm, safe, enclosed human realm to experience the wildness of the other realm that surrounds me. In this nearby “outer space,” trees, wildflowers and grasses thrust themselves out of the ground, using sun, water and earth to grow and reproduce. In the cold, heat, rain and wind, wild creatures scurry, soar, leap, run, crawl and swim day and night year ’round. And when I leave their world behind and arrive back in my human one, I feel awake and alive. Thanks for traveling to nature’s “outer space” with me. I love having you along to share what I’m learning.

This Week at Bear Creek: Early Summer at Bear Creek – Serenity or Drama, Your Choice

How can anyone resist Bear Creek Nature Park in late June?!

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Flowers keep offering up more and more color.  Fledglings are trying out their wings and begging their parents for food.  Trees whisper back and forth as the full green leaves of summer rustle and wave, soothing the frayed edges of our lives. But if you’re in the mood for a little excitement, you can always keep an eye out for the little dramas that snakes and other fascinating predators provide.  Some examples:

Find A Little Serenity…

Look at this clear invitation from what I like to call The Lane, the central path in the park lined with Black Walnut trees (Juglans nigra) that I imagine the farmer planted there years ago for nuts, beautiful wood and just their sheer magnificence.

Lane in summer

The central trail in Bear Creek, lined with native Black Walnuts, invites you to wander and explore a summer day.

Up near Gunn Road, there are water trails leading into the marsh where muskrats, ducks, and geese cruise into and out of the reeds in the summer sun.  The curviness of this trail, caught by my husband Reg this week,  makes me think it was made by a muskrat but Ben thinks its width might indicate a goose.  Or maybe a family of ducks?  Anyway, it makes me wish I could follow.

Water trail into the marsh

A trail leads into the marsh where we can’t follow. A muskrat, a goose, a family of ducks? Who knows?

Frog music is part of the charm of a summer day.  The Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens)is out and about now because the breeding season is past and they can wander away from the water.  They are beautiful spotted frogs and for reasons not quite clear, their numbers are falling in Michigan.  So keep an eye out for this emerald green, leopard-spotted frog wherever it’s moist.

leopard frog

The Leopard Frog’s numbers are falling in Michigan. But we do have them at Bear Creek!

The Green Frog Tadpoles (Rana clamitans)in the Center Pond are a-l-l-lmost frogs.  Here’s a nice big fat tadpole with tiny legs that Reg spotted there this week. And the bigger ones in the playground pond are already making their banjo-plucking calls!

tadpole w legs

A Green Frog tadpole in the center pond is developing tiny frog legs.

Insects add a lot of color and grace as they swoop over the meadows and ponds.  Out near the  marsh, you’re likely to see the elegant Widow Skimmers.  Here’s a  male with a black/dark brown band near his body and a white strip farther out on the wing,  but this one is immature.  When he’s fully grown, his abdomen will turn light blue.

Widow Skimmer male

This juvenile male Widow Skimmer has the dark wing band near his body followed by the white band characteristic of males, but his abdomen still has the gold stripes of a juvenile.

The female Widow Skimmer dresses only in somber colors without the white band,  though she shares gold stripes on the abdomen with the juvenile male.

widow skimmer female

The female Widow Skimmer dresses only in somber colors.

A rare sight but one that occurs this time of the year is the appearance of the Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton), surely the most beautiful of this family of butterflies, called the Brushfoots.  I’ve seen one only once at Bear Creek,  but it was in the third week of June so be on the lookout!  This smaller butterfly (1.75″-2.5″) with orange-tipped antennae is eye-catching from above.

baltimore checkerspot top3

The upper (dorsal) side of the Baltimore Checkerspot is striking against the green grass.

And it’s even more eye-catching on the underside!  See that orange face?

baltimore checkerspot 4

The lower (ventral) side of the Baltimore Checkerspot is even more eye-catching than the upper (dorsal) side! Look at that orange face!

More modest members of the Brushfoot family, but much more common visitors, are the fritillaries.  Here is the smaller one we’re seeing now in June, which I think is the Meadow Fritillary (Boloria bellona), but again, don’t quote me.  (Anyone out there a butterfly expert?)

Meadow Fritillary

The Meadow Fritillary is a smaller, more modest member of the Brushfoot family of butterflies.

Ben tells me that in the woods near the marsh, the fruits of the  Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) are now springing open,  flinging out five seeds per plant!  Go geraniums!  While out in the Old Fields of Bear Creek,  native and non-native flowers turn their faces to the sun.  Here’s our native Old Field/Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex) in one of the Native Plant Beds near the shed.

common cinquefoil

Old-Field/Common Cinquefoil is a native wildflower with a very invasive cousin seen below!

And here is its invasive cousin out in the fields, Rough-fruited Cinquefoil (Potentilla recta),  a cultivated version that appears much more often, unfortunately, than our native one!  You’ll see it on the way into the park from Snell Road once you leave the woods.

rough fruited cinquefoil 2

Beware of garden flowers that “naturalize.” What that means is that in the right situation,  they can be invasive like this Rough-Fruited Cinquefoil.

Rough-fruited Cinquefoil’s sharply defined, heart-shaped petals and paler color was no doubt  pretty in its original garden but unfortunately, it  “naturalized,” and is now taking the place of our native Old Field Cinquefoil which is only seen right now in the Native Plant Beds near the shed. Every time that happens, we lose a little of the rich diversity that nature provided us for us here in Oakland Township.

Other invasives aren’t necessarily cultivars,  human-bred plants.  They are  plants from other natural environments that end up here and  get carried away, growing aggressively.  Unfortunately, this applies to the prosaically named but quite pretty  Bladder Campion (Silene vulgarism).  This plant which is actually eaten in certain parts of the world, originated in Eurasia and is now found in Bear Creek on what I call the “Steep Slope Path”  that runs north/south on the western side of the park near Snell.

bladder campion

Bladder Campion, with the descriptive but non-poetic name, is an invasive plant from Eurasia.

However, this little beauty, Deptford Pink (Dianthus armeria), is a Non-Native that exists quite peacefully with our native plants, peeking shyly out among the Big Guys.   There’s some edging their way into the Native Plant Bed in the driveway circle but there’s some to enjoy as well on the path that runs along the west side of the playground pond.

deptford pink

The Deptford Pink is one of those non-native plants that co-exists with our native plants.

Appreciate Nature’s Dramas!

While all this color emerges and the air is filled with bird song, frog music and “tree talk,”  dramas unfold in Bear Creek as well.

Remember those Eastern Raccoons Kits (Procyon lotor) we featured in May?  Well, the mother  (here in a previous year) is in charge of feeding those kits until September.

raccoon in hole

Mother Raccoons need to feed their kits and are on the hunt for turtle and bird eggs, among other foods.

This week Ben saw evidence that part of their current diet is  turtle eggs which the raccoon (or perhaps a fox)  dug out of the soft earth where the turtle had laid them. Here’s the evidence I saw a few years ago.

opened turtle egg

A turtle egg probably dug up by a hungry raccoon or possibly a fox.

A Robin’s egg might be available too, which is one of the reasons, as reported last week, that Robins have 3 broods a year to keep their numbers up! Lovely “robin’s egg blue,” eh?

robin egg

Lots of animals eat bird eggs – squirrels if they happen across them, raccoons, foxes and snakes, though they swallow them whole!

Some interesting, quite harmless  snakes slide through the grass right now, so don’t let them startle you!  They’re much more afraid of you than you of them, believe me!  The small (9-12 inch), shy Brown Snake (Storeria dekayl) , which can be beige, brown or gray, appears now and then in the Bear Creek Old Fields, though it likes to spend most of its time under things – or underground, eating worms and slugs.  I particularly like the lovely tortoise shell pattern on the top of its head and the light stripe along its body accentuated by black markings.

brown snake

The shy Brown Snake with the tortoise shell pattern on its head likes to hide under anything available or simply stay underground!

Another beautiful, harmless but much longer snake (2-4 feet) is the Eastern Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum).  The females lay their eggs right now in June.  Contrary to the old farmer’s tale, they do not milk cows!  They, like the Brown Snake,  prefer to hide most of the time.  According to the DNR’s website on Michigan snakes, they eat lots of mice  and  rats  but are “harmless to humans though they may vibrate their tails and bite if cornered or handled.”  So simply watch them glide gracefully and seemingly effortlessly away and all will be well.

Milk Snake

It’s June and the large, but harmless, Milk Snake is probably looking for a place to lay her eggs.

Of course, sometimes it’s the snakes that are the prey!  Just outside Bear Creek last June, we saw a regal but juvenile Cooper’s Hawk which had successfully caught what appeared to be an Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Cooper’s Hawks  chase medium-sized birds, their preferred prey,  through the trees and eat them if they’re successful. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, these chases result in a signficant number of Cooper’s Hawks fracturing their wishbones, even though they are very skillful flyers.  They can also make a meal of small mammals and snakes when necessary.  This young hawk is doing what Cooper’s Hawks do with prey, holding it away from its body until it’s dead. Always good to diversify your diet, I suppose.

cr cooper's hawk with snake

A young Cooper’s Hawk is about to make a meal of an Eastern Garter Snake.

COMING ATTRACTIONS:

Earlier I mentioned Native Plant Beds.  When you visit the park from Snell Road, take a tour of the two Native Plant Beds to the north and south of the shed, as well as the native plants in the driveway circle.  Ben’s found some very easy-to-read, attractive plant signs that will help you identify some of what you are seeing.  I’m looking forward to the bloom of the Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), delicate blue flowers balancing on grass stems!

Blue-eyed Grass

The Blue-eyed Grass in the Native Plant Bed south of the shed is preparing to open its beautiful blue eyes at the tips of the grassy leaves.

Out in the fields, The Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) has big, beautiful buds which open into their hearty, dusty pink flowers shortly.  Don’t you love how the green leaves have pink veins down the middle of them? (You can see that clearly in the bottom leaf here.)

milkweed

Milkweed buds are getting ready to open their dusty pink flowers all over Bear Creek.

And in the marsh and other wet areas, the native Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is producing its perfectly round buds.  By mid-July, they will burst into bigger balls covered with tiny white flowers, each shooting out a long yellow-tipped stamen, looking like exploding fireworks or the old-fashioned sputnik!

button bush buds

In mid-July, the native Button Bush will burst into balls of many tiny white flowers each shooting out a long, yellow-tipped stamen. They’ll look like little sputniks!

I hope you’ll find the time some quiet afternoon to let yourself rest in the soothing sounds and beautiful sights of a walk in Bear Creek on a summer day. Or get your heart pumping at the site of a hunting hawk or a snake weaving its way through tall grass.   Time in nature is never wasted.