Blue Heron Environmental Area on Rochester Road is a place I’ve rarely visited. This special natural area was purchased years ago by our Parks and Recreation Commission to protect a Great Blue Heron rookery that has since moved on. The township has begun planning for the area’s future use, but for now it’s preserved as a beautiful green space with a large arc of wetland curving through a high-quality lowland forest. The fields outside the forest are planted by a local farmer which helps prevent the spread of invasive shrubs until future plans come to fruition.
Until recently, I had only been in this forest to pull garlic mustard during spring volunteer workdays. But in early June, I was able to join our township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his stewardship specialist, Grant VanderLaan, for a short exploration while they there were clearing invasive plants. What a great opportunity to share some of the special flowers, vivid dragonflies, and elder trees that inhabit this moist, shady world!
Escorted Along the Fields by a Fleet of Dragonflies!
While skirting the farm field near Rochester Road, I noticed a sunlit meadow to my right that was splashed with blossoms of native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus).
All along the field edges, dragonflies were patrolling, and occasionally dueling over, their territories. Blue Heron Environmental Area is ideal for these aerial wizards. In the open areas, they can scoop up mosquitoes, flies, midges or even moths and damselflies out of the air, while attracting a mate with their speed and skill. And once they do mate, the forest wetlands provide an ideal spot for depositing their eggs. Since walking humans stir up a lot of insects, they were also happy to accompany me along the field edge to harvest whatever I stirred out of the grass.
The Widow Skimmer female below (Libellula luctuosa) looks very like the male, except that her abdomen is black and gold while his is gray-blue. The male also has white patches beyond the dark brown ones on each wing. Widow Skimmers find shelter at night by hanging underneath overhanging leaves.
Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) are fierce predators. They have long spines on their legs for grasping prey, which includes any insect their size or smaller – occasionally even other Eastern Pondhawks! These dragonflies are more likely than others to follow along as you walk in order to feast on swarms of insects. Eastern Pondhawks are “dimorphic,” meaning the male and female look very different as you can see below.
According to Dragonflies of the North Woods by Kurt Mead, female Eastern Pondhawks can mate multiple times in a day. Perhaps the female’s bright green color and striped abdomen, so different from the male’s, makes her more visible to possible suitors.
The Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) is a favorite of mine not only because of the alternating stripes on its wings, but because of the way it hunts. It sallies forth from a perch to snag its prey, and then frequently returns to the same perch repeatedly – giving amateurs like me multiple chances for a decent photo! All dragonflies are a challenge to photograph in flight, but particularly Twelve-spotteds since they fly in bursts of speed and can reverse direction in a flash.
The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) below could be a female, but is more likely a juvenile, since they’re the ones that tend to head for fields and open areas, leaving the water behind once they emerge from their larval stage. Their appearance is not only identical to the adult female; it also closely resembles the female Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The only difference is that the yellowish-white stripes of the female/juvenile Whitetail form a jagged line down the sides of the abdomen (see below), while the side stripes of the female Twelve-spotted form a neat straight line. So needless to say, I always need a photo to decide which one I saw when a female of either species appears.
I came across two other interesting insects at the edge of the fields. Noticing delicate movement at my feet, I finally spotted a strange creature that is completely harmless to us humans, but quite a predator! A Hangingfly (genus Bittacus) does just as its name implies; it dangles beneath leaves by its looong front legs which have claspers to grasp leaves or stems for support. It uses its other four legs to snag any unwary insect passersby. It looks a bit like a Crane Fly but isn’t related.
And a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) showed up right where they always are – in a bright spot at the edge of a field or forest, its stiff, iridescent green wings shining in the sunlight.
Something New: Restoring a Forest
Have a look at the photo of the cleared, green field above. Until two years ago, it was choked with Autumn Olive and Glossy Buckthorn, invasive non-native shrubs that quickly take over abandoned farm fields. A forestry mower took them down in the winter and the area was soon sown with native grasses and wildflowers. The stewardship summer crew treated the invasive shrub regrowth the following summer.
Often stewardship work in our township begins with this clearing process as the first step in turning a field back into a native prairie or savanna- but not so at Blue Heron. When I visited, Ben showed me that the cleared field in the photo had originally been part of an earlier forest.
As you enter the woods, you can see a demarcation where younger, smaller trees give way to taller, thicker, older ones. It’s likely that decades ago, the older trees, many of which lean eastward, had been reaching for sun at the edge of a farmed field . The bigger trees to the right in the photo probably grew back after the forest was originally cleared for farming in the 19th century. The smaller trees to the left probably sprouted after part of the field was no longer farmed in the second half of the twentieth century.
Stewardship plans include eventually planting native oaks in the open, cleared meadow in order to restore more of the native trees that thrived here before farming began. I’d love to be around to see the restoration of a forest!
The Rich Diversity of a Lowland Forest
I’ve only explored a small section of the current woods at Blue Heron Environmental Area, but I’m already wowed. In the sources I used to research the plants I saw here, I came across phrases like, “found only in high-quality wetlands,” or “found in high quality woodlands.” Because much of the forest has been undisturbed for a long time, Blue Heron provides high-quality examples of both.
Moist Forest Flora – and Some Rare Beauties!
As I stepped with Ben into the older forest, the shade deepened. Ben kindly took me to see a unique orchid. It seems that at one time, this natural area hosted two kinds of Ladyslippers. The more common, and still lovely Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) peeks out of the greenery beneath the tall trees. I love how the dark sepals form the purplish ribbons of the lady’s slipper.
But there was once another orchid here which Ben and Grant haven’t yet spotted, the rarer White Ladyslipper (Cypripedium candidum). Here’s a photo of one from iNaturalist.org taken by photographer Erin Faulkner. Note that the sepal “ribbons” are green with faint flecks of purple rather than the dark purple and bright yellow sepals of the Yellow Ladyslipper above.
Ben presumes that White Ladyslippers once grew in this natural area because here and there today grows a hybrid between these two native orchids. The hybrid wildflower at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper but the purple, sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper. The two native Ladyslippers must have cross-pollinated and produced this special hybrid that Grant found. I’m so glad that I got to see several of them and am able to share one with you!
Also enjoying the beautiful forest floor, I noticed little yellow pom-poms on a stem growing in the mottled shade of a long, arcing marsh. Ben identified it as Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thrysiflora), a species of Loosestrife I’d never seen before. Its clusters of tiny blossoms, called “racemes,” emerge from the middle axils of the long, graceful leaves like tiny fireworks. It’s described by a useful wildflower website, Illinois Wildflowers, as “found in higher quality wetlands.”
Large areas near the marsh were carpeted with a calf-high plant I’d never before noticed on my hikes – Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis). This member of the mint family produces a plume or spike of tiny yellow flowers in mid-summer, adding a spark of color to the dense shade when little else is in flower. Since I saw only its leaves, here’s a photo of the plant blooming by inaturalist photographer Sirruba.
Ferns Waving from the Forest Floor
The feathery fronds of a glorious variety of ferns sway above the ground near the marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area. Ben identified two for me and I spotted an old favorite as well. The Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) is described by Illinois Wildflowers as “found in higher quality woodlands where the original ground flora is largely intact.” I saw its fan-shaped fronds spiraling out of the ground quite near the center of the marsh’s arc. It carries its spores in narrow bands on the underside of the leaflets near the tip. Each leaflet on the frond folds down slightly to partially cover the sporangia, the structures that carry the spores. They will eventually break open and release the spores to the wind.
The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) produces a glorious, rising plume of infertile fronds that catch the sunlight and feed the plant through photosynthesis. The shorter, straight fertile fronds are thinner and produce yellow bead-like spores. The draining of wetlands around the world has had a big impact on Royal Ferns, so I’m happy to have seen so many here!
All over the woodland grows an old friend, the Sensitive Fern, reportedly so-named because its fertile fronds wither at the first frost and arrive after the last frost. Its green, infertile fronds with their jagged edges feed the roots while the smaller fertile fronds eventually produce shiny, brown, bead-like sporangia that last through the winter before breaking open to release the spores. Sensitive ferns also reproduce by underground stems called rhizomes.
Wet Woods Extras
A High Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), an unusual native plant that I’ve only seen before at Cranberry Lake Park, huddled under the shade of a willow on a hummock in the marsh. When I got closer with my camera, I could see fruit just beginning to form. Native mining bees and bumblebees or non-native honeybees must have found the little white nodding blossoms and pollinated them as they foraged. Some lucky bird or mammal has a treat coming!
Near the Blueberry bush, in a wet crevice of a moss-covered hummock, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). It must have hatched this spring from eggs quickly laid in a vernal pool back in March. Less than 2 inches long, it floated in the shallow water or rested on the moist mud as it explored its shady grotto.
Healthy Little Saplings, a Majestic Beech and Some Colorful “Hangers On”
Among the mixture of maples and oaks, some trees that I see less often have also found a suitable habitat in the forest at Blue Heron. Ben told me of a large Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) farther back in the woods that I’d missed. But I did see this little sapling of one springing up from the moist earth. I love how tiny saplings create such large leaves to capture as much sunlight as possible. Let’s hope it escapes the attention of foraging deer!
I did find an impressive American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) reaching up to the sunlight with its smooth, gray bark. Wildlife love the plentiful beechnuts that this tree will send rattling to the earth. And according to the Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela, the seedlings and saplings that manage to take root can survive in the shade for years waiting for other trees to fall, giving them the sunlight and space they need. I’m hoping for a grove of Beeches – a new favorite of mine.
A tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor) must have begun its upward journey from the forest floor when the acorns dropped last fall. Swamp Oak acorns usually come in pairs and sprout shortly after falling, according to Stan Tekiela. If one survives hungry birds and animals, it grows more quickly than most oaks. And it could live for up to 300 years, according to Wikipedia. Good luck, little oak!
What first appeared to be some sort of fungus had sprung up around a large fallen oak in the woods. But it wasn’t a fungus; it was a parasitic plant commonly called Cancer Root or Bear Corn (Conopholis americana). It’s an underground plant that consequently can’t photosynthesize sunlight. Instead it feeds off the roots of woody plants, especially oaks and beeches. This interesting pinecone shape is the flowering stem of the underground plant which grows on the roots about four years before producing these flowers that can grow as high as 8 inches. I’m continually amazed by the variety of ways that nature has found to sustain life.
Imagining Blue Heron’s Past, Protecting It Today and Restoring It For the Future
The distant past of this striking lowland forest can only be imagined. Before farming began here in the 1800’s, an old growth forest probably stretched out from its present site across where Rochester Road is now and beyond. Gray wolves probably roamed the area, keeping a healthy deer population in check. Those White Ladyslippers may have bloomed in profusion in an open wet meadow pocket, since non-native plants had not yet been introduced to the ecosystem.
Today Blue Heron is a special natural area preserved by the Parks and Recreation Commission and the residents who support our parks. The old growth forest is gone, but large trees from the 19th century still stand tall among the wetlands shading a forest floor full of native plants. Thanks to our stewardship program, garlic mustard and other invasive trees, flowers and shrubs – some brought early on by European settlers, others unwittingly planted in our gardens or along our streets – are being removed from our parks and controlled in a variety of ways, including prescribed burns. As a result, our heritage of native plants can begin to reassert itself, providing a healthier, more productive habitat for native wildlife.
And for those of us who want to pass that heritage on to future generations, we can dream of young children wandering among tall oaks and waving native grasses that were restored to Blue Heron Environmental Area by people in our time who valued the gifts of the natural world. What a legacy, eh?