Welcome back to Watershed Ridge Park for our second virtual hike through this as yet pathless 170 acre park. (If you missed the first hike, click here.) This week’s exploration will take us to the western area of the park, which is a little easier to explore than the east. Starting in 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township natural areas stewardship manager, started habitat restoration in old farm fields which had grown into thickets of invasive shrubs. Forestry mowing eliminated the standing shrubs, and follow-up treatment and brush mowing knocked back the invasive plants and shrubs in this area of Watershed Ridge. He then sowed in some wonderful native plants, including grasses which add a golden sheen right now to the upland slopes in the west of the park, as you’ll see a bit further into our walk.
Starting from the parking lot on W. Buell Road (A), we’ll walk along the grassy edge (B) between two fields and head back into the woods to pay a visit to a pond full of singing frogs (C). Emerging from the woodland edge, we’ll enter a big, wild meadow that slopes to a small marsh (D). We’ll follow the forest stream from last week’s hike that burbles its way out of the large marsh to the park’s northeast (H). It meanders from marsh to marsh before exiting under Lake George Road (E). Our return will take through the western farm fields (F,G) and back to the parking lot. So please, lace up your virtual boots and join me!
The Woods Filled with Frog Song!
As I headed out of the parking lot to the north one afternoon, a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) advised me from deep in a tangle of vines, to “Cheer up! Cheer up! Cheer up!” (Listen to the Cardinal under “Duet” at Cornell Lab.)
Feeling even better than I did when I arrived – thanks to his greeting – I headed toward the woods north of the field to my right. Halfway there I realized that the ice had melted in the wetlands since my last visit, because I heard…frog song!
Arriving at the muddy edge of the pool, I spotted the concentric ripples that I was looking for. At the center of each was a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Wood Frogs spend the winter frozen solid under a log or in leaf litter. Miraculously, they thaw out as the weather warms and rush to nearby water to mate. Imagine how good it felt for this little frog to be stretched out floating at the surface on a spring day. The one below was just beginning to kick and recreate the ripples around him.
The whole throng of amorous Wood Frogs floated with their legs extended and kicked their back legs occasionally which kept the concentric circles ripping outward. Vernal pools tend to dry in warm, summer weather so the frogs start to mate quickly in early spring. They benefit from the absence of fish in vernal pools who might make a nice meal of the frogs’ eggs if they were present. Throughout the process of my observations, Wood Frogs make a throaty chuckling sound, as if they are as amused as I am by the whole spectacle.
Out of the Woods and Into the Big Meadow!
The big sloping, meadow that appears as you step out of the woods has been in the process of restoration for several years. Now in early spring, the meadow is sere, brownish gold and easy to traverse since winter snow tamped down last year’s stalks and new growth has barely begun. The marsh at the bottom of the slope (D) is edged in scarlet stands of Red Osier (Cornus sericea). This wetland is fed by the stream that runs out of the much larger marsh (H) in the northeast section of the park.
In the summer, the Big Meadow is a challenging hike because the native grasses and wildflowers can grow waist-to-shoulder high. A view of the water is even more obscured in warm weather when the shrubs that surround the marsh leaf out. But what a glorious sight the meadow is on a summer day! Butterflies, dragonflies, and summer birds flutter, zip and soar above its changing summer palette of emerging wildflowers.
The Dry Uplands of the Big Meadow and Water Meandering Out of the Marsh
What’s loveliest about the uplands of the Big Meadow right now is the golden glow of large stands of Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus), a native grass that the stewardship crew seeded onto these graceful slopes.
The uplands of the Big Meadow are dotted by a variety of trees. One of my new favorites has three different common names: Hop-hornbeam, Ironwood or Musclewood (Ostrya virginiana). I love the latter because doesn’t the wood look like a muscular arm?
I came across something in the uplands that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t initially identify. It think it was a deer rub, a spot on a tree where a deer has rubbed the area between its forehead and antlers. The sweat glands there will deposit a scent during the annual rut in order to “communicate a challenge to other male deer,” as Wikipedia puts it. The bark certainly looks like it’s been torn upward from below. If a naturalist or hunter has any other idea about how this shredded bark happened, though, please educate me!
On a visit to the uplands on a sunny day in early March, I was surprised to find a patch of orange, gilled mushrooms. Mushrooms when the ice had barely started to clear from the marshes? My helpful friends at the Mushroom Identification Facebook page identified them for me as Flammulina velutipes, commonly called Winter Mushroom. According to the website fungusfactfriday, “it particularly likes warm spells in the winter and cold snaps during other seasons.” Though it’s theoretically edible, it’s evidently easily confused with a highly toxic mushroom called Gallerina marginata. So unless you are an expert, don’t try these if they show up on your own property. And please don’t pick any mushrooms in our parks; they are a food source for squirrels and other animals. I found more detailed information on these fungi at a University of Wisconsin website.
Down near the marsh, the stream that found its way from the large northeast marsh moves on. It runs west at the bottom of the meadow, leaving a soft muddy surface perfect for the earliest of spring wildflowers, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). These strange, pungent blossoms rise just above the mud; the stems remain below. This ancient and almost alien-looking flower produces temperatures from 27-63 °F, which assists the plant’s reproduction in a couple ways. The heat melts the snow around the emerging mottled hood (spathe). Early pollinators – flies and some bees – are attracted to the carrion-like smell which the heat carries out of the plant. The plant also provides them with a warm refuge from the cold – and while inside, the insects pollinate the flowers on the spike (spadix). Skunk cabbages are an ancient plant and live a long time because their roots contract each year, pulling the stems deeper into the soil. So as Wikipedia notes, ” in effect [skunk cabbage} grows downward, not upward”! How’s that for an amazing feature!
Before long the flowers will wither, but huge green leaves will emerge, using photosynthesis to provide the energy for the underground growth. Here’s what the leaves looked like at a wetland in Bear Creek a few years ago.
Near the edge of the marsh, a deer had met its end, probably serving to feed the coyote pups or the adults that I heard in the eastern woods last week. Not being a hunter, I’d never looked closely at deer teeth before. These were accompanied by a skull and some ribs; no doubt both the coyotes and the crows had picked them clean. A strange, melancholy sight, but then deer are so over abundant here that I don’t begrudge the coyotes a good meal at the end of a long winter.
The stream keeps flowing west toward Lake George Road through a drainage ditch excavated by a farmer at some point in the past. Leaving the meadow, it carves its way into the woods, creating mini-ravines that I needed to navigate in order to keep exploring. Along the edge of these ditches, trees have adapted in a variety of odd ways, like the snail-shaped tree (right below). Some of this flow, Ben says, will be strategically plugged in upcoming wetland restoration work, and in some wet parts of the western farm fields small berms will be placed to slow down water running off the fields, allowing the water to recreate the shallow ponds and saturated soil of years ago. [Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.}
Eventually, the water finds its way into a small marsh right at the edge of Lake George Road (E on the map), between W. Buell and Stony Creek Roads. On the left is the view of the marsh from Lake George Road, the way I’ve seen it since childhood when I rode my bike past it. On the right is the view I finally got after 60 years or so – looking east from the wooded slope of Watershed Ridge Park toward the road. A fun moment for me.
The stream runs under Lake George Road, taking a turn as it flows west toward Paint Creek. And in the shallows, multiple blossoms of Skunk Cabbage popped up like small bouquets from the muddy soil. A fine spring display!
Heading Back through Steeply Rolling Farm Fields
Stepping out of the woods, into a farm field in the west of the park (F), I carefully negotiated my path across a small stream and around a little wetland, when I saw a small brown bird sail into some shrubs nearby. It turned out to be a returning Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia); you can discern the spot at the center of its striped upper breast. This may have been a tired male scouting territory, since it wasn’t singing its spring song of several bouncy notes followed by a trill. Cornell Lab of Ornithology recordings demonstrate that Song Sparrows in other parts of the country sing somewhat different versions of the spring song. So I guess some birds have “dialects,” too!
This is one of the fields that the Ben hopes to slowly restore with the prairie plants that were here before European settlement. Wet areas and steep slopes that erode when tilled to expose bare soil will be planted with deep-rooted native grasses and wildflowers. Prairie plants provide food and cover for all kinds of birds and butterflies so those sloping hills will be not only a gorgeous sight, but productive as habitat. Portions of the western fields and the big fields on the east side of the park, however, will continue to be farmed.
A beautifully shaped Eastern Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) graces the edge of this field if you walk up the tree line – or if you see it at a distance as you head north from the parking lot. I love the delicate tracery of the branches now and wonder if it will look as beautiful to me once it’s leafed out. I’ll let you know.
In the field nearest the road intersection (G), a small wetland provides a good spot to look for birds. One shiny, late afternoon, my husband and I spotted a crouching Killdeer within the glare off the water. I think it must have been a loner without a nest yet, since it didn’t immediately fly away, keening its high-pitched call over the fields.
After stumbling into the open through some feet-snagging brambles between fields on another day, I startled a solitary Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) who’d settled peacefully on the little pond.
And farther up the hill, I missed getting a photo of two Sandhill Cranes that must have been feeding there. Frustrating! But then, overhead, a Cooper’s Hawk sailed right above me and I just managed to get my camera pointed upward in time! A lovely compensation for scaring off three beautiful birds!
And with that lovely finale, I headed back to my car.
Nature’s Uncomplicated Generosity
Thanks for traveling with me this week and last at Watershed Ridge Park. I still want to explore the eastern woods, but I’ll probably wait until drier weather to find my way around the large wetland there. And I’m anxious to see if the deer have left any woodland wildflowers in those moist woods. So perhaps May will be a time for Virtual Hike #3 at Watershed Ridge. We’ll see.
A friend of many years recently wrote that lovely phrase “nature’s uncomplicated generosity” when describing the solace of the wild. She let me borrow it here because it expresses two qualities I always appreciate when under a big sky – especially one with a sleepy moon in it! Wildness exists purely in the present moment; it doesn’t regret the past or anticipate the future. It just is. When we venture into nature, it offers itself to our senses with no real effort and yet is generous enough to sustain a continuous flow of experiences. For the hours I’m out exploring, my attention is drawn from one detail to the next, crowding out all the noisy thoughts that normally push me through the day. If you can get out in the fresh air in any way during this self-enforced exile, please do. Putter in your early spring garden, let a breeze cool your cheeks near an open window or outside your back door. Or during this solitary time, hike on the path that poet Robert Frost eventually chose, the one “less traveled by.” I think you’ll find, as I do, that it can make “all the difference.”