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!
What a crazy February and March, eh? Snow, ice – and then suddenly mud, warm sunlight, even a butterfly! – then icy winds again. Such schizophrenic weather complicates life in the natural world. A snake basks in the sun one day and a few days later, returning sandhill cranes peck along the surface of thin ice. Ducks leave wing prints and webbed feet tracks on a snowy pond and a few days later, a female crayfish emerges with eggs under her tail. Never a dull moment in the parks! Meanwhile I set off to track the meandering course of Bear Creek itself.
Early February – A Normal Winter for the Birds
American Robins (Turdus migratorius), despite their association with spring, know how to cope with cold days: find dried fruits on old vines, turn your dark red breast to any sunlight available and plump up your feathers to create some down insulation.
The Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) on the western slope found sun at the very top of a tree and decided to try out his mating call on an icy morning. “Peter, Peter, Peter,” he trilled, despite the snow below.
A small flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) passed contact calls back and forth in the small trees and shrubs. The male below probably spent this odd winter at Bear Creek and appears to be just fine.
Nearby, a small bird busily wound its way up a tree, poking at the bark every few seconds and moving on. That upward spiral was a clue. It was a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana), a funny little bird with a small head and a long sharp beak good for winkling out bugs and larvae from tree bark. If you look carefully in my hastily shot photo, you can see its right eye and curving black beak.
The longer days brought a warm weather migrant to the marsh, the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). It probed the grassy clumps protruding from the ice, looking for tidbits – seeds, perhaps? This sparrow’s cheerful mating song will burble forth all over the park when real spring arrives.
Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On
Somewhere near the middle of February the temperature rose, the ice began to melt, and the snow turned to mud. Humans, that most adaptable of creatures, came out to enjoy a respite from winter cold. And so did some other animals who may have been fooled into emerging a bit early!
This Eastern Comma Butterfly (Polygonia comma) probably spent the winter as an adult under the bark of a log or in a hollow tree. It’s common to see them alone in a sunny spot in early spring – but not usually in February! I hope this one went back to its winter digs as the temperature dropped!
Further along, an Eastern GarterSnake (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.
On another warm-ish day, the birding group came upon 30-40 talkative year ’round residents, Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), flitting from tree to tree and whistling in their thin, high voices. Cornell Lab recently posted that scientists are exploring the idea that the waxwings with the most red waxy dots on their wing tips are the most mature adult birds and the most likely to be successful at mating.
The birding group was greeted by the waving claws of a small, but assertive female crayfish sitting in a puddle on the trail near the pond. Under her tail, she carried quite a load of eggs. Michigan has eight native species of crayfish, and one aggressive, invasive one, called the Rusty Crayfish. This one could be the invasive because according to U-M’s Biokids site, they take an aggressive claws-up stance to fight off predators (as she did when we approached) and she also had smudge-like spots on the back of her carapace. But crayfish are difficult creatures to positively identify, so for now, we’ll just say she’s a crayfish. If her eggs hatch despite the cold that returned the following day, she will carry her young through several molts, until they fall off and start life on their own. Thanks to Ben for his great photo.
A Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated above her reflection in the Center Pond. Some of the birders wondered if it could be classified as the subspecies of Lesser Canada Goose, since its neck is shorter than most Canada Geese. But since its body and beak are large, it’s hard to say. It may just be normal variation – or maybe it had a Lesser Goose or Cackling Goose relative (Branta hutchinsii) in its past!
In the unseasonal warmth, a native Hazelnut bush (Corylus americana) extended its long male catkins that will fertilize the tiny female flowers on the twigs when they emerge later. The little flowers eventually produce clusters of nuts. The farmer who lived on Bear Creek during the Depression and WWII gathered these nuts as a boy, as reported in an earlier blog.
Winter Returns, Sigh…
The marsh froze over again – thinner ice that water birds could peck through to forage in the water below. One morning in a cold wind, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) poked about on the ice near Gunn Road, stalking back and forth on their knobby legs. They didn’t seem to be finding much to eat.
At the Center Pond, it looked as though some ducks had walked on the ice and then taken off, leaving some decorative webbed foot tracks and wing prints in the snow.
The next morning, the sun broke through and thinned the ice. A male Canada Goose found a break in it and stuck his head down, looking for food. Brrr…glad they have plenty of fat and keep their layers of feathers well-oiled by preening from an oil gland at the tip of their tail like other water birds.
On the western slope, a male Eastern Bluebird repeatedly swooped down into the grass and back up into a nearby bush, evidently finding some seed he liked on a cold morning.
And along the upper part of the Walnut Lane, tracks revealed the path of what might have been a Coyote (Canis latrans) from the size of these canid tracks. Like the fox, when they trot, they place the back foot where the front was – hence the single tracks. Wish I could see this animal in the park. Its scat is everywhere! We can be assured, I think, that this animal does just fine no matter what the weather!
Tracking the Meandering Path of Bear Creek Itself
Occasionally a park visitor asks me why the park is called Bear Creek. Well, I don’t know why the creek was called “bear” because there are no bears. At one time, the marsh was reportedly called “Bare Marsh” because of the many dead trees standing in the water years ago. But some people ask because they haven’t noticed the little creek and its meandering path that eventually reaches Paint Creek. I never paid much attention to it myself once it left the Center Pond boardwalk. But in February, I decided to follow it.
It begins, I believe, in a spring that I saw years ago during a drought that dried up the pond. All that was left was a wet spot at the west end of the pond, with water seeping eastward in a feeble stream. In a normal year, when the water is high, a small creek flows out under the boardwalk at the pond’s eastern end.
From there, it runs east through the woods, enters Bear Marsh and picks up ground water. In the photo below, it exits the marsh running north out of the culvert under Gunn Road.
The little creek then takes a left hand turn, flowing back west. In the woods somewhere, it evidently takes another left, bending south until it crosses under Gunn Road again right across from Pine Needle Trail, near Collins Road.
It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.
Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall, the creek crosses under Collins Road.
It flows along a ditch on the western side of Collins Road and curves behind the Paint Creek Methodist Church and the Lyon Gear factory,
At that point, the creek takes a dive under ground, crossing Orion Road and appearing again at what appears to be its final destination, flowing out of a culvert as it joins Paint Creek behind the Cider Mill parking lot.
A Creek with a Past Flows Toward Its Future
It’s wonderful to think of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of spring mornings during which this little creek has wended its way from a modest pond in a field off Snell Road to merge at last with Paint Creek. Long may it meander across the landscape. If we are careful stewards of the natural beauty granted to us, then for generations to come, the bluebirds will still forage in the meadows on azure wings, the coyotes will still trot up the lane on a winter night, and the butterflies will still slip out of tree bark into the sunshine. My thanks to all of those whose efforts and resources make that future possible!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows:
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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)and websites linked in the text.
I’ll admit that when I first visited Gallagher Creek Park, just east of Adams on Silverbell, I didn’t quite get it. It seemed like a rather ordinary, flat piece of land surrounded by a marsh. But luckily, I decided to look more closely and, as usual, the closer I look, the more nature shares with me. I’ve visited the park several times over the last month and each time I appreciate this little park more.
The stream flowing quietly through the grass beneath the viewing platform creates a cool, moist retreat for an abundance of birds and the special native plants that love wet feet. The Old Fields bloom with an astonishing variety of native wildflowers. Insects float and buzz between the blossoms. In short, this little park hosts an amazing variety of wildlife and plants with its combination of marsh, wet meadows and open fields (click here to see a map). Let me show you just a sampling.
Gallagher Creek Itself: A Haven for Birds and Wildflowers
The recently constructed viewing platform (thanks to Eagle Scout Jonathan Walling!) near Gallagher Creek allows visitors to watch the slow ripples of cool water flowing through the grass and trees. This gentle flow creates a soothing retreat that shelters creatures and plants of all kinds. According to three surveys by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Gallagher Creek is home to “one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.”
After the last survey, though, they reported that the “gravel riffles and natural pools” had been silted by nearby construction, reducing the population from 300 Brook Trout per mile in 1998 to just 50 per mile in 2010. (See Ben’s blog on this from 2015.) Native plants growing more abundantly at the edges of the park can act as a buffer and filter such sediment. Gallagher Creek runs northeast and enters Paint Creek at the Cider Mill in Goodison. If we want Brook Trout in our township, one way is to protect a cold water stream like Gallagher Creek.
Wetland Wildlife and Plants: A Riparian Corridor and a Marsh
Streams like Gallagher Creek create what’s called a “riparian corridor,” an area where the land meets a stream or river that not only filters and purifies water, but also provides habitat for a wide diversity of plants and wildlife. Antonio Xeira, our birder friend, spotted a most impressive bird near the creek. Here’s his photo of a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)who spends its days high up among the leaves of a Willow (probably black willow, Salix nigra)north of the stream. It’s not easy to see so I appreciate Antonio’s shot! See that open eye?
A much smaller visitor among the willows is what I think was a Willowor Alder Flycatcher (Empidonax species) that perched in the shadows to preen. ( It could also be a Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), but I’ll leave that for you to decide. They’re very similar.) It was a hot morning and this little bird was very busy dealing with the gnats or mites that can bother birds as much as they can bother us humans this time of year!
The shade near the stream also provided a stopover for a busy House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).
This hard-working adult was foraging for her young in a nearby thicket of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina), which provides lots of cover and a food source for all kinds of birds at Gallagher Creek.
One morning, I approached the thicket to see if I could see the young wren. Immediately, the adult starting her scolding call, chipping incessantly at me, probably both to ward me off and to tell her fledgling to stay back in the trees. I did finally manage to get a shot of the youngster who appeared to still be growing into its beak!
Back in May, Antonio also noticed the burrow of a Crayfish (superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea), a creature that loves clear, cold water streams. In case you haven’t seen a crayfish, I include a photo of one that I saw in Bear Creek. If you enlarge the photo by clicking on it, you’ll see it’s a female carrying eggs under her tail! Crayfish are daylight creatures who retreat to burrows at night. I can’t say which species is in either photo. We do have one invasive crayfish in Michigan, the Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus), which fishermen used to use as bait and which have affected populations of our native crayfish.(Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
Moisture-loving wildflowers in pink, purple, white and yellow bloom among the tall grasses and reeds at the edge of the stream. Here are three native flowers that are easy to spot in the park – Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis)and Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum).
The moist ground even a bit farther out from the stream suits many plants. Tall Sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus)and Water Hemlocks (Cicuta maculata),both natives, prefer to sink their roots in moist earth.
Of course, dragonflies make their home wherever there is water. I saw a mating pair of Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) making a wheel of their bodies in the wet grass one morning. The female is retrieving sperm from the male’s abdomen where he placed it earlier. And to the right is what I think is another female Ruby Meadowhawk perching near the edge of the stream. Meadowhawk dragonflies (family Libellulidae)are plentiful this time of year and tough to identify, but fascinating to watch as they hunt along the creek.
This thumbnail-sized Skipper butterfly (family Hesperiidae), I’m guessing a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan), paused delicately on a moist leaf as I approached the stream. Isn’t it elegant with its striped legs and antennae, large eyes and deep orange wings?
Gallagher Creek Park also shares an emergent marsh with its neighbors to the east. This thriving area is slowly being cleared of the dreaded invasive, Phragmites (Phragmites australis), which is much too prevalent in the area. It’s an on-going project of Dr. Ben and the Parks and Recreation Commision. How wonderful to see natives like sedges (Carex species) and Joe Pye flourishing as that terrible invasive plant diminishes!
Wildlife and Plants in the Old Fields
In the spring and early summer, our sharp-eyed birding friend, Antonio, found two nests on open ground at Gallagher Creek. I wonder if these eggs hatched since they seem so vulnerable. On the left is a Killdeer’s nest (Charadrius vociferus) from late April. The name, by the way, comes from their call, not from their effect on deer! And on the right is a Spotted Sandpiper‘s nest (Actitis macularius) in early June. Thanks, Antonio!
Now birds whisk in and out of the leafy trees at the perimeter of the Old Field next to the parking lot – many of them juveniles or adults working at feeding them. The “miaou” of a young Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) caught my attention at the edge of the field. And later hearing a “cluck,” I look up to see an American Robin (Turdus migratorius), perhaps a molting female adult or a juvenile losing its spots, perched at the top of a snag.
A Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) and a male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) hung out together in the bushes one hot morning.
American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) provide the soundtrack for Gallagher Creek right now. These cheery little birds are one of the few who sing as they fly! With every downward swoop of their undulating flight comes a short burst of song. Here’s a male that settled for a few moments in that Willow, again – a popular place to pause for many of the birds here.
Goldfinches mate in August because their favorite food source is available – thistle seed. So they’re quite happy, I imagine, that non-native Field Thistle (Cirsium arvense) established a large, plumed patch on the western end of the loop path.
We appreciated being greeted by a relaxed Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) when parking at Gallagher Creek one morning. It seemed to be enjoying a bit of morning light after a long night of nibbling.
As Reg and I set out on the path, we were greeted by a sight I’d never seen before. A Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)hung onto one of the huge non-native stalks of Common Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)in the Old Field. Downies eat both insects and seeds, so I guess it was just varying its diet
Closer to the water, this small bird fluffed its feathers as it settled in a bush. It looks a lot like the Willow Flycatcher but was a little bigger. So I’m guessing this is an Eastern Wood-Peewee (Contopus virens), but I can’t be sure!
Among all the non-native wildflowers, like Queen Anne’s Lace and Spotted Knapweed in the Old Fields, many native wildflowers are increasingly making a home in the Old Fields here. In August of 2014, Dr. Ben did what’s called a floristic survey of Gallagher Creek. Of the 192 species he found on one day there, 131 were native! Today they are more plentiful and healthy because Ben and his summer techs have eliminated many invasive shrubby plants and held repeated prescribed burns here. They plan to increase the native plant habitat in this park by planting native prairie species into the areas that were primarily non-native, invasive plants. The first phase of native plant installation will happen fall 2016, with a second round in 2017. Check out the sign on the west side of the driveway just as you enter the parking lot to learn more details.
In Bear Creek, Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an occasional plant, but this summer, it grew in large swathes along the paths of the field near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek. Now, after the intense heat, it is turning brown and seeding for next spring’s crop.
Of course, native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) appears here and there, and is now producing its green, paisley-shaped pods. Along with more common Canada Goldenrod,another native called Grass-leavedGoldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia),flourishes as well. As I reminded readers last summer, Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever.” Their pollen is heavy and drops quickly to the ground. The sneeze-producing culprit that blooms at the same time is the wind-pollinated Ragweed(genus Ambrosia) which you can see if you click on the link.
Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)raises its graceful stems topped by yellow flowers among the grasses to the east of the park. According to the Illinois Wildflower site (one of my faves), these flowers “remain open from evening to early morning, but will remain open longer on cloudy days. They have a mild lemony scent, and bloom from mid-summer to fall on mature plants. Long narrow seedpods develop, which split open from the top to release many tiny, irregular brown seeds. They are small enough to be dispersed by the wind, and can remain viable in the soil after 70 years.” So if we keep caring for the land here, these night-blooming natives should be here for your grandchildren!
Out in the Old Fields, insects are busy in the late summer sun. Carolina Locusts (Dissosteira carolina)spring into flight, their wings making a brown blur at your feet.
A Viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) explored the possibilities of a Queen’s Anne’s Lace bloom one hot morning. Viceroys are distinguished from Monarchs by the bars on their hindwings.
A Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) hovered in the grass below. Ringlets aren’t the most efficient flyers but they are prolific, occurring in Northern Europe, Asia and across North America but not in the southern hemisphere .
Clouded Sulphurs (Colias philodice) have a larger range of flight, feeding on taller plants like the Milkweeds and Coneflowers, but also on alfalfa or clover closer to the ground.
So, this modest little park is actually a rich oasis of native plants and wildlife along an important cold water stream in the midst of the most developed area of our township.
The Parks and Recreation Commission has plans to put a pavilion and perhaps even a play area in Gallagher Creek to make it even more inviting to its neighbors. But right now, if you bring your binoculars and your curiosity to Gallagher Creek as the summer wanes, nature, as always, will reward you with lots of beauty to 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.