Nature Shares the Restoration Work at Blue Heron Environmental Area

The North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area in Spring 2021
The North Pond at Blue Heron in Autumn of 2021

Quite a transformation, eh? In March of this year, I posted a blog concerning the progress of wetland restorations in Oakland Township. In the fall of 2020, the wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area had been planned and constructed by the township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, and his colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By spring of 2021, the berm built as part of that restoration had created a truly startling change. Where Ben had noticed a significant wet area in a farmed field, a large pond now lay like a slice of blue sky dropped into the sere March stubble.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

So I returned this fall curious to see what nature had since contributed as our partner in the restoration project. The surrounding field was still striped with furrows left by a local farmer harvesting his crop; his work keeps the fields free of invasive plants until Ben can restore the native grasses and wildflowers that once grew there. When I crested a slope above the pond, though, I broke into a grin and whispered, “Wow!” The pond was now encircled by swaying green cattails and among them stood a Great Egret. I could tell from a distance that smaller plants had already populated the muddy shore as well, creating new habitat for wildlife. As I picked my way slowly through the wet ruts in the stubble, I hoped to see even more life flourishing around this newly restored pond – and I was not disappointed! ,

Summer Birds Forage In and Around the Pond, Preparing for Migration

When I got my first glimpse of the pond this autumn, what a delight to see the glorious Great Egret (Ardea alba). [Click on any photo to enlarge.]

A Great Egret wading the North Pond at Blue Heron Environmental Area

This elegant bird waded slowly and carefully around the southern shore of the pond searching for prey. Finally it plunged its head into the water and came up with something to eat! But evidently the bird had extracted its prey from the mud below because it quickly dipped its catch back in the water, flicked its head about to give it a few vigorous swishes in the air and swallowed it down that long elegant neck. Then my glorious companion moved on into deeper water.

As the egret approached deeper water, it stretched its neck vertically as if to get a good look around – or maybe it needed to “get the kinks out” after fishing so long with its head down. Who knows? As the water reached its breast, it took on a slower, even more careful gait, thrusting its neck forward with one step and looking carefully downward with the next. It appeared that the thrusting neck helped it move forward in deeper water and the slowness made it easier to spot potential prey.

I turned to look down the lake and heard a splash behind me. When I quickly turned back, the egret’s big yellow beak was filled with a stringy mess of wet greenery which it impatiently tossed aside. The egret had missed its prey and I’d missed a shot of an exasperated egret.

High overhead that afternoon, a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) flew south, following the leader of their flying chevron. In autumn, geese seem to do frequent practice runs before migrating. I noted that eight of them seemed to be tagging along behind one leg of the “V.” When eight geese flew back north a minute or two later, I couldn’t help imagining that these eight were the stragglers from the “V” who had decided they’d worked out enough for one day and turned back for a quick snack.

Each time I visited this pond, the piercing cry of a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) fell from high above me. Finally the two landed during my final visit. These dapper little characters spend the summer with us, scraping out their shallow, seemingly vulnerable nests in any bare earth they can find. Luckily, their striped heads and brown backs make them almost invisible in a vegetated field which apparently is enough to keep the Killdeeer and their young alive; I see them in the same fields year after year. I caught this one approaching a puddle in the grass and then turning its orange eye skyward, perhaps checking for predators who could snatch it up in flight, like Cooper’s Hawks and others in the genus Accipiter.

A Killdeer apparently keeping an eye out for flying predators

A pair of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) stood surrounded by a small flock of Canada Geese on the south shore of the pond. The geese flew away, but the Cranes slowly moved off into the field. One of them balanced with its wings while trying to navigate those water-filled ruts! After quietly grazing a bit, poking their beaks into the soil, they too took off heading south.

Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) kettled in a spiral above the forest west of the pond. Biting midges killed several deer in Michigan during our warm, wet fall. I wondered if the vultures, important members of nature’s clean-up crew, had found one dead near a forested wetland. Later a solitary vulture flew overhead while I watched a small flock of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) enjoying the quiet sunlight on the North Pond. And as I left one day, a Savanna Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) hopped and pecked its way along a tractor rut, plucking up whatever appeared to be edible.

A Mammal, Fish, Amphibian and even Crustacean Also Explored the Pond’s Possibilities

Besides the ubiquitous White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that leave their hoof prints in the mud around the pond, a few other creatures are evidently trying out this habitat. I’d noticed some cattails draped across a log on my first visit and thought perhaps a muskrat had pulled them to the surface, since cattails are a favorite food. Ben later showed me an area where a muskrat may have tried to burrow into the berm that holds the wetland water, although the berm isn’t sturdy enough for winter quarters. Ben also pointed out an area where cattails had been felled and piled into what looked suspiciously like the beginnings of a muskrat’s feeding platform – a place to get out of the water to eat.

A wedge-shaped pile of harvested cattails hints at the presence of a muskrat building a feeding platform.

A week or so later, the log I had seen earlier had more cattails on it and something else quite unusual that I couldn’t identify. At first, I thought that it might a large fungus. But a helpful member of the Mushroom Identification Facebook group told me it looked like Cyanobacteria (genus Nostoc). Hmm… considering its common name, Blue-Green Algae, I wondered how that flat green stuff on ponds could look like this?

Clumps of colonized cyanobacteria on a log in the North Pond.

My curiosity piqued, I eventually found my way to Michigan State University Extension Educator Beth Clawson who confirmed that it was indeed cyanobacteria and sent me some useful research links. It turns out these very ancient organisms can also form dome-shaped colonies on the bottom of lakes and ponds. The ones at North Pond, Ms. Clawson informed me, are harmless, unlike the summer algae blooms that can be toxic. So it seems most likely that the muskrat pulled up cattails to eat their roots and these clumpy cyanobacteria colonies came up with them.

Imagine! These bacteria are descendants of the very ones that changed life on our planet 3.5 billion years ago! As these particular cyanobacteria performed photosynthesis, they produced oxygen unlike other organisms that didn’t. As cyanobacteria thrived in the early oceans, the environment became ever richer with oxygen, making the evolution of oxygen-breathing creatures like us possible. So, funny-looking blobs on a log set me thinking about the origins of life on ancient earth! No wonder I love doing this blog!

By the way, the muskrat never showed up on any of my visits. Perhaps I just missed it, or perhaps it didn’t find suitable winter housing in this newly restored wetland and moved elsewhere. Or maybe the food sources beyond cattails were too scanty. Muskrats usually supplement their largely vegetarian diet with frogs, crustaceans and fish. Evidence of all three of its prey species exist at the pond but some may be in small numbers.

Prey Species at the North Pond that Might Interest Water Fowl or Muskrats

In late August, heavy summer rains were causing the pond to flow out toward the woods on the northeast edge of the pond. Ben noticed a small fish swimming upstream, against the current toward the pond! Evidently some fish from a nearby forested wetland had discovered the stream and decided to give it a try. We don’t know how many made it there, but what a discovery! I hope these adventurous little fish arrived and remain in their new habitat. If they did, though, they may be providing a dietary supplement for egrets or the elusive muskrat.

A small fish swimming upstream toward the pond in a downhill overflow stream

On my first three visits to North Pond, I repeatedly heard little “plops” as I walked the watery edge of the wetland, but didn’t see a frog. Once I heard the telltale squeak of a startled Northern Leopard Frog (Lithobates pipiens) but no sightings. During my last visit, though, my sharp-eyed husband spotted one traversing the uplands near the pond.

A Northern Leopard Frog in the field beyond the North Pond

The other possible prey for a muskrat or bird is crayfish. In spring, their “chimneys” erupt from the soil as they climb out of their underground burrows to lay eggs. They can be found all over the field and around the North Pond. At this point, crayfish may be the most numerous food source for creatures visiting this wetland. We have crayfish species in Michigan, but unfortunately the most prevalent is an invasive one, the Rusty Crayfish (Faxonius rusticus). I can’t be sure if that’s the species that built the chimneys at the North Pond. According to MSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife website, for most of the year “they build and occupy a deep and complex subterranean tunnel system that goes at least as deep as the ground water table.” So that’s probably where they are now. Below is Ben’s photo of a Rusty Crawfish taken at Bear Creek Nature Park and mine of last spring’s slightly worn chimney at the North Pond in October.

Wet-footed Plants Settle In, Creating Habitat

The cattails that encircle the North Pond are not our native ones, but the aggressive, non-native Narrow-leaved Cattails (Typha angustifolia) that grow near the road. They may take over the pond eventually, turning it into a marsh. Fortunately, though, many native plants have also found their way to the pond. A seed of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) must have arrived stuck to a bird’s foot or in its droppings; I only saw a single stem in late September. Until mid-October, Nodding Bidens (Bidens cernua) ringed the pond with both seed heads and a few bright yellow blooms. Wood Sorrel (Oxalis stricta) sported tiny yellow blossoms. If they are pollinated and produce seed pods, they will be able to project their seeds up to several feet away from this original plant and add more Sorrel to the wetland habitat. Ben introduced me to Celery-leaved Buttercup (Ranunculus sceleratus), a look-but-don’t-touch plant; crushing or bending its leaves raises lesions on human skin. But as long as we leave it alone, it produces interesting leaves and cheery little yellow flowers from May to September. And of course Duckweed (genus Lemna) covers parts of the water surface like sprinkles on a cupcake.

I first got acquainted with two of the North Pond’s native plants at Watershed Ridge Park in August. When I saw Southern Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) there, I admired its tiny white blooms on delicate stems. And I also admired the polka-dot effect of its seed heads at North Pond in October. Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) made a nice contrast to the Water Plantain with its spiky stalks springing up like green and yellow fireworks both around the pond and in the field.

Ben decided to try adding to the pond’s plant life by bringing in rhizomes, the underground stems and roots of two native aquatic plants: Whorled Loosestrife (Decodon verticillatus) and Yellow Water-lily (Nuphar variegata). The Whorled Loosestrife is a native plant as opposed to the invasive species Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria). Ben planted the cuttings he took from Draper Twin Lake Park into the mud below the water close to shore, its preferred habitat.

The Yellow Water-Lily rhizome required deeper water to float its leaves. So Ben moved to the bank at the deepest part of the pond, tucked a few rhizomes in the mud and tossed any remaining small pieces far out from shore. It’ll be great to see if either of these settle in at the North Pond next summer!

Insects Dancing, Posing and Staring Me Down!

Insects, as I’ve noted before, could be real pests this year – but fortunately, the ones I encountered at the North Pond had no interest in me. Some were beautiful, others especially interesting. Let’s start with the ballerina of the group.

When I consulted Dr. Gary Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, he informed me that the crane fly that I’d seen pause in its frenetic fluttering to cling to a grass stem was a male. Its blunt abdomen was the clue. But since hundreds of look-alike crane species from five different families live in Michigan, he couldn’t identify this one from a photo.

A very small male Crane Fly

Close by, a larger female Crane Fly performed what I dubbed “The Dance of the Hundred Eggs.” She hopped above the bright, green moss, her body held vertically, wings outstretched, as she poked individual eggs into the ground with her ovipositor. Dr. Parsons tells me the eggs will hatch there, the young will scavenge, and then larvae will pupate before emerging as adults next year. If only I had the appropriate music to accompany this skipping choreography!

A female Crane Fly poking her eggs into moss on the shore of the North Pond.

On the surface of the pond, Whirligig Beetles (family Gyrinidae) danced too. These gregarious little insects whirl, spin and gyrate in large groups. Most sources seem to think it’s a way to avoid predators, or at times, to secure a mate – but no answers are definitive. I just enjoy the dance! I didn’t take a video at the North Pond because they were too far away, but here’s a group portrait of its corps de ballet.
A spinning, scooting, gyrating group of Whirligig Beetles.

I have a particular fondness for Katydids, especially when they pose for me on a grass stem. Their antennae are astonishingly long and their green, cartoon-like faces look slightly humorous to me. Katydids are active July to September when they mate, lay flat eggs on stems, soil or leaves and hatch the following summer. For me, the best way to tell katydids from grasshoppers and crickets is their long antennae, often 1.5 times longer than their body. Grasshoppers and crickets have shorter antennae, usually only half to 2/3 of their body length or less. Anyway, let me introduce you to the little female Meadow Katydid (genus Orchelimum) that I saw by the North Pond. I love her beady, yellow eyes and red, extravagant antennae!

A female Meadow Katydid blends in nicely with her surroundings.

On my visits, I repeatedly came across one species of dragonfly, a male Meadowhawk (genus Sympetrum), and one damselfly, a male Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). (Click on the damselfly to see his spiky surface!) I remain hopeful that their variety and numbers will increase next summer if I get there in warmer weather. A Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) gave me a baleful stare in the field nearby.

Given a Chance, Nature Shares the Work of Native Habitat Restoration

The Great Egret is a beautiful part of nature’s contribution to the restoration of the North Pond.

Nature itself is the very best stewardship partner. Here at Blue Heron Environmental Area, Ben began restoration by creating a berm to hold the water in the middle of a field. Once it was built, nature got to work. Thunderstorms repeatedly brought water down from the sky and up from the water-soaked earth. Cattails by the highway sent seeds sailing on stormy winds toward the muddy edges of the pond where they quickly took hold. Taking advantage of the plentiful moisture, seeds thrust their way out of the seed bank, arrived on the wind or were left at the pond edge by thirsty creatures. Seeing this rippling, blue expanse from above, birds dropped down to the pond to probe the shore for food or spend the night safely hidden among the cattails. A muskrat may have crossed the road late one night, survived the traffic and slipped into the dark water. Frogs, fish and flying insects found the new pond by hopping, swimming or winging their way from nearby wetlands or hatching from the wet soil as the summer progressed. Gradually, a small community of plants and wildlife made a summer home at Blue Heron’s North Pond. This fall we hope to seed native plants into the uplands around the pond, and next summer sprigs of native grasses and wildflowers will help knit the uplands to the wetland.

The outcome of restoration can be unpredictable. Yet working to recreate and preserve nature’s complex, interdependent web of life is always worth the effort. I am surprised and delighted by how quickly nature joined us in restoring the North Pond. I’ll be eager to see what else nature contributes to its restoration in the coming year. I hope you’ll be here, watching with me.

View to the northwest at Blue Heron’s North Pond.

Beauty in Every Season: A Year-End Review of our Parks and Natural Areas

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.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

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

The Tree Line Between Two Prairies, Charles Ilsley Park

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.)

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Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs

Golden Alexanders carpet the woods near the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

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!

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Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom

East Prairie Ilsley 2017 (1)

Member of the birding group at Charles Ilsley Park in July

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?

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Autumn 2017:  Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed

Autumn color at Cranberry Lake Park

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!

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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!

BEAR CREEK: Is It Spring Yet? Ummm, No… plus Tracking Bear Creek Itself

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

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

Robin in evening sun BC

A Robin plumps against the cold on an early February day

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.

Singing Titmouse BC

A Tufted Titmouse tried out his spring call – “Peter, Peter” on a sunny, very cold morning

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.

A male Eastern Bluebird pauses on the branch of a small tree

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.

Brown Creeper 2 BC

A Brown Creeper always works its way around and up a tree when foraging.

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.

Song Sparrow BC Marsh 2

An early Song Sparrow poked about in the grasses of the marsh exposed above the ice.

Then, Suddenly, Spring, Off and On

Residents take immediate advantage of a spring-like day at Bear Creek.

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!

Eastern Comma Butterfly BC February

An Eastern Comma butterfly emerged from hibernation as the weather warmed unseasonably in February.

Further along, an Eastern Garter Snake  (Thamnophis sirtalis) basked in the sunlight on the trail before slipping off into the grass.

A basking Garter Snake slipped off the path 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.

Flock of Cedar Waxwings BC

A flock of Cedar Waxwings whistled and flew from tree to tree in late February.

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.

Ben's photo Crayfish w eggs BC

A crayfish with eggs under her tail

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!

Lesser Canada Goose BC

This Canada Goose has a remarkably short neck so it could be part of a subspecies called the Lesser Canada Goose.

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. 

hazelnut-catkins-1

These male catkins of the Hazelnut bush will fertilize tiny female flowers on the branch to produce  – what else? – hazelnuts!

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.

Sandhill Cranes poked at the thin ice when the marsh re-froze after the false spring.

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.

Duck feet and wing tracks Center Pond BC

The prints of duck feet and wings on the Center Pond’s snowy surface.

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.

Two Geese in icy marsh BC

The male Canada Goose searches for food in an open patch in the thin marsh ice.

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.

Flying bluebird BC

A male Eastern Bluebird glides to the ground to look for seeds.

Coyote tracks BC Lane

Most likely coyote tracks on the Walnut Lane

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.

bear-creek-begins-out-of-center-pond-bc

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.

Bear Creek n of Gunn Road at marsh

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.

Bear Creek at Pine Needle Trail off Gunn BC

It wends it way south behind various houses, appearing again at a culvert under the aptly named, Bear Creek Court off Collins Road.

Bear Creek off Bear Creek Court

Just north of Oak Hill , near the entrance to the Township Hall,  the creek crosses under Collins Road.

Bear Creek going under Collins Road BC

 

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,

Bear Creek behind church BC

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.

Bear Creek empties into Paint Creekk at Cider Mill

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.

Out and About in Oakland: Gallagher Creek Park – A Nature Oasis in a Busy Area

 

Viewing Platform GC

Viewing Platform at Gallagher Creek Park

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.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos
by Cam Mannino

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?

Great Horned Owl GC Antonio 8 2016

A Great Horned Owl, photographed by Antonio Xeira, spends the day in a large Willow tree to the north of Gallagher Creek.

A much smaller visitor among the willows is what I think was a Willow or 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!

Willow Flycatcher

A Willow or Alder Flycatcher or an Eastern Wood-Pewee? You decide which one preened one hot morning in a Black Willow.

The shade near the stream also provided a stopover for a busy House Wren (Troglodytes aedon).

House Wren

A House Wren stops briefly in the willow’s shade on a hot morning.

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.

Gray Dogwood GC

Stands of native Gray Dogwood provide shade, protection and a food source in several thickets around 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!

Fledgling wren GC

A fledgling House Wren hid deep inside the shade of Gray Dogwood as its mother scolded nearby.

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?

Delaware Skipper?

A thumbnail-sized member of the Skipper butterfly family, perhaps a Delaware Skipper.

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!

Emergent Marsh GC (1)

Native plants like Sedges and Joe Pye flourish in the park’s emergent marsh as the PRC works to eliminate invasive Phragmites.

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 young Gray Catbird "miaous" from bushes near at the edge of the Old Field.

A young Gray Catbird “miaous” from bushes near the edge of the Old Field.

An immature Robin, still losing its breast spots, surveys Gallagher Creek.

A Robin, perhaps a molting female or a youngster still losing its breast spots, surveys Gallagher Creek.

Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) and a male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) hung out together in the bushes one hot morning.

Chipping sparrow and House Finch

A Chipping Sparrow and a House Finch share a bush one hot summer 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.

Goldfinch in willow GC

A male goldfinch settles in the willow trees, resting from his singing flight in the golfinch mating season.

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.

Field thistle GC

Goldfinches mate in August when the Field thistles produce their favorite seed.

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.

Rabbit GC

An Eastern Cottontail enjoys early morning sun after a long night of nibbling at Gallagher Creek.

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

Downy Woodpecer on Common Mullein

A Downy Woodpecker extracting seeds from a huge non-native plant, Common Mullein.

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!

Eastern Wood-PeeWee

I think from its size, this is an Eastern Wood-Pewee, but again, it could be a Flycatcher!

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-leaved Goldenrod (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!

Common Evening Primrose blooms as the sun goes down until morning.

Common Evening Primrose open as the sun goes down  and don’t close until morning.

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.

Grasshopper at GC

Carolina Locusts fly up as your tread the paths of Gallagher Creek.

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.

Viceroy on Queen Anne's Lace

A Viceroy butterfly is distinguished from a Monarch by bars on its hindwings.

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 .

Common ringlet butterly

The Common Ringlet butterfly hovers close to the ground searching for nectar from small plants.

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.

Clouded Sulphur on Spotted Knapweed

A Clouded Sulphur among the non-native Spotted Knapweed and Queen Anne’s Lace.

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.

Joe Pye GC

Joe Pye and Goldenrod complement each other near the creek where the reeds are growing in the background.

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.