Tag Archives: Cylindrical Blazing Star

The Wet Prairie: Unusual Fall Blooms Host A Variety of Guests

I’m always cautious when I  write about the wildflowers at the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail between Gallagher and Silver Bell Roads.  Many of  the wildflowers here are very fragile and quite unusual, so this natural area needs to be treated very carefully.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Because I’d like to help residents understand just how special the Wet Prairie is, I’m occasionally allowed to take a very careful and slow walk with my camera. Here’s the beauty – and the fascinating strangeness –  I came across on two short trips there last month.

Restoration of a Special Place Yields Special Flowers

Butterfly milkweed seeding with Smooth Blue Aster and Gray Goldenrod in bloom.

Restoration of this 10-acre natural area by Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his Parks and Recreation stewardship crew has worked wonders over the years.  Years ago when I first saw the little flower with the exotic name, Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca), one blossom stood alone on the prairie. I loved it the moment it caught my eye. This year the prairie was covered with these striped beauties, the most I’ve ever seen!

Grass-of-Parnassus has grown increasingly abundant at the Wet Prairie with restoration continuing there.

According to the Illinois wildflower site (a favorite of mine), Grass-of-Parnassus loves moisture and chalky (calcareous) soil,  but doesn’t like a lot of competition from other plants. A high water table keeps this prairie wet for a good portion of the year. In some places, the unusual soil prevents water from draining away, pooling in the spring and drying out in summer sun. Occasional use of prescribed fire suits many of the  plants that grow here. They’re fire-adapted after growing for millennia in landscapes that burned frequently, not to mention fires in the last few hundred years started by lightning or by the trains that passed on the nearby railroad. Ben and his crew have consistently removed invasive shrubs and encroaching trees to keep the area open and sunny. Grass-of-Parnassus, no doubt a long-time denizen of the Wet Prairie, celebrated all of these unusual conditions and the restoration work this summer with an abundant bloom!

The prairie also hosts another airy fall wildflower that prefers little competition. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) grows along the drier areas near the trail. A wide variety of native bees and butterflies find their way to its bright white showy bracts, which are modified leaves like the red bracts of poinsettias.  The white bracts of flowering spurge highlight the yellow flowers at the center. I love their simplicity; they remind of the flowers I drew as a child. Their leaves are safe from deer browsing because they contain a toxic white latex.

Flowering Spurge avoids competition and can tolerate the dryness near the trail.

Flowering Spurge is monoecious, which means separate male and female flowers are produced on the same plant.  Once pollinators do their work, the fertile female flowers are replaced by a capsule with a seed in each of its three chambers which appear right at the center of the female flowers! Below is a closeup look at their bulbous seed pods which will eventually eject the seeds when they’re mature.

Seed capsules forming on Flowering Spurge.

Tucked down among the grasses, Cylindrical Blazing-star (Liatris cylindracea) makes itself known through the whirling effect of its purple blossoms.  Each flower head is crowded with 15-20 individual tube-shaped flowers. A two-part curving “style,” emerges from each one. The style is the slender stalk that connects the stigma, the surface on which the pollen lands,  to the ovary below in the blossom. These lovely wildflowers last  about a month in late summer/early fall and tend to appear singly like many of the flowers on the Wet Prairie, preferring little competition. The name Blazing Star seems particularly appropriate in this wildflower, since the styles spin out from each flower like the stars in a Van Gogh painting.

Our long-tongued native Bumblebees can easily pollinate Cylindrical Blazing-star’s crowded flower heads.

Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) thrives in the moist, chalky soil of the Wet Prairie. A small, woody bush, only 1.5 to 3 feet tall, it attracts native bees, honeybees and a variety of other flying insects to its bright yellow flowers during the summer and early fall. It also benefits from being of little interest to deer.

A small bush, Shrubby Cinquefoil provides nourishment to a big variety of insects.

On the early September walk, I explored the wetter areas at the back of the prairie and came across an elegant stem of Turtlehead (Chelone glabra) with a haze of dusty lavender Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) dancing in the distance. The turtlehead’s two-lipped flower performs two functions: the top lip  forms a protective hood for the flower’s stamen and pistils and the the lower serves as a landing pad for foraging insects. Like many of our native plants, it protects itself from deer – in this case by having bitter leaves.

Turtlehead blooms first at the bottom of its florescence.

On the far back slopes of the prairie, a Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) made a swirling explosion of seeds, each attached to its silky white parachute. What a delicate abstract design with its central slender pod shape!

Butterfly Milkweed going to seed in a spectacular fashion!

Early in September,  I spotted a yellow wildflower growing on the steep bank above Paint Creek across the trail from the Wet Prairie.  It turned out to be  a wildflower I rarely see, Wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), a very tall (3-8 feet) plant that often finds a home on river banks or near wetlands. Their sunbursts of raggedy yellow flowers contain a rim of “ray florets” that look like petals but are each a separate fertile flower and a disc floret filled with individual tubular flowers that together create a pin-cushion effect at the center. (Petals, as opposed to “ray florets,” are actually non-fertile modified leaf-like structures.)

Wingstem is a tall wildflower that loves river banks like the one across from the Wet Prairie.

Two stalks of a modest wildflower that  I’d never seen before stood alone above the creek. Ben identified it as White Lettuce (Prenanthes alba). The drooping blossoms are cross-pollinated by those  masterful native pollinators, the bumblebees  (genus Bombus) seeking nectar with their long tongues. I watched as two of them foraged busily, the one on the left probing for nectar vertically within the blossom, just the lower tip of its body showing, and the one on the right with a yellow “pollen basket” on its back leg.

Bumblebees buzzing quietly as they seek out the nectar of White Lettuce.

Nearby a non-native Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) explored the abundance of the tiny disk florets that make up a Snakeroot flowerhead (Ageratina altissima). These wildflowers thrive in disturbed soil, especially at the edges or openings of woodlands.  They spread quickly both by rhizomes  (underground stems) and by achenes lofted to new locations by small tufts of  white hair called pappus. I look forward to them, because they are often the last wildflower to bloom in the fall.

Early settlers thought this Snakeroot was good for snake bites. On the contrary, its roots and leaves are toxic to both cattle and humans!

When I arrived later in September, the Grass-of-Parnassus was fading. But the Wet Prairie was dotted with Smooth Blue Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) – small, erect sprays of lavender sprinkled generously across the landscape. According to the Illinois Wildflowers site, this seemingly delicate wildflower is a major food source for pollinators, including at least six species of native bees, honeybees and as you’ll soon see below, butterflies. Tree Sparrows, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and White-footed mice enjoy the seeds and the caterpillars of several moths browse on their leaves. A small plant with a big benefit to wildlife!

Smooth Blue Asters dot the prairie in the fall providing abundant food sources for wildlife.

Within the exclusion fence at the back of the prairie, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) tossed and nodded their purple flowers in the autumn breeze. New England Asters rely on non-native honeybees, native bumblebees and other long-tongued bees to pollinate them. The short-tongued bees and hover/syrphid flies visit to collect pollen, but are generally too smooth-bodied to be effective pollinators. This aster also hosts the caterpillars of many species of moths, which feed on the leaves. Those caterpillars can provide important nutrition for adult birds and their nestlings. For those reasons and their sheer beauty, I was happy to see these purple wildflowers with their golden centers dipping and rising in the late afternoon sunlight.

New England Aster provides its pollen and leaves to insects as well as leaves that their young can eat and grow to maturity.

As September progressed, I counted on finding two favorite wildflowers on the Wet Prairie and was not disappointed. Where water seeps to the surface on the south side of the prairie, Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) produce their strange indigo blossoms that never open.  These large bud-like flowers wait instead for the big, bustling bumblebees to force their way inside looking for nectar and pollen. Once within, the bees produce a high-pitched buzz with their flight muscles, using their legs and mouth parts to direct the vibration toward the pollen-laden anthers inside. The pollen explodes into the air within the enclosed Bottle Gentian, clinging to the bumblebee’s fuzzy bodies. Have a look and listen to this short video  of a bumblebee” buzz pollinating” some  poppies. What a clever way for the bumblebee to collect pollen and for the Bottle Gentian to be pollinated!

Bottle Gentian flowers never open and bumblebees have to force their way inside!

Another deep blue Gentian is unfurling the artfully fringed and overlapping lobes of its blossom in the short grass of the prairie. The Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita), like the Grass-of-Parnassus, thrives in the chalky (calcareous), generally moist soil of the Wet Prairie. Several species of bumblebees frequent these gentians and once fertilized, it forms pods filled with tiny seeds that are carried away by either wind or water. Can you believe that blue?

Fringed Gentian’s four-lobed blossoms spout like small purple fountains from the grass of the Wet Prairie

Beautiful Autumn Blossoms Get Plenty of Visitors

In general terms, a host plant is one that provides food and shelter for other species – in the case of wildflowers, either nectar or pollen for adult insects, or leaves and stems for their caterpillar young. Native plants are particularly effective hosts. In the autumn, the special flowers of the Wet Prairie are providing a last minute meal for bees, beetles, wasps, butterflies and other insects by day and moths by night, including one rare one! So it’s not surprising that on my two short visits, I saw a variety of “guests” drop in for a visit.

The Butterfly Guests and the Young of a Very Unusual Moth

The Orange Sulphur flies low, skimming over the tops of flowers, as this one did on my first visit.

As I mentioned earlier, butterflies seem to find plenty of nectar on the Wet Prairie’s Smooth Blue Asters.  I saw a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) restlessly flitting about the field on both visits, but luckily, on the second visit, one settled down for a sip on a Smooth Blue Aster. These small flowers must pack a lot of sugary punch on a cool day! Here’s a close look at this fritillary’s strange spotted eyes and its long proboscis probing the flower for nectar.

A Great Spangled Fritillary sipping from a Smooth Blue Aster

On my second visit, an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) also rose and sank repeatedly as it flitted above the greenery.  At one point, it headed straight for a Smooth Blue Aster, its proboscis curled in flight.

An Orange Sulphur on its way to sample the Smooth Blue Aster on the Wet Prairie.

Once it landed, the proboscis extended and acted as a straw to extract the sugary nectar from the disc floret at the center of the aster. The field mark for the Orange Sulphur is that orange blush on the  upper (dorsal) surface of the wing, though the female’s is a bit paler. The male has a wide brown band at the wing edge whereas the female’s brown band is punctuated by white spots. Glad this one finally stopping scurrying around the prairie and settled in for a late afternoon drink.

An Orange Sulphur settles in for a meal on the Smooth Blue Aster

The male Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) looks like a small  chip of blue sky bobbing along in short flights over the grass in the Wet Prairie. (The female’s wings are brown on the upper side.) The Eastern Tailed Blue normally closes its wings when stopping to feed or rest, showing only the gray undersides of its wings, featuring two orange spots and a tiny “tail” on each hindwing. Fortunately, it occasionally stops with its wings slightly open to bask in warm sunlight, like the one below. That sunlight felt soothing to both of us on a cool fall afternoon.

The Eastern Tailed Blue butterfly has a tiny tail at the bottom of its hindwing.

Out in the wet areas where the Bottle Gentian blooms, my husband spotted a male Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) far back in the greenery. When I reached him, his immobility surprised me; I was able to get remarkably close. I noticed he was periodically pulsing his wings which looked fresh and flawless. My guess is that this fellow was  one of the “super generation” of Monarchs that had just emerged from his chrysalis. Once his wings were fully functional, he would fly off to feed before beginning his long journey to Mexico. Isn’t he a beauty? I wished him well.

A newly emerged male Monarch Butterfly pulsing his absolutely perfect, undamaged wings.

A nearby Joe Pye blossom hosted the ubiquitous Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus). Its long tongue allows it to feed on many different wildflowers. Notice the hooked antennae, a field mark for all skippers. I come upon these sturdy little Silver-spotted butterflies quite often on my walks. Maybe you do, too?

A Silver-spotted Skipper drops in for a drink on Joe Pye blooms.

I’m always attracted by the bright orange blossoms of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), and noticed a strange quivering on the leaves of one at the edge of the trail. The cause turned out to be the avid chewing of the chubby orange and black caterpillar of  the Unexpected Tiger Moth (Cycnia inopinatus). An intriguing name, eh? It certainly was unexpected for me! The Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group identified it for me, and I confirmed their information with the huge caterpillar compendium, Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner.

The caterpillar of a moth that is ranked as “uncommon” to “rare,” the Unexpected Tiger Moth, munched on it host plant, Butterfly Milkweed, in the Wet Prairie.

After a couple hours of research, I finally found a comprehensive article on the website of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, Eastern Region. This moth is  described as “uncommon to rare and local throughout its range” due largely to habitat loss.   Our caterpillar hatched in the right area, since the adult moth seeks out high quality barrens or grasslands full of butterfly or whorled milkweed.

Adult Unexpected Tiger Moths (see the iNaturalist photo below) hatch, mate and lay eggs in 2-3 weeks, never bothering to eat during their brief lifetimes. The ones that emerge in the spring produce the August brood, which probably explains the presence of the caterpillar I saw. It will eat and then transform into a pupa whose loose cocoon will fall into the leaf litter to overwinter until spring.  So we’ll just have to hope that the orange and black caterpillar above ate enough to mature and survive the winter, so that next spring a rare moth emerges and finds a mate along the trail.  [Photo below by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago at iNaturalist.org]

The rare  Unexpected Tiger Moth will only travel short distances in its 2-3 week lifespan.  Photo by Chrissy McClarren and Andy Reago (CC BY-NC)

Other Insect Visitors, including a Cannibal!

An Eastern Yellow Jacket Wasp (Vespula maculifrons) seeks out nectar but doesn’t provide much pollination because its smooth body doesn’t  transport pollen to other blossoms.

I came across a trio of insects that had landed on a Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), a wonderful plant with its upright posture and filigree of fuzzy, soft green leaves hugging the stem. On the left, a jazzily striped Locust Borer Beetle (Megacyllene robiniae) fed on the goldenrod’s pollen. If it’s a mated female, she will later scurry along the bark of non-native Black Locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) looking for a wound in which to lay her eggs. On the right side of the plant, two Soldier Beetles (family Cantharidae) found one cluster of  yellow blossoms to be the perfect spot for quiet mating. Nice to know that one of my favorite goldenrods is such a generous host!

A Stiff Goldenrod hosts both mating soldier beetles and a foraging Locust Borer beetle

Out in the shorter grasses of the prairie, however, lurked a predator with cannibal instincts. Fortunately, it was only about 2.5 to 3.5 inches long! We spotted a non-native European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) who was busily eating what appeared to another of its kind. (There are no native praying mantises in Michigan.) If you look carefully in the photo below,  you can see a long, angled brown and green leg very much like its own bending up from the green abdomen that the mantis holds between its spiked, raptor-like legs. I know, the photo’s a bit grim, but there’s no malice here. It’s just dinnertime on the prairie for a hungry insect trying to survive in its habitat. I think it’s important to keep reminding myself of that – and you too maybe?

Praying Mantis are non-native in Michigan and catch only live, preferably moving, prey, including their own kind.

I can’t confidently determine the gender of this mantis,  but females are usually larger than males with bigger eyes, so my guess is that this is a male. Now, you may know that female praying mantises are notorious for consuming their partners after mating. Actually, about 70% of the males are crafty enough to avoid becoming a quick, nourishing meal for their mates. But it turns out that mantises prey on each other even in the nymph stages, scuttling away from each other after hatching in order to survive! No doubt that’s one reason that I’ve always seen only one Praying Mantis at a time!

Filling the “Swamp” or Valuing Water and Wetlands

Beyond a sea of goldenrod, a wetland fringed with Joe Pye and cat-tails can be seen behind the woods along the trail to the Wet Prairie.

One afternoon, standing knee deep in grass and flowers, I remembered that I grew up in a time when wetlands were scorned as nasty “swamps”,  damp places “infested” with bugs, places that should be dried out in order to become “more productive.” Hence the common metaphor these days, “drain the swamp.”

Unproductive?  Ugly? There I was standing in the Wet Prairie among a colorful panoply of native wildflowers and grasses, all beautiful, some very special, even rare – and each of them serving their unusual habitat in so many complex ways. All day and all night  from spring to fall, butterflies, beetles, bees, moths and other insects find their way to the wildflowers and grasses of the Wet Prairie to find sustenance and shelter for themselves and their young. Animals seek the wetland nearby and spring pools on the prairie for drinking and bathing. And below the surface, the roots of wetland plants are cleaning the water which permeates the water table to later quench the thirst of humans who don’t always appreciate the services wetlands provide.

“Swamp” is actually a botanical term that technically means a wetland dominated by trees and shrubs.  But for some these days, it’s still a pejorative for those “nasty” wetlands of my youth. I protest! And I celebrate the restoration work that will keep the Wet Prairie blooming, beautiful, and yes, “productive” for its insect guests and for future hikers of the Paint Creek Trail.

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: The Drama of Drought and Downpours

Western Slope BC August
Goldenrod gilds the Old Fields of Bear Creek in late August.
Cam walking into BC
Blog posts and photos by Cam Mannino

Late summer is always a time of transitions, but this year was particularly dramatic. Bear Creek’s meadows baked for weeks under a blazing sun. The marsh dried completely, stranding an over-heated young  snapper that struggled through a tangled mat of exposed vegetation. Heat finished off blossoms as some wildflowers began to seed earlier than usual. And then in mid-August, the rains came – downpours, thunderstorms and off-and-on showers. You could almost hear the gulping of plants and trees swallowing the moisture through their roots. Snappers again cruised just below the shallow waters of the marsh. Life rallied.  As always, nature just coped and moved on.

Life in the Hot Sun of the Old Fields

The Old Field on the western edge of Bear Creek is quieter now. Mating season has ended (except for the Goldfinches), so birdsong has diminished. But one hot, sticky morning, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) threw back his head and let loose his double-phrased song from the highest branch of a tree – a favorite perch for male Buntings.

Indigo Bunting singing BC
An Indigo Bunting releases its song from the tallest branch of a tree on the Western Slope.

An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) seemed to be listening to its neighbor as it rested between forays over the baking meadows, trying  to snatch a few unsuspecting insects.

Phoebe BC
Nearby, an Eastern Phoebe listened as the Indigo Bunting sang.

A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris) posed quietly among the branches of smaller trees on the Western Slope. Expert birder, Ruth Glass, tells me that this little bird probably arrived from Canada or northern Michigan and is now migrating down to the Caribbean. Quite an adventure for a small bird!

Eastern Wood-peewee
A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher near the Western Slope.

Near the moist bottom of the slope one steamy morning, I spotted a lump on a leaf.  A newly metamorphosed Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) was sleeping on a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I’m afraid I woke it with my camera. The U of M’s Bio-kids website says they are “almost always bright green right after metamorphosis [from tadpole stage] and they stay this way for some time before taking on their adult coloration.” These frogs can sleep in the open during the day, using their camouflage to protect themselves; they don’t dehydrate quickly like other frogs. Isn’t it just the best little creature?

Gray treefrog baby BC
A newly metamorphosed baby Gray Tree Frog on a milkweed leaf

While birds foraged from the trees, the insects below braved the blazing sun  to look for their own sustenance. In the grass on the Western Slope, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) seemed to searching the bottom of grass stems. I’ve read that they sip nectar but often look for fluids in moist earth. Perhaps it was hoping for dew on a hot morning in August.

Common Buckeye butterfly-2
A Common Buckeye butterfly perhaps searching for moisture in the grass on the Western Slope.

Higher up on the western path, where the land was drier, beetles probed blossoms looking for food. On the left, a non-native Seven-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella setempunctata) searched diligently for aphids, a favorite food. In fact, these beetles were brought here to combat aphids, but as a result, they’ve outcompeted our native ladybugs whose numbers have declined. On the right, a Soldier Beetle (family Cantharidae) may also be pursuing aphids, though it also eats pollen and nectar. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

In the trees near the top of the Western Slope, a sparrow fluffed its feathers in thin shade. It’s hard to identify juvenile sparrows but with its pink feet and bill, I’m guessing this is a juvenile Field Sparrow who hasn’t yet reached full adult plumage when it will have a more distinct eye ring and a clear breast.

Field Sparrow BC
A Field Sparrow has a pink bill and pink feet so I’m guessing this is a juvenile whose breast plumage is still changing.

American Goldfinches mate in August, much later than other birds. On one hot visit,  a female repeatedly rode drying blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace down to the ground to forage for seeds, perhaps to feed her young –  or her hard-working self! Unlike many seed-eating birds, the Goldfinches don’t switch to bugs when breeding. They are strictly vegetarian.

Goldfinch riding Queen Anne's Lace
A female Goldfinch repeatedly rode a Queen Anne’s Lace to the ground to harvest its seeds.

Nestlings of other birds are transforming into curious fledglings. One afternoon, a young, female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched high in a snag (standing dead tree), her spotted breast only halfway transformed into adult plumage.

Bluebird juvenile molting BC
A young female Bluebird molts the speckled breast feathers of a fledgling into adult plumage.

Wildflowers felt the impact of the fierce sunlight. A Jewel Weed blossom near the pond dried in the heat, while others took its place in the dappled shade.  And up on the top of the southern hill, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dropped their petals and began the seeding process in the dry heat.

Sturdy Prairie Dock blossoms, looking like little suns themselves,  began to dry out as well as they towered over the wilting Coneflowers.

Prairie Dock in BC Native Garden
Native Prairie Dock seems to mimic the bright sun it prefers.

A female Black Swallowtail hovered just off the sun-drenched Eastern Path, looking restlessly for just the right blossom. Folding its dark wings may help it cope with the sun’s heat.

Black Swallowtail female
A female Black Swallowtail butterfly off the edge of the Eastern Path

Patrolling for food, a Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly rested momentarily  on a leaf, its clear wings shimmering in the hot sunlight.

Ruby Meadowhawk BC
A Ruby Meadowhawk paused on a leaf while patrolling the fields for smaller insects

The northeastern edge of the Old Fields evidently stayed moist despite the  heat and several “wet-footed” plants took full advantage of the bright sunlight.  Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) spread its dusty pink blooms out across the field instead of appearing as widely distributed single plants as it often does here.

Joe Pye Eastern Path
Joe-Pye flourishes off the Eastern Path.

Other native wetland plants fringed the same area.  The trio below includes bright pink Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with its green stems, Joe-Pye with dusty pink blossoms and purple stems and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) with its white blossoms and leathery leaves. 

Swamp Milkweed Boneset Cat-tails BC
A fringe of native flowers edges the wetland off the Eastern Path

Below center, the native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) sips nectar from the Swamp Milkweed with its long tongue and on the left, is a closer look at Boneset. Odd name, eh?  Evidently early herbalists noticed the way the stem seemed to rise right through the clinging leaves reminding them of a splint around a bone. So its leaves were wrapped with bandages around broken bones. Native Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) on the right also thrives here as it does in various spots along the Paint Creek Trail.

Sheltering in the Shade

Near the wood edges, I found mammals and insects enjoying the shade.  Following a shining strand hanging before our eyes, my husband and I discovered a very tiny white spider escaping the bright sunlight on the underside of a leaf. I tried but couldn’t identify it, despite that wonderful design on its abdomen. We wondered if that brown ball was an egg sack. Anyone know this tiny creature’s name?

White spider under leaf
A tiny white spider, unidentified, sought the shade on the underside of a leaf next to what may be an egg sack.

And, as usual, damselflies moved in and out of the shade at the edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. I’m guessing,  based on its bright blue head, striped thorax, and very pale abdomen, that this one may be a female Bluet (genus  Enallagma) or a recently hatched one. But since there are at least 17 species of Bluets in the Midwest, I’m not sure which one this is. Again, I’m open to your ideas.

damselfly
Probably a species of the Bluet Damselfly pausing in the shade at the edge of the woods.

A White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) sat calmly on the shady site of a dried vernal pool, while her fawn dutifully hurried off into the bushes as I paused for the photo.

Deer in dry vernal pool BC
A doe whose fawn hurried off into the bushes when I appeared with my camera.

And an Eastern Cottontail paused in a shady spot along a trail one hot morning as well.

Eastern cottontail rabbit bc
An Eastern Cottontail rests in a shady spot on a hot morning.

And Then the Rains Came…

What a relief when heavy rain came to refill the wetlands and ponds at Bear Creek Park! After watching  that young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) struggling through vegetation in the dry marsh, it was a relief to see two Snappers feeding and cruising just below the surface in the cooling water provided by the rain.

 

The bright sun and rain caused Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) and Water Meal (genus Wolffia) – often mistaken for heavy algae – to form thicker mats across wetlands around the park. At the Playground Pond, I heard a plop! one afternoon and saw just the head of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) moving through the juicy green surface. Luckily, its ears close when it enters the water! When swimming, it uses its tail to propel itself with the help of its webbed back feet.

muskrat at playground pond
A muskrat keeping its head above the thick mat of duckweed in the Playground Pond.

Once the Muskrat dove, I noticed other denizens of the Pond nicely camouflaged in duckweed and water meal as well.  Here are two turtles and a frog on a log decked out in greenery.

2 turtles and frog playground pond
Two turtles and a frog covered in duckweed after the rains came

Quivering in the duckweed near the boardwalk made me look down to see a whole collection of small Green Frogs (Rana clamitans). Each of those individual spots on the leg  of the frog below is a water meal plant! Ducks do love this plant, by the way.  Sometimes they just dip their bills in and move along, scooping it up.

Green Frog Playground Pond_
A Green Frog in the Playground Pond covered with Duckweed – not algae.

In the wetland just north of the Playground Pond, a particularly beautiful native plant is blooming in the moist shade, Cardinal Flower or Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis). Last week when I took an out-of-town friend to the park and left my camera at home,  we watched a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping at a tall stalk of this scarlet beauty. I came back for its photo the following day – but no Hummingbird then, I’m sorry to say!

Cardinal flower single
Hummingbirds can be seen feeding at Cardinal Flower in the wetland just north of the playground.

We also spotted two Barn Swallows  perched quietly in nearby trees. No camera again! The next day, they were swooping madly across the meadows, their bills open, enjoying the swarms of insects that had hatched after the rain. One perched for a moment in a snag over the wetland and I got this quick photo of it from below.

Barn Swallow BC
A Barn Swallow resting between swoops over the open fields to eat insects hatched after the rain

As the water rose in the Center Pond, tiny  Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) appeared on nearly every log. Here’s a silver-dollar-sized one trundling along as it explores its world like any youngster.

baby painted turtle
A silver-dollar-sized Painted Turtle strikes out on its own after the rain.

This week, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) dropped into the bushes at the western edge of the pond. It kept a close eye on the water, when it wasn’t actively preening with its long, extendable neck. Green Herons are expert hunters of both fish and frogs.  I wondered if the absence of July’s huge number of green frogs was attributable to the drought or this multi-colored fisher. (My apologies for the slightly pixelated photos caused by aggressive cropping so we could see it up close.)

Yes, it’s been a hot, sticky and then rainy summer. But we’re all in this together – animals, birds and plants. The natural world provided a gentle reminder that change, even dramatic change, is an inherent part of being alive. Summer may be waning now but the beauty around us isn’t. Surprises await our arrival every day, no matter what the weather.

 P.S.  More Native Beauties Blooming along the Paint Creek Trail!

The trick about blogging during the summer is that so much happens all over the township, all at once!  Keep an eye out for these special native wildflowers blooming for just a short time in the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. The shallow water table in this meadow provides a perfect spot for these fire-adapted beauties. The field is dotted with the purple fireworks of Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), the striped elegance of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) and the delicate, spotted petals of Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). Don’t miss them!

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.

Two (or so) Magical Acres: Our Wet Prairie

Off the western side of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road, a sign indicates that you’re passing through a “wet prairie.”  Big Blue Stem grasses bend in the wind while all kinds of beautiful wildflowers flourish in the grass below.  If you ever thought “native wildflower” just meant Canada Goldenrod or Black-Eyed Susans,  you’re in for a treat.

Sign for wet prairie
The Wet Prairie is located north of Silver Bell Road on the Paint Creek Trail.

As many of you know, most native plants in this area are adapted to fire because of thousands of years of natural fires and regular burning by Native Americans for purposes of clearing and fertilizing the land.  Once the trains came through in the 19th century,   the sparks from the tracks, where the trail runs now, regularly started fires in the area.  Native prairie and savanna plants survived because they had adapted to fire; non-native plants were less likely to do so.

Once the trail replaced the train tracks, stewardship was required to preserve this very special environment.  Over the years, the Parks Commission has worked to restore this patch of wet prairie and its beautiful native plants.  Last year, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and his crew worked long hours from Silver Bell  Road to the Wet Prairie,  removing Autumn Olive and other non-native plants, trees and shrubs that lined the trail and crowded the field, shading out native plants. We thought you might enjoy seeing  a small sampling of the beauty that’s begun to flourish in this special area because of those efforts.

Native Wildflowers of the Wet Prairie

Flowers in wet prairies like this  are special – and very lovely.  Bring binoculars so you can scan the field since the area is too fragile for hiking or paths at this stage.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

I was lucky enough to be introduced, very carefully, to this magical place by Dr. Ben who let me take photos so we could share the native beauty that exists in this special area.

 

We saw deep sky blue Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) in several stages of unfurling.

Fringed Gentian bud
A Fringed Gentian bud with its fringes curled around it.
Fringed gentian opening1
Fringed Gentian buds starting to open
Fringed gentian opening 2
Fringed Gentian bud a bit further along

And finally, an open one!  Look at the square opening made by the four leaves!

Fringed Gentian3
The four leaves of the Fringed Gentian make a lovely square opening at the center of the blossom.

Another deep blue beauty, Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii), never opens its blossoms,  but Ben saw a native Bumblebee pry one open and climb inside to get at the pollen!

Bottle Gentian Wet Prairie
The flowers of Bottle Gentian never open so bumblebees just pry them open and squeeze inside!

And here’s Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian at Gallagher Creek Park.  Quite a moment to catch, eh?

Ben's photo of bumblebee bottle gentian
Dr. Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian blossom that it squeezed into.

Tiny orchids appear here and there in the Wet Prairie as well.  Who knew we had orchids?  You can see where it got its name, Prairie Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum). It looks like a spiraling french braid.

Ladies tresses orchid
A native orchid with the lovely name, Ladies Tresses

One of my favorite Wet Prairie wildflowers is Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) but until this week I’d only seen one or two blooms.  Here’s a closeup from a few years ago of one with its dark green stripes.

Grass-of-Parnassus
A green-striped Grass-of-Parnassus bloom, a native wet prairie wildflower.

Now, thanks to the stewardship efforts of the Parks and Recreation Commission, they’re sprinkled all over the prairie!  They’re a bit beyond their peak now, but they’re still lovely.

Grass-of-Parnassus
A group of Grass-of-Parnassus blooms last week, just a bit beyond peak bloom but still striking with their dark green stripes

White Snake Root  (Ageratina altissima) grows in the prairie and it’s plentiful on the east side of the trail, flowing downhill toward the creek.

White Snakeroot
White Snake Root spills down the hillside that leads to the creek across the trail from the prairie.

Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), another native plant that was plentiful a couple of weeks ago on the Wet Prairie, is finishing up now, but here are a few late blooms and then its very lovely fruit in the photo just below.

Blazing Star
Cylindrical Blazing Star with a few blooms left on the stalk

The fruits of the False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) add a touch of fall color to the prairie.

blazing star fruit_edited-1
The fruit of False Asphodel  with very fitting fall colors

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), with its descriptive  if not very elegant common name,  is another special plant in the Wet Prairie. It can also be found in other high quality wetlands in our area.

Turtlehead
Turtlehead is a very practical name for a rather elegant wet prairie plant.

Of course, familiar native wildflowers are present in this prairie as well, like Canada Goldenrod.  But there are other kinds of goldenrod here too, like Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) which is much less common because it frequents wetlands, including wet prairies, rather than dry fields and roadsides.

Riddell's Goldenrod
Riddell’s Goldenrod is less common in our area than our old friend, Canada Goldenrod.

And across the trail from the prairie, we saw Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida).  I love the way the soft leaves clasp the stalk.

Stiff goldenrod?
Stiff Goldenrod is also less common than the familiar Canada Goldenrod we see along the roadsides and in dry open fields.

The dry Old Fields in our parks tend to have non-native Cinquefoils but the Wet Prairie hosts a native Michigan species, called Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) which is often used in landscape settings as well as being found in wild wet areas.

Shrubby cinquefoil native
Shrubby Cinquefoil is a native cinquefoil rather than the non-natives that frequently show up in abandoned fields.

We saw another old friend, one late bloom of  the gorgeous orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). 

butterfly weed3
We saw a late bloom of Butterfly Milkweed, a native wild flower found often in dry areas.

Most of the the Butterfly Milkweed plants, though, are past blooming and are producing their elegant tapered pods, the fruits that contain their seed, seen below spilling onto the ground to be carried by the wind for next year’s crop.

Butterfly Milkweed pods
These slender, tapered pods are the fruit that contains the seeds of Butterfly Milkweed
Butterfly weed seed
Butterfly Milkweed seeds with the silk that will help them disperse when the wind catches them.

Although its small white flowers are done for the year, I love the deep purple stems of Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale), which are still standing among the flowers.

Northern Bedstaw
Northern Bedstraw’s white blossoms are gone, leaving these deep purple stems.

Creatures of the Wet Prairie

A Monarch butterfly(Danaus plexippus)rested in the shade of a tree after flitting across the Wet Prairie.

Monarch on dead leaf
A female Monarch butterfly rested briefly on a leaf after flitting across the Wet Prairie.

A curious European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa)  paused on a Little Bluestem stalk where she might have been planning to lay eggs, as these non-native insects do in September.

Praying Mantis 2 Wet Prairie
A European Praying Mantis may have been planning to lay eggs on a hole in a grass stem.

A Green Darner (Anax junius), a large, very agile dragonfly,   took a break from patrolling for insect pray and rested in the shade.

Green Darner2
A Green Darner, a large dragonfly, escapes the noonday sun.

And a tiny Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) hatchling, about the size of a 50 cent piece, tried  to make it across the trail.  We gave it a little lift to the grass in the direction it was heading.

Snapping turtle hatchling
A tiny Snapping Turtle hatchling struggles to get across the trail.

Native Grasses of the Wet Prairie

Native grasses thrive in the Wet Prairie as well.  Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii), a classic native prairie grass, towers over everything with its characteristic turkey foot.

Big Blue Stem in the wind
Big Blue Stem, a classic prairie grass, towers over the other grasses and wildflowers.

But Dr. Ben made me aware of other native prairie grasses that I’d wouldn’t have noticed without help:

Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.

Canadian Wild Rye
Canadian Wild Rye bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.

According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the scientific name of this grass, Sorghastrum nutans, means “a swaying, poor imitation of Sorghum.”   I think I prefer the common name, Indian Grass!

Indian Grass
Indian Grass is the common name for this native grass in the Wet Prairie

It’s not difficult to see where native Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) got its name!

Bottlebrush grass
A native plant aptly named Bottlebrush Grass.

Restoring and preserving the very special habitat of the Wet Prairie is a way to preserve our history for future generations and to encourage plant diversity.  But it takes a lot of effort!  Please keep an eye on the “Stewardship” tab on our home page here at the Natural Areas Notebook for volunteer opportunities.  Perhaps you can help Dr. Ben with the PRC’s ongoing effort to care for the Wet Prairie with its unusual selection of beautiful wildflowers and graceful grasses.

*Footnote:  My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.