Stewardship “Spring Training Season”: Prepare for Nest Peeking and Pool Dipping!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Is winter gray beginning to get to you? Despite our state’s many charms, late winter blahs can be a quintessential element of living in Michigan. So if you can’t browse one more seed catalog, have exhausted the good stuff on all those streaming channels, cleaned out enough drawers and almost reached the end of your winter reading list, I’ve got a couple of recommendations to juice things up a bit!

For the last several years, I’ve become a citizen scientist through opportunities provided by two great stewardship training programs at Oakland Township’s Parks and Recreation Commission. March is the month to prepare for some spring wildlife explorations that provide important data for scientists studying our wild neighbors. Let me take a few minutes to “show and tell” about the enjoyment and discovery I’ve experienced being a local citizen scientist.

“Spring Training” Schedule

  • Vernal Pool Patrol Training: Wednesday evenings in March, and local field training on April 6. Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) offers an online 3-part Vernal Pool Patrol training program on Wednesday evenings in March for folks interested in exploring vernal pools. Learn more and register here: https://vernal-pool-patrol-mnfi.hub.arcgis.com/. Vernal Pool Patrol volunteers MUST attend these three online sessions at home before joining in our local in-person field training event on April 6.
  • NestWatch Training, 2:00 to 3:30 pm on March 23 at the Paint Creek Cider Mill. Become a citizen scientist and make a difference!  Learn how to safely and properly monitor bird nests, both in nest boxes and other nest types. By monitoring a nearby nest, you can help scientists study the biology of North America‚Äôs birds and how it might be changing over time. Register online at oaklandtownship.recdesk.com.

Dipping into the Mystery of Vernal Pools

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

If you’ve lived here very long, I’m sure you’ve noticed vernal pools – those small woodland pools that fill from snowmelt and rain in the spring and then dry up and disappear during the summer. But it never occurred to me, and maybe not to you either, that special creatures were living in there! It turns out that these shallow temporary wetlands teem with life for just a brief time each year. A quickly drying body of water is perfect for many wetland species that want to avoid having their young eaten by the fish or birds that frequent streams or larger ponds and lakes. So these species mate and lay their eggs in vernal pools and the young develop very quickly to reach adulthood before the water disappears. Let me introduce you to a few.

Some of the Curious Inhabitants of Vernal Pools

Bet you never believed you’d see wild shrimp wriggling sideways in a Michigan pond. But tiny ones, called Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca), thrive and reproduce in vernal pools each spring. I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I saw one of these wee shrimp as I emptied my net into the clear collection box! I even to got to see one carrying its eggs in a sack! (See right photo below. Click on photos to enlarge.)

How about finding Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) which are smaller than your baby fingernail? Or a chunky, bumbling Water Beetle (order Coleoptera) rowing its way around your collection box? Maybe the thin, developing nymph of a damselfly?

A developing Damselfly (suborder Zygoptera, order Ondonata). Could those be proto-wings at the back end?

Or how about coming across the egg sack of a Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)? During one monitoring event, Dr. Ben Vanderweide, our township Stewardship Manager, gently lifted a stick loaded with them. The tiny salamanders hatch in the pools and then scramble up on the soil to hide under logs and fallen bark as they grow.

And then there are the tiny amphibians who fill our ears with frog choruses each spring while mating – the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) or the Spring Peeper ((Pseudacris crucifer). Their eggs hatch in the shallow water to be counted with other inhabitants of the vernal pool.

March Training for Vernal Pool Monitoring

Vernal pools are fragile habitats so it’s essential to learn how to treat them and their inhabitants safely and carefully. Training is required and very important! The Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI) offers an online 3-part Vernal Pool Patrol training program from 6 – 8 pm on March 15, 22, and 29 for folks interested in exploring vernal pools. Learn more and register for the online here: https://vernal-pool-patrol-mnfi.hub.arcgis.com/.

Our township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide requires vernal pool monitoring volunteers to attend these three online sessions at home before joining in our local in-person field training event on April 6. On that day, Ben will provide the clear collection boxes of various sizes and nets. All you need to do is take the MNFI training and then pull on some knee-high boots and join us! You’ll be learning about a whole new world! And believe me, it’s like being a kid again to wade around in shallow water dipping and discovering what’s under the surface. The data we collect each year help MNFI and the Michigan Vernal Pool Partnership protect these very special, fragile habitats. If you can’t attend our field training day, other opportunities will be offered around the state, so check the Vernal Pool Patrol website in March as those dates become available.

After you complete the online “classroom” training and field training day, you’ll be ready to monitor vernal pools independently. We can help you find vernal pools in our parks to monitor, or you can visit pools in other parks (with permission of course) or on own property. Every bit of data helps!

Or Maybe You’re a Bird Lover; How About Getting Trained as a Nest Box Monitor?

I took this short training session a few years ago. After I spent a few summer months in our parks watching and recording the growth of baby Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon), I just had to set up a nest box at home. And now we are gifted with a nesting pair each summer. I’ll be participating this summer in our parks as a substitute for vacationing monitors. Maybe this slideshow of what I’ve enjoyed in this program will whet your appetite!

We check our nest boxes twice each week so we can accurately report first egg laid, first egg hatched and fledge date. Then we submit our data to Cornell University’s NestWatch program which tracks the nesting success of birds all over the country. Cornell provides instruction on how to monitor nests without disturbing the birds; it’s available online whenever it’s convenient for you. On March 23 from 2-3:30 PM at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, Grant VanderLaan, our township stewardship specialist review these NestWatch monitoring protocols and explain how nest box monitoring works in our township parks.

Here’s some of what I’ve enjoyed seeing during the years I’ve monitored nest boxes both in the parks and at home. Baby birds couldn’t be more endearing and the dedication of the adults in caring for them is truly impressive. It’s exciting to see new life emerge and grow each spring and to watch the population of beautiful native birds increasing in our parks and natural areas as we provide safe, monitored nest boxes for their young.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis): A Source of Happiness, Indeed!

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) Also Raise Families in Our Nest Boxes

And the Ebullient House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) Do as Well

So I hope that I’ve convinced you to consider taking part in Stewardship Spring Training. As a citizen scientist, you’ll experience nature in a very personal and meaningful way. Dipping tiny creatures from a shady pool or peeking into a nest box full of life are great ways to get closer to the natural world in a very tangible and meaningful way. So if you want to better understand and support wildlife, here are a couple of fun ways to do that – and really make a difference!