Watershed Ridge Park: A Knee-Deep Immersion in Nature

The knee-deep flowers and grasses of a meadow at Watershed Ridge

Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this  wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.

The Forest and Its Wetlands

I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis),  a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!

Pale-leaved Sunflowers shine in the shade under the trees that line the farmer’s field.

A Red-spotted Purple butterfly rests in the cool shade near the sunflowers.

Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.

Blue-green wetlands glow in the distance as you enter the forest.

Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.

A young buck stares intently at me from the greenery near a wooded wetland in the forest.

I could hear an Eastern Wood-Pewee singing plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.

A young Green Frog cools down among the Duckweed in a shady wetland.

Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchellachased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.

A male Twelve-spotted Skimmer settles on a stalk in a marsh.

The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.

The female Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly curls her abdomen to lay eggs on a plant while the male guards her from above.

It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.

A male Emerald Spreadwing stops in the sunlight for a moment.

One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?

The wheel-like web of an Orb Weaver spider

At the water’s edge, three “conks” of  Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .

Three shelf fungi “conks) on a log traced by a tunneling bark beetle.

Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.

Perhaps  this  tiny Wood Frog is contemplating its winter hibernation when it will freeze solid.

As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me.  I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!

Enchanter’s Nightshade lies in wait for passersby to carry its seeds away to new locations.  My socks, for example, make a fine carrying device.

Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!

Once Jumpseed (pink flowers) produces mature seeds, bumping into the plants will propel the seeds up to 3 yards away.

Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.

Jewelweed also throws out its seed when touched, earning its other name, Spotted Touch-me-not.

The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh

The meadow that slopes down to a marsh at Watershed Ridge

Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot.  All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)

A female Widow Skimmer displays against a grass stem.

A female Meadowhawk in bright sunlight cools herself by positioning her wings and abdomen.

A male Meadowhawk nearer the marsh spreads his wings to attract a mate.

Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!

Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow  (Melospiza melodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.

The adult Song Sparrow warned its youngster to stay hidden with a chipping call.

Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.

Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp

Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty.  Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by  “windthrows,”  fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.

While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction.  And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes –  why not the name Duck Potato?

Duck Potato, so named because ducks and others eat their submerged tubers.

Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!

A Wild Calla whose flowers have already been fertilized .  The resulting green fruits will turn red in the autumn.

Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.

Tuckerman’s Sedge, a grass-like plant in the Watershed swamp

Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!

Ben was also rewarded with High-bush Blueberries as he explored the swamp.

His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and  grows only  in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!

Poison Sumac, photo by Mawkaroni at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward,  eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.

A small seasonal stream flows westward from the swamp to the marsh at the foot of the big meadow.

Time to Head Home

By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave.  So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question,  “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed.  There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.

The cornfield became a gathering place for young Red-winged Blackbirds.

I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it.  This young bird  was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago.  But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.

My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes –   but I’d meandered on paths of my own making,  out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.


THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Wildflowers in Winter? Well, really, Plant Survival

Cotton puff snow in branches

Snowy powderpuff balls filled vines and branches after wind and snowfall this week.

Cam in red winter coat BC

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Frigid temperatures kept me to only one walk this week – and I left with almost no photos when my fingers got too cold to feel the camera’s shutter button! I did see a poor Eastern Bluebird facing south,  his fluffed-up feathers blowing in an icy north wind!  Bluebird in the windAs I trundled along past brown and bending Queen Anne’s Lace and Canada Goldenrod, filled with powderpuffs of snow,  it occurred to me to wonder about how plants and their seeds experience winter. Luckily Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide lent me some books about seeds, so I curled up with them and started exploring.  Here are the questions I wanted to answer: Where are seeds now? How do seeds get to where they are now? How do seeds know when to “wake up” and germinate?

Where are Seeds Now?

(Click on photos to enlarge. Hover cursor  over photo for captions)

By now, most seeds are either on the ground or more likely, in the ground.  Dormant seeds waiting in/on the soil are referred to as “soil seed banks.”    In fact, according to a wonderfully written book by Jonathan Silvertown,  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds, a book I’ll quote throughout this post, “The store of seeds in the soil…may reach tens of thousands per square meter in cultivated ground.” Seeds vary in how long they can stay viable.  Some germinate quickly; others can last in the soil for many years, waiting for the right conditions before they germinate. Silvertown mentions a two-thousand-year-old date seed retrieved from the archaeological excavations of King Herod’s palace…,” in other words, in Jesus’ era! And a few years ago scientists were able to germinate 32,000 year old seeds buried with mammoth and woolly rhinoceros bones in Russia. But back to Bear Creek…

Annuals, Biennials, Perennials: Different Survival Strategies

Plants have varying life spans so they have adapted to pass on their DNA in a variety of ways.  Wild annuals, short-lived plants, the kind that bother many gardeners as “weeds,”  produce abundant seeds that end up in soil seed banks.  “Each seed is dispersed in swaddling clothes of maternal tissue.”  The “mother plant… can program the layers…to germinate soon or later, and she often goes for a mixture within her brood.” Some will take longer than others to break out of their coatings and germinate, giving the mother plant more chances to produce successful offspring.  As Silvertown says, “A seed only ever gets one shot at germination so it must get the timing right.”  With a variety of germination times, if the conditions in a particular season aren’t good for germinating, some seeds will stay longer in the seed bank, giving them a chance to germinate in more favorable conditions. Anyone who’s weeded a garden has dealt with some of these annuals that come up  out of the seed bank year every year!  Some of our annuals are non-native plants like Common Sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) on the left below and some are  native plants, like Fireweed (Erechtites hieracifolius) on the right, which waits in the soil until some disturbance exposes the soil surface.

Some of our native wildflowers , like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are biennials.  They usually spend their first year producing roots and rosettes (leaves and a short stem) near the ground. Their roots winter over and the second, or sometimes third year, they grow, bloom, are pollinated, make seeds and die.

Most of our native wildflowers, though, are “herbaceous” perennials. For herbaceous perennials the aboveground structures die back in the fall. But underground, their roots, tubers, rhizomes or bulbs survive the winter in the earth and the plant rises from them again the following year. Some, like the Yellow Cone Flowers (Ratibida pinnata) below left also produce seed, carried away by Goldfinches, for example. Woody plants, shrubs and trees like the mighty Oak (Quercus sp.) below right, are perennial plants too, since they live much longer than one or two years. Of course, unlike herbaceous perennials, the aboveground structures of woody plants remain out in the weather year-round. Living cells in the branches and trunk are protected by a sweet “anti-freeze” that trees create in the fall. Dead cells, which make up most of the visible tree, can freeze without harm to the tree.

How Did Seeds Get Where They are Now ?

Plants have adapted a lot of strategies for dispersing their seeds to the relatively safe haven of the ground before winter arrives in our neck of the woods.

Beautiful Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) drops its shiny black seeds from the follicles that form after the flowers. Such tiny seeds can simply slip into crevices in the earth and be planted by gravity.

Some, like Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), have two strategies.  Along with producing tiny seeds, they also grow in clumps by extending their rhizomes,  underground stems that produce new roots and shoots.

Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)

Wild Bergamot reproduces through dropping its tiny seeds to the earth and by extending rhizomes under the ground.

Some of the Monarch butterfly’s favorite plants, the Milkweeds (Asclepias species), rely on rhizomes too but they also disperse their seeds in a way that children love, by sailing them on a breeze with an attached parachute called the coma.  The advantage of using the fluffy coma is that the plant’s offspring can spread out and not crowd the area where the adult plant grows.

sun and milkweed2

Butterfly Milkweed sending its seed off into the wind.

Some seeds have built-in wings, like the Wingstem seeds (Verbesina alternifolia) on the left below.  Dr. Ben collected these seeds this year for the Oakland Township seed bank that he keeps stored in a cool, dry place.  They’ll be planted in the township parks later this year. You can see the Wingstem plant at this link. Some seeds of trees, called “samaras, ” also come with wings that spin them through the air, slowing their fall and increasing the distance they can travel from the parent tree. The samaras in the center photo are from Box-Elder (Acer negundo), a member of the Maple trees. Some grasses and other larger seeds come equipped with bristles called “awns” that function like feathered darts, sticking up out of crevices after they fall or are driven through the air like arrows.  On the right below is  a pretty wild grass with awns called Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) that grows in our township parks. Some awns twist when the humidity changes, drilling the seed into the ground.

Frequently, plants rely on animals to disperse their seeds.  The Violet below, which I think is a Common Blue Violet  (Viola sororia)  – there are 28 Violet species in Michigan! – uses ants to disperse its seeds. Violet seeds have a “fatty wart” attached.  Ants haul it into their underground nests for food.  Once the “wart” or elaiosome  is stripped away, “the ants dump [the seed] …on a trash pile where it can germinate…hidden from predators such as birds.” Big oak seeds, like the Bur Oak acorn (Quercus macrocarpa) below on the right,  benefit from the tendency of Gray and Fox squirrels to bury nuts and then forget where they put some of them!

Birds, of course, carry all kinds of seeds, by eating them directly as the Black-Capped Chickadee  (Poecile atricapillus)is doing below with the seeds of  Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) or by eating fruits that contain them and depositing the seeds as droppings elsewhere.

Chickadee riding down Queen Anne's Lace

Chickadee feeding on the seeds of Queen Anne’s Lace.

Other seeds hitch rides inside burrs that cling to feathers, fur or a passing human, like these seeds from Enchanter’s Nightshade (Ciraea canadensis) that got transported around Bear Creek on the leg of my hiking pants a few years ago.

enchanter's nightshade burrs

Burrs carrying the seeds of Enchanter’s Nightshade that hitched a ride on my clothing one summer.

How Do Seeds Know When to “Wake Up” and Germinate?

Seeds have adapted many ways of figuring  out when to germinate. Seeds here in Michigan need to assess temperature,  soil moisture and light to germinate. I could imagine how a seed’s coating might soften with moisture and that the warming of spring could trigger growth.  But how, I wondered, do seeds “see” light?

Seeds that end up on or near the surface, like Barnyard Grass (Echinochloa muricata) to the left, use light to make their move.

Barnyard Grass in marsh2

Barnyard Grass seeds that lay on the soil surface have molecules that can “see” sunlight.

It turns out that molecules on the surface of seeds, called phytochromes, can read the length of daylight, which is often a better indicator of spring than the temperature. Not only that, they can read different wavelengths of light! So they can tell whether the sunlight is falling directly on the seed or whether it’s bouncing off a nearby plant that might compete for sunlight. Depending on what kind of light a seed needs – direct sunlight, partial sunlight or shade –  it may start germinating or wait until the right conditions occur.  Maybe a nearby tree needs to fall or a larger nearby plant needs to be eaten by an animal before the phytochromes can signal that the light is now right for germination – and then out comes a shoot!  Amazing!

Buried seeds, like acorns or violets, obviously can’t use light to determine the seasonal conditions.  They are in the dark!  But they can use temperature in surprisingly sophisticated ways! If  there’s an insulating layer of  grass above a plant, the range of temperatures in the soil will not fluctuate much. However, “bare soil has no such insulating layer and so seeds buried beneath it experience extreme fluctuations of  temperature.” So seeds of sun-loving plants, for example, will wait to see if conditions improve if the temperature is not fluctuating much. Ones that experience lots of temperature fluctuation know they have bare ground above and may “decide” to germinate. Clever seeds, eh?

The Wonder of Seeds

goldenrod in snow

This Canada Goldenrod, a native perennial, has dispersed its seed and also spreads by rhizomes underground.

So like all the life forms we’ve explored together this winter – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects – plants too have survival strategies for long Michigan winters. Now, when I watch Milkweed seeds fly by or Wild Senna pods cracking open to release their seeds, I think I’ll have a better appreciation of the magic inside those small packets of life.

Many thanks to Ben for introducing me to the wonders of seeds. I’ll leave you with a thought about seeds that also comes from Silvertown’s book: “Who cannot wonder that the largest organism on this planet, the giant redwood Sequoiadendron giganteum nicknamed ‘General Sherman,’ which weighs roughly the equivalent of a fleet of six Boeing 747Jumbo Jets, germinated more than two thousand years ago from a seed weighing only six-thousandth of a gram!”

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.