Draper Twin Lake Park – East: The Stage is Set for Another Gold and Purple Autumn

Follow the Goldenrod Road … er, path into Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Walking into Draper Twin Lake Park – East in September is almost like being Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz. The trails are lined with a wide variety of goldenrods and other sunny yellow wildflowers. Gold-and-black bees and beetles hum and scramble over them, making the most of late season nectar and pollen. Here and there the asters accent the gold with splashes of royal purple, lavender and white. Bronze and copper grasses dip and sway in the prairie, while summer birds finish their molts and prepare to move south or overwinter here.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

So dodging between downpours and ensconced in my net anti-bug jacket, I ventured out into the thinning light of early autumn to enjoy early fall’s performance. Glad you’re here to join me.

Fall Flowers and Grasses Set the Stage in Early Autumn

Clouds above the golden prairie in the north of Draper Twin Lake Park – East

Here in Oakland Township, goldenrods and tall grasses create the early fall backdrop within which all the other creatures hunt, forage and fly. Over the last few years, I’ve learned to notice the variety of goldenrods that paint their particular yellow on early autumn’s canvas. So I think an introduction to just four of our most common goldenrods is called for, in case you think “you’ve seen one goldenrod, you’ve seen them all!” [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Giant Ragweed Photo
by Sam Kieschnik (CC BY)

A side note: Goldenrods do not cause “hay fever” as many fall allergy sufferers believe. Ragweed (genus Ambrosia) is the culprit! Its blooms are green and its light pollen is dispersed by the wind – right into people’s noses! Goldenrod flowers are yellow and their heavy pollen sticks to insects and can’t be carried by the wind. According to the Michigan Flora website, two kinds of ragweed grow in our county. So please let goldenrods off the hook for making you sneeze! A generous photographer from iNaturalist.org shared the ragweed photo on the left.

As the weather turns cooler, autumn adds in the late asters to complement the goldenrods. The name “aster” comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “star,” so it’s wonderfully appropriate for this colorful family of star-shaped flowers to add sprays of contrasting color within the golden landscape.

Sprinkled here and there around the prairie and the marsh, other native wildflowers make an occasional appearance, adding more variety to the fall scenery. It always intrigues me that so many are yellow! It seems to be early autumn’s favorite color. The late season, many-stemmed Brown-eyed Susans and the Common Evening Primroses were plentiful this year. Maybe more rain helped?

And the tall, graceful, native grasses created a scrim along the trail, their dance moves providing the prairie’s choreography on a breezy September day.

Every performance needs a little drama, and the Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) with its pink stems and purple berries rises to the occasion near the marsh each year.

Pokeweed berries are beloved by birds, but beware! They are toxic for us mere humans.

The Backdrop in Place, Insects Take the Stage

Even as it fades, a Stiff Goldenrod simultaneously hosts 3 European Honeybees and two mating beetles!
Locust Borer beetles

Insects act as the “supporting actors” in any landscape, taking on the essential role of pollinating plants even as the days get colder and flowers begin to fade. I hope you spotted the five black-and-gold insects on the Stiff Goldenrod in the photo above. What a generous host that plant that is!

Two of those insects were mating – or rather, the larger female was busy foraging as the mating occurred. Not much romance among Locust Borer beetles (Megacyllene robiniae), I’m afraid.

In early September, the prairie still hummed with the buzz of hundreds of European Honeybees and native Bumblebees. Later in the month, their activity seem to drop a bit; perhaps that’s because flight is more difficult for bees when temperatures fall below 50 degrees. Let me show you a small sample of the work bees were performing in September.

Butterflies, though fewer in number, were also playing their part in pollination. We saw several large Monarchs (Danaus plexippus), members of the “super generation” hatched right here in Michigan which will take on the entire 2,500 mile journey to their wintering grounds in Mexico!

Smaller butterflies made appearances as well. Butterflies don’t do as much pollination as bees, but they certainly add some fluttering color to an early autumn walk!

Every drama needs a couple of questionable characters. I met up with two of them in September at Draper Park East. The first was a non-native, the European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiousa). It may look like it’s praying, but in reality, it’s actually preying on beneficial insects as well as others. It’s a master of camouflage when vertical in tall green grass. Its triangular head can turn 180 degrees and its raptor-like front legs shoot forward in an instant to ambush unsuspecting insects. Even after my husband spotted it, I had trouble finding it in my viewfinder until it climbed up on a dying goldenrod. Quite an elegant shape on this predatory character!

A European Praying Mantis pauses on the top of Canada Goldenrod to get a better view of possible prey.

Passing by some Big Bluestem that swayed above my head, I noticed an odd lump at the end of the seedhead. I’ve look closely at odd lumps in nature ever since I saw my first elusive Spring Peeper by getting curious about a lumpy leaf years ago. I was rewarded again this time with my second questionable insect at Draper East, a One-Spotted Stinkbug (Euschistus variolarius). Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Bug House helped me out again by identifying this one, partly from the red tips on its protothorax.
A One-Spotted Stinkbug on a seed head of Big Blue Stem. It’s probably heading to the stem for a drink!

Dr. Parsons informs me that the One-spotted is a native stinkbug that eats by piercing the leaves, stems, seeds and fruits of herbaceous (non-woody) plants in order to siphon out some liquid. Generally though, he says, this species isn’t considered a pest. However, the invasive, non-native Brown Marmorated Stinkbugs that I occasionally see at home can be a huge problem for orchards, and stinkbugs can be pests in years in which they are abundant. If they are crushed during the harvest, their scent is not a pleasant addition to the crop!

Birds, Our Usual “Main Characters” in the Landscape, are Busy Changing Costumes for Winter or Migration

The cast of characters in our parks diminishes in the autumn. Insects either hibernate or lay their eggs for next spring’s hatch and die. Cool weather means most birds have finished raising their young just about the time the insect population begins to plummet. They stay high in the trees, often hidden among the leaves, especially if they’re molting.

Fall is a quieter season than spring. Birdsong, after all, is part of spring courtship. This September some social birds, like the Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) did whistle their high contact calls to one another as they gathered fruits in a Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) or sallied forth to hawk into a cloud of gnats.

Juveniles may try out bits and pieces of adult songs or call plaintively to be fed long after they can feed themselves. The young Eastern Wood Pewee (Contopus virens) below, however, stared in silence out into the big, wide world. One of my fine birding mentors, Ruth Glass, pointed out that this bird had the buff wing bars of a “first fall juvenile,” rather than the adult’s white bars. That means that this little bird is about to experience its very first migration. Somehow it will have to find its way to its wintering grounds in Central America or even northern South America! Courage and bon voyage, my young friend!

According to website of the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, The Eastern Wood Pewee hawks for insects an average of 36 times per hour even now, in the non-breeding season!

A Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) surveyed the area from high on the tip of a snag. It may spend the winter here, though I see Flickers more often in the summer when they can drill the earth for their favorite food – ants! These birds used to be called “Yellow-Shafted Flickers,” because the undersides of their tail feathers (which can be seen below) as well as their wing feathers are bright yellow in flight.

The Northern Flicker can spend the winter here if it can find enough fruits – even frozen ones!

On the eastern edge of Draper Twin Lake Park – East, several summer visitors chirped and chatted in a tangle of vines and small trees. The warm yellow throat of a female Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) flashed in the greenery. She gave a sharp “chip” call as she moved restlessly from branch to branch. She’ll soon be riding a north wind during the night down to the southeastern states or on to the Caribbean.

A female Common Yellowthroat along the eastern side of the prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park

In the grass along the east path, a juvenile Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum) hopped about, pecking in a desultory manner at bits of this and that. This little bird probably hatched in the boreal forests of Canada and is now headed for Florida or the Caribbean where the insects will be much more plentiful. Many thanks to expert birder Allen Chartier for an explanatory identification of this bird. Juveniles definitely challenge my developing knowledge of fall bird plumage.

Juvenile Palm Warblers are identified by yellow under-tail feathers (or coverts), the pale line above the eye (supercillium), brownish breast streaks and buff wing bars.

I was lucky to see another migrator heading south from the boreal forest, the Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). This nattily dressed little bird with its fine stripes and buff mustache (malar) tends to scurry into tangles as soon as it lands. I’d seen one for only the first time a week before at Charles Ilsley Park, though others spotted it in the spring from its wren-like burbling, complicated song. So imagine my surprise and delight when it hopped up on a branch to preen and stayed long enough for a portrait!

A Lincoln’s Sparrow in one of its rare moments in the open!

A Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) suddenly popped into the open too. Its “bouncing ball” trill burbled up from the prairies all summer long. This particular one looked a bit frowzy around the edges because it hadn’t quite finished its molt. It was still growing fresh feathers for its relatively short flight to Ohio and points south.

A Field Sparrow not quite finished with its molt

Becoming an Attentive “Audience” in the Natural World

The trail that leads to the prairie along the marsh at Draper Twin Lake Park East.

In this piece, I’ve had fun imagining the prairie and its inhabitants as an early fall theatrical production – but that, of course, calls for the last element – the audience. Us! I find that paying as much attention to my natural surroundings as I would to a movie, a play or a concert reaps a similar kind of pleasure. I appreciate the color, the movement and the music of a prairie as much as I enjoy the scenery, the costumes and the gestures of a dance performance. A forest or a fen can be almost as mysterious and as filled with strange inhabitants as any sci-fi adventure. The care adult birds take with fragile nestlings is often as touching and as fraught as a family drama. And the ferocity of a large green insect’s ambush of its unsuspecting victim can be as creepy as the casual violence of an elegant but lethal villain in a murder mystery.

Stepping out into a natural environment is much like losing myself in a powerful story. I leave my ordinary life behind for a few hours and enter into lives much different than my own. Stories of life and death unfold. The sets and costumes change from scene to scene. The music, the dance, the voices, the behavior, the colors are not ones made by humans; I’m in a different reality. When I leave, I come back to myself refreshed, having learned something new, experienced something different than the everydayness of my life. And the only payment I’m required to make is paying attention. What a gift!

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.