Nature Shares the Restoration Work at Blue Heron Environmental Area

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

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

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Killdeer apparently keeping an eye out for flying predators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Northern Leopard Frog in the field beyond the North Pond

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

Wet-footed Plants Settle In, Creating Habitat

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

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

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

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

Insects Dancing, Posing and Staring Me Down!

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

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

A very small male Crane Fly

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

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

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

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

A female Meadow Katydid blends in nicely with her surroundings.

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

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

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

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

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

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