This week, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, Stewardship Specialist Alex Kriebel and a team of trained volunteers created a controlled burn around the sports fields at Marshview Park. Our native plant species are adapted to fire after living for thousands of years with fire on the landscape. While lightning-sparked fires probably occurred occasionally, most fires in the last few thousand years were sparked by humans. The Native Americans in southern Michigan regularly used fire to clear and fertilize land for agriculture and to attract deer and other wildlife with tender, new growth, an early method of herding. As a result, our grasses and wildflowers have evolved to thrive after a burn. In fact, some grow only sparsely until a fire triggers them to emerge, bloom and seed. And luckily, many of the invasive species in our parks, which didn’t evolve with burning, are weakened by fire.
The burn process begins after the crew reviews safety procedures and checks the wind, making sure that weather conditions allow the smoke to rise as quickly as possible to minimize effects on neighbors. Then fire breaks are created or double-checked where necessary by mowing or raking around the edges of the burn area. This gets rid of fuel that would allow the fire to spread where not wanted. In the case of the sports fields, the green grass and paths provided ready-made fire breaks.
Some members of the fire crew, under Ben’s supervision, use drip torch canisters to spread fire, creating a low creeping flame.
Others carry water tanks on their backs to spray trees or bushes that need protection and to put out all smoldering embers when the burn is complete.
The result will be burgeoning growth of native plants, including wildflowers and grasses. After the first controlled burn in spring of 2016, Foxglove Beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis) made an appearance at Marshview Park. Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) burst forth in the summer along with the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose huge leaves follow the sun during each summer day. (Photo below by Aaron Gunnar of inaturalist.org) And in autumn, New England Asters(Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) made a glorious, royal purple show around the edges of the sports fields while Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native grass, filled the parking lot islands with its graceful russet stems. (Use the pause button if you can’t see the captions).
And with these native plants come insects that nourish birds and other native wildlife, while the increase in beautiful butterflies delights the human eye. So, yes, controlled burning paradoxically helps us restore the wild diversity of beauty that is Oakland Township’s natural heritage.
Meeting the lovely family above at Draper Twin Lake Park one morning was a fitting beginning to my walk. This dad was kept very busy baiting hooks and unhooking Blue Gills for his three young children who were excited to take their catch home and “eat ’em.” Well, the avian parents this week are as busy as that dad. Many fledglings are out of the nest but not quite “ready for prime time.” The youngsters’ flights are still a bit awkward, they haven’t quite grown into their beaks, and they object to being weaned from feedings by mom and dad. They crouch on branches, trying to look helpless by quivering their wings and begging “Feed Me!” with loud, high-pitched and incessant chirping. The conscientious adult birds are busy plucking berries, ferrying caterpillars and crunching seeds to fill young beaks. Meanwhile, more summer butterflies and other insects appear each day as native and non-native flowers line the trails and bloom in the wetlands. Summer, the busy season for nature, is well underway.
Industrious Parent Birds and Their Demanding Offspring!
Twice as I entered the western path to the lake, I spotted a male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) plucking little fruits from a bush and feeding them to his offspring. Juvenile cardinals have coloring similar to the female, except that their beaks are dark brown instead of red-orange like both adults. This hiding youngster couldn’t resist one peak at me over the tops of the greenery.
Further along the trail, a conscientious mother bird, the female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), brought goodies to her youngster that was crouched on a branch in the classic quivering pose of begging fledglings. “Poor me; feed me; I’m starving.”
Once mom took off, the youngster, its juvenile red cap on display, practiced a bit of upside-down branch hopping.
A male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) sang an abbreviated version of his “Witchedy, witchedy” song repeatedly in a snag over the marsh. Farther up the path, I’d seen a young female hiding in a large bush, but it didn’t stop moving long enough for a good shot, I’m sorry to say. It has the slightly askew, downy look of a young bird. Thanks to Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and expert birder Ruth Glass for identifying this little one for me! And to Bob Bonin for his fine photo of a fully fledged adult female so you can see how the little female will eventually look.
In another snag by the lake, a mother Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)was busy feeding her nestling(s), traveling back and forth and stretching into the hole to feed whoever was inside. Those babies should be very safe in this nice deep hole in their lakeside dead tree!
Over in the eastern part of Draper Park, I was greeted by two fledgling Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) sitting on a wire by the parking lot. Adult Barn Swallows sport russet throats and loooong, deeply forked tails. These were obviously fledglings.
These youngsters were still slightly downy, shorter-tailed than adults, and only partially iridescent blue-black on the back. They sat remarkably still on the wire and periodically tried extending their wings. The fledglings below seemed to tip slightly back and forth as if trying to find its balance with those snazzy new wings. And the light color on the side of its bill is also typical of a juvenile Barn Swallow.
What appeared to be a well-behaved, quiet young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) – on the right below – traveled about on the edge of the north prairie as its parent (left) slipped down into the grass periodically to forage like grown-up flycatchers. From a distance in bright morning light, it was hard to see if the presumed youngster (right) had a slightly more yellow lower belly than the adult. The smaller bird looked a bit misproportioned, though, like a lot of fledglings do and also had a more “smudgy” juvenile breast as described by Cornell lab. So my conclusion is I was looking at an adult and its offspring.
An Unusual Sighting
Ben spotted a bird with a long sweeping tail in a snag near the prairie and quickly identified it. According to Cornell Lab, the Black-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus erythropthalmus) is “common but secretive” and “heard far more often than seen.” Evidently, it eats lots of spiny caterpillars and has adapted to that spiky diet by shedding its stomach lining periodically to get rid of the spines. Yikes! I caught sight of the cuckoo flying with its very long tail trailing behind, but never got a shot. So here’s a beautiful photo from a gifted photographer, Jerry Oldenettel, on inaturalist.org.
Butterflies Big and Very Small
A female Black Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) probed the funnel-shaped blossoms of Hairy Vetch (Vicia villosa), a non-native vining plant. The large blue spots at the bottom of the butterfly’s wing tell us she is a female and the two rows of yellow spots indicate that she’s not the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), which is very similar. According to Wikipedia, the orange spots on the underside of her wings protect her while she’s laying eggs, because they mimic the Pipevine/Blue Swallowtail (Battus philenor)which is toxic to birds. The Black Swallowtail is not, but birds will be wary.
Red Admirals(Vanessa atalanta) showed up on both sides of the park one morning. This butterfly migrates from the south rather than overwintering here. Look at those cool striped antennae with yellowish-white tips!
According to butterfliesandmoths.org, the Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) rarely frequents white flowers and almost never yellow ones. But the males do sit on tall flowers or grasses to attract females, so perhaps this handsome skipper was trying to snag a mate!
A Northern Pearly-Eye Butterfly that rested on the path one morning overwintered as a caterpillar. Like the early season butterflies (e.g. the Mourning Cloak), it feeds on sap from willows, poplars and birches or sometimes the fluids found in carrion or dung. Nature makes use of everything, doesn’t it?
A pair of mating Little Wood Satyr (Megisto cymela) butterflies flew from the path to a nearby leaf still attached to one another as I approached.
Flowers Blooming at Draper Now that are New to Me
This month at Draper, Ben identified for me two beautiful native flowers I’d never seen before. Near the lake, we spotted the fuzzy blooms of another “Beard-tongued” plant, in the same genus as the Hairy Beard-tongue (Penstemon hirsutus) featured in our Photo of the Week two weeks ago. This one is called Foxglove Beard-tongue (Penstemon digitalis). Some blossoms have little lavender stripes inside to lead insects to the nectar, helping to spread their pollen.
The other native plant was a rose growing right next to the floating dock called the Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). On one of the blooms, I spotted a tiny Katydid (family Tettigoniidae). Check out those long antennae!
A Slide Show of Flowers – Native and Non-Native – Currently Blooming at Draper Park
I always like to know the names of flowers whether native or not. It keeps me more aware of the detail in the landscape. So here are three kinds – native wildflowers, non-natives that are not always invasive, and an invasive plant that does harm to other plants by shading or crowding them out and multiplying aggressively.
Turtles vs. Creatures That Love Their Eggs
Often in early summer, I see Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) walking along the same trails I’m taking. They’re looking for soft, sandy soil where they can bury their eggs. Some places are definitely more hospitable for this purpose than others. This Painted Turtle came trundling along a path near Draper Lake, perhaps returning from an attempt to safely bury her eggs.
But out on the prairie on the eastern side of the park, evidence abounds that lots of animals love to find and eat turtle eggs. On one outing with the birding group, we spotted several turtle nest dug up with the leathery white egg shells laying outside.
Among the creatures that enjoy turtle eggs are raccoons, foxes, coyotes, skunks, and birds like herons, gulls and crows. As an (chicken) egg eater myself, I can’t complain. Luckily, Painted Turtles are our most abundant turtle species, so I assume nature is just taking its course as usual.
It’s always iffy to anthropomorphize and assume that the behavior of other animals is similar to our own. We can’t, of course, know for sure what motivates a particular animal’s behavior. After all, we don’t understand our own motivations sometimes! But science is increasingly exploring the social and emotional lives of all sorts of creatures and discovering that many teach and learn in much the same way we humans do. And of course, animals have knowledge, skills, and memory that is superior to our own – for example chickadees remembering thousands of places they have stashed seeds or nuts. So when young fledglings beg to be fed or practice short flights in much the same way that little children pester us for food or learn to walk, it’s probably normal to feel an intuitive understanding of what might be going on. If we smile in recognition of our kinship with all creatures, maybe that will help us be more careful stewards of the natural world in which we’re embedded. And that has to be a good thing, right?
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
Before European settlement, our special area of Michigan was actually an Oak Savannah with large expanses of tall waving grasses,
widely scattered, spreading oaks
and other native trees, shrubs and prairie wildflowers. During the spring and summer, ground-nesting birds like the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) settled among tall grass stems, producing young. Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) sang their burbling song while swaying on grass stems. The Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) whistled their slow song from perches in low shrubs. Later, in the 1800’s, non-native game birds like Ring-necked Pheasants(Phasianus colchicus) were introduced and took advantage of the tall grass for cover.
On November 14 and 15, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, took a huge step forward in prairie restoration on 20 acres of Draper Twin Lake Park and another 18 acres in Charles Ilsley Park. The hope is that residents will be able to experience the land as it may have looked before and that native residents – birds, animals, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees of the prairie – can return, adding more rich diversity to the plants and wildlife of Oakland Township.
The process began in the summer of 2014 as crews working with Dr. Ben began removing the non-native and invasive species that had taken over the land after farming had ceased. This meant long hours of cutting woody invasive trees and shrubs like Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose and Glossy Buckthorn which had quickly colonized the open land, and then treating the stumps to prevent re-growth. The process continued this summer until one beautifully rolling 20 acre field was finally prepared for planting in Draper Twin Lake Park.
Two other rolling fields of 5 and 13 acres at Charles Ilsley Park were also cleared and prepared.(Click on double photos for larger view. Rest cursor on photos for captions.) Two more 15 acre fields are being prepared for planting in 2016 and 2017.
Dr. Ben sought out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to purchase wild seed for these areas and then carefully selected a list of plants suitable for our specific sites. Township residents will need to be patient, since prairie flowers spend their first two to three years putting down deep roots. These deep roots help prairie plants survive drought conditions or fire to which they became adapted over thousands of years of fluctuations in climate and periodic fire. In fact, carefully controlled prescribed burns will be used periodically on these prairies in the future because regular burning helps native plants thrive and thwarts non- natives who are not adapted to it. Some native plants even require fire in order to bloom!
A few flowers will begin to appear next spring, but the prairies should really start blooming vigorously by the spring and summer of 2018. Here are just a few of the prairie grasses and wildflowers that will be gracing our prairies then. (Click on photos to enlarge them and hover your cursor over the photo for plant names.)
Along with these more familiar native plants, Dr. Ben also included grasses and flowers that used to bloom here but that we see less often now. Click on these links to see Foxglove Beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis), Wild Lupine(Lupinus perennis), andSky-blue Asters(Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). And that’s only a sample of the 36 species of plants Dr. Ben ordered!
With those plants up and growing, our parks can attract more butterflies and native prairie birds like those mentioned above or maybe other special species, such as the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), or Henslow’s Sparrow.
So that November weekend, Jerry Stewart from Native Connections brought equipment designed for planting native seed. Jerry first carefully calibrated the seed drill for the seed type, planting rate, and depth. He then loaded seed in the hoppers and was ready to go.
Four of our former OT stewardship technicians, who had worked hard to clear land for this project, joined Dr. Ben and Parks Commissioner Colleen Barkham (not pictured) to see the moment when the seed finally went into the ground. The former technicians are now finishing up school or pursuing careers in various environmental fields.
Now the native seed is in and next spring, sturdy native wildflowers and grasses will begin sinking their roots deep into the soil, a survival strategy that will take them 2 or 3 summers. And then in year three or four, we will be able to watch prairies in full bloom again in Oakland Township. As time passes we hope the wildlife return – butterflies floating above swaying grass and native wildflowers, while the Bobolinks sing and the “Bob-White!” whistle returns to grace the summer months. Dr. Ben shared some photos taken on the Flint Hills prairie in Kansas (where he completed his doctorate) in order to help us dream until then.