Stewardship Volunteering: An Invitation to Befriend Our Native Landscape

The native grass that I wandered through as a child which I later learned was native Big Bluestem.

As happens so often in life, I sort of backed into being a stewardship volunteer. I spent my childhood in Oakland Township forging paths through abandoned farm fields filled with tall grass. On a flannel blanket scented by the warm earth beneath, I settled beside a small wetland to read. My father knew where wild asparagus grew on Collins Road and rushed back home one afternoon to report seeing a trumpeter swan. We watched birds on a simple feeder in a bush outside the kitchen window. My brother and I could be gone all morning in the fields as long as we returned when the dinner bell rang. Being outside meant disappearing from adult supervision for hours on end, and we loved it.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

When my husband I moved back to this area, we began Sunday walks in Bear Creek Nature Park, just an abandoned farm when I was child. At a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in 2015, I took the opportunity to ask the Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, about a giant tuft of stiff grass that jutted out at the edge of a field at Bear Creek. Did someone plant some exotic grass in our park? It looked very odd and ungainly. Ben explained that it was Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native grass that had once covered large areas of our township – part of our ancient natural landscape. Really? He suggested coming to a presentation that he’d planned to describe that pre-settlement landscape and the role of periodic prescribed fire in restoring and preserving it. Fire as a preservation technique? I took the bait and arrived home from that event bubbling with ideas about Michigan’s prairies and how they might be restored to us. That huge tuft of grass at Bear Creek Nature Park, it turned out, was probably a remnant of the grasses through which I’d roamed years ago, grasses which had emerged after field fires during my childhood.

That eye-opening presentation marked the starting point of what is now my seven-year journey into deepening my relationship with the natural world. I continue to appreciate nature in ever more intimate detail – and it never fails to simultaneously fascinate and soothe me. Through volunteering in a variety of ways, I’ve come to understand that I have a part to play in healing the landscape that nurtured me as child and still does. And in doing so, I experience a bit of healing myself.

So here’s my invitation to join us in this reciprocal process of enriching the native diversity of our natural areas while enriching ourselves. Perhaps you’ll discover an activity that suits your gifts or interests. For details on monthly events, click on a date on the calendar page at this link. [See the blue bar at the top of the linked calendar page.]

Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”

If our feathered neighbors intrigue you, perhaps these activities are for you!

Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group

Birders at Cranberry Lake Park watching several different migrating warblers in a nearby tree. Photo by Tom Korb, a member of the group

Every Wednesday year ’round (with a few weeks off in December), a group of us gather at one of the township parks. We come with binoculars (or Ben can loan us a pair) and head out on the trails. Some of the birding group members are amateurs. Others have birded for years and can recognize a bird by its song or its pattern in flight overhead. Learn, laugh, hang out with kindly people in all kinds of weather and be a citizen scientist at the same time! The data collected each week by Ben and stewardship specialist, Grant Vanderlaan, is reported to the Cornell University Ornithology Department’s ebird website where it can be used by researchers to learn more about our feathered neighbors.

Get “Upclose and Personal” with Birds by Monitoring Nest Boxes

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box.

We volunteers participate in another citizen science project, Cornell University’s NestWatch Project. Each volunteer takes responsibility for monitoring a set of bird boxes in one of our parks. After a yearly session on the do’s and don’ts of monitoring, we visit our boxes once or twice each week. I’ve peeked within the nest boxes of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia Sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to record the date of the first egg laid, the hatch date, the fledge date and other data. As a result, I’ve seen baby birds hatch, feed from their parents’ beaks and sail out into the big bright world on their first solo flight! What fun! I recommend it to you.

Need A Little Excitement in Your Life? Volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Crew!

Two trained burn crew volunteers, a woman dripping low flame, a man carrying water for dowsing when required

Many of our native plants are “fire-adapted,” which means they benefit from fire or actually require it to germinate! After a low burn, the nutrients of dry plants nourish the soil, the blackened fields absorb sun for a longer growing season and room is created for native plants and the creatures which need sun and rain. So although Ben hires contractors for complicated burns, he also provides training each year for members of a volunteer fire crew. All adults are welcome, regardless of gender. The volunteers don protective equipment provided by the Parks and Recreation Commission and that, plus training and on-site supervision by Ben, makes for a dramatic, interesting and safe experience. So add a bit of adventure to your life and provide our stewardship team and nature itself with some badly needed help!

This could be you! Trained and ready to help restore our natural areas with prescribed fire.

Share an Ancient Tradition: The Gathering and Preparing of Native Seed

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Gathering the Seed

On a lovely autumn afternoon, Ben invites us to gather in a prairie to collect native seed, something humans have done for thousands of years. I love these autumn events; they’re so incredibly peaceful , relaxing and so easily productive. Ben chooses the site where desirable seeds are plentiful and gives us brief instructions on how much we can harvest. We then move out into the fields and slip seeds from their stalks, dropping them into a labeled bag later to be cleaned and sown where needed in our parks.

Former Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa, gathering coneflower seeds among the Big Bluestem at Charles Ilsley Park.

Preparing the Seed for Sowing

Volunteers cleaning seed and Stewardship Specialist Grant VanderLaan weighing it on the right.

Early in December, volunteers and staff gather at the township’s pole barn on Buell Road to separate the seed from its pods or seed heads. We dress warmly, snacks are on hand and we set to work pushing the seeds through screens into tubs, bagging the stalks and stems for compost. Some seeds need to be rubbed through a coarser screen while standing in order to break them off sturdy seed heads. The seed for each species is individually weighed, its origin and collection date recorded and then stored away for sowing. We chat while we work and the whole feeling of the event is a bit like an old-fashioned barn raising or quilting bee!

Sowing the Seed

Native seeds need to be sown in late fall or early spring, when nature drops many of its seeds; wild seeds usually require cold temperatures in order to germinate. It lands on the soil surface and moves into the soil by the force of rain or snow during freeze/thaw periods. Many are tiny, almost dust-like, and ignored by the birds. Some seeds are carried below ground by animals or insects.

Our collected native seeds are most often sown by hand or occasionally with a hand-cranked seed spreader. Ben and his crew recreate nature’s process in our parks by spreading it on the surface of prairie sites prepared by burns or mowing, on the edges of wetlands or for aquatic plants, even on pond ice. Natives may need three or more years to reach full bloom because they first establish deep roots. Unlike non-native nursery plants, they’re tough survivors who’ve evolved to grow without fertilizer or much other human intervention in Michigan’s unpredictable weather!

The stewardship crew planting in early spring, 2021

Scoop Up Tiny Shrimp and Other Tiny Aquatic Critters: Vernal Pool Monitoring

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that form in low areas in the spring. They fill with snow melt and rain water, and then dry up in warm weather. As a consequence, these pools don’t support fish, which makes them a safe place for many creatures to breed and lay eggs. Tiny orange Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) and appropriately named Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) are indicator species in these freshwater pools. Who knew shrimp and clams live and breed right in our parks? Likewise, our Wood Frogs (Lithobates syvaticus) and some species of Salamanders court and lay eggs here after overwintering in the uplands. Periodically Ben trains volunteers to record data from the vernal pools so that it can be reported to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory – a third kind of citizen science! Ben provides small nets and clear boxes and we don our high boots and wade in, learning first hand how to identify what dwells in these temporary pools that team with life that most of us have never seen before!

Enjoy Taking on the “Bad Guys?” Try Invasive Species Management!

Invasive species – like Bradford/Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and many others – are a big problem because they didn’t evolve here. In their original habitats in Eurasia and elsewhere, they did what our native plants do here, providing food and shelter for native species. But of course here, they are not among their native species. Consequently, they’re much less productive for our habitat. Their seeds may last longer in the fall, but offer little useful nutrition to our migrating birds – too much sugar, not enough fat. Butterflies may sip at non-native blossoms, but their young (the caterpillars) generally can’t/won’t eat non-native leaves, or if they do, fail to thrive into adulthood. Most caterpillars only feed on plants they’ve evolved with for centuries. Since caterpillars and their native plant hosts anchor the food web that feeds our birds and other creatures, the lack of caterpillars means a less healthy, more hungry habitat. Also, the predators that kept invasive species in check in their original habitats (insects, animals, fungi) aren’t present here – so invasives can quickly spread across the landscape with little opposition – robbing our native plants of the sunlight, rain, soil nutrients and pollination they need.

So here are a couple of examples to show how you might help preserve the rich diversity of our natural areas by eliminating non-native, invasive species:

Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines

Volunteers and stewardship staff took on clearing a large area of invasive shrubs and vines at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail in late 2020. Forestry mowing would have damaged the fragile ecosystem there. After weeks of work, clearing was complete and the resulting piles were burned on the winter snow. See the transformation process in the slideshow below.

Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning

No, garlic pulls are not at all like taffy pulls, unfortunately. Just nice folks who go out into woodlands with Ben and Grant to remove the nefarious, invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This introduced European plant crowds out many species of our native woodland wildflowers like Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Garlic Mustard, named for its scent, is easy to pull! A four-year-old delighted in helping me pull some near my home and did a fine job. The following year, a native wildflower emerged from the seed bank – the kind of reward we hope to see again in our natural areas! (Notice the historical photo below of the forest floor at Bear Creek in 1979!)

Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in full bloom in July after wildflower seeding

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. We volunteer because we want to be of use and what we discover is that the greatest benefit has been to ourselves! Working with Ben and the other stewardship folk, I have learned to be of use to nature. I’m happy to provide data to researchers learning to protect nesting and migrating birds or tiny shrimp. And it’s such a thrill to see a diverse tapestry of native plants emerge from the soil after decades of being buried beneath a heavy load of invasive shrubs or grasses. It invariably feels like I’m privileged to witness a small resurrection.

But what I’ve experienced is that the benefits for me often outweigh the relatively small part I play in the process. I’ve made bright, interesting friends both in person and here on the blog. What a delight to enjoy and learn from kindred spirits! I’ve stimulated my aging brain with new information that matters to me. I’ve exercised both my mind and my muscles as I head out in the fields to see what nature is ready to show me. This kind of volunteering makes me feel more alive!

But most importantly, through stewardship work, I’ve come closer to the natural world. In fact, I’ve come to feel embedded in it. We humans aren’t just walking on the earth, after all. We are an integral part of a vast and intricate system that feeds us daily, quenches our thirst, supplies our oxygen, clothes us, heats our homes, provides materials for the very roof over our heads and the tools we use every day – and nature does all that while gifting us with beauty! A field full of wildflowers, sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds, bird song and the whisper of leaves, the dance of tall grass in a summer breeze – all of that glorious art is gratis once we step out our door.

So I hope you’ll find a way to join us. More than 1500 acres of preserved natural areas in Oakland Township could use your attention and if possible, your helping hands. I guarantee that nature will richly reward your efforts.

Volunteers needed for June 4 Garlic Mustard Pull along the Paint Creek Trail!

  • What: Garlic Mustard Pull along the Paint Creek Trail to celebrate National Trails Day
  • Why: To help control invasive plants, keep the trail beautiful, and connect with other cool people!
  • When: June 4, 2016. Meet at 9 am at the Paint Creek Cider Mill to get instructions, pull garlic mustard 9:30 am – 12:30 pm. Lunch provided to all participants after!
  • Where: Meet at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Rd at 9 am. Groups will then go to different sites.
  • Register:
  • Questions? Email for more information.IMG_2593

Keep the Paint Creek Trail Beautiful

To celebrate National Trails Day®, volunteers are needed for a Garlic Mustard Pull along the Paint Creek Trail on Saturday, June 4, 2016 from 9:30am-12:30pm (meet at 9 am to get instructions).  Garlic Mustard is a biennial, invasive plant with a two year life cycle that grows in shady areas, and in full sun.  It affects biodiversity and forest health by spreading quickly and preventing native plants from growing.  It is often spread by humans, bird, deer, and other wildlife. “Garlic mustard is a serious threat to our natural communities. If allowed to spread, this invasive plant forms dense stands that crowd out native plants, like trilliums and other spring flowers that we love so much. Each garlic mustard plant can produce thousands of seeds that can wait in the soil for years, allowing it to invade both disturbed areas and mature healthy forests. The most common method for controlling garlic mustard is to hand pull second year plants, preventing seed production. Taking the time to remove a few plants before they spread will save a lot of work in the future,” said Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Natural Areas Stewardship Manager for Oakland Township Parks and Recreation.


The second year plants in this picture have triangular, toothed leaves and a cluster of small, four-petaled, white flowers. The seeds fruit into long pods that dry and burst, shooting the seeds up to three feet! If you notice the pods are starting to open, it’s time to stop pulling or you risk spreading seeds all over.

Everyone is Welcome!

“Volunteer Pulls are an effective way of preventing the spread of Garlic Mustard on the Paint Creek Trail. It needs to be bagged and thrown away, because it can easily re-root if left on the ground.  In addition, it cannot be composted because the compost piles do not get hot enough to break it down.  Burning doesn’t always destroy the seeds either,” said Trail Manager Kristen Myers.  The Paint Creek Trailways Commission will have volunteer sites in Rochester, Rochester Hills, Oakland Township, and Orion Township for the pull.  Instruction and all supplies will be provided, and all ages are welcome.  IMG_2591

Volunteers will meet at the Paint Creek Cider Mill, 4480 Orion Road, Oakland Township, MI 48306 starting at 9:00am to get their supplies and directions to the sites.  In addition, lunch will be provided for all participants.  “This is a great way to celebrate National Trails Day.  The Paint Creek Trail is the first non-motorized rail-to-trail in the State of Michigan, and is known for its natural beauty.  Our trail users take ownership of the trail, and want to do what they can to keep it beautiful,” said Jim VanDoorn, President, Friends of the Paint Creek Trail.  The Paint Creek Trailways Commission will be reporting how many bags they pull to The Stewardship Network as part of their Garlic Mustard Challenge 2016 (  Interested volunteers can register online at or can email for more information.

Check out the Spring Wildflowers at the Volunteer Workday Tomorrow, May 9 at Lost Lake Nature Park

The spring ephemeral wildflowers won’t last long with the heat! Come out the Lost Lake Nature Park tomorrow morning from 9 am – 12 pm to help remove glossy buckthorn seedlings and garlic mustard to make sure our native plants have space to grow. Check out detailed information below. The workday will be cancelled if we have heavy rain or lightning. Here are a few teaser pictures… don’t miss it!

Hepatica flowers are almost done for the year, but you'll get to see their fuzzy leaves!

Hepatica flowers are almost done for the year, but you’ll get to see their fuzzy leaves!

Trilliums emerged looking better than ever after the recent prescribed fire.

Trilliums emerged looking better than ever after the recent prescribed fire.

  • Where: We’ll meet in the parking lot near the sled hill. Look for the Parks pickup truck.

  • When: Saturday, May 9, 2015, 9 am to 12 pm. In the event of inclement weather, the event will be cancelled.
  • Who: Anyone! This event is free, with no experience necessary. We’ll train you to do the work.
  • Why: Help keep the park beautiful! We will be pulling glossy buckthorn and garlic mustard. We will be competing in the Garlic Mustard Challenge (, so help us get a big haul! Come out on Saturday to enjoy beautiful areas and hang out with great people! The weather looks great too!
  • What: Bring water and gloves, and wear closed-toed shoes and long pants. We’ll have extra gloves if you can’t bring your own.

You will need to sign a release form before we begin working. Families are encouraged to attend! All minors will need permission from a parent or guardian to participate, and minors under 14 will need to have a parent or guardian present. We will have lots of fun, so plan to come and share this opportunity with others! The schedule of upcoming workdays can be found at the Volunteer Calendar.

This Week at Bear Creek: Frogs, Turtles, and Snakes – Oh My!

Look for this feature early each week! Cam Mannino shares her latest observations, photos, and inspirations from Bear Creek Nature Park. Thanks Cam!

April 5-11, 2015

Cam at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Post and photos by Cam Mannino

What a week for amphibians and reptiles! One of the best features of Bear Creek Nature Park is its vernal pools. These temporary pools appear from runoff in the spring and slowly evaporate with warmer weather. Vernal pools are perfect places for spring frogs – plenty of water and no fish to eat their eggs! So the park is now filled with their music.

Those of you who live near Bear Creek no doubt are being serenaded each night by the Spring Peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) tiny (1”-1.5”) nocturnal frogs that trill and hunt all night long. This one was sleeping on a leaf but woke when its picture was taken a few years ago.

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

During the day, Chorus Frogs and Wood Frogs carry on the concert. Last Saturday, Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) floated in the pool near Gunn Road. They pulse their sides to emit a duck-like croak and propel themselves forward in the water looking for mates.

Wood frog makes circles in the water.

Wood frog makes circles in the water.

I spent an hour trying to spot a Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) from the small bridge over the vernal pool just north of the playground. Their piercing, ratchety calls literally made my ears ring as I scanned the web of branches in the dark water. Finally I saw this tiny male’s vocal sack ballooning beneath his bulging eyes as he sang. Quite a thrill!

Chorus frog mid cheep

Chorus frog mid cheep

Chorus frog full cheep

Chorus frog full cheep

As amphibians emerged from the mud at the edge or bottom of vernal ponds, reptiles were seeking spring sunlight. Like amphibians, they are cold-blooded animals which can’t regulate their body temperature. So basking is important. A graceful Eastern Garter Snake slipped off the warm path and under a log as I approached.

Eastern garter snake

Eastern garter snake

And a Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) let its dark shell absorb the heat near the center pond.

Painted turtle

Painted turtle

Near the marsh, a tiny Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) spiraled up a trunk, hunting with its long, curved beak for spiders and insects in the bark. It moves like a nuthatch, but is smaller (4-5”). Here it is from a distance.

Brown creeper at Bear Creek

Brown creeper at Bear Creek

The Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is often the first butterfly to appear in Bear Creek, having probably overwintered in tree bark. It can survive before the flowers bloom because it feeds on tree sap and decaying material. This Saturday’s Mourning Cloak fluttered off into the bushes, but here’s a slightly tattered one from later in a previous season.

Mourning cloak

Mourning cloak

And a favorite species appeared in the park again this week, a small flock of human volunteers who worked steadily and diligently pulling large patches of sprouting Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata ) just south of the parking lot.

A second-year garlic mustard plant rosette early in the spring.

A second-year garlic mustard plant rosette early in the spring.

By eliminating this leathery-leaved invasive plant near the parking lot and trailhead, Ben hopes to prevent their seeds from being tracked into the park on the unsuspecting feet of park visitors. Many thanks to this cheerful, hard-working crew for a thorough job!

(L to R) Debbie, Ben, Eric, Mackenzie, Colton, and Karla pulled 5 bags of garlic mustard and dame's rocket!

(L to R) Debbie, Ben, Eric, Mackenzie, Colton, Karla, and Cam (not pictured) pulled 5 bags of garlic mustard and dame’s rocket!

2014 Stewardship Annual Report: Learning from the past, looking to the future

As we look forward to our natural areas stewardship goals for 2015, we look back at what we accomplished in 2014. It was an exciting year! Check out the highlights of the year below, or read the full 2014 Annual Stewardship Report (click the title).

  1. Stewardship Blog: I launched this blog, the Natural Areas Notebook in June 2014 to help inform residents about the cool biota in the township and advertise the many opportunities to help care for our natural areas.
  2. Prescribed Burns: We contracted with Plantwise LLC for prescribed burn work. We completed burns in old fields at Bear Creek Nature Park and Charles Ilsley Park on May 19, 2014. We completed prescribed burns along the Paint Creek Trail at the Art Project, Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, Kamin Easement, and Nicholson Prairie on November 5, 2014. The remaining burns in the contracts (Lost Lake Nature Park, Bear Creek Nature Park forest, and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park) were postponed due to early snow and will hopefully be completed in Spring 2015.

    The ignition crew communicate closely with the holding crew to make sure the fire does not burn in areas outside the burn unit.

    Prescribed fire at Bear Creek Nature Park in May 2014

  3. Volunteer Program: Volunteer workdays were held two times per month from July to November. Participation was generally low (ranging from 0 to 7 volunteers per workday), but the workdays provided invaluable experience with scheduling, preparing, and leading volunteer workdays.

    SE Michigan Summer Conservation Corps crew, Bear Creek Nature Park, July 2014.

    SE Michigan Summer Conservation Corps crew, Bear Creek Nature Park, July 2014.

  4. Floristic Surveys: I surveyed Gallagher Creek Park, O’Connor Nature Park, and Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen during summer 2014 to document the plant species growing in each park.
  5. US Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Grant: Prairie restoration at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lakes Park was jump started by a $15,200 grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service through their Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. The stewardship crew worked hard to clear invasive woody shrubs in 18 acres of old fields at Charles Ilsley Park and 20 acres of old field at Draper Twin Lake Park to prepare for planting in 2015.
  6. USDA Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) grant: work continued on the 2008 WHIP grant, which funds habitat restoration along the Paint Creek Trail to benefit native pollinators.
  7. Seasonal Technicians: We had three outstanding technicians in 2014. Matt Peklo returned for his third year, Alex Kriehbel returned for his second year, and Jonah Weeks worked her first year.

    The stewardship crew pulled lots of garlic mustard in 2014. Help us make 2015 even more successful!

    The stewardship crew pulled lots of garlic mustard in 2014. Help us make 2015 even more successful!

  8. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager: I started with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation as the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager in April 2014.