Tag Archives: garter snake

Charles Ilsley Park – Prairies Full of Spring Music

Looking west on the north prairie at Charles Ilsley Park

Charles Ilsley Park is slowly being returned to native prairie. Think of it as historic restoration. Before European farmers arrived, our township was mostly oak savanna – native grasses, wild flowers and widely spaced oaks. Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, has been working for three years to bring back some of that prairie habitat. Shrubby invasives have slowly been eliminated, some along tree lines just this spring. The sloping curves of the native prairie are appearing once again.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Some fields have been replanted with native grasses and wildflowers which must grow deep roots for several years before they fully prosper. More will be planted this year. The land rolls gently, surrounded by a beautiful dark forest. Birds sing from the hedgerows and scuttle across the open ground. Wood frogs chorus joyously from a nearby wetland. A spring stroll around the rolling landscape of Ilsley is an auditory as well as a visual treat. So try clicking on some of the links below (and then page down to recordings)  so you can share the sounds of spring.

Summer Birds Find Us Again

The migrators are winging their way back to us on warm south winds. The Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) again soar above the fields, gathering tiny midges in their open beaks.  Luckily, they can also eat plant foods which allows them to return early in the spring. Both males and females sing in what Cornell calls “a chirp, a whine and a gurgle.” My favorite part is the gurgle which I call a “liquid thwick.” See what you think. Aren’t these Swallows a gorgeous blue?

Tree Swallows soar with their beaks open to scoop up little flying insects – but they eat plant food more often in early spring.

In the western field, the Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scoots among the furrows of the open field, pauses and then scoots on again. Its orange rump flashes as it flies and its piercing “kill-deer” call (under “flight call” at the link) carries a long way. Killdeers have the large eye, short beak and round head characteristic of other plovers, but unlike their shorebird relatives, they can be quite content in a sunny field.

A Killdeer scurries along a ridge in a fallow field at Charles Ilsley Park.

Killdeer are famous for distracting predators from their shallow, ground nests by faking a broken wing. Our sharp-eyed birder friend Antonio Xeira spotted a killdeer nest last year at Gallagher Creek Park. Be on the look-out! These nests are easy to miss!

A Killdeer’s nest and eggs at Gallagher Creek in late April 2016.

Of course the buzzing trill of male Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), their red and yellow epaulets flashing, can be heard everywhere now. The brown and white striped females, perhaps reluctant to leave winter feeding grounds south of Michigan, are just beginning to arrive, while the male below may have been here for several weeks.

A male Red-winged Blackbird with just a bit of his red and yellow epaulet showing.

High in the treeline,  the drumming and the fast wik-wik-wik territorial call of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) echoes across the bare ground. At last I spotted a “mustached” male on the ground poking his serrated tongue  into an old ant hill. Although they’re woodpeckers, Flickers spend lots of time on the ground probing for ants, their favorite food. Stan Tekiela in the Birds of Michigan Field Guide, identifies Flickers as non-migrators or “partial migrators,” meaning they move south when food become scarce. I seem to see them only after spring arrives. Eastern North America hosts yellow-shafted Northern Flickers, while red-shafted Flickers are found in the western part of the continent.

The black mustache, called a malar, is a sign that this is a male, yellow-shafted Northern Flicker.  He’s probing for ants in an old ant mound.

Male Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) trill all over the park. This one emerged from the brambles to perch on a stump, tilted his head back a bit (not as far as some song sparrows do) and sang his territorial song. Song Sparrows are chubby little birds and the stripes on their breasts usually gather into a central spot. Their song starts out with several short notes and then a rat-a-tat-tat kind of sewing machine trill. (Click on photos to enlarge, hover cursor for captions.)

The cleaning crew has arrived. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) silently ride thermals high into the air or swoop lower to sniff for the scent of a carcass. These huge birds prevent disease for the rest of us by cleaning up any carrion they spot from above. According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, their immune systems are impervious to even the worst toxins including botulism, anthrax, cholera, or salmonella! The paler feathers at the tip of their dark wings, including the “finger feathers” seen here,  let the sun shine through, giving the false impression that their wings are banded in a lighter color.

The turkey vulture soars above the prairies below, preparing to clean the park of unhealthy, unsightly carrion.

Some Not-quite-native Summer Visitors

Non-native birds, like non-native plants, most often arrive in new places because of human activity. These two species came here in rather interesting ways.

Originally a western grassland bird that followed buffalo herds, the Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) adapted to their nomadic life by laying their eggs in other birds’ nests instead of building their own. As settlers cleared forests in eastern North America for towns and agriculture,  cowbirds expanded their range eastward. Grazing cattle and plowing probably stir up as many insects as buffalo, right? Cowbirds give more of a gurgle and squeak than a song. Here are two male cowbirds doing characteristic dominance displays – head tilt (beak skyward) and plumping the feathers. Pretty hilarious, eh? The lower one looks like a plush toy!

Two male cowbirds doing dominance displays.

Female Cowbirds establish territories and choose the most dominant male, according to Donald Stoke’s Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2). They can lay as many as 3 dozen eggs in a summer because, though some birds accept the eggs and raise the young, others peck them or push them from their nests. Here’s a newly arrived female checking out the males.

The modestly gray female Cowbird often sits high in the tree tops watching for a good bird’s nest in which to lay her eggs. Here she’s in bush, assessing the males.

We commonly see  European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) along telephone lines or swooping together in huge flocks called “murmurations.” These birds all descend from 100 individuals brought to New York’s Central Park in the 1890s  by Shakespeare devotees who believed America should have every bird mentioned by the Bard!  Starlings can be  very aggressive about taking over favored nesting sites from other birds and now number in the millions.  This starling at Charles Ilsley Park still has some of the feathers with light tips that gave it a spotted look after the fall molt. But as spring progresses, those tips will wear off, leaving its feathers dark and iridescent. Its beak is also changing from autumn gray to summer yellow.

100 European Starlings, imported by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the 1890s, now number about 200 million from Alaska to Mexico, according to the Cornell Lab.

The Year ‘Round Avian Welcoming Committee

Many of the sturdy birds who kept us company during the winter join the spring chorus as well. Of course, I couldn’t resist another shot of an Eastern Bluebird  (Sialia sialis)!  Here’s the link to its spring song.

A male Eastern Bluebird at Charles Ilsley Park.

Some American Robins (Turdus migratorius) stay here all winter, eating berries and other frozen fruits. Others move a little south and come back intermittently depending on the weather. According to Cornell Lab, Robins tend to eat more earthworms in the morning and more fruit in the afternoon. This one probed the wet edge of a vernal pool formed at the bottom of a slope after heavy rains.  The Robin’s “cheer up” call  accompanies any walker in all township parks right now.

An alert American Robin stops to listen while probing the wet soil around the edge of a vernal pool at the bottom of a slope.

Woodpeckers provide the rhythm section as they establish their territories. Here a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) pauses from his drumming to pose at the top of a snag (standing dead tree.) The Red-belly’s  wet-sounding “Kwir” call sounded from the trees lining the fields and from the edge of the forest.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker stops drumming long enough to pose at the top of snag.

Speaking of Woodpeckers, look at these fresh Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) holes in a native Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina)!  Wish I’d seen this huge bird whose drumming is as loud as a jack hammer!  Its call is often confused with the Red-bellied Woodpecker who drums much more quietly. By the way, Ben says that the way to identify these black cherry trees is to look for bark that resembles burnt potato chips. Good description!

The holes of a Pileated Woodpecker in a Wild Black Cherry tree. These woodpeckers tend to make large, often rectangular holes.

The loud, nasal “ank, ank, ank” call of the White Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) can be heard year ’round as it circles  the upper and lower sides of branches, searching for insects or stashing seeds and nuts. Cornell Lab claims that its name resulted from its habit of whacking at nuts and seeds, “hatching” them from their shells before eating or storing them.

The classic pose of the White-Breasted Nuthatch as it forages for insects. Listen for its loud “ank, ank” call.

The Other Chorus:  Wood Frogs!

Hundreds of Wood Frogs chorused in the wetland beyond this little stream at the north end of Charles Ilsley Park.

After the heavy rains of late March and early April, a swollen, muddy stream edged Ilsley Park on its north side.  Across from the old Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the photo above, on the stream’s far bank, orange-tipped Willows filled a large wetland.  And below them sung hundreds of little Wood Frogs (Rana sylvatica).

Wood Frogs have a black stripe running through their eye and their song is low and sounds a bit like your thumb running over a comb.

If you turn your volume up, below you should hear some individual Wood Frogs singing in the foreground and a mighty chorus in the background that sounds like a purring engine!  I don’t think I’ve heard so many in one place before! You may need to turn up your volume to get the full effect.

Nearby, an old stump was draped in two shades of thick, intensely green Moss (div. Bryophyta).  Moss, an ancient plant,  usually dries and bleaches in winter cold but turns green and lush quickly in spring rain – long before the trees have leafed out.  David George Haskill, in The Forest Unseen, describes mosses’ gift for using and holding water. “Grooves on the surface of stems wick water from the mosses’ wet interiors to their dry tips, like tissue paper dipped in a spill.  The miniature stems are felted with water-hugging curls, and their leaves are studded with bumps that create a large surface for clinging water.  The leaves clasp the stem at just the right angle to hold a crescent of water.” They must have loved our wet spring!

A stump draped in two shades of brilliant green moss.

Curiosity about the red stalks on moss prompted me to check out moss sexual reproduction  (I know – the oddest things intrigue me). Moss sperm cells swim to the eggs by being washed along by rain. Once the eggs are fertilized at the tip of a green moss plant, a new plant begins to grow in place to form the red “sporophytes” seen in the photo below. Those red capsules at the end of the erect stalks (called setae) hold the spores. The capsule won’t open to release the ripened spores until the weather is dry enough to carry them on a breeze. If a spore falls on damp soil, voilá. A moss plant is born. They also multiply in asexual ways, like fragments breaking off to start new plants.

I’ve always loved the upside down world of mud puddle reflections. This large mud puddle, the classic sign of spring, had a surprise in store for me.

Trees reflected in a very large mud puddle in the middle of a trail.

As I skirted it, a huge Garter Snake  (g. Thamnopsis) wove its way out right between my feet and swam across the puddle. I think it’s the longest garter snake I’ve ever seen.

A large Garter Snake slid between my feet, heading for a swim across a large puddle on the trail. Good swimmer!

Charles Ilsley Park Preserves Our Past for the Future

Eastern Meadowlark photo by Greg Lasly. Some rights reserved (CC-BY-NC)

With hard work and some luck, Charles Ilsley Park will eventually offer township residents an authentic experience of this area before European migration. Its undulating fields will fill with native grasses and wildflowers. Perhaps birds not often seen here, like the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) in Greg Lasly’s amazing photo above, will  more frequently whistle its plaintive song over the sloping hills.  (I’ve only caught a brief glimpse once with the our birding group.) Or perhaps we’ll enjoy the Bobolink’s (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) long, bubbling song. Now declining in numbers, the  Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) may once  again bring its simple two-note “Bob-white!”  to the park, a sound that meant “summer” here in my childhood. These birds and others need the open, sunny grasslands that the Dr. Ben is working hard to provide. I’m enjoying  Ilsley’s slow prairie transformation and look forward to even richer, more diverse bird serenades as the years go by.

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
iNaturalist.org for periodic photos;; 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.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Gallagher Creek Much More Visible as Restoration Begins

View looking east from parking GC
View looking east near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek
Cam walking into BC
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Wow! When Ben told me that they’d been removing shrubby, invasive plants and preparing ground for seeding at Gallagher Creek Park, I didn’t picture such a great transformation. When I stepped from my car in the parking lot, I was at first shocked and then, as I explored, really thrilled!

The big changes are that the park is much more open, its gently rolling terrain revealed, and the creek is now visible almost all the way through the park! Where it once was hidden by both summer growth and impenetrable thickets, now  the little creek can be observed, meandering across the meadows toward Paint Creek. In this open landscape, a hardy wildflower defied the frost, as did a tiny butterfly and an unfamiliar grasshopper, while a woodpecker drilled away at his winter home. Let me show you.

New Open Spaces

Maybe these photos of Ben’s will begin to give you a feel for how much more open the park is now. The cleared areas in the foreground of these two photos (the upward slope to the west) will be seeded with wildflowers and native grasses or sedges this month. The rest of the area, recently cleared, is scheduled for seeding next year. The native plant seed is being provided through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The area beyond the tree line in the distance in the above photos has been cleared all the way to the edge of the marsh that borders Silverbell Road. Eventually, once everything is replanted and the terrain is more settled, there may be paths into this area.

Below on the left,  you can see some of the bushes that used to block our view of the creek edge – and on the right, is how it looks now that the shrubs have been removed.  Some of these were native shrubs, Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina).  When it sprouts in the spring, Ben plans to let some of it grow again. But it needed to be cut back to prevent these aggressive shrubs from taking over the field along with Autumn Olive and other invasives!

Now you’d think with all that cut wood and dead grass, the park would feel quite abandoned by wildlife. But no. Despite the frost, my husband spotted Bottle Gentians still blooming on the west side of the park. These somewhat rare wildflowers  and others should bloom more profusely now that the shrubs are removed and the Gentian’s seeds can benefit from increased sunlight.

Bottle Gentian after first frost GC
Bottle Gentian after the first frost – still hanging in there!

Here are other rare native wildflowers that we hikers can hope to see  in greater abundance once the restoration is complete.

The multi-colored wings of a native Common Buckeye Butterfly (Junonia coenia) glowed in autumn light against the deadwood one sunny morning last week.  Isn’t the wing pattern beautiful on this small butterfly?

Common Buckeye Butterfly whole wings GC
A Common Buckeye butterfly on a warm autumn day.

Nearby, we spotted a grasshopper that I’d never noticed before. Its dark brown body and forked “cerci” (area just above the end of the abdomen) make me think it’s a Broad-necked Grasshopper (Melanoplus keeleri luridus). According to the Orthoptera of Michigan (a link sent to me by a kind reader), this grasshopper is around until early November which is another indicator.  Nice surprise!

broad-necked-grasshopper-gc-1-of-1-1
The Broad-necked Grasshopper sticks around until early November.

I admit to being a bit worried about the long term survival of  this long Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) weaving its way through the drying grass. It’s pretty vulnerable to hawks or owls until the plant life returns!

Garter snake closeup GC
A Garter Snake slipped through dry grass and dead wildflowers,  enjoying the sun on a fall day.

Up in a snag on the southwest side of the park, a slightly comical Downy Woodpecker  was making its repetitive “squeek” as it excavated a series of holes in a snag. Just above its head , you can see the wood chips flying as it tossed them out of the hole. It may have a couple left in its beak as well.  Busy bird, popping in and out of different holes.

Downy w chips flying GC
A Downy Woodpecker lets the chips fly where they may as it excavates a winter hole in a snag.

Of course a group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) stared curiously at me from the edge of the park. I don’t think I’ve ever come to this park without seeing deer on the eastern side. Watch out for them when driving in November and December as they get quite heedless during the rut!

Deer at GC
White-tailed Deer observed me before moving off in the eastern edge of the park.

A couple of oddities showed up, too.  Here’s a large Puffball Mushroom (phylum Basidiomycota) that was a bit beyond its expiration date, so to speak – though it appears some animal or bird may have sampled it.

A large puffball that's a bit beyond the pale.
A large puffball that’s a bit beyond the pale.

 

The hole of what was probably a Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus) appeared as well.  These aggressive crayfish used to live only in the West, but were transported to our area, it’s believed, as bait. This may be the same hole our birding friend Antonio saw in May, but it’s taller now with fresh, wet mud on it.

 Gallagher Creek Itself is Now Visible!

My husband and I had fun tracking along as much of the creek as we could once we realized its path could be followed through the  park. It enters through a culvert under Silverbell Road at the west and flows down past the viewing platform. In the summer, its current  is hidden among tall grasses. Autumn, however, reveals its meandering journey, making multiple pools that join up farther down.

It was impossible to get close to the river before. Both non-native and native grasses grew shoulder high and the thickets of shrubs were impenetrable. Now we can watch the creek find its way along the meadow.

In the “riparian corridor” formed by the stream meeting the meadow, we spotted what I think is an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), though the stick that was right in front of its eye made it hard to tell before it took off!

Tree Sparrow GC
A Tree Sparrow, a winter visitor to Michigan, rested in bushes near the creek.

Gallagher Creek joins up with two other small streams that cross Silverbell farther east and flow into and out of the marsh toward the creek. They create a more quickly flowing stream by the time the creek reaches the new Pinnacles development to the east where a lovely bridge crosses over it. (Thanks to our birding friend, Nancy Russell, for the tip on where to find it!)

Gallager Creek at the Pinnacles
A bridge crosses Gallagher Creek within the Pinnacles development on Silver Bell.

By the way, wasps evidently thought the bridge made a nice location and built across from the bridge. I guess all the houses, even the insect ones, are elegant and huge in this development!

Huge wasp nest at the Pinnacles
An elegant wasp nest near the Gallagher Creek bridge at the Pinnacles suits the elegant development!

From there, Gallagher Creek flows down behind private homes, until it appears again,  to flow from west to east through a culvert under Gallagher Road, just above the Paint Creek Trail.

Gallager Creek flowing to the road near bridge
Gallagher Creek flows downhill to where it crosses Gallagher Road above the Paint Creek Trail.

And once it’s crossed the road, it flows along Gallagher, eventually running through a culvert into Paint Creek near the cider mill.

Gallager Crk flows toward the mill
Gallagher Creek running along Gallagher Road to empty into Paint Creek near the cider mill.

According to the Southeast Michigan Department of Natural Resources newsletter in 2011, Gallagher Creek was “home to one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.” At the time that newsletter appeared, development around the park had decreased this native fish’s population dramatically.  “The brook trout density found in this survey was about 50 per mile, down from 300 per mile in 1990 and 1998. This decline in abundance is likely due to siltation of the stream from the development along the creek.”  I wonder if brook trout are still spawning in Gallagher Creek, the young still making their way to Paint Creek.  Perhaps the DNR will do another survey that will let us know their fate.

Gallagher Creek to parking lot
View from the creek to the parking lot, now unobstructed by a thicket of shrubs.

Now we can look with anticipation to next year at Gallagher Creek Park.  The land should bloom with new flowers and grasses planted this fall and next spring.  Native seeds that have waited in the seed bank below the ground for years may now emerge as sun reaches the soil. With more flowers, come more butterflies and other insects, and then more birds and other wildlife. So keep your eye on this little gem of a park.  It’s on its way to being a great resource for  families in the south end of the township!

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bear Creek 75 Years Ago

BC View of House 1939 (1)

The farm house at what is now Bear Creek Nature Park as it appeared in 1939.

Long before 107 acre Bear Creek Nature Park had official trails or a play area or decks at the marsh, it was a farm with chickens, ducks, cows, orchards and a garden. The Comps family rented the house on that farm from 1939 until they moved to their own home on Silver Bell Road in 1959. George Comps, a boy when the family moved there,  wrote a long book called Incredible Yesterdays (published by Ravenswood Press, 1997) about his years on that piece of land. The book is available at the Rochester Hills Library in their local history room,  the Oakland Township Historical Society and the Rochester Hills Historical Museum.   All the quotes and black-and-white photos below are from Mr. Comps’ book, whose long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton gave me permission to use photos and quotes.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

What an intriguing look Incredible Yesterdays provides of Oakland Township’s oldest publicly protected park as it existed 75 years ago! Bear Creek’s land was a source of sustenance, heat, income, play, beauty and peace for the Comps family during difficult times. So join me for a short visit to Bear Creek as it looked during the Great Depression and through the Second World War (current map of Bear Creek here).  It was a very different world, but oddly familiar.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Warmth and Food!

In 1939, during the Great Depression, the elder Mr. Comps lost his job and the family moved from Rochester to the home you see in the photo at the top of today’s blog. The Great Depression made life challenging for the Comps family. Unlike their house in town, this house had no electricity, no running water and no central heat at that point! But the owner, Mr. Devereaux, agreed to let them stay rent free for a year if they fixed the place up. So the maple syrup buckets on the trees in the photo no doubt provided a sweet treat much appreciated by the family!

Path through Oak-Hickory forest
The woods where the Comps’ family cut wood to heat their home in 1939.

The house was heated with a wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. “We burned wood that we cut back in the woods. When we first started cutting it was fun because it was something different, but later it got to be a real chore, hard work … Most of the wood we cut was oak and it was so hard it dulled the saw in a hurry.”

Shagbark Hickory nuts
Hickory nuts at Bear Creek were a source of food in 1939 and still grow in the park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The many trees on the farm provided food as well  as heat. And many of those tree species survive on the farm today. “Being we had an abundance of nut trees and bushes on the farm, we kids decided to gather as many as we could. There were hickory, walnut and butternut trees and many hazel nut bushes. We gathered nuts every year and spent a lot of time shucking them so we could dry them and have nuts to crack and eat in the winter.”

Honey bee with jodpurs
Bees provided the honey the family found in a huge “bee tree,” an oak they cut down to get to the honey.

Sweets are always in big demand for a family so Dad and the boys went one winter night to chop down a huge oak to get at the bees’ nest inside. “When we got to the tree, there weren’t any bees to be found on the outside. Dad rapped the tree a few times and some did crawl out but it was too cold for them to fly … He said we’d have to cut the tree down to get to the honey. We could use the wood for heat.  This tree was a huge oak about six feet in diameter at the base and extremely tall … Dad carefully took out the combs of honey and put them into the washtub we had brought along for just that purpose.”

Umbrella mushrooms in colony
There were mushrooms on the farm, but Comps’ mother decided not to eat them, not being sure they were edible.

Two Italian men came to the house shortly after the family moved in asking for permission to hunt for mushrooms. Permission granted, “They did come, several days in a row, and they always had a big basket of mushrooms.” Mrs. Comps’ didn’t charge the gentlemen for their mushrooms and when they offered her some for the family, she graciously accepted them, but then decided she wasn’t quite sure they were edible and threw them away – a wise thing to do if you don’t know much about mushrooms.

Hunters also came to hunt pheasants because at that time open fields and remnants stands of native grasses, like the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in the photo below, would have provided lots of ideal cover for them.

Big Blue Stem
Big Bluestem, a typical prairie grass that was probably more common in Oakland Township in the 1940s.

And of course the family had a garden as well. So the land that later became Bear Creek served the family well in terms of warmth and nourishment.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s:  Beauty!

Despite the hardships of the Depression, the Comps family made time for simple pleasures. When the skies were darker at night in Oakland Township than they are now, the family enjoyed the startling beauty of the Northern Lights. “It was an astounding sight when the sky would light up with all the colors from all around. The streaks of light would shoot up so strong and even from the south and make it look like you were standing under an umbrella of light. Directly overhead the shafts of light would meet but wouldn’t come together, creating a hole in the display … Just awe inspiring.”  sunset!The skies in Bear Creek are still beautiful, but brighter night skies from nearby development makes seeing the northern lights a rare occurrence these days.

Mr. Comps remembered the steep hill sloping down to Gunn Road in the northern part of the Oak-Hickory forest. There he and his sister  came across “hundreds” of garter snakes “curled up,” basking in the spring sunlight and named it “Snake Hill.” He said,  “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium)” and the children picked some on Snake Hill to add to their Mother’s Day gift bouquet. Alas, deer eat trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and other native woodland plants – and  now trillium are found only in a few spots in the park. And in 20 years, I’ve never seen that many garter snakes! On a high hill on the east of the farm,  probably where houses stand today, George found “wild columbine on a big hill” and transplanted some to his mother’s garden. (Hover cursor over photos for captions.  Click on photos to enlarge.)

 

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Pocket Money

Lots of animals that we’ve come to appreciate now were just considered “varmints” by farmers when the Comps children lived on the farm. Ridding the neighborhood of these “pests” was a way to earn a bit of pocket money. Crows were disliked by farmers because as Mr. Comps put it,  they “would follow behind the farmer’s corn planter and dig up the kernels, eating them as fast as he planted them.”  So in those days, Oakland Township paid a bounty that could be collected at the little store in Goodison. “They paid a dime for a rat tail, a dime for baby rats, a dime for a crow’s head and a quarter for a pair of groundhog  ears.”

Muskrats pelts had value too. George’s older brother, Bud, trapped muskrats in the pond and the swamps.  At first, he didn’t have the knack.  But “After talking to the Old Timers at the Goodison store, he gained valuable information about where to put the traps and how to secure them … On his second trip to gather his loot he did very well.” Skinning and preparing the pelts for drying was “more than he bargained for” but he did it for two winters and “gave  the money to mom to help alleviate the strain on the budget.”  So nature provided a little assistance in a hard time for many families – but I’m glad now these creatures can live peacefully in their native homes.

muskrat closeup2
A muskrat peacefully cruising through the duckweed, safe from losing its pelt like it did in earlier times.

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Fun! Excitement!

Some of the fun in those days was a bit tough on nature. George Comps remembered “… frog hunting late at night and using barrel staves for hitting the frogs.”

But those barrel staves also made skis for sailing down the western slope on a snowy day. “The big hill was too steep to cultivate and the grass was short from the cattle grazing, thus making it a good place to go skiing and with deep snow, it could be excellent.” The western slope also provided a great place for constructing snowmen.  “… this was the spot we started the snowball  and by the time we got to the bottom the ball was so big we couldn’t move it …  It kept on rolling, getting larger as it went down hill.” The children sensibly started the second snowball only halfway down the hill to make the snowman’s head! Nowadays I see evidence of kids sledding on that hill and still see the occasional remains of much smaller snowmen.

Kids weren’t quite as squeamish about nature adventures in the 1940s. One day the children went swimming in the Center Pond (which they called “Our Little Lake”) and came out with leeches on their legs (turtles show up with them these days!).  After that they just brought a salt shaker with them because salting the “bloodsuckers” made them fall off!  They actually built an earthen dam to make the pond a bit deeper.  It became their place “to go ice skating in the winter and in summer we played on a homemade raft.”

When summer dried Bear Creek marsh (which they called Bear/Bare Swamp), “we could walk all over the swamp.  The grass was so tall we couldn’t see out.”  They came across various snakes, “mostly blue racers.  We were never afraid of them because they were so fast and afraid of humans so they always went slithering on ahead of us.” The marsh no longer dries completely in the summer but the grasses and reed do get tall!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1
The marsh dried in summers in the 1940s.

They’d “go to the stone pile by the swamp [Bear Creek Marsh] and find a soft rock that we used for chalk…we’d take it to the house and break it up so we could handle it.”

Whistle swamp from the lane
A wetland where the Comps made willow whistles.

Nearer to the house, was “Whistle Swamp” so named because “… Dad took us there and showed us how to make whistles from the willow branches. This could be done only in the early spring when the bark…was loose and we could slip it off very easily.”  “Whistle Swamp” seems to be the wetland west of the Walnut Lane, about halfway down.

Grass fires – which children find very exciting and terrify adults –  have always been a part of Oakland Township’s  “Oak Savanna” landscape – some natural, some used by Native Americans to clear and fertilize land. Later, after European settlers arrived and began to develop the area, the Comps family experienced fires in the prairies along that railroad, sparked by trains that passed through Goodison. “Spring was always a time when there were lots of grass fires, especially along the railroad tracks in the valley.”

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)
Indiangrass, a beautiful native grass that lends color to the late summer landscape.

Current Parks Commissioner Barkham also remembers seeing smoke repeatedly during the summers when she was a girl years later,  as sparks from the trains made tall grass along the tracks catch fire.  And imagine, no township fire department, just locals with brooms and shovels! That’s one reason we still have so many beautiful native plants growing along the Paint Creek Trail now! Many of our native plant communities depend on fire, whereas some invasive plants do not.  The Parks and Recreation Commission now depends on safe, controlled prescribed burns instead of wildfires to hold onto our natural heritage, the amazing diversity of native plant and animals in Oakland Township.

What Nature Provided in 1940s :  The Under-appreciated “Swamp”

In the 1940s wetlands were often seen as a problem and drained.  Now we know they are crucial and beneficial for erosion control, fisheries,  wildlife habitat, flood control, ground water filtering, native and rare species habitat  and much more. The Comps affectionately named lots of “swamps” on the farm. True swamps  are forested wetlands with standing water at least part of the year, while wet meadow and marsh more accurately describe other wetlands that Mr. Comps explored at Bear Creek. I can’t be sure I’ve located all these correctly, but what follows are a few of George Comps’ “swamps” today.

West of the house was the hay barn, where the cows that grazed the western slope presumably were kept.  That area now is the playground field near Snell Road; the road is much wider now than it was in the 1940s. Behind the barn in the center photo below you can see the tops of two giant oaks that are still there.  Those giants stand over the marsh that the Comps’ children called “the barn swamp.”  Mr. Comps mentions that Michigan Holly, a native bush, grew in the middle of that area, so I’ll look for it in the spring!

“On the east side of the swamp…were two big oak trees.  They grew about half way down the bank and their branches hung just a few feet above the ground at the top of the hill.  We used to hang on the branches and bounce up and down.”  Seventy-five more years have taken a toll as you’ll see at left below.  I’m guessing that what Mr. Comps refers to as “the lane” was somewhere near the path that starts north of the playground and goes all the way to Center Pond. Our Playground Pond on the right is likely what he refers to as the “Lane Swamp.”

“Across from it was The Duck Swamp where all Mike’s ducks would go when they wanted to take to water.” Since this one’s so close to the house location, I’m thinking that his younger brother’s domestic ducks took off to the wetland just west of the Snell path into the park where Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) were singing lustily this week.

Pond near the house Mike's ducks
A true “swamp” is a forested wetland with a mix of live trees and standing dead trees, or snags. The family’s domestic ducks took off to “Duck Swamp.”

Or perhaps he meant the wetland, just north of there, where today woodpeckers are constantly drilling in the trees. Not much open water for ducks now, though.  It’s filled in with native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Lane Swamp
This could also be “Duck Swamp” though it’s a bit farther from the house site.

One thing we do know is that the  “Walnut Lane” I refer to was “the lane” when the Comps children played on the farm. Mr. Comps describes going out on a moonlight walk with his sister when they were young.  “We started out and went down the lane because it was easier walking.  When we got to the lake, we heard an owl hoot and it sounded very close.  At the end of the lane was a big huge oak tree and we stopped and listened. It hooted again and we spotted it sitting on the edge of a low branch.”

white oak at center pond
The same “big huge oak,” that George Comps saw near the Center Pond 75 years ago – only “bigger and huger” now!

The “Little Lake,” our Center Pond now,  shows how different the landscape looked when Bear Creek was farmed 75 years ago.  Here’s another view of “The Little Lake” in 1940 and a closer shot of it today.  Now the pond is surrounded by trees and thickets of dense bushes, some native ones and many invasive shrubs.  The cultivated fields, once grazed by cattle or mowed for hay, are now full of wildflowers,  again some native, many non-native, and some invasive.

Big Rock n side pondWhen the Comps children took the moonlit walk to the Little Lake,  George Comps waited on the south side of the lake while his sister found her favorite place on “the Big Rock” on the north side of the pond.  Today, that rock, I’m quite sure, is still here, a short distance up the northern loop and surrounded by invasive bushes.  George’s sister sat there to watch the water.   Today, it can’t be sat upon and the view is obscured by woody shrubs.  Eventually, stewardship will bring back some of openness that the Comps children enjoyed, though rather than simply grazed fields, we hope for widely spaced trees and native wildflowers with their faces to the sun.

What Bear Creek Provides Today:  Peaceful Beauty

We, of course, don’t rely on Bear Creek Nature Park in the same way the Comps family had to, for food, warmth and pocket money. But it still provides its bounty for us by filtering and slowing stormwater, housing bees and other native pollinators to tend our crops, providing us with a healthy respite from our busy lives and many other ways. We leave the flowers and nuts to seed again and the bees, muskrats, crows and ground hogs live undisturbed within its boundaries. But they and all of the nature at Bear Creek still share the same beauty and peace that the Comps family treasured 75 years ago. “Mom liked to go wandering down to the woods. She was a decidedly observant person and never missed a thing when it came to nature.  This was her way to relax and get away from the trials and tribulations of the day to day problems…” All of us who enjoy Bear Creek benefit in just the same way today.

My thanks to Mr. Comps for writing down such a lively and frank account of life on a plot of land much beloved by our citizens  – and to his long-time friend,  Janet Potton, who gave me permission to use photos and quotes from the book.