Prairie Fen Series – Being a Prairie Fen Steward

Welcome to the final post in this series! In the first post, we discussed the unique geological processes that form prairie fens. Then in the second post, we presented plant species that we can use to discover prairie fen habitats. Lastly, we will be discussing the threats prairie fens face, what we are doing on-site, and why our efforts are so important.

My time at the parks has come to a close. Having arrived in the early spring and leaving in the early fall, I have witnessed lots of change. I followed the life stages of plants as they transitioned through the seasons. From emergence to bloom to death, I got to be a part of it all. Just as amazing, this was the first position where I was able to actually see the results of our stewardship efforts.

I personally have felt the most fulfillment from working at the prairie fen off the Paint Creek Trail. Oakland Township’s portion of this fen is only about a half-acre, but the larger fen habitat extends up and down Paint Creek. Even with its small size and history of fragmentation and disturbance, our little fen patch is resilient. We hope to restore our park’s prairie fens to their full biodiversity capacity.

Threats and restoration

Our Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen can be used as a case study of the major threats these natural communities face. Our fen was once a part of a larger wetland complex extending to its south and west, but the connections to this wetland and the surrounding uplands have been damaged over time. Due to the parcel’s small size, there is little buffering it from encroaching development. The smaller a site, the more vulnerable it may be to changes in the surrounding landscape and threats. These threats mainly include a lack of fire, invasive species, nutrient pollution, and changes in hydrology.

Fire Suppression

Just like our oak lands and prairies, the suppression of fire on the landscape and the removal of indigenous land management practices have changed the composition of our prairie fen. The loss of fire has compacted the sedge meadow zone of the fen while increasing the woody zone (check out the previous post to learn more about fen vegetation zones).

Interestingly, the majority of our fire-dependent landscapes in Michigan that have held on after European colonization have been along railroads. In the late 19th century a railroad was built on what is now the Paint Creek Trail, cutting right through the fen. As mentioned in Cam Mannino’s previous blog post, fires sparked by passing trains spread into the surrounding landscape, maintaining natural communities like oak savanna, prairie, and prairie fen.

With the decommissioning of the railroad in the late 1970s, we now need prescribed fires to maintain the integrity of the prairie fen. We try to use controlled burns every 3-5 years to preserve the remnant prairie fen. The burns control invasive woody shrubs and remove dead stalks of Phragmites and invasive cattails after treatment. In addition, fire encourages plants to bloom more profusely and allows seeds of fen plants to germinate. The last controlled burn at the site occurred in 2019.

Invasive Species

Invasive species may proliferate due to problems, like fire suppression, nutrient pollution, or hydrology changes. Often, though, invasive species both exacerbate these problems and create new issues of their own. Both invasive cattails and Phragmites grow more vigorously in wetlands with lots of nutrients. The dense stands of Phragmites and cattail, and the thick layers of dead thatch that accumulate, crowd out fen plants. Invasive woody shrubs like glossy buckthorn and common buckthorn often invade fens that have dried out due to hydrology changes that result from building a trail, berm, or road through a fen, fo example. However, these invasive shrubs can also change conditions in a fen to facilitate their own invasion.

When our Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen was acquired over a decade ago, large areas had already been encroached by invasive woody shrubs, narrow-leaved cattails, and Phragmites. We have prioritized saving the core area of our fen by controlling invasive Phragmites and cattails over the last five years. Fen plants like shrubby cinquefoil, Kalm’s lobelia, and grass-of-Parnassus are growing again in areas that used to be dense Phragmites or cattails.

Now we’re starting to work on the invasive shrubs that are spreading into the fen from the edges. In one area glossy buckthorn shaded out a nice Grass-of-Parnassus patch. This year the stewardship crew started clearing the glossy buckthorn so it may return.

Nutrient Pollution

Our fen-specialist plants are adapted to growing in alkaline, low-nutrient environments. Increased nutrient inputs from farm runoff, lawn fertilizer, leaky septic tanks, or deposited from the atmosphere through rainfall really change the function of a prairie fen by favoring more generalist wetland plants and invasive plants that can take advantage of increased nutrient levels. Left unchecked, Phragmites, invasive cattails, reed canary grass, and purple loosestrife that like high nutrient levels often grow in dense stands with no other plants, patches that we describe as “monocultures.”

A cattail monoculture at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen before (L) and recently after (R) treatment.

We often can’t address past or ongoing nutrient pollution issues directly if they happen off our property, so try to limit the damage from high nutrient levels. The last three years the stewardship crew has been working at selectively treating narrow leaf cattail stands. To learn more about how this treatment is done, check out a past blog post. I have hailed it as being one of the most taxing yet most rewarding stewardship tasks. I know that each treatment causes the cattails to shrink away and reveal more prairie fen habitat.

Change in Hydrology

The steady supply of cold, calcium, and magnesium-rich water in fens really is their lifeblood. Unfortunately, many property owners don’t realize how special fens are and permanently damaged them by digging ponds. In addition to scooping up valuable fen, digging ponds lowers the water table by creating a low spot in the wetland where water can collect. This creates drier areas that become establishment hotspots for invasive species like glossy buckthorn and other invasive shrubs.

A wall of glossy buckthorn creeps into a fen, slowly shading out the unique wetland plants that this class visited to observe! This photo was taken in Bakertown Fen Preserve in SW Michigan by Grant Vander Laan.

Other changes can affect fen hydrology directly or indirectly. In the past, many fens were dried out by the installation of drain tiles and ditches to “improve” them for agriculture. Building roads, driveways, and trails disrupt the flow of water through a fen by acting like a dam, creating wetter conditions above and drier conditions below. Extracting water with wells for irrigation or other uses can also deplete aquifers that feed fens. It is critical that we partner with surrounding landowners to protect the water that charges the prairie fen.

Why Put In the Effort?

Although our fen is small, it has many high-quality specialist plant species present. Fen ecosystems also support a plethora of rare insect and animal species. In fact, several insect species rely entirely on prairie fen communities and would go extinct without them. You can check out the rare plants and animals associated with prairie fens at Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI).

Prairie fens are globally rare wetlands that are rich in biodiversity. This photo is of our newly acquired prairie fen at Fox Nature Preserve. It is one of our higher-quality parcels.

With our fen off the Paint Creek Trail, it only becomes increasingly difficult to buffer it from the effects of habitat fragmentation. This is especially true for prairie fens, as they often blend into surrounding uplands, wetlands, and bodies of water. However, even in the face of fragmentation, species may be able to persist if they can move between small high-quality parcels. As you might imagine, this may be more difficult for a slow-moving species like a turtle than it is for a flying insect like a butterfly.

A restored prairie fen right next to the Paint Creek Trail is also an excellent educational opportunity for trail users. Since it is only half an acre, the site is manageable and able to show the significance of our stewardship work. As with any restoration project, it is imperative that objectives are well-defined. In the case of the Paint Creek Heritage Area, our team is working to maintain high-quality habitat that trail users may be able to see and learn from. With our invasive shrub removal efforts near the trail, we hope the prairie fen will become more visible to folks passing by. We also hope that other township residents and neighboring properties join us as prairie fen stewards. The more we protect the surrounding area, and the more we get people involved to protect our fen, the greater the impact of our little half acre will have.

Each Action Makes a Difference

Stewardship work is often laborious and ceaselessly repetitive. The blood, sweat, and tears our stewardship crew spent at the half-acre fen parcel have been rewarded time and again by our encounters with fen dwellers. Whether it is the noisy flush of a spooked woodcock or the silent presence of a butterfly, visits to the fen never felt lonesome. While treating our last group of narrow-leaf cattail for the season, fellow steward Cassie spotted a baby Blanding’s turtle. After she set the baby down, she turned to me and exclaimed how happy she was to have seen that turtle. We had been selectively hand-wicking cattails all morning. We were tired and hungry for lunch. But after releasing the prehistoric baby back into a pool of groundwater, we continued our tedious task with newfound ambition. Our work was making a difference.

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.

Draper Twin Lake Park: Work Begins to Restore a More Natural Landscape

Restoration north of the parking lot in the west section Draper Twin Lake Park

Ask anyone in my family if I’d ever be celebrating the felling of trees and they would look at you incredulously and start laughing. Cam? The original (occasionally literal) tree hugger?!

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I had a favorite 100 year old sugar maple that befriended me as a child and I spent happy hours high in the branches with my books and snacks. When that tree and others were being felled for a housing development in the field next door, my mother – not a born nature lover – went to bat for those trees, even contacting the governor’s office since “environmental protection” was in its infancy then. But to no avail.

So imagine my astonishment at finding myself standing in the western section of Draper Twin Lake Park with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, delighting in the scene pictured in this video!!

A Forestry Mower Removing Non-native Trees and Shrubs at the west section of Draper Twin Lake Park



Restoring the Habitat of the Past to Provide for a Healthy Future

The trail to Twin Lake before restoration began

My pleasure, of course, stemmed from my growing understanding and appreciation of restoration. That monster of a machine, a forestry mower, was removing a gigantic glut of non-native trees and shrubs. (See the photo above!) For decades, this natural area of grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced native trees had been farmed. The bare soil, depleted of its native diversity, suffered an invasion when farming stopped in the 1970s; trees, shrubs and other plants from Europe and Asia made the most of a great opportunity. Escaping from farms, flower gardens or landscaping, invasive plants found their way to this habitat. Benefiting from the absence of the competitors or conditions they had to contend with at home, they spread wildly. Our local plants and trees couldn’t compete. They didn’t evolve with these new arrivals and so had no defenses for countering their steady increase. It would take millennia for our native insects, birds, diseases, and plants to eventually evolve and adapt to these new plants, too long for the survival of the many species that depend on them.

That’s where our stewardship crew steps in. Ecological restoration attempts to give our local trees, grasses and wildflowers a fighting chance to thrive. When it succeeds, native plants can then provide for the whole food web that evolved with them. As you can see below, the forestry mower opened up fields and forest, beginning the process of restoring the landscape that nature designed eons ago.

The trail to Twin Lake after this fall’s restoration began

It’s not that non-native trees and shrubs are “bad”; they functional beautifully in their home environments. But they aren’t able to effectively nourish and protect the creatures that live and evolved here in Oakland Township. Butterflies may sip at non-native garden flowers, but their caterpillars generally can’t eat non-native leaves or fail to reach maturity if they do. Birds may eat non-native berries but they almost universally feed their nestlings nutritious caterpillars which are full of fat and protein. Fewer native plants means fewer caterpillars which means fewer birds, a ripple effect that then moves on through the food web. Restoring native plants to an area means lots of nature gets fed and sheltered.

Meet the Most Common (and Pesky) Invasives at Draper Twin Lake Park

Invasive shrubs lining the trail to Twin Lake before restoration this fall

So let’s get more familiar with the highly invasive shrubs and vines that ended up dominating so many of our natural areas, including Draper Twin Lake Park. For the most part, they started out in nurseries which unwittingly (or occasionally wittingly) sold them to landscapers and homeowners as decorative additions to their gardens. Some of the most infamous and tenacious invasive shrubs in our parks include Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), shrubs that produce plentiful fruits which unfortunately provide scant nutrition for our birds. Generally non-native fruits provide sugars (carbohydrates) for wildlife but don’t have the fats (lipids) that birds, for example, require for migration or winter survival. Research at Michigan State University has shown that birds prefer native fruits when they can get them, but will eat the less healthy non-native fruits if nothing else is available. Once eaten by birds or other animals, invasive trees and shrubs spread far and wide through their droppings.

The fruits of Oriental Bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) are particularly pernicious. The outer yellow skins peel back to reveal red fruits, attracting both birds searching for a late season food source, and humans who unwittingly use them for decorative purposes. Birds enjoy the sugars in their fruit during late fall, but since its seeds can last a long time in the guts of birds, the plant can be spread long distances. Once established, the vine climbs quickly, reaching for light in the treetops. As the vine spirals up the trunk, it girdles and slowly strangles the tree. When the vine reaches the crown, its foliage shades out the tree’s leaves, weakening the tree. Its weight makes the tree’s crown heavy and vulnerable to toppling in high winds. It’s a real femme fatale, this vine with its pretty fruits and its deadly growth pattern.

Many invasives quickly form dense thickets in a field or woods through underground stems (rhizomes) or root suckers. Their density chokes out the sun, rain and space that our native plants require. Below is a photo from Bear Creek Nature Park that demonstrates the density that once surrounded a pine tree, killing its lower branches. And on the right at Draper Twin Lake Park, a young oak had the same problem until the restoration began this fall.

Some invasives, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), produce giant quantities of seeds which can be carried on the wind and once sown, the trees grow incredibly quickly. Growth of 3.5 to 6 feet each year of its first four years is considered normal! It also releases toxins into the soil to prevent or inhibit the growth of plants around it. In the photo on the right below, Ben placed his hand where the second year growth of one of these trees began! Faster growth means that these trees shade out neighbors and mature faster than others, allowing them to spread quickly.

You might be as surprised as I once was to learn that even some of our common and long-beloved bushes can spread invasively. That’s part of what happened at Draper Twin Lake Park. Ben found huge thickets of non-natives like Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from Asia and Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) from southeastern Europe on the western section of Draper; they both probably once surrounded the house when a farm was located here.

The Removal of Invasives Goes Beyond Mowing

Once the forestry mower has done its work, hard work lies ahead. Stumps of invasive shrubs that the mower missed are cut and carefully dabbed with herbicide to prevent re-sprouting. Some, like the persistent Tree-of-Heaven, will require further treatment and periodic mowing to discourage new growth. Oriental Bittersweet can only be removed by cutting the vines and then carefully treating the roots to prevent regrowth. New sprouts will also need to be treated repeatedly for some time, a tedious but necessary process. Some larger trees are treated by a process called “drill and fill” in which holes are drilled around the tree and herbicide is introduced. When the tree dies, it will still remain standing, storing its carbon for years to come and providing shelter for woodpeckers and other cavity nesting animals, like red squirrels or raccoons. The stewardship staff will spread native plant seed to help bring back what was choked out by the invasive trees and shrubs – native grasses first, then wildflower seed in a year or two after the invasive shrub re-sprouts have been controlled. Further down the road, prescribed fires may be used to encourage our fire-adapted native plants.

Winter Wildlife and I Explore the Newly Restored Landscape

On one of my visits to the western section of the park, Ben showed me the remains of a beaver dam and the small pond this industrious builder had created. The dam consisted of a few small trees and some plant material patched together with mud. Though we saw a few pencil-shaped stumps in the area, Ben’s guess is that when the beaver began this project a couple of years ago, it couldn’t find enough small willows or cottonwoods, its preferred building materials, to meet the beaver’s need, so it abandoned the idea. However, the beaver did create a lovely little pond behind the dam. And the little dam slowed the water down enough that Ben was surprised to find much drier footing further south in the marsh while doing a plant survey in 2020!

In the fields east of the trail, a few winter birds kept me company as they sought out frozen insect eggs or larvae in the trees newly liberated from the crush of invasive shrubs.

A small group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browsed between the newly thinned trees in the forest. Deer consume dry grasses, but unfortunately they much prefer acorns and small oak saplings in fall and winter, affecting the quality of our forests. According to a Tufts University website, in winter they also rely on insulation from stored fat and more of the coarse dark hairs in their coats called “guard hairs.” Glands in their skin produce oils that help their coats repel water, an advantage on snowy days.

Deer browsing for grasses, twigs and small trees in the thinned forest after restoration.

One snowy morning, I spent twenty minutes or so tracking a small animal. Its prints lay in a single line, which usually indicates a fox or coyote. Wild canines, unlike domestic dogs, place their hind foot carefully into the track of the front foot on the same side, making a neat row of single, or “direct register” tracks. The tracks that I was following intrigued me because they were much smaller than most that I’d seen. After puzzling a bit, I suddenly noticed that the tracks had no nail prints at the end of the toes. And with that, I remembered that wild canines share direct register tracks with another group of animals – cats! What I’d been tracking was the small, roundish, direct register prints of a house cat! Cats, unlike canines, walk with their toenails withdrawn in order to keep them sharp for hunting – or they may have had them removed by pet owners. I shook my head, laughing at myself for tracking a cat and went back to the trail.

Squirrels and squirrel tracks were everywhere that morning! Their tracks usually appear as a block of four prints like the ones below. I think these belong to the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), because the larger five-toed tracks of their hind feet are slightly in front of the four-toed tracks of their front feet; that’s the pattern left when these little guys take off and land, pushing down with the front feet while swinging the hind feet forward. I also saw a larger Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) high up in the small branches of a tree, probably making a meal of the tiny leaf buds.

Down by the Lake, a Little Avian Hysteria

Twin Lake with perfect ovals, possibly caused by warmer water flowing upward and rotating during a thaw-freeze cycle.

Winter silence had descended when I arrived at the dock on Twin Lake one cloudy afternoon. In the deep quiet, I got intrigued by strange ovals on the lake surface. It was fun to imagine a squadron of flying saucers landing on the surface, but I was curious to do some research when I reached home. From assembling the hints I could find online, I’m guessing that they may be caused by rotating convection currents created by warm water rising and cold water falling during a frost/freeze cycle, inhibiting ice formation. But if you have better information, please let me know in the comments.

Suddenly far across the lake, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) began circling high above the trees. I caught one with my camera as it spiraled lazily. Red-tail hawks are believed to mate for life, though they quickly choose another mate if one of them dies. This pair may be nesting in the area since the Wednesday bird group saw two of them in the trees across the lake a couple of weeks later.

One of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks far above the trees across Draper Twin Lake.

Just as I spotted the hawks in the distance, a screech of alarm calls broke out from a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) nearby. They flashed out of the trees in a large group, flying away to the south. Evidently, the hawks must have gone unnoticed in the forest until they rose into the air to do a little scouting together. Their appearance startled the crows who were too flustered to harass or “mob” them as they often do. My camera managed to catch one in mid-caw after it launched off a limb.

A crow cawing in sudden flight as two red-tailed hawks appear over the treetops.

After the noise subsided, I turned to look at a Muskrat lodge (Ondatra zibethicus) off the side of the dock. Muskrats may have been dozing inside since their metabolism slows way down in the winter. Or it may have left its dry sleeping chamber above the water line, swum down through its underwater entrance and begun cruising slowly along under the ice, searching for a meal. Note that unlike beavers who build their much larger lodges with trees, branches and sticks, muskrats build with mud and cattail stems or other aquatic plant material. This one was also surrounded by graceful stalks carrying the dried pom-poms of Whorled Loosestrife seed heads (Lysimachia quadrifolia). A tidy winter abode, I think.

My Evolving Understanding of “Letting Nature Takes Its Course.”

The path leading back to the parking lot after restoration began

It took me a few years of working in the parks with Ben before I fully understood the beauty and power of restoring our natural areas. I approached restoration suspiciously at first, having grown up with the ethos,”Let nature take its course.” How could altering the landscape through mowing, felling trees and shrubs, and the occasional use of herbicides be good for nature?

Remembering the Landscape of My Childhood

The first step to understanding restoration was noticing what was missing today. One day early on as a Parks volunteer in 2015, I asked Ben what birds might return if we restored the Oak Savannah landscape – grass, trees and widely spaced oaks – that had existed here before European settlement. Among other birds, he mentioned the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Ah! That name instantly brought back memories of the two-note song of that quail whistling from summer fields around my parents’ home on Lake George Road when I was a child. I live very near my family home now, but I haven’t heard a Bobwhite sing for more than 50 years. The native Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) that towered over my head as a little girl was replaced by housing and short, green, non-native lawns in my teen years. As ground feeders and nesters, the Bobwhites needed that tall, stiff grass to protect them and their young from hawks and other predators and they no doubt fed off the seeds that fell from those dry stalks in the autumn. The increasing use of pesticides in farming plus habitat loss have both contributed to an 85% decline in the numbers of the Bobwhite Quail since the 1970’s. I miss them.

Northern Bobwhite Quail by Robin Gwen Agarwal (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Listening to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, at a Michigan Wildflower Conference in 2019, I was reminded of the moths that used to dance in groups around our porch light on summer nights – or splattered against the windshields of my parents’ car. I suddenly realized that I don’t see as many moths clinging to our porch windows or fluttering in the headlights now as I did years ago. The reason, I learned, was that the caterpillars of most moths and butterflies need native plants in order to feed and mature into adults; my yard, like most of my neighbors, was filled with decorative plants, shrubs and trees native to places all over the world – like Norway and Japanese Maples – but fewer of the ones more common in my childhood. Native oaks and other native trees provide sustenance for the caterpillars of many species of butterflies and moths. Here are two examples of what we may be missing: Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Pagoda/Alternate Leaf Dogwoods are the preferred hosts for many insects including the spectacular Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora Cecropia). Oaks are especially generous, hosting the caterpillars of hundreds of species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), including the impressive Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

When I was a child in Oakland Township, seeing a White-tailed Deer was a rare treat. At that time, large expanses of active or abandoned farm land surrounded by woods allowed them to stay out of sight. Today development has crowded deer closer to our homes and gardens and on to our roads. The forest floor, once covered in wildflowers like trillium are more often choked with non-native shrubs or vines that take advantage of the open ground left by herds of deer browsing on the tender sprouts of wildflowers in spring or saplings in winter.

So it turns out that I was wrong. The non-native plants that fill our fields and surround our personal property were not a matter of “letting nature takes its course.” Quite the opposite, in fact. The carpets of invasive plants were the effect of humans unwittingly but actively changing our native habit over the last two hundred years.

The Good News? We Can Work to Restore What Nature Created
The trail nears the lake which now can be seen through the trees

So finally I understood that what humans had done could in some measure be undone. True, we can’t completely recreate nature’s original landscape design on any large scale or in such rich diversity. But the people of Oakland Township have made an ongoing commitment to preserving and restoring natural areas here wherever possible. Thanks to them, Ben and his crew are systematically decreasing the invasive plants in our natural areas and giving the plants that nature provided eons ago a chance to thrive again. Homeowners like us are choosing to integrate native plants and trees into our landscapes and turning turf into meadows and wildflower gardens. If enough of us create native neighborhoods, perhaps I will live to hear the whistle of the Bobwhite once more.

That’s why I, an inveterate tree lover, could celebrate the felling of invasive trees that day at Draper. What I was seeing as the forestry mower cleared away the brush was stewardship – restoring and caring for a productive, diverse ecosystem that nature took thousands of years to perfect. As the old hymn goes, I “…was blind but now I see.”

Looking east over the marsh that divides the west and east sections of Draper Twin Lake Park

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

THIS WEEK IN STEWARDSHIP: A Summary of Summer

This post was written by our stewardship technicians, whose season officially ended at the end of September. We are thankful for their contributions to keeping our natural areas beautiful!

As the season for the summer crew ends, we would like to thank Alex and Marisa (seasonal land stewardship technicians) and Alyssa (our former Stewardship Specialist) for all of their hard work. Grant started as a seasonal technician this year, and will be staying on as our new Stewardship Specialist. They got hands-on experience natural areas management, obtained different certifications, and gained leadership experience that will help in their future endeavors. Our crew always had a positive, hardworking attitude that we will miss! We wish you all the best of luck!

The crew

The 2019 natural areas stewardship staff (L-R): Ben, Alyssa, Marisa, Grant, and Alex

During this field season, the crew gained experience with many tasks. The season started with the installation of new nest boxes and the restoration of old ones at Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. These boxes were set up for the purpose of increasing the bluebird and tree swallow populations. An enthusiastic group of volunteers monitored all of the boxes through from April to August!

A Tree Swallow checks out the new nesting possibilities.

A tree swallow on one of the new Peterson-style nest boxes we installed at Bear Creek Nature Park this year.

Then it was straight into garlic mustard removal. The crew pulled garlic mustard from many parks like Cranberry Lake Park, O’Connor Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and many others.  It takes quite a long time to remove garlic mustard from these parks, but it is truly necessary to prevent its detrimental effects in mature forest. We found less garlic mustard this year, so our persistent work seems to be paying off! If you would like to know more about garlic mustard, how to identify it, or more please visit the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network website.

 

During this season, the crew completed native landscaping at Gallagher Creek Park around the new playground. They were able to plant over 25 different species of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges, as well as six species of trees and shrubs. The purpose of the native garden beds is to help educate the public on different kinds of native species that they could use in their own landscaping. It was also planted with pollinators in mind, including bees and monarch butterflies. We even found some monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed in August! Don’t forget to check this area through the year as this cool mix of native plants continually repaints its canvas.

 

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Our next big task was controlling crown vetch (Securigaria varia) and swallow-wort (Cynanchum species) in the parks. These two species are a high priority for us, so we treat them anywhere we find them in the parks. Like garlic mustard, they are aggressive, and beat out native species for nutrients and space. The control was done using herbicides due to the ineffectiveness of hand pulling, mowing, and burning.

DTLP_Swallowwort2019

Swallow-wort is an invasive plant that is related to milkweeds. It makes seeds attached to fluffy parachutes, so it can spread long distances to new areas.

After that the crew moved on to do woody invasive species control, including common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, privet, honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, and autumn olive. This control was mainly done at Bear Creek Nature Park using the cut stump technique. The crew was able to get through a large portion of the park, as well as put a large dent in the glossy buckthorn that has taken over the area around the marsh on the north side of the park. Like most invasive species, both buckthorn and autumn olive have a tendency to out compete native species, take over areas, and become detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. Buckthorn can lower the water table in wetlands, and secretes a chemical that interferes with amphibian reproduction!

cut-stump-bcnp.jpg

Marisa shows off a pile of buckthorn cut during a volunteer workday this summer

Some smaller tasks that were completed were our yearly photo monitoring of several parks including Gallagher Creek Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Stony Creek Ravine, and a few others. These photos are for our records to see the changes in these areas over time. We also completed our lake monitoring (Secchi disk and total phosphorus) which was done through the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program (CLMP). This is done to monitor the quality of the lake and help identify problems.

 

The crew had the opportunity to attend workshops throughout the season including one that focused on the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, a chainsaw safety workshop, and a wetland grass identification training. They also received several different certifications including first aid, CPR, herbicide applicator, and chainsaw safety and use.

Chainsaw

Marisa practices various cuts with a chainsaw during our training workshop

Throughout the summer, there have been several different volunteer workdays and Wednesday bird walks. These include garlic mustard control, woody invasive species control, and providing assistance for our native plantings. We would like to extend a big thank you to everyone that came out and helped us at these different volunteer work days. The Wednesday bird walks are lead by Ben, the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, and take place at a rotation of five parks. If you are interested in volunteering or attending the bird walks, please check our the website pages linked above or the parks newsletter for upcoming events.

Bird walk

Marisa finds a bird in her binoculars at the Wet Prairie

It has been a long field season, but the crew has managed to complete a lot this summer. It is rewarding to see all that we accomplished! Be sure to be on the look out for the occasional update this winter from Ben or Grant, the new Stewardship Specialist.

Rattlesnake

Thanks to 2019 stewardship crew for all of your excellent work!