Curiously, many native wildflowers like a little disturbance now and then. So township natural areas manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, sees that they get just what they need! By eliminating invasive shrubs, native plants grow stronger as sunlight reaches their previously shade-suppressed leaves. Regular prescribed burns help many fire-adapted native species emerge from the seed bank and thrive. The Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) along the Paint Creek Trail (seen above) are loving all the upheaval from invasive shrub removal three years ago. Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum), and Swamp Buttercups (Ranunculus hispidus) are flourishing for the same reason at Gallagher Creek Park. Native wildflowers are emerging in greater numbers all over Cranberry Lake Park after a recent burn. Below is a small sampling of local native wildflowers which benefit from the Parks Commission’s efforts to restore our natural heritage.
Well, what a change! Two weeks ago, we had spring flowers, leaf buds and spring courtship as birds sang and showed off in the treetops. And then came the heat and sun, and suddenly, it was early summer with leaves seeming to enlarge by the hour, spring flowers disappearing to be replaced by early summer blooms, more baby birds and the first dragonflies swooping along the paths in front of us.
So let’s explore just a few of the wildflowers and creatures that shared this change with us. (Plus some lovely post-prescribed burn surprises along the Paint Creek Trail.)
When it was still spring…
Late Spring Birds and a Fun Insect
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s (Pheucticus ludovicianus) long, tuneful song was everywhere in Bear Creek in the last weeks of spring. Now their nests are finished and singing has to accompany the task of raising young. Both the male and female build that nest and care for the young – a very modern couple! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Nearby, hopping from limb to limb, two male Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) sang their seductive “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as they chased each other through the small trees at the edge of the woods. I never spotted the female, though she must have been nearby. She lacks the rusty striping of the male and has a more olive back.
In the fields behind the Playground Pond, a pair of Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were getting acquainted. The male was not singing his “Drink your Tea-a-a-a-” call, so I think the two may have been looking for a nesting sight. I’d never seen the female Towhee before and she’s quite different from the male’s coloring.
Speaking of nesting, I found this large egg under one of the walnut trees near the lane. If one end hadn’t been missing, it would have been about 2 1/2 inches long. And there was nothing inside. I’m wondering if it could be the shell from the egg of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that I’ve seen off and on near the Center Pond. Cornell Lab describes the Red-tail’s eggs as 2.2 to 2.7 inches long and “white or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.” What do you think? Any bird egg experts out there?
A flash of iridescent green at my feet signaled the hyper presence of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)who frequents the forest edge. I imagine it got its name because its larva, developing in a burrow during the summer, springs up out of its hole to catch prey! A tiny, green, stalking tiger! Cool how their antennae and legs are as green as their bodies.
Late Spring Wildflowers and Leaves
Two weeks ago, the Oak-Hickory forest was filled with big, beautiful Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). These lovely lavender flowers carpet the area near the marsh every year, but this year they were all over the park – taller, more plentiful and with larger blooms than I’ve ever seen! Perhaps this year’s and last year’s prescribed burns helped.
Each year I wait for the blossoming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that stands east of the Northern Loop. I was intrigued to learn that the actual flowers are only the center of these blossoms. The “petals” are actually bracts, specialized leaves that attract pollinators by glamorizing the cluster of tiny center flowers. Here are three pictures of the buds, encased in their bracts, opening as May progresses.
While the Flowering Dogwood buds were opening, the leaves of the Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata)were just emerging from their amazing buds.
The huge White Oaks (Quercus alba)near Snell Road were producing miniature red leaves that, two weeks later, were green and stretching out to catch the sunlight.
Of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) were producing their modest white flowers that hang hidden beneath an umbrella of leaves.
Another spring favorite of mine are the little hands of Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) that find spots of sun in the mottled spring light of the woods.
Down at the pond, tiny aquatic buttercups, called White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris)floated in large swirls across the pond. Once the heat arrived, the flowers disappeared and the brown stems are now making a not-so-lovely brown mat until they sink below the surface.
Heat! And Summer Rushes Forward
Summer Birds and other Creatures
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one of our summer residents, perched in a snag (standing dead tree) at the Center Pond. I usually see them fishing at the water’s edge. According to Cornell Lab, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” I will be watching now to see if I can catch one doing that!
Out in Bear Creek Marsh, Ben and an experienced birder, Antonio Xeira, heard the call of a seldom-seen denizen of wetlands, the Sora (Porzana carolina). This waterbird, a member of the Rail family, with a heavy yellow beak and stock body, stalks quietly among the cattails, looking for seeds, insects and snails. Its whinnying call is particularly dramatic. Ben and Antonio recognized its other two tone “ker-wee” call at the marsh. Click on its picture here and go halfway down this page for its song and call. I’d never even heard of Sora before!
A delightful sight greeted the Wednesday birders at the Playground Pond last week. A mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was escorting her six ducklings around the pond, as well as what appeared to be two Hooded Merganser chicks (Lophodytes cucullatus)! Ben surmised that perhaps a Merganser had laid its eggs in the nest hole of the Wood Duck and she ended up hatching them along with her own. Here’s a photo of the adult female with her own chicks and a photo of a Hooded Merganser baby that swam with them. This Merganser duckling jumps from a tree hole when one day old and swims on its own. It takes 3 days for the Wood Duck’s ducklings to do the same.
Down at the Center Pond, the “boing-boing” banjo sound of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) creates part of the summer music at Bear Creek. You can tell this one’s a male because its tympanum, a kind of external ear drum, is larger than its eye. I like this one’s tentative expression.
And the Common White-tail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia)makes a soft whir-r-r as it soars by, looking for prey. This one’s a female, because the male’s abdomen is white, which accounts for its common name.
As the heat began, wildflowers started to bloom in the native beds near the parking lot. One of the loveliest is native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) glowing lavender and white in the warm sunlight.
Nearby was a plant I’d never seen until Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager, made me aware of it. It has the lovely name of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium). To me each tiny blossom resembles a tiny Iris. It’s called “grass” because it has grass-like leaves and stems with parallel veins that are hard to distinguish from a grass when there aren’t any flowers. The flowers only open fully in full sunlight, so it can be easy to miss early in the morning or on a cloudy day. But isn’t it pretty in the late spring/early summer?
And another early summer favorite is spreading abundantly in the native bed north of the shed. Canada Anemone’s (Anemone canadensis) lovely white flowers stand gracefully above its deep green foliage .
Sunny Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) accompany these other native plants in the wild garden in the driveway center, one of the native beds and across from the Playground Pond. This one’s hosting a Spittle Bug or Frog Hopper, common names for the super-family of insects called Cercopoidea. The adult insects can hop 100 times their length! The foam is used for protection for the nymph stage of development. Though the nymph sucks on the plant, it generally doesn’t hurt the plant much. Most of the liquid is used to create that evidently nasty-tasting froth that deters predators.
Ben and his crew planted some native Prairie Phlox across from the Playground Pond, another area of Bear Creek to be slowly stocked with native plants.
Warm weather brought out the exotic-looking blooms of native Wild Columbine in the bed just north of the shed. These lovely native wildflowers grew down the side of a hill east of the park when it was a farm back in the 1930s and 40s.
And out in the eastern Old Field, lots of native Common Milkweed appeared once the grasses were knocked back by the prescribed burn in March. No doubt all the nutrients that were released into the soil then, plus the longer growing season caused by the darkened earth, will give it a little boost. Hope the Monarch Butterflies take note!
And now the Paint Creek Trail surprise…
This spring, Ben VanderWeide, the Township Stewardship Manager, and volunteers did a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail near the parking lot at Gallagher Road. The purpose, as always, was to stimulate native plants and discourage non-native invasive ones. Also prescribed fire releases nutrients from last year’s plants back into the soil.
Partly as result of this process, some lovely native plants emerged this year in greater numbers than before the burn. Look at this lovely photo Ben took of a native Yellow Ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum) – and there were lots of them hidden within the burgeoning grass. You can certainly see where this lovely wildflower got its name – a graceful slipper with ribbons attached!
The grass was also shining with Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), a small yellow native that hosts small bees and other pollinators. It’s lucky there were lots of these shining stars this year because they need other plants to cross pollinate, which of course is assisted by the bees. Here’s Ben’s photo.
Along the tree line near the parking lot at Gallagher, a yellow cloud of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) nodded in the wind. Ben caught this one up close.
And Ben also noted a Sedge plant (family Cyperaceae) with its interesting bloom. As I mentioned two weeks ago, sedges are ancient plants that look something like grasses but are constructed differently. Ancient Egyptians used sedges to make papyrus.
Ben tells me that beautiful native wildflowers like Culver’s Root(Veronicastrum virginicum), Showy Tick-trefoil(Desmodium canadense) and other prairie plants are “sprouting vigorously” along the trail north Gallagher Road – so click on the links to see them and then keep an eye out for them!
So treat yourself. Hang some binoculars around your neck and look at birds up close – both the year ’round residents and the summer visitors. Take your time. Stand near a patch of summer flowers and watch quietly. See what surprises you. Maybe a bee that turns out to be a harmless hover fly. Or the shiny glamour of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle. Try using your cell phone to take a shot of a single flower you’ve never noticed before and then identify it when you get home. I promise you’ll relax. Your breath will slow, you’ll smile a bit more, life will just get more interesting. Nature comes alive in ways you’d never expect when you give it your undivided attention. Let us know what you find!
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.
Before European settlement, our special area of Michigan was actually an Oak Savannah with large expanses of tall waving grasses,
widely scattered, spreading oaks
and other native trees, shrubs and prairie wildflowers. During the spring and summer, ground-nesting birds like the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) settled among tall grass stems, producing young. Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) sang their burbling song while swaying on grass stems. The Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) whistled their slow song from perches in low shrubs. Later, in the 1800’s, non-native game birds like Ring-necked Pheasants(Phasianus colchicus) were introduced and took advantage of the tall grass for cover.
On November 14 and 15, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, took a huge step forward in prairie restoration on 20 acres of Draper Twin Lake Park and another 18 acres in Charles Ilsley Park. The hope is that residents will be able to experience the land as it may have looked before and that native residents – birds, animals, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees of the prairie – can return, adding more rich diversity to the plants and wildlife of Oakland Township.
The process began in the summer of 2014 as crews working with Dr. Ben began removing the non-native and invasive species that had taken over the land after farming had ceased. This meant long hours of cutting woody invasive trees and shrubs like Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose and Glossy Buckthorn which had quickly colonized the open land, and then treating the stumps to prevent re-growth. The process continued this summer until one beautifully rolling 20 acre field was finally prepared for planting in Draper Twin Lake Park.
Two other rolling fields of 5 and 13 acres at Charles Ilsley Park were also cleared and prepared.(Click on double photos for larger view. Rest cursor on photos for captions.) Two more 15 acre fields are being prepared for planting in 2016 and 2017.
Dr. Ben sought out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to purchase wild seed for these areas and then carefully selected a list of plants suitable for our specific sites. Township residents will need to be patient, since prairie flowers spend their first two to three years putting down deep roots. These deep roots help prairie plants survive drought conditions or fire to which they became adapted over thousands of years of fluctuations in climate and periodic fire. In fact, carefully controlled prescribed burns will be used periodically on these prairies in the future because regular burning helps native plants thrive and thwarts non- natives who are not adapted to it. Some native plants even require fire in order to bloom!
A few flowers will begin to appear next spring, but the prairies should really start blooming vigorously by the spring and summer of 2018. Here are just a few of the prairie grasses and wildflowers that will be gracing our prairies then. (Click on photos to enlarge them and hover your cursor over the photo for plant names.)
Along with these more familiar native plants, Dr. Ben also included grasses and flowers that used to bloom here but that we see less often now. Click on these links to see Foxglove Beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis), Wild Lupine(Lupinus perennis), andSky-blue Asters(Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). And that’s only a sample of the 36 species of plants Dr. Ben ordered!
With those plants up and growing, our parks can attract more butterflies and native prairie birds like those mentioned above or maybe other special species, such as the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), or Henslow’s Sparrow.
So that November weekend, Jerry Stewart from Native Connections brought equipment designed for planting native seed. Jerry first carefully calibrated the seed drill for the seed type, planting rate, and depth. He then loaded seed in the hoppers and was ready to go.
Four of our former OT stewardship technicians, who had worked hard to clear land for this project, joined Dr. Ben and Parks Commissioner Colleen Barkham (not pictured) to see the moment when the seed finally went into the ground. The former technicians are now finishing up school or pursuing careers in various environmental fields.
Now the native seed is in and next spring, sturdy native wildflowers and grasses will begin sinking their roots deep into the soil, a survival strategy that will take them 2 or 3 summers. And then in year three or four, we will be able to watch prairies in full bloom again in Oakland Township. As time passes we hope the wildlife return – butterflies floating above swaying grass and native wildflowers, while the Bobolinks sing and the “Bob-White!” whistle returns to grace the summer months. Dr. Ben shared some photos taken on the Flint Hills prairie in Kansas (where he completed his doctorate) in order to help us dream until then.
This week the native wildflowers are glorious! You can start admiring them right in the parking lot! Since Ben and his crew burned the center circle of the driveway, native wildflowers are sprouting there like crazy! And the native beds on either side of the shed are full of blooms.
I’ve enjoyed learning the common names of wildflowers in the last few years. Knowing names starts a relationship with a plant in the same way that knowing a person’s name makes them more than a casual acquaintance.
This striking, deep violet-blue native plant with long graceful leaves has an unfortunate name, Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis). (People who came up with common names seemingly had no poetry in their souls and must have thought it cured spider bites). Look at this beauty up close!
There’s also this golden flower that I’d never seen in the circle until this year after the burn. I love the buttery yellow glow and scalloped petals of Sand Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) and so does what looks like a hover fly whose abdomen is smeared yellow with its pollen.
In the park and in the circle is a happy yellow flower called Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea). It does well after a burn because our part of Michigan used to be prairie. Prairie and other grasslands across North America have burned regularly for thousands of years. Fires were either intentionally set by Native Americans or lit naturally by lightning. This native plant is adapted to fire and loves sandy soil and sun.
And look at the burgeoning overflow of beautiful Canada Anemone(Anemone canadensis) in the native flowerbed north of the shed! Native plants can take a few years to really get going but once they do it is worth the effort. And clearly this was the year for these beauties. Talk about ground cover!
While you’re admiring them, enjoy the many Hebard’s Green-legged Grasshopper nymphs(Melanoplus eurycercus) springing from leaf to leaf among the Anemone. By August, they’ll have molted into much bigger grasshoppers.
*EDIT: thanks to reader feedback, we’ve identified this grasshopper nymph as Hebard’s Green-Legged Grasshopper instead of Green-Legged Grasshopper. Thanks for your expert critique!
Ben’s reported seeing some great birds in Bear Creek, some I have yet to see. Cornell Ornithology Lab’s allaboutbirds.org wonderfully describes the beautiful deep blue Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) as being “like a scrap of sky with wings. ” This amazing small bird migrates at night, navigating by a single star. The young learn their cheerful song from nearby males in their “song neighborhood” and these local songs can last for 20 years passed on by successive generations. They are tricky to photograph (as you’ll see below!) as they sing high in the treetops near woods in shrubby areas – like the northern end of the steep sloping path on the Southwest side of the park or in the center of the big loop at the northern part of the park.
Ben saw the smaller, darker Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) in Bear Creek. I have a photo of the female at Bear Creek a couple of years ago but the only decent photo of the male I have was taken at our oriole feeder. They’re here only a short time, arriving late and leaving early, sometimes as early as mid-July, for their winter home in Central America. So look for them soon before they are gone!
Ben also saw a bird at Bear Creek last week that I’ve never seen there – but I did hear one today at Marsh View Park. The iris in the eye of the Red-Eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)turns red when it matures so don’t be surprised when you click the link below and see a gray and white bird! The amazing feature of these Vireos is that the male whistles his brief song incessantly from morning ’til night, sometimes repeating a song over 20,000 times in a day! Once you recognize it , you’ll know you’ve heard it in the woods for years. So click here and then go down the page on the left to the “typical song.”
Those Green Frogtadpoles I mentioned last week are now very young frogs! Look for them roiling the water in the pond near the playground. They are still very small, their legs are not fully developed and some of them, as you’ll see in the photo below, still have stubs of tadpole tails that they haven’t yet absorbed into their bodies. Like other creatures born in huge numbers, frogs serve as fast food for a lot of other species. Without lots of little frogs for nutrition, the predators that depend on them for food will be hungry. That’s one reason the declining numbers of amphibians is a concern in native habitats.
Watch for the Snapping Turtle too. At the playground pond last Sunday, we spotted him as a large oval patch of Duckweed moving steadily just under the surface of the water. I imagine that he was using some young frogs as a quick snack. Here’s a photo of one last year basking after a trip through the duckweed.
A sleepy little Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor), strictly nocturnal, snoozed Sunday on one of the platform supports. Once grown it will generally stay high in the trees except when it comes down to breed. I imagine that’s why its skin looks so much like tree bark – good camouflage!
And what about those damsels in no distress? Well I was referring, of course, to damselflies, those slim, elegant cousins of the dragonflies in the order Odonata. Sunday this one flashed like neon blue morse code as it rested with its wings folded near the playground pond. I’m guessing that it’s a Marsh Bluet ((Enallagma ebrium)) but again, don’t quote me. Bluets are a big group of dragonflies and they all have only minor differences.
One of the dragonflies at the playground pond is almost comic in appearance! I swear it has a kind of Mickey Mouse face! Its precise but unimaginative name is the Dot-tailed Whiteface (Leucorrhinia intacta)and you can’t miss them! They’ll even accompany you down the boardwalk.
QUICK REVIEW: New sightings of species mentioned in earlier “This Weeks”
Evidently, the Green Heron is still fishing down at the Center Pond. If you admire patience, speed and accuracy, this bird has it all.
Wow! Have a look at one of the branches hanging low over the pond by the playground. I hobbled over there with my walker last week and we spotted the long narrow tube of an Baltimore Oriole nest among the branches. Watch quietly and you’ll see the orange tail feathers of the female oriole as she goes head down into that tube to feed her nestlings. She and the more colorful male foray out repeatedly gathering food, too and it’s such a close viewing spot, easily accessible for children. Here’s a quick reminder of the nest shape, though the one at the playground pond is more hidden in the leaves. (When I replace the camera I dunked in the marsh, I’ll try for a photo of the current one.)
And last week I featured the male Common Whitetail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia). Here’s a female Whitetail who has settled on the rocks at the east end of the driveway circle. She’s been there twice in the last week. She lacks his bluish-white tail but has a lovely pattern down the edge of her rich brown abdomen.
Bee balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) will be blooming shortly in the native bed south of the shed, the circle in the driveway and out behind the center pond. Only the leaves are out now but when they bloom, their lavender flowers will look a little like a frizzy hair day. Believed to have medicinal properties (hence the name), native bee balm is indeed a balm to bees and butterflies who feed on it.
The leaves of our native Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) (which unfortunately is not as common as it needs to be) are sprouting everywhere in the park, including the driveway circle. Before long, the leaves sprouting now will create fun landscapes like this:
One reason the number of Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) is dangerously low is that we don’t have enough Common Milkweed in many places. Unfortunately, some nurseries are selling a non-native variety which can’t act as a host plant for the Monarch’s caterpillars. And as meadows become lawns, more of our native Milkweed disappears. We’ll explore a bit more about milkweed later in the season.
Summer is blooming: Birds feed their young, wildflowers unfold, dragonflies and damselflies dart above the ponds. I hope you’ll find time this week to explore and relax in Bear Creek Nature Park.
*Quick footnote: My sources for information, as well as Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.