One hot fall morning, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirred” cheerfully as it hopped among drooping vines, plucking fall fruits along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silver Bell Road. Down near the ground, beneath the towering stalks of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) on the Wet Prairie, native wildflowers bloomed, often unseen. This special prairie is “wet” because the soil just below the surface doesn’t allow water to penetrate. That leads to very wet conditions in the spring, but droughty soil in the heat of summer. It’s a “prairie” because prairie plants, which are adapted to fire, thrived here despite repeated wildfires over the years caused by the railroad. As a result, an unusual mix of autumn wildflowers, in exotic shapes and vivid colors, flourishes on our Wet Prairie.
Ben and I thought we’d do some shorter pieces in between the longer blogs, just to keep Oakland Township residents up-to-date on special birds, blooms and such that are here for a short time and shouldn’t be missed. Hence the title: Now Showing. So when Ben called to alert me to beautiful native wildflowers blooming at both Gallagher Creek and the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, I hustled off with my camera to explore.
Wow. At both places, a rare and beautiful plant is blooming where it’s sunny and moist. Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) is most commonly pollinated by native Bumblebees (genus Bombus), because they are one of the few insects that can thrust themselves inside these closed petals that never open. Bumblebees are effective pollinators because of their fuzzy bodies. This Gentian’s tiny seeds float on the wind so it doesn’t appear en masse. It’s a lovely surprise when you find one!
Here’s Ben’s photo from last year of a native Bumblebee emerging from a native Bottle Gentian. Nice that natives evolve with other natives and help each other out, eh?
Both the Wet Prairie , Gallagher Creek Park and Bear Creek also now feature another wetland wildflower with the prosaic name, Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)which, in fairness, it does resemble. According to the Illinois Widlflower website, that extended lower “lip” of the blossom makes a nice landing pad for insects. This wildflower blooms from the bottom to the top so this one was just getting started last week.
The Wet Meadow features two more beautiful wildflowers right now. Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) is quite a rare beauty. When it first blooms, its name becomes obvious.
And when its bloom opens, its petals form a rectangular opening that attracts native Bumblebees just like the Bottle Gentian does. It also reseeds on the wind, or sometimes water.
Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassus glauca) is having a spectacular year! These white blossoms striped in dark green shine out from among the taller plants all over the Wet Prairie. They must have loved the downpours of early August.
I also couldn’t resist showing you a sort of “candelabra” of Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). It’s not rare and it generally blooms in dry prairies. But this adaptable native plant was putting on such a show as it seeded on the Wet Prairie near the Paint Creek Trail that I thought I’d share it with you.
So, keep a sharp eye out! Autumn wetland wildflowers like the gentians bloom for only about a month and they’ve already been beautiful for 2 weeks! Like the bees who appreciate their late season nectar, we have only a short time to enjoy their vivid colors and elegant designs.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager 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; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
Late summer is always a time of transitions, but this year was particularly dramatic. Bear Creek’s meadows baked for weeks under a blazing sun. The marsh dried completely, stranding an over-heated young snapper that struggled through a tangled mat of exposed vegetation. Heat finished off blossoms as some wildflowers began to seed earlier than usual. And then in mid-August, the rains came – downpours, thunderstorms and off-and-on showers. You could almost hear the gulping of plants and trees swallowing the moisture through their roots. Snappers again cruised just below the shallow waters of the marsh. Life rallied. As always, nature just coped and moved on.
Life in the Hot Sun of the Old Fields
The Old Field on the western edge of Bear Creek is quieter now. Mating season has ended (except for the Goldfinches), so birdsong has diminished. But one hot, sticky morning, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) threw back his head and let loose his double-phrased song from the highest branch of a tree – a favorite perch for male Buntings.
An Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) seemed to be listening to its neighbor as it rested between forays over the baking meadows, trying to snatch a few unsuspecting insects.
A juvenile Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (Empidonax flaviventris) posed quietly among the branches of smaller trees on the Western Slope. Expert birder, Ruth Glass, tells me that this little bird probably arrived from Canada or northern Michigan and is now migrating down to the Caribbean. Quite an adventure for a small bird!
Near the moist bottom of the slope one steamy morning, I spotted a lump on a leaf. A newly metamorphosed Gray Tree Frog (Hyla versicolor) was sleeping on a Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). I’m afraid I woke it with my camera. The U of M’s Bio-kids website says they are “almost always bright green right after metamorphosis [from tadpole stage] and they stay this way for some time before taking on their adult coloration.” These frogs can sleep in the open during the day, using their camouflage to protect themselves; they don’t dehydrate quickly like other frogs. Isn’t it just the best little creature?
While birds foraged from the trees, the insects below braved the blazing sun to look for their own sustenance. In the grass on the Western Slope, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia)seemed to searching the bottom of grass stems. I’ve read that they sip nectar but often look for fluids in moist earth. Perhaps it was hoping for dew on a hot morning in August.
Higher up on the western path, where the land was drier, beetles probed blossoms looking for food. On the left, a non-native Seven-spotted Ladybug (Coccinella setempunctata)searched diligently for aphids, a favorite food. In fact, these beetles were brought here to combat aphids, but as a result, they’ve outcompeted our native ladybugs whose numbers have declined. On the right, a Soldier Beetle (family Cantharidae) may also be pursuing aphids, though it also eats pollen and nectar. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
In the trees near the top of the Western Slope, a sparrow fluffed its feathers in thin shade. It’s hard to identify juvenile sparrows but with its pink feet and bill, I’m guessing this is a juvenile Field Sparrow who hasn’t yet reached full adult plumage when it will have a more distinct eye ring and a clear breast.
American Goldfinches mate in August, much later than other birds. On one hot visit, a female repeatedly rode drying blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace down to the ground to forage for seeds, perhaps to feed her young – or her hard-working self! Unlike many seed-eating birds, the Goldfinches don’t switch to bugs when breeding. They are strictly vegetarian.
Nestlings of other birds are transforming into curious fledglings. One afternoon, a young, female Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched high in a snag (standing dead tree), her spotted breast only halfway transformed into adult plumage.
Wildflowers felt the impact of the fierce sunlight. A Jewel Weed blossom near the pond dried in the heat, while others took its place in the dappled shade. And up on the top of the southern hill, the Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) dropped their petals and began the seeding process in the dry heat.
Sturdy Prairie Dock blossoms, looking like little suns themselves, began to dry out as well as they towered over the wilting Coneflowers.
A female Black Swallowtail hovered just off the sun-drenched Eastern Path, looking restlessly for just the right blossom. Folding its dark wings may help it cope with the sun’s heat.
Patrolling for food, a Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly rested momentarily on a leaf, its clear wings shimmering in the hot sunlight.
The northeastern edge of the Old Fields evidently stayed moist despite the heat and several “wet-footed” plants took full advantage of the bright sunlight. Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) spread its dusty pink blooms out across the field instead of appearing as widely distributed single plants as it often does here.
Other native wetland plants fringed the same area. The trio below includes bright pink Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with its green stems, Joe-Pye with dusty pink blossoms and purple stems and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) with its white blossoms and leathery leaves.
Below center, the native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) sips nectar from the Swamp Milkweed with its long tongue and on the left, is a closer look at Boneset. Odd name, eh? Evidently early herbalists noticed the way the stem seemed to rise right through the clinging leaves reminding them of a splint around a bone. So its leaves were wrapped with bandages around broken bones. Native Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) on the right also thrives here as it does in various spots along the Paint Creek Trail.
Sheltering in the Shade
Near the wood edges, I found mammals and insects enjoying the shade. Following a shining strand hanging before our eyes, my husband and I discovered a very tiny white spider escaping the bright sunlight on the underside of a leaf. I tried but couldn’t identify it, despite that wonderful design on its abdomen. We wondered if that brown ball was an egg sack. Anyone know this tiny creature’s name?
And, as usual, damselflies moved in and out of the shade at the edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. I’m guessing, based on its bright blue head, striped thorax, and very pale abdomen, that this one may be a female Bluet (genus Enallagma) or a recently hatched one. But since there are at least 17 species of Bluets in the Midwest, I’m not sure which one this is. Again, I’m open to your ideas.
A White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) sat calmly on the shady site of a dried vernal pool, while her fawn dutifully hurried off into the bushes as I paused for the photo.
And an Eastern Cottontail paused in a shady spot along a trail one hot morning as well.
And Then the Rains Came…
What a relief when heavy rain came to refill the wetlands and ponds at Bear Creek Park! After watching that young Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) struggling through vegetation in the dry marsh, it was a relief to see two Snappers feeding and cruising just below the surface in the cooling water provided by the rain.
The bright sun and rain caused Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) and Water Meal (genus Wolffia) – often mistaken for heavy algae – to form thicker mats across wetlands around the park. At the Playground Pond, I heard a plop! one afternoon and saw just the head of a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) moving through the juicy green surface. Luckily, its ears close when it enters the water! When swimming, it uses its tail to propel itself with the help of its webbed back feet.
Once the Muskrat dove, I noticed other denizens of the Pond nicely camouflaged in duckweed and water meal as well. Here are two turtles and a frog on a log decked out in greenery.
Quivering in the duckweed near the boardwalk made me look down to see a whole collection of small Green Frogs (Rana clamitans). Each of those individual spots on the leg of the frog below is a water meal plant! Ducks do love this plant, by the way. Sometimes they just dip their bills in and move along, scooping it up.
In the wetland just north of the Playground Pond, a particularly beautiful native plant is blooming in the moist shade, Cardinal Flower or Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis). Last week when I took an out-of-town friend to the park and left my camera at home, we watched a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) sipping at a tall stalk of this scarlet beauty. I came back for its photo the following day – but no Hummingbird then, I’m sorry to say!
We also spotted two Barn Swallowsperched quietly in nearby trees. No camera again! The next day, they were swooping madly across the meadows, their bills open, enjoying the swarms of insects that had hatched after the rain. One perched for a moment in a snag over the wetland and I got this quick photo of it from below.
As the water rose in the Center Pond, tiny Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta) appeared on nearly every log. Here’s a silver-dollar-sized one trundling along as it explores its world like any youngster.
This week, a Green Heron (Butorides virescens) dropped into the bushes at the western edge of the pond. It kept a close eye on the water, when it wasn’t actively preening with its long, extendable neck. Green Herons are expert hunters of both fish and frogs. I wondered if the absence of July’s huge number of green frogs was attributable to the drought or this multi-colored fisher. (My apologies for the slightly pixelated photos caused by aggressive cropping so we could see it up close.)
Yes, it’s been a hot, sticky and then rainy summer. But we’re all in this together – animals, birds and plants. The natural world provided a gentle reminder that change, even dramatic change, is an inherent part of being alive. Summer may be waning now but the beauty around us isn’t. Surprises await our arrival every day, no matter what the weather.
P.S. More Native Beauties Blooming along the Paint Creek Trail!
The trick about blogging during the summer is that so much happens all over the township, all at once! Keep an eye out for these special native wildflowers blooming for just a short time in the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. The shallow water table in this meadow provides a perfect spot for these fire-adapted beauties. The field is dotted with the purple fireworks of Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), the striped elegance of Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) and the delicate, spotted petals of Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). Don’t miss them!
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.
Off the western side of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road, a sign indicates that you’re passing through a “wet prairie.” Big Blue Stem grasses bend in the wind while all kinds of beautiful wildflowers flourish in the grass below. If you ever thought “native wildflower” just meant Canada Goldenrod or Black-Eyed Susans, you’re in for a treat.
As many of you know, most native plants in this area are adapted to fire because of thousands of years of natural fires and regular burning by Native Americans for purposes of clearing and fertilizing the land. Once the trains came through in the 19th century, the sparks from the tracks, where the trail runs now, regularly started fires in the area. Native prairie and savanna plants survived because they had adapted to fire; non-native plants were less likely to do so.
Once the trail replaced the train tracks, stewardship was required to preserve this very special environment. Over the years, the Parks Commission has worked to restore this patch of wet prairie and its beautiful native plants. Last year, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and his crew worked long hours from Silver Bell Road to the Wet Prairie, removing Autumn Olive and other non-native plants, trees and shrubs that lined the trail and crowded the field, shading out native plants. We thought you might enjoy seeing a small sampling of the beauty that’s begun to flourish in this special area because of those efforts.
Native Wildflowers of the Wet Prairie
Flowers in wet prairies like this are special – and very lovely. Bring binoculars so you can scan the field since the area is too fragile for hiking or paths at this stage.
I was lucky enough to be introduced, very carefully, to this magical place by Dr. Ben who let me take photos so we could share the native beauty that exists in this special area.
We saw deep sky blue Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita)in several stages of unfurling.
And finally, an open one! Look at the square opening made by the four leaves!
Another deep blue beauty, Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii),never opens its blossoms, but Ben saw a native Bumblebee pry one open and climb inside to get at the pollen!
And here’s Ben’s photo of a bumblebee emerging from a Bottle Gentian at Gallagher Creek Park. Quite a moment to catch, eh?
Tiny orchids appear here and there in the Wet Prairie as well. Who knew we had orchids? You can see where it got its name, Prairie Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum).It looks like a spiraling french braid.
One of my favorite Wet Prairie wildflowers is Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) but until this week I’d only seen one or two blooms. Here’s a closeup from a few years ago of one with its dark green stripes.
Now, thanks to the stewardship efforts of the Parks and Recreation Commission, they’re sprinkled all over the prairie! They’re a bit beyond their peak now, but they’re still lovely.
White Snake Root (Ageratina altissima) grows in the prairie and it’s plentiful on the east side of the trail, flowing downhill toward the creek.
Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea), another native plant that was plentiful a couple of weeks ago on the Wet Prairie, is finishing up now, but here are a few late blooms and then its very lovely fruit in the photo just below.
The fruits of the False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa) add a touch of fall color to the prairie.
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), with its descriptive if not very elegant common name, is another special plant in the Wet Prairie. It can also be found in other high quality wetlands in our area.
Of course, familiar native wildflowers are present in this prairie as well, like Canada Goldenrod. But there are other kinds of goldenrod here too, like Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii) which is much less common because it frequents wetlands, including wet prairies, rather than dry fields and roadsides.
And across the trail from the prairie, we saw Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida).I love the way the soft leaves clasp the stalk.
The dry Old Fields in our parks tend to have non-native Cinquefoils but the Wet Prairie hosts a native Michigan species, called Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa) which is often used in landscape settings as well as being found in wild wet areas.
We saw another old friend, one late bloom of the gorgeous orange Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Most of the the Butterfly Milkweed plants, though, are past blooming and are producing their elegant tapered pods, the fruits that contain their seed, seen below spilling onto the ground to be carried by the wind for next year’s crop.
Although its small white flowers are done for the year, I love the deep purple stems of Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale), which are still standing among the flowers.
Creatures of the Wet Prairie
A Monarch butterfly(Danaus plexippus)rested in the shade of a tree after flitting across the Wet Prairie.
A curious European Praying Mantis (Mantis religiosa) paused on a Little Bluestem stalk where she might have been planning to lay eggs, as these non-native insects do in September.
A Green Darner (Anax junius),a large, very agile dragonfly, took a break from patrolling for insect pray and rested in the shade.
And a tiny Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) hatchling, about the size of a 50 cent piece, tried to make it across the trail. We gave it a little lift to the grass in the direction it was heading.
Native Grasses of the Wet Prairie
Native grasses thrive in the Wet Prairie as well. Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii), a classic native prairie grass, towers over everything with its characteristic turkey foot.
But Dr. Ben made me aware of other native prairie grasses that I’d wouldn’t have noticed without help:
Canada Wild Rye (Elymus canadensis) bobs in the breeze below the Big Blue Stem.
According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the scientific name of this grass, Sorghastrum nutans, means “a swaying, poor imitation of Sorghum.” I think I prefer the common name, Indian Grass!
It’s not difficult to see where native Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) got its name!
Restoring and preserving the very special habitat of the Wet Prairie is a way to preserve our history for future generations and to encourage plant diversity. But it takes a lot of effort! Please keep an eye on the “Stewardship” tab on our home page here at the Natural Areas Notebook for volunteer opportunities. Perhaps you can help Dr. Ben with the PRC’s ongoing effort to care for the Wet Prairie with its unusual selection of beautiful wildflowers and graceful grasses.
*Footnote: My sources for information, as well as Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991). The viceroy butterfly is not a Batesian mimic; 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 beetle info http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info, and invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman.
This post was written by Cam Manino, a resident of Oakland Township. Cam has been walking in Bear Creek Nature Park for decades, observing the birds, plants, and other organisms that call the park “home.” She’s also a talented photographer and shared her pictures for the post below. If you’d like to help out with prairie restoration, we have projects going right now and would love your help! Just give us a call.
On February 19, Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, held a second interesting workshop, this one on prairie restoration in Oakland Township.
Prairie, you might ask? Amazingly, yes. Historically, Oakland Township had three important kinds of ecosystems that are almost lost now – prairies, wet prairies and what are called “oak savannahs.” We have lost 99% of them since 1800 to farming and development, but also to invasive species that have dominated certain areas.
A prairie, by definition, has less than 1 tree per acre. These prairie plants and grasses require fire to bloom or at the very least, tolerate fire. When Indians lived here, they burned the land on a cyclical basis to fertilize and plant and these native plants adapted to thousands of years of regular fire. Later, along the train tracks, for example, repeated fire gave them just the conditions they needed. Since the fires have ended, though, the prairie has slowly disappeared leaving areas that the Parks Commission is working to restore. Here’s a lovely little prairie plant from the wet prairie along the Paint Creek trail, a wildflower called “Grass-of-Parnassus:
Or here’s butterfly milkweed on dry prairie which is beginning to spread and prosper at Bear Creek due to controlled burns by the Parks Commission.
At the workshop, I learned that savannahs are not only in Africa. They are any piece of land with widely spaced trees (5-60 per acre) with a variety of grasses between them. As of 1800, Oakland Township was about 2/3 oak savannahs with a wide diversity of grasses. Where fire was prevented by settlement, these plants eventually got overrun by shrubs, woody plants and invasive species that crowded them out. For some, their buds have remained underground for years waiting for fire! Like the butterfly milkweed, here’s an example of big bluestem emerging in Bear Creek park after a controlled burn by the Parks Commission:
Some characteristics of these striking, tough native grasses and wildflowers are that they 1) are dependent on fire or are fire adapted; 2) they are adapted to grazing animals; 3) they tolerate drought and 4) they love sun.
The benefits of restoring these grassy savannahs and prairies are many. We could begin to see grassland birds return that many of us haven’t heard or seen in years – like the bob-white, bobolinks, meadowlarks, Henslow sparrows and others. Butterflies and a variety of other creatures become more abundant. Wildflowers bloom – like rare orchids and wild lupine that can be found in small patches along the Paint Creek trail in May. The grasses themselves swaying in the wind on a summer day are beautiful. Preserving these native plants and grasses enrich the biodiversity that was left in Michigan after the glaciers withdrew, leaving this very special set of habitats, which are rare in the Great Lakes region, for our enjoyment here in Oakland Township.
When you wander around a natural area, you never know what you’ll find. I inspected the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie many times this summer looking for cool plants. Some of them escaped me until they started flowering, including Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca). The small leaves often hide among the other plants, but its striking flowers jump out!
We have three species of Parnassia in Michigan: P. glauca, P. palustris, and P. parviflora. The species in our wet prairie, P. glauca, is the most common of the three and is found across the state in various types of wetlands. Its thick, leathery leaves and larger petals distinguish it from the other two species. If you want to find P. palustris or P. parviflora, you’ll need to visit the area near the Mackinaw Bridge and the Upper Peninsula.
If you see this cool plant at the Wet Prairie, please just take pictures and leave the flowers for everyone else to enjoy!