Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Lost Lake Nature Park, a small 58 acre park probably best known for its sledding hills, hums with life in every season. Right now, fishers of all sorts – birds, animals and humans – are testing their skills against the fish in its 8-acre kettle lake. In the meadow that slopes upward along the sledding hill, dragonflies bask on dried flower heads in early fall sun while a crane fly dances over the soil, laying her eggs among tall native grasses and bright wildflowers. And deep in the woods that cover the slopes, an old tree stump sustains a vivid collection of life. On every short trip this month, Lost Lake sent me home with a little something special.
Around the Lake: Fishers, Flowers and Frogs
On each of my visits, GreenHerons (Butorides virescens) foraged and flew at Lost Lake. On my first visit, a young Green Heronstood at the corner of the dock, surveying the eastern pond in the late afternoon sun. The telltale field marks are the streaked side of its head and breast, its greenish yellow legs and its smaller size. Two adult Green Herons flew overhead, giving their distinctive alarm flight call (at this Cornell link under “advertising call”) and later I saw them more closely in a wetland down the road. The adults are a bit more glamorous than their young, I’d say.
On my second visit, the herons were only visible through binoculars on the far side of the lake. But the third time, I was rewarded. A very young green heron, about half the size of an adult, landed in the pond, flew to a mud flat fairly near the dock and began to fish. I watched this skillful youngster successfully snag a meal twice, and then watched as it struggled to swallow its trophies, as you’ll see in the slideshow below. (Use pause button to read longer captions.)
On my last visit, a small green heron again appeared, perhaps the same one, this time flying above the head of a fishing Great Egret (Ardea alba).
The egret was also a successful fisher, though swallowing took no apparent effort for this elegant bird with a long graceful neck. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
As I was leaving the deck one afternoon, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned, an American Mink (Neovison vison)paused at the end of the dock before slipping away into the tall grass. I’d never been that close to a mink before. Quite exciting! Mink always live near water and do lots of fishing, eating crayfish, frogs, and fish as well as rodents and occasionally birds or their eggs. A mink coat, with its dark sheen of guard hairs, looks best on this little creature, I think. Since the mink moved too quickly for a photo, I’ve borrowed one from a gifted and generous photographer at iNaturalist who uses the name DigiBirdTrek.
On two afternoons over Labor Day weekend, human fishers showed up at Lost Lake as well – a threesome one day and a young couple another. Not sure if they were as successful as the green heron!
With all those fishers, it’s not surprising that this tiny green frog squeaked and leapt into the pond as I walked off the dock one afternoon. It may have been a young Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus), since it has a fold around the tympanum rather than a ridge running back from the eye, which would indicate a Green Frog(Lithobates clamitans). Small bullfrogs are also more prone to squeaking when alarmed; I’ve never heard a squeak from a small green frog.I’m open to correction, though, since we can see so little of this small frog.
Admittedly, the pond is not at its best right now in terms of flowers. Many of the water lilies closest to the shore have withered into a brown mass and the brown leaves of some Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) stalks protrude from the water near the shore. But in the distance, the water lilies float on a bed of green (see above) and in some places, the lovely lavender plumes of the pickerel weed still stand tall with their huge, graceful leaves. Along the shore, the sunny ball-shaped heads of Sneezeweed(Helenium autumnale) nod in the breeze near the delicate purple chevrons of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).
Down the road, at the same wetland where I saw the mature Green Heron, an elusive family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) caught my eye. On each trip, I’d notice a threesome of young ducks being shepherded by the male parent. This dad wanted nothing to do with me and quickly herded his family around a bend, or behind greenery at the edge of the water. But one day I was able to catch two fairly good shots of dad and his three offspring.
Into the Woods: A Blackened Stump with Vivid Life and Some Clever Seeds
The path into the woods starts at the end of the driveway that runs in front of the caretaker’s home, and you’re welcome to use it. It’s a short, uphill path that is quite steep at the end and then runs quickly downward as you descend the sledding hill. The forest floor is deep green and beautifully dappled by sunlight.
On the dry, wooded hillsides, some native grasses and wildflowers are beginning to create and disperse seed. The long graceful pods of Sicklepod (Boechera canadensis), a native member of the mustard family, crack open when dry, releasing a long line of seeds to the wind. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), another native, is appropriately named; according to the Minnesota wildflower site, its seed “jumps off the stem at the slightest touch,” sometimes as much as 10-13 feet. Cluster-leaved Tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) makes cool fruits called loments that have little pods with one seed each that travel by sticking to anything that comes close. And an old fave, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), sends its seeds flying on arrow-shaped “awns” that can actually stick upright in the earth when they land. Plant evolution has produced some very creative ways to spread seed!
At the bottom of the hill, in the deeper shade of a wetland, I discovered an old black stump that hosted a variety of brightly colored life. According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the insect and fungal life of felled stumps and logs help the forest by breaking down the nutrients held in the trees’ wood for hundreds of years. The process of decomposition can take as long as the life of the tree – in the case of oaks, up to 300 years! And eventually those released nutrients feed the tree’s offspring and other trees and plants. Well, this old tree stump, a White Pine (Pinus strobus), was busy doing just that. Its surface presented all kinds of colorful life that was busy working to break down its nutrients or using it for shelter.
What originally caught my eye was a group of tiny, deep orange/red mushrooms. I couldn’t determine the species of these mushrooms, though they could be an early stage of the Jack-o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius)featured recently at Bear Creek. A few minutes later a second spot of red caught my eye. A group of Harvesters (order Opiliones, suborder Eupnoi), which are arachnids, but not spiders, scrambled around the inside of the stump. The one below came festooned with tiny bright red mites! And then I spotted a ruby red ant, whose species I was unable to discern. And a lovely patch of green and orange moss with its sporophytes tipped with the capsules that contain its spores graced the flat top surface like a miniature forest. Quite a colorful bunch of creatures, bryophytes (mosses), and fungi working and living on this old stump!
Down the Hill to the Meadow – Basking Dragonflies, A Dancing Crane Fly, Wildflowers and Native Grasses
Wildflowers are still blooming in glorious color on the steep sledding hill, the small meadow below it and a short distance from the pond. A few Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) hang on nearby, their drooping petals still golden in early autumn light, along with some Smooth Asters with their dark red or yellow centers (Symphyotrichum laeve). Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), both late summer/autumn wildflowers, are being visited by native bumblebees. Pale/Thin-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus), that love the forest edge, shine bright under the trees as you approach the wood. An Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), with its four-parted stigma forming the characteristic x-shape, stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. Near the entrance to the woods, the slender pods of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of shady savannas, will eventually dry and break open to release their seeds to the wind. Among the flowers, native grasses sway, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is now flowering and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which has started to form its seeds.
Among these grasses, a group of Autumn Dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) rested on dried flower heads, needing a bit more sun on cool days. This species has a little cloud of yellow near the base of the hindwing. They hatch out in August and September, providing more late summer color. Mature males are the easiest to spot with their red abdomen. Juvenile males (in closeup below) have a yellow thorax and a yellowish brown abdomen, according to Wikipedia. And the females (second and fourth from the left in the photo at the far right below) have a brown thorax and a brownish/red abdomen. I find it hard to distinguish between females and juvenile males in Autumn dragonflies, so feel free to correct me!
One of the oddest sights at Lost Lake occurred on my last visit. I saw something with very long legs dancing vertically, up and down, above small holes in the earth between the grass stems. Eventually, after developing and cropping a lot of photos and doing online research, it became clear that I’d been seeing a Tiger Crane Fly (Tipula dorsalis) laying her eggs in the soil. Taking photos of a crane fly rapidly jumping up and down is a bit challenging, but if you look closely, I hope you can see her curving, vertical body as she pokes the needle-sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen into the soil. Her narrow wings and very long legs were splayed in every direction as she danced from one hole to another, laying potentially hundreds of eggs. Click this link from bugguide.net for a much better photo than mine!
By the way, crane flies are gangly, harmless creatures who can’t bite or sting humans or animals as the unrelated mosquitoes do. Crane flies live only 10-15 days and drink nectar, if they eat all (some don’t!). The only damage they do is in their larval form, when the caterpillars, called “leatherjackets,” do eat some turf grasses and agricultural plants.
The Persistence of Life
Despite the ravages of early September – hurricanes one after another, wildfires, earthquakes – here in the protected natural areas of Oakland Township, life persists. The young green heron successfully fishes its food from among the water lilies. In forest shade, the flowers and grasses produce seed, relying on another spring to foster the next generation. A crane fly dances above the earth, seeing to it that their offspring still float over the grass stalks when summer comes again. And what about us? Well, of course, we’re members too in that community of life on earth. I like the thought that as you and I foster and nourish that community, we’re doing our part to see that life persists on this little blue planet.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben;butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.
When I walk outside in the morning, I feel a chill in the air that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. The days are getting shorter, and somehow it’s already September. Where did the summer go?
After hot summer days, I always look forward to the mild temperatures, fragrant cider, and just-barely-changing leaves of early fall. Even without these cues, wildflowers would announce the changing season if I’d just woken from a long summer nap. The timing of flowering can tell us where we are in the annual orbit around our star. By comparing the timing of flowering and other natural events from year to year, a science called phenology, we can learn how plants and animals respond to changes in their environment. Pretty cool!
I found some outstanding wildflowers this week while checking on the progress of our habitat restoration projects at Gallagher Creek Park and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Check out these photos to see how nature announces fall, then go find some wildflowers in real life! It’s going to be a beautiful weekend.
Late summer wildflowers nodded and swayed in the meadows, woods, wetlands and native gardens at Bear Creek this August. Monarch butterflies paused on the blossoms, competing mostly with industrious native bumblebees. And all over the park, young birds were feeding on their own – or in a few cases, still getting fed by doting adults. In the center pond, a tiny creature foraged in disguise!
So take a wander along the trails, as goldenrod transforms the park from green to gold, and enjoy the bright beauty of summer’s last hurrah!
Like Some Human Youngsters, A Few Avian “Adolescents” Stick Close to Mom or Dad
A young Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannustyrannus) hid in a shrub in the eastern meadow, insisting loudly about being fed. No parental response was forthcoming from the adult on a shrub some distance away. So eventually, the youngster ventured out into the field, looking about with curiosity. Seemingly satisfied with this move toward independence, the adult flew in to feed the youngster. And then they shared the bush a while until the adult flew farther off again. (Click on slideshow’s pause button for captions.)
Two groups of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were escorting their young around the Center Pond. In one group, two males and a female floated along with a small juvenile. The males are now in their late summer “eclipse plumage” which makes them look very much like the females – except that the males have yellow bills, while females’ bills are orange and black. The males will change back to their glamorous, iridescent green head feathers later in the fall when Mallards choose their mates for next spring. I guess these two males on the right were sticking close to this female just in case she made an early decision!
Nearby, a female Mallard escorted her four youngsters with no male attention at all.
A male Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)seemed remarkably calm at my approach as he concentrated on gathering seeds in his beak. Usually they dash off at the first sight of me when they’re on the ground. He wasn’t crushing the seeds, so I assume he had a nest nearby since cardinals can have up to four broods in a season. That’s a lot of parenting in just a few months.
A male American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) plucked buds from native Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) which is just beginning to bloom.He may have been feeding his young as well, since this is the nesting season for goldfinches.
While Adults Molt, Young Birds Forage on Their Own
Many bird species molt from mid-August until mid-September, including Field Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, House Wrens and many others. The Eastern Kingbird, featured feeding its young above, doesn’t molt until it reaches its winter territory in South America. It’s occurred to me that since birds go into hiding during the molt, perhaps their young have to be a bit more independent sooner than other birds. Just a guess. In any case, a lot of young birds are out and about, clumsily trying to forage on their own.
I saw what I think is an adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) just beginning its molt. The bird’s feathers looked oddly fluffed out and it was picking at its breast in a persistent way. It might be a male since they molt a bit earlier than females. Below, a group of young song sparrows hopped along the trail, seeing what they could find in the grass before flying up into small trees nearby. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Downy Woodpecker adults(Picoides pubescens)are molting now too. The Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol II) says “[Downy] Fledglings in general can be told from adults by the clearly new, white feathers on their breast. Adult have gone in and out of the nest hole hundreds of times by this stage and look very worn, with bits of black showing through their white breast feathers.” The feathers on the young female I saw looked wonderfully fresh as it tried to drill into a branch, so I’m guessing it’s a foraging juvenile.
Down at the Center Pond, a Green Heron rested calmly on a log. Since spring, I’ve repeatedly seen a Green Heron in that very place, so I’m thinking it’s a mature bird. Cornell contends that Green Herons are sometimes found in colonies. But I’ve never seen more than one of these solitary birds at a time.
Two other solitary birds could have been adults or juveniles. It’s hard to distinguish with the House Wren and the Black-capped Chickadee once they’re out on their own. The House Wren may have been a youngster since it was clearly curious, but the Chickadee appeared to be a sophisticated contortionist as it probed a stick for insects.
Glorious Wildflower Color, Exuberant Vines and a Few Pretty-but-Toxic fruits in the Woods and Shady Wetlands
Though wildflowers are not generally as numerous on the shady paths of Bear Creek, you don’t want to miss them. So keep an eye out for their exotic shapes and vivid colors shining out of the greenery as you make your way, especially near wetlands. I just learned from Wikipedia that the Jack-o’lantern mushrooms(Omphalotusolearius) below are even bio-luminescent and their gills glow faintly green in the dark when they’re fresh! Hence the name, eh?
Native Wildflowers and Grasses Bask in the Sunlight of the Meadows and Native Gardens
In the native gardens, the center of the parking lot, and scattered across the sunny meadows, native wildflowers bloom among the Canada Goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace. The monarchs seem to be enjoying them. A female sipped nectar from the Purple Coneflower and a male spread his beautiful wings on the Joe-Pye. (The field marks for males are bulges in the veins on their hind wings.) Here’s a sampling:
A Quarter-sized Creature Dons a Bubble Disguise
One cloudy afternoon, my husband spotted a very small clump of bubbles, green Water Meal (Wolffia coumbiana) and Duckweed (Lemna minor) moving slowly around the water of the center pond near the dock.
At first only the yellow/green striped head of a tiny Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)peeked out of the bubbly mass.
At last, we could see this tiny creature – a turtle about the size of a quarter – who’d found a nifty disguise to wear while munching on the Water Meal and Duckweed greenery that covers the pond. I’m betting on this little one to survive to adulthood!
Perhaps when this baby gets a little bigger, it can join the Painted Turtles who hang out on this log at the east end of the pond almost every warm day. Last Saturday, this group seemed to be doing a slow motion version of the Hokey-Pokey (“You put your left leg in, you put your left leg out”), except for that one member who is not quite with the program!
The Delight is the Details
Meadows like the one shown above on the western slope are an eye-full on a summer day. The sweeps of green, yellow and white against a blue sky soothe the spirit like a cool hand on a fevered brow. Soak it in. You can feel yourself unwinding. Then look a little closer. So much of the delight in nature comes from noticing small things – like the turtle in its bubble disguise, the scarlet cardinal flower shining in a shady wetland, or a parent bird feeding its young on a leafy branch. Like any great work of art, there’s always more to see in nature’s landscapes than what comes quickly to the eye. So perhaps spend a few quiet minutes looking down into the water or into the tall grass. Scan the treetops through your binoculars. The smallest discovery can add just a little more joy to a walk in the park.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.
Until recently, I’d visited Lost Lake Nature Park (on Predmore west of Cranberry Lake Park) only in the winter and marveled at its amazing sledding hill. I’d spent a delightful snowy afternoon taking action shots of kids and adults as they whizzed by on their sleds during Winter Carnival. Fun place! I’d visited once in spring with the birders and seen a cloud of Yellow Warblers whisking through the trees at the top of the hill.
But it occurred to me that I didn’t know what this 58 acre park had to offer in the summer. So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent quiet hours watching water birds as I explored around the 8 acre “kettle lake.” I hiked up through the woods after a rain and was astonished by colorful mushrooms of all shapes emerging at every turn in the path. I ambled down the sled hill in the sunshine among native wildflowers and swooping dragonflies. Let me show you a sampling of what I found.
Lost Lake Itself and Its Wetlands
As the audio sign near the lake explains, about 10,000 years ago, an “isolated block of glacial ice melted and filled a depression, or ‘kettle,’ in which it sat.” Kettle lakes are “natural wells, refreshed by groundwater springs.” Wetlands encircle the lake. Right now, the cat-tails and reeds near the water are fringed with early fall wildflowers. A sapphire blue one , with a name that sounds like an exclamation – Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) – creates a striking contrast against the yellow Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii).
The cheerful blooms of Nodding Bur-Marigold/Nodding Beggar-Tick (Bidens cernua)edge the shore near the floating dock. It’s a native annual that spreads through re-seeding in the fall.
In the water nearby, graceful spikes of lavender rise above the water. These lovely native plants have the unlovely name of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), clearly named by a fisherman who appreciated his catch more than the flowers nearby! Found in “high quality wetlands,” according to the Illinois Wildflowers site, it produces large fruits occasionally eaten by ducks.
Lavender and yellow seem to autumn’s chosen colors when it comes to wildflowers. The Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata)of summer that edge the parking lot are waning and the Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) are beginning to emerge among them.
Large portions of the pond are dotted with native Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata). I couldn’t catch their sweet scent, but lots of little creatures – beetles, small bees, flies – evidently can. These elegant blooms produce abundant pollen. Turtles, beavers, muskrats and the occasional deer wade in to feed on the huge, round leaves.
According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, Waterlily blooms last 3 or 4 days, but once the petals wither, a fruit develops whose stalk bends downward so it can mature underwater. When the seeds are ripe, they are released and float to the surface where they’re carried by water and wind until they sink to the bottom for germination. I saw new blossoms on every trip because of buds like these (love the neatly-folded, small green bud below the big yellow one!).
[Edit: I forgot to include a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans[) that I caught peeking from between the lily pads. Like the juvenile birds who seem to grow into their beaks, I wonder if little frogs like this one need to grow into their enormous eyes!Lovely how the sunset that evening colored its small world.]
Under the water, I saw small fish of various sizes schooling. The audio sign indicates that several different species live in the lake, including bullhead, blue-gills, perch, bass and northern pike. What I saw, I think, were Minnows (family Cyprinidae).
Twice as I approached the lake, I was greeted by the site of large water birds. One morning two Great Egrets (Ardea alba) stood at the eastern edge of the lake.
I thought perhaps the larger was an adult and the much smaller was a juvenile. The larger one preened and both foraged for frogs and small invertebrates in the mud at the edge of the pond. After 20 minutes, the large one took off flying and the small one followed. They simply circled for a few minutes and then landed to eat again. I wondered if the older was helping the younger strengthen its flight muscles for migration. Just a guess, though.
While watching the egrets, a large flock of Canada Geese flew overhead, calling to each other. The egrets looked up and watched, just like I did. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)
On my second visit to Lost Lake, a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) waded and foraged in exactly the same area that the Great Egrets had used on my previous visit. Sandhills are grey birds, sometimes with what Cornell Lab calls a “rusty wash.” I’ve read, too, that they use mud to preen which often makes them appear brown. Seeing them dancing gracefully up in the air and floating down when mating in the spring is a sight to behold.
The Woods: An Oak-Pine Barren
Near the pond, a wide variety of trees tower overhead – Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides),Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), White Oak (Quercus alba)which is already producing bright green acorns and a variety of pines, including huge White Pines (Pinus strobus).The dry, sandy acidic soil here support an Oak-Pine Barren, a special plant community where the most common trees are widely spaced pines and oaks. To mimic the frequent fires that maintained the open tree canopy, the Natural Areas Stewardship crew burns the woodlands at this park every few years with careful use of prescribed fire.
The path to the woods goes west from the lake, beyond the vehicle barrier signs in front of the Nature Center. Along the way, a native perennial, Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) fills a sunny spot along a fence line.
On a moist morning after a downpour, I followed the short path that winds up through the woods toward the top of the sledding hill.
The warmth and moisture had caused the appearance of an astonishing variety of mushrooms, which are the “fruiting bodies” of the fungi living under the soil. Mushrooms produce the fungi’s spores above the soil surface so that they can be scattered for reproduction. In that way, they are like the blooms of flowers carrying the seeds for next year’s crop. But what a diversity of shapes and colors on one morning alone! Below is a gallery of mushrooms, some beautiful, some homely, but all ready to disperse spores on the same damp morning.
Click on the photos to enlarge but I’m afraid I can only tentatively identify a couple of toxic ones. The tall, thin white one with a cap appears to be an early stage of the dramatically named DestroyingAngel (Amanita virosa)mushroom.It belongs to the toxic genus Amanita, which probably also includes the red or red-and-white mushrooms pictured here. And the green mushrooms on tree bark are probably a shelf fungus called Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).
Along with oaks and pines, the woods has many Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) with their distinctive 3-pronged leaves that smell like root beer when plucked. Sassafras evidently thrives in the sandy soil which underlies a Oak-Pine Barren like this. Here are the huge leaves of a tiny sapling trying to make the most of the forest light.
Nearby by, a black lump of mud seemed to jump in deep shade. Looking closer, I spotted a very small Eastern American Toad nicely camouflaged against the forest floor. See if you can spot it; it took me a minute when focusing my camera!
Here it is up close.
Near the top of the sledding hill, at the edge of the forest, native Bottlebrush Grass makes an appearance. The unusual shape of its “awns” (bristle-like appendages) seems to mimic the pine needles nearby and its pale stalk lights up in the smallest amount of sunlight.
Back Down the Big Hill: Sunshine and Prairie Plants
Emerging from the forest shade and descending into the bright sunlight at the bottom of the hill, you’re suddenly surrounded by dry prairie plants of all kinds. Right now, plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glow in the fall sunshine and native Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hover among the blossoms, making the most of late-season nectar.
All kinds of native grasses thrive from the top of the hill to the bottom – Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans).
A Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum rubicundulum) kept me company as I descended the hill, even quietly posing for a closeup on a beautiful stalk of Big Bluestem.
What I think was a Violet Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) hovered along the path as well. Damselflies seem to love places where a forest meets an open meadow.
Stopping back at the lake at the end of one walk, some frantic activity at the edge of the water caught my eye. Amazingly, four pairs of Ruby Meadowhawks were mating simultaneously! Linked together, each of the four pairs rose and fell, quickly dipping into the water and then zooming upward again. Here’s the best blurry photo I could get of the 4 pairs enacting their dragonfly drama.
A male begins the mating ritual by grasping onto the female right behind the head with pincers at the end of his abdomen. Then the two bend toward each other so that the female can extract sperm from the male’s abdomen, forming the mating wheel that I posted at Gallagher Creek a few weeks ago. I did get one closeup of one pair showing the male grasping his mate. Quite a sight, eh? Not much romance among dragonflies, it seems – but then they are called “dragon” flies…
In a large White Oak near the pond, the impressive paper nest of CommonAerial Yellow Jackets (Dolichovespula arenaria) hung among the leaves. This Yellow Jacket species is distinct from the ground-nesting Yellow Jackets of the species Vespula with which I’m more familiar. Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) make these gorgeous exposed nests too. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the inhabitants of this one, flying in and out, definitely have the yellow and black pattern of the Yellow Jacket. Isn’t it amazing how these insects chew wood pulp and shape it into these graceful spheres, filled with perfect hexagons and sturdy enough to survive all kinds of summer weather?
Four Seasons of Varied Recreation
I’ve featured here the natural richness of Lost Lake Nature Park. But beyond wonderful winter sledding (there’s a warming house too!), other recreational opportunities are also available. Kayaks for exploring the lake more closely can be rented from the Parks Department by registering at least one week in advance. Check info at this link. Whether you rent or bring your own kayak, there’s an easy-to-use launching platform on the floating dock that also makes kayaking easily accessible by people with disabilities.
Consider bringing a lunch to eat at the picnic tables in the shade near the water. Or fish in the sunshine from the floating dock (with a current license, of course).
The house you see from the parking lot is the home of the caretakers’ family and is a private residence. But on the lower level is the Nature Center which houses a project workroom and a display of taxidermy which allows children to see a coyote, skunk, owl, fox, heron and others up close. (Photo, copyrighted by CMNTv, is a screen shot from a YouTube video.)
The Nature Center is not open on a daily basis, though plans are afoot to expand its use with open houses and children’s day-camping. The PRC contracts with Dinosaur Hill to host field trips for Rochester school children each year. This year, area kindergarteners will be invited.
Lost Lake has lots to offer in any season. The PRC holds a variety of events here, including this fall, Yoga by the Lake, a Marsh Bird workshop, a Pumpkin Bowling Event and more. See the details in the Fall 2016 newsletter at this link. I hope to explore the edges of the lake and its wetlands in a kayak before winter comes. Maybe you’d enjoy a picnic after fishing, watching water birds or simply gazing into the golden heart of a waterlily. The short, steep trail through the forest to the top of the sledding hill and down will get your heart pumping in shady woodland landscape. Look for the hole of a local Pileated Woodpecker(Dryocopus pileatus) near the top of the hill. Or come sledding on a snowy Friday night under the lights or on a winter weekend afternoon with the kids. It’s your park so I hope you take time to enjoy it!
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.