Letting Nature Breathe Again: Restoration at Cranberry Lake Park

North meadow at Cranberry Lake Park after forestry mowing

Ah, at last! The native trees and plants can breathe again! Many of the invasive shrubs that had crept across open areas at Cranberry Lake Park are gone. Now the sun washes across the landscape, rain sluices into the ground, nourishing the roots of native trees, grasses and wildflowers waiting for spring. As the carpet of mowed stems and branches decompose, the nutrition previously taken up by autumn olive, privet, glossy buckthorn and other non-native shrubs can gradually re-nourish the soil. The diverse wildlife that evolved with our native plants will once again benefit from the food and shelter that they’ve depended on for thousands of years. With the help of careful stewardship – treatment of non-native re-sprouts and the spreading of native seed – a habitat will be reborn.

So come have a a look at the new vistas in the park. I can’t show it all, but maybe I can give you taste of it. Along the way, we’ll see a few creatures that shared my walks during the mostly gray days of November and early December.

Miraculous Transformation Along the Hickory Lane

To appreciate the dramatic changes made by forestry mowing, here to the left is a typical view of most paths at Cranberry Lake Park before the restoration work began – and it’s not too scenic, I must say. A tangle of invasive shrubs and vines created very little nutrition for wildlife, left only a narrow edge along the path for native wildflowers and had spread thickly into the fields beyond the trails. The almost impenetrable density of the shrubs blocked views of wetlands and the open vistas of large trees that had existed before the invasive plants took over. The invasives also took up nutrients and shaded out native plants all over the park.

As I headed north from the parking lot at West Predmore Road and stepped into the Hickory Lane, I first noticed that I could see into a wetland that I’d struggled to reach from the opposite side last summer when a group of volunteers and staff monitored a vernal pool there. How nice to see it so clearly from this direction! Perhaps you can see the density of shrubs on the far side, which is what used to exist along the Hickory Lane.

A wetland along the Hickory Lane, now visible after the removal of invasive shrubs

The mature trees along the Hickory Lane, of course, were not touched and only a scrim of shrubs remain between them. Look at the contrast between the un-mowed left side and the open area in the distance on the right! I was immediately tempted out into that cleared meadow.

The Hickory Lane with recently mowed meadow on the right and dense shrubbery remaining on the left

I found a place to slip between the trees and look at the landscape that had appeared. I’d never seen this sight before!

Once dense with shrubs, this beautiful meadow with mature trees opened up before me.

I was elated! The large trees, once shrouded with thickets of invasive shrubs, now stood clear in the November light. I wandered across the shredded trunks and branches of the former thicket, looking down for any signs of native plants which had survived beneath that carpet of invasives. And even though it was early November then, I found two. The tiny evergreen plant popping out in the photo on the left below is named Haircap Moss (a Polytrichum species). These plants thrive in moist, partial shade so they may eventually disappear in this location and be replaced by more sun-friendly species. And on the right below is native Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) which does well in the sun. Its flowers provide sustenance for butterflies and moths in spring and its tiny berries do the same for wildlife in the summer.

This sprawling meadow is divided by a tree line and in the northern section, a huge Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) stood tall in the sunlight, freed at last from the tangle of invasives. It still had one intruder, though. One of the least welcome invasives, Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), hung in its branches. Though the mower had chopped it off near the ground, it will try to make a comeback since its seeds will drop to the ground or be carried all over the park by birds.

A huge Shagbark Hickory in the newly mowed field with a few strands of Oriental Bittersweet clinging to its branches.

This invasive vine spirals up tree trunks, choking them while climbing to the sunlight. It shades out growth below and since it accumulates in the canopy can make trees vulnerable to being toppled in high winds. I saw a smaller tree felled in just this way farther east in the park. (See below left.)The hickory will survive, but a nearby tree in the restored meadow (below right) was heavily infested with Bittersweet. Look at the number of berries that can be spread from one vine!

Now that the field has been forestry mowed, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his crew will take on the extensive follow-up processes to prevent re-sprouting by carefully applying herbicides to invasive shrubs like Bittersweet, or by girdling the trunks of non-native trees. Once that’s completed, native plant seeding can begin. We can do our part by not using Oriental Bittersweet for fall decorating and by cutting and treating any stems that appear near our homes.

The clearing of this wonderful meadow also brought the beauty of the Long Pond into view – a series of linked ponds that runs north and south on the eastern side of the restored meadow. What a treat to get close like this! I look forward to seeing the water glinting through the trees next summer and seeing the water fowl that drop in to forage or rest during migration.

The Long Pond from the eastern edge of the restored meadow beyond the Hickory Lanea vista not seen until the forestry mowing was completed.

Blue sky days were rare in November. Most of the time, the sun struggled to get through heavy cloud cover.

The sun was dimmed by dark clouds on three of my four trips to Cranberry Lake Park.

On one of those cold, dark days, when most birds were silent, I heard a gruff squeak repeated incessantly by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who fled from one tree near the Hickory Lane to another. (Click here and choose the December call recorded in New York near the bottom of the list for a sample.) I thought it might be issuing a warning but I couldn’t see a threat. Later however, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) eyeing me from high in a distant tree and wondered if it prompted the Red-belly’s call.

On one of the snowy, quiet days on the Hickory Lane, it cheered me to see the tracks of little animals who’d visited the lane just after the snow fell the previous night or early that morning. I wasn’t alone! I followed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) for quite a distance, a squirrel, probably the tiny Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), had bounded across the lane and a White-footed Deer Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had left its stitching tracks as it scurried diagonally across the spot where two paths met.

Opening Up the Path to Cranberry Lake

Like the Hickory Lane, the path to the lake had been crowded with non-native invasives. Once the forestry mower got to work, though, the lake could actually be glimpsed from far up the trail.

Along the trail in November and early December, birds were more heard than seen on dark cold days. Of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) still trumpeted overhead. I love it when they get close enough to hear the snap of their wings!

A squadron of Canada Geese honking their way to warmer climes.

Along with the usual year ’round inhabitants, I did get to see two more unusual birds , migrators that I’d missed earlier in the autumn. Early in November, the birding group spotted a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) high up in trees near the lake. The numbers of these pale-eyed blackbirds have “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years,” according to Cornell University’s website allaboutbirds.org. The ones near Cranberry Lake were too high for my lens to reach that day, but luckily I’d gotten a closer look back in 2017 at Bear Creek.

Rusty blackbird female at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2017. Note the pale eyes on these close relatives of the Grackle.

On one late November visit, a speckled Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) surprised me by stopping by so late in the season. Since they are known to like open areas in woods, maybe this one found Cranberry Lake Park a good stopover after a late start at migration.

A late-migrating Hermit Thrush

When the birding group reached Cranberry Lake early in the month, a bobbing flotilla of ducks floated in the distance.

Hundreds of ducks floated, fluttered and cruised along Cranberry Lake in early November

The ducks stayed out of the reach of even our binoculars. But some of the more expert birders were able to discern three species by the patterns and colors on their wings or heads: Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks. Later in the week, I was able to get a bit closer to the Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) when a friend let me cross his lawn on the far side of Cranberry Lake. (Thanks, George!)

Bufflehead ducks spend the winter with us wherever they can find open water.

My photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, shared his photos of a variety of ducks on open water at Stony Creek Metropark one January. Here are Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) hanging out with a larger group of Redheads (Aythya americana) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on a cold winter day. For Ring-necked ducks the white swoop on the flanks and the stripe at the base of the bill are good field marks for this black-and-white diving duck. Some Redheads spend the winter here, but most migrate to the Gulf coast.

Ring-necked ducks (the black-and-white ones) hanging out at Stony Creek Metropark with Redheads and Mallards.

Paul also shared some fine photos of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) who frequent Cranberry Lake as well as the lake in Stony Creek Metropark during the winter. Here’s a male and female Hooded Merganser and one of a lucky male who snagged a crayfish!

I found a photo of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) by a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org. These ducks may have been migrating through when the birding group saw them in early November. They tend to spend the winter along the Gulf Coast. The ruffled “cap” on the back of its head is what separates it from the very similar Greater Scaup.

That fuzzy little ridge at the top of the head makes this a Lesser Scaup instead of a Greater one! Photo by Robert Pyle (CC BY-NC)

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with their bulbous orange and black bills fed actively on the far side of Cranberry Lake. The Cornell All About Birds website describes the difficulties presented by these beautiful, but non-native birds. “Their aggressive behavior and voracious appetites often disturb local ecosystems, displace native species, and even pose a hazard to humans.” Our native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) were once endangered, and though Cornell Ornithology says they are “recovering,” they still have a hard time competing with Mute Swans. Trumpeters, which have solid black bills, breed in our area, but winter farther south.

A Quiet Walk Back Wakes Me to the Small Details of a Winter Walk

The last of autumn on Cranberry Lake Park’s eastern meadow in late November

On these four quiet days in the park, I didn’t see much wildlife on my way back through the park’s eastern section. When that happened, I looked more carefully downward and as usual I was rewarded by paying attention. Below a wooden walkway over a small wetland on the trail, leaves made a mosaic under a skim of ice. That’s the kind of detail I can miss when looking up.

The dry Showy Goldenrod plumes (Solidago speciosa) drew my attention to bands of late autumn color at the edge of the Eastern Meadow. Along the paths, fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), clad in their bead-like sori, contain the spores for next year’s crop.

Dry Wild Cucumber Vines (Echinocystis lobata) were draped like garlands across bushes here and there in the park. In summer, the vines look delicate and airy. In autumn, they produce the prickly seed capsules that give this plant its name. Each capsule opens in the fall, dropping four seeds from within its two chambers.

Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone Cylindrica) is a favorite of mine in early winter. I often miss its modest flowers in the spring. I begin to notice it when its small green center begins to extend into a cylinder as it forms its thimble-like fruit. I appreciate it most when colder weather prompts its seed head to burst forth in a cottony tuft filled with tiny black seeds.

So Exactly What is Being Restored at Cranberry Lake?

A thicket of native Gray Dogwood on the path back to the parking lot

At times, I’ve thought of restoration projects as similar to the restoration of an historic home. The work that Dr. Ben VanderWeide and our stewardship crew perform restores natural vistas that thrived here for thousands of years before European colonization. At Cranberry Lake Park we’re removing invasive shrubs and vines so that native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers can reestablish a mosaic of forest and meadows. That’s historic preservation, for sure!

But what’s essential to understand about the work being done in our parks is that it’s about much more.

One presenter at a Michigan Wildflower Conference compared nature’s intricate systems to the thousands of lines of code in your cellphone, each one of which depends on the performance of thousands of others to make the system work. Imagine, the presenter said, randomly removing just one line of code from your cellphone. You wouldn’t do it! The system might crash!

Nature spent eons perfecting its “coding,” creating a delicate balance that fed and sheltered a huge variety of life forms. Sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly, humans have removed one “line of code” after another from nature’s finely-tuned system. It’s happened everywhere on our small, blue planet, even right here in our yards and parks. Non-native plants introduced into our parks, fields, and gardens can act like an aggressive computer virus, spreading quickly, damaging nature’s finely balanced systems with destructive force.

So as we begin a new year, let’s celebrate that in our little spot on the globe, we’ve chosen to support stewardship and restoration in our natural areas. As the native wildflowers, trees and grasses that nature fostered for eons return to their rightful places, they provide a healthy foundation for the rebirth of our meadows, forests and wetlands. We can justifiably hope that with time and effort, some small part of nature’s intricate and carefully balanced “lines of code” can be restored to our ecosystem. If so, the myriad of complex relationships that once thrived here will again sustain the rich variety of life that nature planned for us.