Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Off-and-On Spring, a Prescribed Burn, and Two Special Bird Sightings

 

Flooding a week later

The Playground Pond flooding to the west after heavy spring rains

This Week at Bear Creek celebrated its first birthday this week. We’ve come full circle on the calendar exploring together what’s blooming, singing, buzzing and trotting through the park. I’ve had such a great time watching, asking questions of Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, reading your comments and pouring over books and blogs to research these pieces. I hope it has brought you some surprises and fresh insights, too. I’ve proposed to Ben that we widen the lens a bit this year and rather than focusing on one park, I’ll explore other parks in the township in a series we’re calling “Out and About in Oakland Township.” So watch for that coming soon!

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

But for now, let’s explore what’s been happening in Bear Creek for the last couple of weeks while I was reporting on Bear Creek history. Spring  arrived, retreated and struggled to make a comeback, no doubt confusing  the first migrating birds (one new to me!), singing frogs and emerging insects. A successful prescribed burn lit the Old Fields, returning nutrients to the earth and warming the soil with black ash.  It also provided some pretty nice hunting for birds of prey, including a second bird  I’d never seen before.

A Tentative Start to Spring: The Birds

Before we watch the migrators, here’s our old friend, the Black- capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) doing something fun. I learned a while ago that this little native can excavate holes in dead trees and/or trees with softer bark. And one cold morning, near the marsh closest to Snell Road, I spotted one doing just that. Notice the wood shavings on its head in the left photo and on its beak in the right photo. It was dropping the shavings on the ground as it worked diligently. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

Back to spring arrivals. The Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) returned, some practicing parts of their spring song, but mostly just searching in the wetlands and brush for something to eat!

One warm morning, an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor) shot out from under my feet and two days later I saw one probing with its long beak among thick vines and brambles at the edge of  the wetland below the benches on the south hill.  I’d never seen one in Bear Creek before! This oddly shaped bird, with its squared-off head and widely spaced eyes, stayed just out of sight in the underbrush. I’ll spare you my attempt at a photo. Here’s a much better one of the Woodcock from Cornell Lab! I hope to see this interesting bird doing  its “cool aerial mating dance,” as Ben calls it, at a stewardship birding event he’s planned for Cranberry Lake on Earth Day, April 22 at 7:30 pm (Mark your calendars!).

A flock of  migrators, the Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), with their light eyes and iridescent coats, seem to have taken over the marsh just north of the playground. Their calls, akin to the sound of a rusty gate, scrape the air as these large birds begin establishing territories.

Grackle in sunlight

The Grackles call, or “song,” sounds like the squeak of a rusty gate.

They share some wetlands with another summer visitor, the Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), who trills a sharp call while showing off his epaulets. Since the females hadn’t arrived last week, this guy seemed more focused on food one cold morning.

Red-winged blackbird in Autumn Olive

Male Red-winged Blackbirds are trilling in and around the wetlands to establish territories before the females arrive.

The Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)are performing their spring duets, since both the male and female trill a large variety of songs. Here’s a male near the marsh and then a recording of his lovely song which he began a few minutes later. (Be sure to increase your volume.)

Cardinal male

A male Cardinal near the marsh

And of course, I couldn’t resist a pair of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

The Frog Serenade Begins

The spring frogs have thawed out after being frozen all winter.  They are singing with abandon in every wet spot in the park, trying to attract their mates. During the day, we’re likely to hear either the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus) or the Western Chorus Frog (Pseudacris triseriata) or both. In this short sound recording, the high pitched continuous singing is the song of the Western Chorus Frog and the lower, almost conversational croaking is the song of the  Wood Frogs. 

Wood Frogs like to float in the water and sing, so look for concentric circles on the surface and you’ll often see the 2 – 2.5 inch male croaking. This one floated in the marsh west of the Snell entrance.

Wood frog in pond near house

A Wood Frog floating and singing in a marsh near the Snell entrance

The Western Chorus Frog is smaller, only 1 – 1.5 inches, but it has a mighty bubble at its throat as it sings.  I caught this one in mid-croak a year ago.

Chorus frog full cheep

Chorus frog full cheep

The water is deep at the Center Pond, so Painted Turtles (Chrysemys picta)have emerged from winter torpor under the mud to share whatever bits of logs are available in order to bask in the thin sunlight. I’m waiting to see how many hatchlings survived the winter in their shared nests!

Turtle threesome

Three on a log at the Center Pond

Plants Sprouting, A Risk-taking Caterpillar and a Very Tiny Spider!

Frost in late March

Frost in late March

The last week of March thick frost covered all of last year’s plants at Bear Creek, including a Goldenrod Ball Gall missing its larval inhabitant and one of last year’s Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) dried blossoms.

But the sun came out and this year’s plants began to emerge. Each spring I look for the first fascinating but homely Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidusaround the marsh at the western entrance to the Oak-Hickory forest.  And there it was, nosing its way out of the mud.

Skunk Cabbage2

Skunk Cabbage is one of the first plants of spring.

Nearby, on the path behind the Center Pond, a minuscule spider worked diligently on its web strung between two branches of native Pussy Willow (Salix discolor). And some sort of caterpillar appeared as well, which might be that of the striking Virginia Ctenucha Moth. The caterpillars of this moth feed on grasses and sedges and are often found in open fields in early spring and fall.

Over near Snell Road, I spotted some lovely catkins and Ben tells me I’ve found Hazelnut (Corylus americana), a plant that George Comps harvested for nuts when he lived on this piece of land in the 1940’s. The long yellow ones are male flowers and if you look closely, you’ll see small red ones that are female – both on the same plant.

American Hazel catkins

American Hazel with long golden male catkins and inconspicuous red female flowers.

Up in the new native bed near the pavilion, transplanted last fall from a generous donor, the lovely little Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) bloomed quietly one warm morning.

Hepatica closeup

Hepatica in the newest native bed next to the pavilion

Prescribed Burn:  A Boost for Native Plants

Last week Dr. Ben, township staff and 6 volunteers conducted a prescribed burn down the center of the southern part of Bear Creek, to the left and right of the Walnut Lane. Many native plants in our area are adapted to fire from natural sources and thousands of years of clearing and fertilizing with fire by local Native American communities.  In fact, many native plants form buds underground that allow them to sprout vigorously after fire. Non-native plants and invasives may or may not be fire-adapted, so periodic burning can be a setback for them.

Heidi dripping fire

Volunteer, Heidi Patterson, drips a low flame to start the blaze while other fire crew members stand by with water.

Fire also returns to the earth the nutrients in dead material from the previous year and provides a black ash surface that absorbs heat from the sun (solar radiation), giving plants a longer growing season.

Dr. Ben serves as “fire boss” for our crew and trained these volunteers during the winter. It was wonderful to see them do such a careful, well-coordinated burn, while saving the township the cost of hiring a burn crew. Thank you to volunteers Steve Powell, David Lazar, Antonio Xeira, Dioniza Toth-Reinalt, Heidi Paterson, and Jim Lloyd, plus Township staff member Jeff Johnson, and of course Dr. Ben for a stewardship job well done!

About that Hawk and its Fellow Hunter…

Avian hunters were super appreciative of the burn! A large Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched calmly on a limb as the smoke floated up from the  fires below. As Ben pointed out, she knew it would make finding her prey so much easier!

Red Tailed Hawk Hunting after Fire

Red-tailed Hawk watches the field “like a hawk” looking for prey during the prescribed burn.

A  female American Kestrel (Falco sparvarius) found a mole after the fire and took it up into a tree on the eastern edge of the Old Field.  Kestrels are the smallest North American falcons and are declining in some of their range due partly to predation by hawks and even crows – so it’s great to see one at Bear Creek.  Kestrels are known to cache some of their food, but after the winter months, this one seemed very determined to have a meal!  (Thanks to Ben for ID of this bird and the caterpillar above!)

Sharp-shinned Hawk w a mole

An American Kestrel found a mole for dinner after the prescribed burn.

From One Spring to the Next

Tree in puddle

Black Walnut Tree reflected in a puddle after heavy rainstorms

So thank you for circling the year with me at Bear Creek. It’s difficult to choose favorite moments because every season has its joys.  I know I’ll remember the bulge of the Chorus Frog’s throat in early spring, the head of a Cedar Waxwing protruding from her nest in early summer, two baby wrens taking a dust bath on the Walnut Lane, the Western Slope covered with Monarch butterflies hanging from purple New England Asters in autumn, and learning how muskrats cruise under winter ice and frogs freeze solid before resurrecting in the spring. If you have favorite moments, photos, new realizations, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.

But let’s be off to another year!  We’ll keep periodically visiting Bear Creek, of course, but also venture out to Lost Lake Nature Park, Cranberry Lake Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Gallagher Creek Park, Marsh View Park, and the Paint Creek Trail to see all the diversity our green gem of a township has to offer!  Now I’m off to see if I can find some warblers…

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.

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Bear Creek 75 Years Ago

BC View of House 1939 (1)

The farm house at what is now Bear Creek Nature Park as it appeared in 1939.

Long before 107 acre Bear Creek Nature Park had official trails or a play area or decks at the marsh, it was a farm with chickens, ducks, cows, orchards and a garden. The Comps family rented the house on that farm from 1939 until they moved to their own home on Silver Bell Road in 1959. George Comps, a boy when the family moved there,  wrote a long book called Incredible Yesterdays (published by Ravenswood Press, 1997) about his years on that piece of land. The book is available at the Rochester Hills Library in their local history room,  the Oakland Township Historical Society and the Rochester Hills Historical Museum.   All the quotes and black-and-white photos below are from Mr. Comps’ book, whose long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton gave me permission to use photos and quotes.

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

What an intriguing look Incredible Yesterdays provides of Oakland Township’s oldest publicly protected park as it existed 75 years ago! Bear Creek’s land was a source of sustenance, heat, income, play, beauty and peace for the Comps family during difficult times. So join me for a short visit to Bear Creek as it looked during the Great Depression and through the Second World War (current map of Bear Creek here).  It was a very different world, but oddly familiar.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Warmth and Food!

In 1939, during the Great Depression, the elder Mr. Comps lost his job and the family moved from Rochester to the home you see in the photo at the top of today’s blog. The Great Depression made life challenging for the Comps family. Unlike their house in town, this house had no electricity, no running water and no central heat at that point! But the owner, Mr. Devereaux, agreed to let them stay rent free for a year if they fixed the place up. So the maple syrup buckets on the trees in the photo no doubt provided a sweet treat much appreciated by the family!

Path through Oak-Hickory forest

The woods where the Comps’ family cut wood to heat their home in 1939.

The house was heated with a wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. “We burned wood that we cut back in the woods. When we first started cutting it was fun because it was something different, but later it got to be a real chore, hard work … Most of the wood we cut was oak and it was so hard it dulled the saw in a hurry.”

Shagbark Hickory nuts

Hickory nuts at Bear Creek were a source of food in 1939 and still grow in the park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The many trees on the farm provided food as well  as heat. And many of those tree species survive on the farm today. “Being we had an abundance of nut trees and bushes on the farm, we kids decided to gather as many as we could. There were hickory, walnut and butternut trees and many hazel nut bushes. We gathered nuts every year and spent a lot of time shucking them so we could dry them and have nuts to crack and eat in the winter.”

Honey bee with jodpurs

Bees provided the honey the family found in a huge “bee tree,” an oak they cut down to get to the honey.

Sweets are always in big demand for a family so Dad and the boys went one winter night to chop down a huge oak to get at the bees’ nest inside. “When we got to the tree, there weren’t any bees to be found on the outside. Dad rapped the tree a few times and some did crawl out but it was too cold for them to fly … He said we’d have to cut the tree down to get to the honey. We could use the wood for heat.  This tree was a huge oak about six feet in diameter at the base and extremely tall … Dad carefully took out the combs of honey and put them into the washtub we had brought along for just that purpose.”

Umbrella mushrooms in colony

There were mushrooms on the farm, but Comps’ mother decided not to eat them, not being sure they were edible.

Two Italian men came to the house shortly after the family moved in asking for permission to hunt for mushrooms. Permission granted, “They did come, several days in a row, and they always had a big basket of mushrooms.” Mrs. Comps’ didn’t charge the gentlemen for their mushrooms and when they offered her some for the family, she graciously accepted them, but then decided she wasn’t quite sure they were edible and threw them away – a wise thing to do if you don’t know much about mushrooms.

Hunters also came to hunt pheasants because at that time open fields and remnants stands of native grasses, like the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in the photo below, would have provided lots of ideal cover for them.

Big Blue Stem

Big Bluestem, a typical prairie grass that was probably more common in Oakland Township in the 1940s.

And of course the family had a garden as well. So the land that later became Bear Creek served the family well in terms of warmth and nourishment.

What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s:  Beauty!

Despite the hardships of the Depression, the Comps family made time for simple pleasures. When the skies were darker at night in Oakland Township than they are now, the family enjoyed the startling beauty of the Northern Lights. “It was an astounding sight when the sky would light up with all the colors from all around. The streaks of light would shoot up so strong and even from the south and make it look like you were standing under an umbrella of light. Directly overhead the shafts of light would meet but wouldn’t come together, creating a hole in the display … Just awe inspiring.”  sunset!The skies in Bear Creek are still beautiful, but brighter night skies from nearby development makes seeing the northern lights a rare occurrence these days.

Mr. Comps remembered the steep hill sloping down to Gunn Road in the northern part of the Oak-Hickory forest. There he and his sister  came across “hundreds” of garter snakes “curled up,” basking in the spring sunlight and named it “Snake Hill.” He said,  “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium)” and the children picked some on Snake Hill to add to their Mother’s Day gift bouquet. Alas, deer eat trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and other native woodland plants – and  now trillium are found only in a few spots in the park. And in 20 years, I’ve never seen that many garter snakes! On a high hill on the east of the farm,  probably where houses stand today, George found “wild columbine on a big hill” and transplanted some to his mother’s garden. (Hover cursor over photos for captions.  Click on photos to enlarge.)

 

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Pocket Money

Lots of animals that we’ve come to appreciate now were just considered “varmints” by farmers when the Comps children lived on the farm. Ridding the neighborhood of these “pests” was a way to earn a bit of pocket money. Crows were disliked by farmers because as Mr. Comps put it,  they “would follow behind the farmer’s corn planter and dig up the kernels, eating them as fast as he planted them.”  So in those days, Oakland Township paid a bounty that could be collected at the little store in Goodison. “They paid a dime for a rat tail, a dime for baby rats, a dime for a crow’s head and a quarter for a pair of groundhog  ears.”

Muskrats pelts had value too. George’s older brother, Bud, trapped muskrats in the pond and the swamps.  At first, he didn’t have the knack.  But “After talking to the Old Timers at the Goodison store, he gained valuable information about where to put the traps and how to secure them … On his second trip to gather his loot he did very well.” Skinning and preparing the pelts for drying was “more than he bargained for” but he did it for two winters and “gave  the money to mom to help alleviate the strain on the budget.”  So nature provided a little assistance in a hard time for many families – but I’m glad now these creatures can live peacefully in their native homes.

muskrat closeup2

A muskrat peacefully cruising through the duckweed, safe from losing its pelt like it did in earlier times.

What Nature Provided in the 1940s:  Fun! Excitement!

Some of the fun in those days was a bit tough on nature. George Comps remembered “… frog hunting late at night and using barrel staves for hitting the frogs.”

But those barrel staves also made skis for sailing down the western slope on a snowy day. “The big hill was too steep to cultivate and the grass was short from the cattle grazing, thus making it a good place to go skiing and with deep snow, it could be excellent.” The western slope also provided a great place for constructing snowmen.  “… this was the spot we started the snowball  and by the time we got to the bottom the ball was so big we couldn’t move it …  It kept on rolling, getting larger as it went down hill.” The children sensibly started the second snowball only halfway down the hill to make the snowman’s head! Nowadays I see evidence of kids sledding on that hill and still see the occasional remains of much smaller snowmen.

Kids weren’t quite as squeamish about nature adventures in the 1940s. One day the children went swimming in the Center Pond (which they called “Our Little Lake”) and came out with leeches on their legs (turtles show up with them these days!).  After that they just brought a salt shaker with them because salting the “bloodsuckers” made them fall off!  They actually built an earthen dam to make the pond a bit deeper.  It became their place “to go ice skating in the winter and in summer we played on a homemade raft.”

When summer dried Bear Creek marsh (which they called Bear/Bare Swamp), “we could walk all over the swamp.  The grass was so tall we couldn’t see out.”  They came across various snakes, “mostly blue racers.  We were never afraid of them because they were so fast and afraid of humans so they always went slithering on ahead of us.” The marsh no longer dries completely in the summer but the grasses and reed do get tall!

Marsh in Sept_edited-1

The marsh dried in summers in the 1940s.

They’d “go to the stone pile by the swamp [Bear Creek Marsh] and find a soft rock that we used for chalk…we’d take it to the house and break it up so we could handle it.”

Whistle swamp from the lane

A wetland where the Comps made willow whistles.

Nearer to the house, was “Whistle Swamp” so named because “… Dad took us there and showed us how to make whistles from the willow branches. This could be done only in the early spring when the bark…was loose and we could slip it off very easily.”  “Whistle Swamp” seems to be the wetland west of the Walnut Lane, about halfway down.

Grass fires – which children find very exciting and terrify adults –  have always been a part of Oakland Township’s  “Oak Savanna” landscape – some natural, some used by Native Americans to clear and fertilize land. Later, after European settlers arrived and began to develop the area, the Comps family experienced fires in the prairies along that railroad, sparked by trains that passed through Goodison. “Spring was always a time when there were lots of grass fires, especially along the railroad tracks in the valley.”

Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans)

Indiangrass, a beautiful native grass that lends color to the late summer landscape.

Current Parks Commissioner Barkham also remembers seeing smoke repeatedly during the summers when she was a girl years later,  as sparks from the trains made tall grass along the tracks catch fire.  And imagine, no township fire department, just locals with brooms and shovels! That’s one reason we still have so many beautiful native plants growing along the Paint Creek Trail now! Many of our native plant communities depend on fire, whereas some invasive plants do not.  The Parks and Recreation Commission now depends on safe, controlled prescribed burns instead of wildfires to hold onto our natural heritage, the amazing diversity of native plant and animals in Oakland Township.

What Nature Provided in 1940s :  The Under-appreciated “Swamp”

In the 1940s wetlands were often seen as a problem and drained.  Now we know they are crucial and beneficial for erosion control, fisheries,  wildlife habitat, flood control, ground water filtering, native and rare species habitat  and much more. The Comps affectionately named lots of “swamps” on the farm. True swamps  are forested wetlands with standing water at least part of the year, while wet meadow and marsh more accurately describe other wetlands that Mr. Comps explored at Bear Creek. I can’t be sure I’ve located all these correctly, but what follows are a few of George Comps’ “swamps” today.

West of the house was the hay barn, where the cows that grazed the western slope presumably were kept.  That area now is the playground field near Snell Road; the road is much wider now than it was in the 1940s. Behind the barn in the center photo below you can see the tops of two giant oaks that are still there.  Those giants stand over the marsh that the Comps’ children called “the barn swamp.”  Mr. Comps mentions that Michigan Holly, a native bush, grew in the middle of that area, so I’ll look for it in the spring!

“On the east side of the swamp…were two big oak trees.  They grew about half way down the bank and their branches hung just a few feet above the ground at the top of the hill.  We used to hang on the branches and bounce up and down.”  Seventy-five more years have taken a toll as you’ll see at left below.  I’m guessing that what Mr. Comps refers to as “the lane” was somewhere near the path that starts north of the playground and goes all the way to Center Pond. Our Playground Pond on the right is likely what he refers to as the “Lane Swamp.”

“Across from it was The Duck Swamp where all Mike’s ducks would go when they wanted to take to water.” Since this one’s so close to the house location, I’m thinking that his younger brother’s domestic ducks took off to the wetland just west of the Snell path into the park where Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) were singing lustily this week.

Pond near the house Mike's ducks

A true “swamp” is a forested wetland with a mix of live trees and standing dead trees, or snags. The family’s domestic ducks took off to “Duck Swamp.”

Or perhaps he meant the wetland, just north of there, where today woodpeckers are constantly drilling in the trees. Not much open water for ducks now, though.  It’s filled in with native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Lane Swamp

This could also be “Duck Swamp” though it’s a bit farther from the house site.

One thing we do know is that the  “Walnut Lane” I refer to was “the lane” when the Comps children played on the farm. Mr. Comps describes going out on a moonlight walk with his sister when they were young.  “We started out and went down the lane because it was easier walking.  When we got to the lake, we heard an owl hoot and it sounded very close.  At the end of the lane was a big huge oak tree and we stopped and listened. It hooted again and we spotted it sitting on the edge of a low branch.”

white oak at center pond

The same “big huge oak,” that George Comps saw near the Center Pond 75 years ago – only “bigger and huger” now!

The “Little Lake,” our Center Pond now,  shows how different the landscape looked when Bear Creek was farmed 75 years ago.  Here’s another view of “The Little Lake” in 1940 and a closer shot of it today.  Now the pond is surrounded by trees and thickets of dense bushes, some native ones and many invasive shrubs.  The cultivated fields, once grazed by cattle or mowed for hay, are now full of wildflowers,  again some native, many non-native, and some invasive.

Big Rock n side pondWhen the Comps children took the moonlit walk to the Little Lake,  George Comps waited on the south side of the lake while his sister found her favorite place on “the Big Rock” on the north side of the pond.  Today, that rock, I’m quite sure, is still here, a short distance up the northern loop and surrounded by invasive bushes.  George’s sister sat there to watch the water.   Today, it can’t be sat upon and the view is obscured by woody shrubs.  Eventually, stewardship will bring back some of openness that the Comps children enjoyed, though rather than simply grazed fields, we hope for widely spaced trees and native wildflowers with their faces to the sun.

What Bear Creek Provides Today:  Peaceful Beauty

We, of course, don’t rely on Bear Creek Nature Park in the same way the Comps family had to, for food, warmth and pocket money. But it still provides its bounty for us by filtering and slowing stormwater, housing bees and other native pollinators to tend our crops, providing us with a healthy respite from our busy lives and many other ways. We leave the flowers and nuts to seed again and the bees, muskrats, crows and ground hogs live undisturbed within its boundaries. But they and all of the nature at Bear Creek still share the same beauty and peace that the Comps family treasured 75 years ago. “Mom liked to go wandering down to the woods. She was a decidedly observant person and never missed a thing when it came to nature.  This was her way to relax and get away from the trials and tribulations of the day to day problems…” All of us who enjoy Bear Creek benefit in just the same way today.

My thanks to Mr. Comps for writing down such a lively and frank account of life on a plot of land much beloved by our citizens  – and to his long-time friend,  Janet Potton, who gave me permission to use photos and quotes from the book.