Tag Archives: Joe Pye

Watershed Ridge Park: A July Morning of Shady Woods and Sunlit Meadows

Tick Trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) in profusion in the woods at Watershed Ridge Park

Watershed Ridge Park is still more of a glorious natural area than a park, because as yet, it has no parking lots or trails.  But first steps to make it one will begin before long. So on a  Saturday morning in mid-July, Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and I armed ourselves with bug repellent and headed out into the thick of it to see it in all its wild glory.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Regular readers of the Notebook will know that I like to make two or three trips to a park before posting a blog. But due to a currently tricky knee and very tall grass, I decided discretion was called for this time. So I’ll simply share the beauty we came across on one humid summer morning.

 

The Woods are Lovely, Dark and Deep…

It seems that nearly every time I’ve entered the woods at Watershed, I’ve heard the plaintive call of the Eastern Wood-Peewee (Contopus virens). It’s the perfect soundtrack for this rather mysterious woods full of old trees and patches of  moist wetlands.   Though I often hear this little bird in our parks, I couldn’t see one that morning, but here’s a shot from a couple years ago.

The Eastern Wood Pee-wee is often heard and not seen.

Deer are too plentiful at Watershed Ridge Park; few woodland wildflowers survive the deer’s constant foraging.  But sedges, the ancient grass-like plants that have survived for millennia, do thrive. Ben showed me a large patch of a graceful one called Carex tuckermanii, with little barrel-shaped flowers. Sedges are one of the most diverse plant groups in Michigan, but few have common names.

A graceful Carex sedge (Carex tuckermanii) in the woods at Watershed Ridge

A small butterfly, probably a Tawny-edged Skipper (Polites themistocles), paused in a spot of sunlight. Skippers always seem a bit stockier than other butterflies and the clubs on their antennae hook backwards at the tip, like a crochet hook. This species closely resembles the Crossline Skipper (Polites origenes), but since the Crossline prefers drier habitats, I think the one we saw was a Tawny-edged. The males can perch all day waiting for a female, so maybe this is a male who wanted to be in the spotlight.

I think this is a Tawny-edged Skipper waiting in a patch of sunlight, perhaps for a mate to spot it.

Dr. Parsons from MSU helped me identify two different “color-forms” of the aptly-named  Large Lace Border Moths (Scopula limboundata). I assume that both were spending the day dozing, since moths are nocturnal.  (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The  Little Wood Satyr butterfly (Megisto cymela) rested along the tree-line, just out of the bright sunlight in the meadow beyond. These little creatures bob jerkily in flight, but that flight pattern can take them high into the treetops as well as skipping from plant to plant in the meadow.

The Little Wood Satyr seems happiest between the woods and the fields.

Nearby in the dappled light a Grass Veneer moth (Crambus girardellus) made a stark white contrast on a leaf. Their caterpillars feed on grass roots so you don’t want them on your lawn, but out here they’re just kind of interesting. I think the head of this one looks a bit like a tiny dragon. You can see why these veneers are often called “snout moths.”

A Grass Veneer moth with a snout reminiscent of a tiny dragon

Each year at this park, we see one of the strangest plants I’ve met since I started doing the blog, a parasitic plant called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). It’s a completely white plant without chlorophyll so it can’t photosynthesize. Instead it taps into the tiny mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees underground and draws off sugars made by the photosynthesis of the tree’s leaves. Ben introduced me to this interesting plant a couple of years ago and he’s the one who spotted it along the tree line again. In the left photo below, it was just emerging from the soil when we visited this year. The right photo is a more mature version from Watershed Ridge in 2017.

Ben also spotted a solitary bee’s nest in the ground.  I’d never seen one that was this obvious before – the circle of sand and the bee-sized hole. Ground-nesting solitary bees feel no need to protect their nests, so they aren’t aggressive the way, for example, colony-nesting Yellow Jacket wasps (genus Vespula) and some social bees are.  According to the MSU Extension website , this might be the nest of ” mining bees, cellophane bees, digger bees, plasterer bees, sweat bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees,” all docile, essentially harmless bees who do a lot of pollinating in the spring.

The nest of a harmless, solitary, ground-nesting bee. Eastern American Toad nearby.

You might have noticed there’s a tiny Eastern American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus) sitting calmly at the edge of the bee’s nest. I moved closer once he settled beneath an oak leaf. He’s brown like most toads, but it turns out that their skin color can change in relationship to stress or a habitat’s color, humidity, or  temperature, making them vary from yellow to black and from solid-colors to speckled.

An Eastern American Toad, warts and all, paused beneath a sheltering oak leaf at the edge of the woods.

Out Into Tall Grass and Sunshine

A female Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) in the moist meadow at Watershed Ridge Park

Emerging from the woods, Ben and I waded into shoulder or waist-high grass and flowers. What abundance! And everywhere we saw butterflies rising and settling among the stems. We were lucky to see a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) which is somewhat different than the  American Painted Lady (Vanessa virginiensis) that I see more often. They look very much alike from the dorsal (upper) side. The distinguishing difference on the upper side is mainly one tiny spot on an orange section of the forewing on an American Painted Lady (left) which is missing on the Painted Lady. (Enlarge the photos by clicking on them to see the  somewhat faint arrows pointing to the areas on the wings.)

The differences in the ventral (lower) sides of the wings are easier to see. The American Painted Lady has two large spots at the edge of the hindwing. The Painted Lady has a row of four spots, and I love the delicacy of the webbing in the design!

Finally, we are beginning to see Fritillaries, a group of orange butterflies that grace the fields in mid-to-late summer. The one at Watershed Ridge Park was, I think, a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). It’s also very similar to another butterfly, the slightly smaller Aphrodite Frittilary (Speyeria aphrodite), but Jared C. Daniels’  Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide points out that the former has a wider yellow band near the bottom of the hindwing, so I’m sticking with that. I’m glad I have photographs to use for identification. The differences in some butterflies are very subtle!

A Great Spangled Fritillary sipping on Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

I was excited to see a Baltimore Checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas phaeton); I hadn’t seen  one in years. I understand from Butterflies of Michigan that their numbers are declining. Daniels attributes their disappearance to fragmented habitat and the disappearance of their favored host plant, Turtlehead (Chelone glabra),  which unfortunately is also a favorite of deer and sawflies. The Baltimore Checkerspot prefers to lays its eggs on Turtlehead and when the caterpillars hatch, the group makes a communal web where they spend the winter. They then finish their development in the spring. Below is a photo of a Turtlehead blossom from Gallagher Creek Park. Turtlehead grows at Watershed Ridge Park, but it doesn’t flower until later in the summer so we didn’t see it that morning.

Baltimore Checkerspots are declining in number due to habitat loss and loss of its favorite native plant for egg-laying, Turtlehead, seen below.
Turtlehead, a favorite host plant for the caterpillars of the Baltimore Checkerspot

In mid-July, this native Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) was barely beginning to show its dusty lavender flower head in the meadow next to the huge marsh. It has a matching purple stem, a useful field mark.

The first buds of Joe Pye appeared above its purple stem in mid-July.

Another interesting sedge spiraled up out of the greenery, Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea) with its bushy, twisting clusters of fruits.  It also found its perfect habitat in the wet soil near the bushes that wall off the meadow from the large, nearly impenetrable marsh.

Ben shows me the spiraling flowers of Fox Sedge, a plant that loves moist soil.

Ben and I also found some insect eggs on the underside of a grass stem.  We had no way of knowing which little caterpillar will emerge from these tiny, pearl-white balls.

Tiny insect eggs on the underside side of a grass leaf will hatch out into some sort of larva/caterpillar but we don’t know which species laid these tiny pearls.

Dragonflies were foraging and seeking mates in the moist meadow. It’s an ideal place for them since the females generally lay eggs on aquatic plants very quickly after mating. I’m fairly confident that this is an adult White-faced Dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum), as they are common in our area. They look very similar to several other species when they’re immature, but I’ve read in Wikipedia that the white front of the face is pretty definitive in the adults of this species.

A Meadowhawk dragonfly, probably a female White-faced Meadowhawk, pauses on bulrush (Scirpus pendulus).

A Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) paused on a stem for a moment.  I think this is an immature male because the male’s white spots between the brown on the wings are just beginning to form. Also the abdomen looks like a female’s, but has begun to develop the dusty white prunescence of the adult male at the tip of its abdomen which will eventually turn a bluish white.

A Twelve-spotted Skimmer  (Libellula pulchella), an immature male, I believe.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) played host to a Hoverfly (family Syrphidae) who will do a fine job of pollinating, second only to the bees. Though dressed in bee or wasp colors, hoverflies are readily identifiable by the two tiny antennae sticking out of the front of their heads, as opposed to a bee or wasp’s longer antennae on the sides of their heads.

A hoverfly sipping nectar from a Black-eyed Susan and pollinating in the process

Crossing Back through the Woods:  A Popular Native Rose and Glimpses of Birds in the Treetops

A seasonal creek exits the marsh and runs at the edge of the woods

Back in the shady coolness of the woods, we came across a native Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) that was a popular hangout for the local inhabitants! When we first spotted it, two Long-horned Flower Beetles (Strangalia luteicornis) had chosen it as an ideal spot for a very quick mating. According to Beetles of Eastern North America, a huge compendium by Arthur V. Evans, male beetles have lots of scent receptors in those lo-o-ong antennae.  They fly in a zigzag pattern until they come across the female’s scent and can use the sensors to home in on the exact location of the female. So this female was sending out mating signals even though she kept eating during the event itself! (Thanks again this week to Dr. Gary L. Parsons at MSU’s Entomology Department for providing the correct identification.  What a resource he is!)

Two Long-horned Beetles found a native rose a fine place to mate – and forage!

Once mated, they flew off, but one of them returned on its own for another probe of the blossom.  I wonder if it’s the female enjoying an uninterrupted feed?

One of the Long-horned Beetles returns to sip at the rose’s nectar after mating.

But alas, whoever it was ended up competing for the goodies with the larger Bumblebee (genus Bombus). It made several attempts to edge back on, but the bumblebee, its leg sacks packed with pollen, was not to be denied. Eventually they seemed to make a truce in which the bumblebee took center stage and the beetle perched at the periphery, probing a blossom with its antennae. Perhaps it was enjoying the scent since a beetle’s antennae are its main organs for both feeling and smell – and it couldn’t get quite close enough to eat!

A bumblebee takes center stage on the Pasture Rose with a Long-horned Beetle at the periphery probing, perhaps smelling, a stamen with its antenna.

I’ve always had trouble identifying native from non-native roses. While in the woods, Ben found both types quite close to each other. The leaf of the Pasture Rose (Rosa carolina) on the left has a tiny, straight prickles along the stem and smooth edges to the “stipule,” the out-growth wings at the bottom of a leaf stalk.  The stipule of the leaf on the right from the non-native Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora) has a hairy fringe along the edge its stipule, and the stems have sharp thorns that curve back instead of little prickles. Another reason to choose a native plant, eh? – at least in this case.  Multiflora roses can get very large and are seriously invasive, crowding or shading out other plants.  So this year for our yard,  I chose to plant  the native Pasture Rose which also spreads – but is welcome to do so at the edge of our woods since it contributes to recreating a native habitat .

The native Pasture Rose (left) has a smooth edge to the stipule at the base of the leaf stalk. The non-native Multiflora Rose has a stipule with a hairy fringe.

Ben knows many more birdsongs than I do and he heard the paired notes of the male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) high above us in the treetops. We tracked this way and that until we finally spotted him on a bare branch straight above us. According to Cornell Ornithology Lab of Ornithology, “Young Indigo Buntings learn their songs from males near where they settle to breed, and this leads to “song neighborhoods” in which all nearby males sing songs that are similar to each other and that are different from those sung more than a few hundred yards away.” Don’t you love the idea of “song neighborhoods?”

A male Indigo Bunting singing directly above us on a bare branch at Watershed Ridge

Ben also identified the song of a Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) and eventually we saw the male high up in the leafy branches. I never got a good photo that morning, but here’s one I took earlier this year at Magee Marsh in Ohio, plus a recording I made of the one we saw briefly singing in the treetops at Watershed Ridge Park. The loudest song in the recording is the Tanager’s with a fainter whistling reply from a nearby Northern Cardinal. Two red birds singing in tandem! (You may need to turn up your volume to hear the songs more clearly.)

A Scarlet Tanager at Magee Marsh earlier this year. I missed the one at Watershed Ridge.

Exiting the woods,we found the signs of a Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) dust bath in the dry ground at the edge of the farmer’s soybean field. Turkeys make a dust wallow and then crouch into it, actively ruffling their feathers to shake dust through them. Birds do this, according to a Stanford University birds website, in order to maintain their feathers by getting rid of excess oil, dead skin or other debris. Dusting may also get rid of itchy lice or mites but as yet, there isn’t evidence to prove that.

A dust wallow where wild turkeys took a dust bath to improve the condition of their feathers.

Here’s a short video that I found on YouTube of a family of wild turkeys using a dust wallow by a soybean field in Ontario.  My thanks to the videographer, Justin Hoffman,  for allowing it to be shared.

For now, a Walk on the Wild Side

The woods beyond the soybean fields at Watershed Ridge Park

Watershed Ridge Park is close to where I grew up on Lake George Road.  In fact, I rode my bike right past this spot many times as a child.  At that time though, over 60 years ago, two families had homes within what is now the perimeter of the park, so I never got out beyond the tilled fields or lawns to explore these nearby woods and meadows. So it always feels like a forbidden treat when I get to wander among this park’s shady woodlands with its multiple wetlands and seasonal stream. Wading through meadows lush with towering grasses and wildflowers, I feel like a child again. And it was a special treat to explore this as yet undeveloped park with Dr. Ben who brings along his eagle eyes, a good auditory memory for birdsong and lots of expert knowledge.

You too can experience a nature walk with Ben, of course. Each Wednesday morning, year ’round, our birding group heads out with him on our bird walks. He and the other knowledgeable birders in the group are always willing to share what they know with newcomers and Ben will happily loan you binoculars. The bird walk schedule is available above under “Stewardship Events” at this link.

We’ll let you know on the blog when the parking lot and first trails are finally ready at Watershed Ridge. I guarantee, it will be worth the wait!

The Milkweed Connection: A “Welcome Home” for Our Superhero Monarchs

Monarch on Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum)

Great news! Reports from the Monarch Butterfly wintering grounds in Mexico say that this will be another good year for Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our area! Monarchs of the Midwest and Northeast count on us to provide a big pulse of wildflowers with nectar to sip and lots of Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs are very choosy! Their caterpillars can only become butterflies by eating  the leaves of plants in the Milkweed family.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

In February, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted an interesting and  thorough presentation by Dr. Nate Haan of Michigan State University on the topic “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” So here’s  a bit of what he shared with us that might help you and I be prepared for the arrival of these beautiful pollinators. My thanks to Dr. Haan for his presentation and to the photographers cited in the captions of some photos below for helping me tell the amazing story of our “super generation” of Monarchs.

The Life of a Monarch from Egg to Adult

One end of the Monarch migration starts each late summer/ autumn here in Michigan and other Midwest and Northeastern states. Monarchs that traveled here in spring sip wildflower nectar, mate and lay eggs on the underside of milkweed  leaves. Their favorite milkweed is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), though any milkweed in the Asclepias species will do. More about that later.

A monarch butterfly egg on the underside of a Common Milkweed leaf (Photo by Merav Vonshak (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

Only about 2-10% of the Monarch eggs hatch in the fields, because they are food for a wide variety insects and spiders.  But for the lucky few, small caterpillars emerge from these eggs.  They begin by eating the egg itself and then going on to eat the leaves of the host milkweed plant. Milkweed has tiny silver hairs as a protection against predators, but over the eons Monarch caterpillars have learned to shave them off!  They then attach their hind end to the leaf and move in a half circle eating, which prevents most of them from getting stuck in the milky latex that gives milkweed its name. Then the little caterpillar molts, shedding its exoskeleton to become an increasingly more colorful and larger caterpillar. It takes them five molts to reach full size.

A Monarch caterpillar (probably a 2nd instar)  eating a milkweed leaf. Photo by permission from Tanya Harvey at http://westerncascades.com/2017/07/04/a-week-of-monarchs-and-milkweed-day-1/

The sticky, milky latex is the plant’s second defense against predators, because it can gum up a caterpillar’s mouth. But the fifth and last  molt of the Monarch caterpillar has found an even more effective way to defuse the threat than the first instar did. The large yellow and black fifth instar’s technique is to make a quick bite into the main vein of the leaf, releasing pressure and waiting until the liquid drains out.  Then they can continue to eat anywhere on the leaf. Here’s  my photo of a fifth instar eating Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) along the Paint Creek Trail.

A 5th instar Monarch caterpillar eating on Butterfly Milkweed

It takes 10-14 days for the caterpillar to complete 5 molts.  It then leaves the milkweed behind, finds a horizontal surface, attaches itself with a silk pad and molts again. This time the caterpillar creates an opaque green chrysalis with gold trim! The chrysalis hardens after a short time and the butterfly begins to develop inside. This pupal stage lasts for another 10-14 days.

A Monarch chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer Pam Kleinsasser (CC BY NC)

Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.

Monarch emerging from its translucent chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer gvelazco (CC BY-SA)
A Monarch butterfly taking off on a sunny afternoon

The Super Powers of our Monarch “Super Generation”

The Monarchs fluttering over our parks in August and September are gifted with two super powers: they live much longer than other Monarchs, and they can fly over 3000 miles to overwinter in Mexico. I’ve cited this quote from National Geographic before in discussing monarchs but it bears repeating. According to Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López, a research scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico “…when fall rolls around …, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.”

Monarchs arriving in central Mexico for the winter. Photo by Carlos Dominguez-Rodriquez (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org.

It can take up to two months for our Monarchs to reach the mountains of central Mexico. They spend the winter there, protected by the micro-climate created by Oyamel, or “Sacred” Fir trees (Abies religiosa).

Monarchs wintering in Mexico, photo by Mario Castañeda-Sánchez (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In the spring, our “super generation” monarchs then start the journey back to Michigan by flying as far north as Texas. After mating and laying eggs there, they die, and their offspring carry on the migration north. It takes four or five generations of Monarchs along the way, each living only 5-7 weeks (instead of 8 months!) for the last of our super-generation’s offspring to land with such exquisite delicacy on the wildflowers in our parks. As Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López says in National Geographic, “This makes the migrating monarchs so unique as they are the same species but for some reason live much longer.”

Monarch on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The Threats that Monarchs Face

A graph showing the general decline in the number of Monarch butterflies. Data from 1994-2003 were collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) in Mexico. Data from 2004-2019 were collected by the WWF-Telcel Alliance, in coordination with the Directorate of the MBBR. 2000-01 population number as reported by Garcia-Serrano et. al (The Monarch Butterfly : Biology and Conservation, 2004)
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.

Monarch numbers go up and down but sadly, over the last two decades the trend is generally downward as you can see above. So what’s the problem?  As usual, there are multiple factors. Dr. Haan named five:

  1. Logging in their overwintering area in Mexico makes surviving in the mountains more difficult. The Mexican government and non-governmental organizations are working on finding sustainable projects that can support local economic alternatives for people living in the Monarch’s wintering grounds.
  2. Less wildflowers and more agricultural crops in the Great Plains and Midwest states. This leaves less nectar resources to feed the Monarchs and fewer milkweed stems on which to lay eggs for successive generations. Some farmers are changing their approach to their grazing and crop land to accommodate the Monarch’s need for milkweed.
  3. According to the Monarch Joint Venture website, OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a parasite can get on the wings of adult Monarchs, who then spread this parasite on the milkweed leaves when they mate or lay eggs. If caterpillars eat the leaves, they become infected with the pathogen that can cause a developing Monarch’s wings to be too weak to get out of its chrysalis and may shorten the lives of adult Monarchs. Tropical forms of milkweed sold by nurseries tend to be associated with this parasite and they should be avoided. Dr. Haan reported also that  Monarchs bred from more tropical areas, like Florida, may carry OE, too.
  4. Insecticides used on garden plants can be lethal to butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects. Perhaps the greatest problem is milkweed loss in the Midwest, which is the core breeding habitat for Monarchs.  Milkweed used to be much more common around and on farms.
  5. In the late 1990’s many farmers turned to Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds which makes their crops resistant to Roundup.  This allows farmers to spray Roundup on their crops,  which kills milkweed along with other unwanted plants without hurting their crops.   As a result, Dr. Haan said, scientists estimate that 40% of the milkweed needed by Monarchs, is gone, maybe a billion stems in the last 20 years, which coincides with the decline in Monarch populations.
MilkweedInCorn_NateHaan
Milkweed used to be a common weed in crop fields. Illustration by Nate Haan.

So How Do We Help Our Friendly Local Monarchs?

Well, we can use less insecticide and when we do use it, follow directions carefully. We can avoid growing non-native milkweeds that carry the parasite OE. We can plant milkweed to support developing caterpillars and nectar-producing native flowers to feed the adult Monarchs. Coneflowers, asters and goldenrods, and many other prairie flowers that prefer medium to dry soil and full sunlight flourish just when the super generation of Monarchs is beefing up for the long migration. Of course, lots of other butterflies, bees and other pollinators loves these flowers too!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Varied Milkweed Species Feed Young Monarchs and Add Color to Our Fields and Gardens

Maybe the biggest  – and most beautiful – contribution we can make to the welfare of Monarch butterflies is to plant more milkweeds in our fields and gardens. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) multiplies both by the parachuting seeds we all loved as children and by its extensive network of roots. So it can spread too quickly to be a great garden plant. But it’s perfect in big sunny fields or natural areas.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

If you are lucky enough to have Common Milkweed on your property, it will help, Dr. Haan told us, if you trim/mow  down about a third of the milkweed stems on your property in late June or early July. He and his associate’s research shows that Monarchs prefer to lay more eggs on the tender stems that re-grow because they are easier to eat and more nutritious .

Graph showing how monarchs laid more eggs on new growth from milkweed stems mowed in mid-July (green-shaded area) than on milkweed unmowed (orange line) or mowed in mid-June (blue shaded area). Graph by Dr. Haan.

Since most of our milkweed plants are full grown by August, their leaves are old and tough and Monarch egg predators are present in large numbers. If you can trim or mow some of your milkweed plants in mid-summer, they will re-sprout and provide the softer leaves on which Monarchs like to plant their eggs in late July or early August for the migrating “Super Generation.” Those new stems also contain less predatory insects and spiders, meaning monarch eggs may have a better chance of surviving.

Luckily, If you’d like Monarchs in your yard or garden rather than a field, there are other kinds of milkweed for those settings. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) tends to stay in one place. It needs a dry to medium moisture level and lots of sun. And what a beautiful orange to match the Monarchs! Other butterflies and pollinators love them too, of course!

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a female Monarch

Swamp Milkweed aka Rose, Pink or Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) also loves sun, but as the word “Swamp” implies, it likes “wet feet” or at least medium to moist soil.

Swamp Milkweed blooming in August grows best in a moist spot.

If you have a shady area with medium to dry moisture levels, try planting the graceful Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exultata) with its cascade of bluish-white blossoms.

Unlike most milkweed, Poke Milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas.

Native plant nurseries (see the list in an earlier blog) can show you other native milkweeds as well. If possible, find ones that are Michigan genotypes since they will grow most easily and serve admirably as host plants for our Michigan Monarchs.

So Rewarding to Make a Difference, Isn’t It?

A “Super Generation” Monarch feeding on New England Aster before migration

Who knew, when I was a child, that milkweed plants would begin to diminish and the Monarchs would begin to decline as a result? And now we know, according to the recent summary of a biodiversity report, that as many as a million other species worldwide are in the same situation.

It’s easy to despair, I know – but let’s not! The best antidote to despair is always doing what you can in your own corner of the world and supporting others who share your concern for nature.

And in the case of the Monarch butterfly, it can be as simple as planting milkweed! Or it’s as easy as planting native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees in our yards instead of exotic plants. With no recent shared history, these exotic plants don’t always feed butterfly caterpillars and other beneficial native insects.  Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s changing the non-native turf of your own lawn into large gardens filled with colorful native plants with paths of mowed turf leading from one to the next. Or it’s maybe creating a native prairie out of an old agricultural field like our township stewardship crew and some nature-loving homeowners are doing.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July
Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018

All it takes is just caring, learning and getting started.  I’ve begun. The township parks stewardship crew has begun. Many of you have already begun.  What we can hope is that others will join us.

 

A Year in the Life of Wildflower Seeds

Collecting wildflower seed here in our township is an enjoyable, labor intensive activity that proceeds through several stages in all four seasons of the year. The flowers do all the work in the summer by producing their colorful blooms.  Then the humans – volunteers and Parks staff –  take over the work in the other three seasons by  harvesting, cleaning and sowing the seed.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Since we’ve just completed the cycle for 2018, I thought we’d share how this ancient cycle of work, organized each year by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our Natural Areas Stewardship manager, happens throughout the year.

Winter and Spring: Spreading Seed

Ben spreading seed at Bear Creek Nature Park after a prescribed burn in spring 2018.

Readers may remember the blog from last April, when Ben, his stewardship tech Alex Kreibel and I spread wildflower seed in Bear Creek Nature Park. We spent a cool spring morning sowing seed by hand as it’s been done for thousands of years.

For larger projects we might spread seed with a special native seed drill or broadcast spreader attached to a tractor.

loading the seed
When we seed our first prairie plantings at Charles Ilsley Park and Draper Twin Lake Park, we hired Jerry Stewart with Native Connections to do the planting. Here he is filling the machine with seed in 2015.

The seeds we spread take their time for the next few years, sprouting a bit of greenery to catch the sunlight as they grow deep roots. Those roots help them survive drought like all prairie plants. In a few years, when the roots have grown deep, the plants we sow finally bloom and produce more seed. Luckily, nature has also dispersed seeds for countless years. With a little help from us humans through prescribed fire or invasive plant control, native seeds already in the soil will also find their way to the sunlight and grow!

Summer: Blossoms Attract Pollinators

Plants mostly rely on wind and insects – beetles, flies, butterflies – to move pollen from one plant to the next. Pollination is the process by which male genetic material (in the pollen) is transferred from the anther of one plant to the female pistil of another plant (or in self-pollinating plants to pistils on the same plant). If the pollen lands on a compatible plant, it will germinate grow a pollen tube to conduct the sperm to the potential seeds (ovules) in the ovary of the second plant.

Big Bluestem blooms LL
Big Bluestem (Adropogon gerardii) shown here is a wind-pollinated plant. This pictures shows its anthers that produce pollen (bright yellow) and the stigmas that catch pollen (purple and fuzzy).

Wind-pollinated plants like grasses and some trees produce lots of pollen and cast it to the wind, taking a chance that a few grains will land in a receptive flower on another plant. But our insect-pollinated plants use a more targeted method to transfer pollen from one flower to the next. These plants create tempting blossoms full of color, scent, nectar and, of course, pollen to attract and reward pollinators, ensuring that some will be transported to another flower on the insect courier.

We’ll follow the three insect-pollinated plants below, from various parks,  through our seed collecting cycle: Joe Pye (Euthrochium maculatum), Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Autumn:  Voilà! Fertile Seeds Ready for Harvesting

Here are the same three wildflowers in their seeding phase in the early autumn.  (Please note that two of the three photos below were generously provided by iNaturalist photographers, Ken Potter and mikaelamazzeo94.)

And again, some readers will remember from a November blog  that while nature was dispersing seed through wind, water and gravity this autumn, we humans were out among them, snipping selectively.  Good stewardship requires gathering some native seed so that 1) the seeds get to spots that need native seed, often our active restoration areas where seeds might not reach on their own; and 2) so that the township can save a bit of money on expensive native wildflower seed!

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Winnowing Out the Seed by Hand – and Foot!

On December 6, 2018 the final stage of our seed collecting came to fruition as Ben taught us techniques for separating the seed from the plants to get them ready to spread. Volunteers and staff gathered at the Parks Department pole barn on Buell Road on a cold winter morning to push the dry stalks through various sizes of screening.

Volunteers in various stages of seed cleaning.

For some plants, that meant wearing leather gloves to rub the stalks against the screen so that the seed would fall into the tub underneath, as we did with White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) shown below.

For plants with sturdy structures, like the round heads of Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) below, it meant putting a screened box on a plastic  sheet on the floor and actually treading on the seed heads to help loosen the seed!

Ben treading on Menarda seed heads

Once the seeds were separated, they were turned over to Ben’s current stewardship specialist, Alyssa  Radzwion, and volunteer Dena Scher who poured the seeds into bags, labeled them with their scientific names and recorded the information.

Each species of seeds is weighed, labeled and readied for storage.

So here is our haul for this year!

Stewardship specialist Alyssa Radzwion with our stock of wild seed from 2018.

If we have more volunteers to gather seed  (hint, hint…), we could harvest even more in 2019! So consider the ancient pleasure of  sowing seed in the spring, gathering seed on an autumn day, and cleaning seed at a good old fashioned work bee next December. The hum of voices, the laughter, the earthy fragrances of different seeds – it’s a fun way to meet neighbors and help nature grow more of those beautiful wildflowers that are beginning to carpet our restored prairies. And to top it all off, you get to feel like a kid again as you rub, stomp and get covered in tiny silk parachutes!

Dr. Ben covered in the silky parachutes of common milkweed.

Watershed Ridge Park: A Knee-Deep Immersion in Nature

The knee-deep flowers and grasses of a meadow at Watershed Ridge

Watershed Ridge Park offers an adventurous, challenging hike on a hot summer day. No trails exist yet to lead you through Watershed, since it’s not yet developed. But you can park by the evergreen trees just east of the maintenance shed and explore from there (approximately 1664 W. Buell Rd). This park is named for a watershed boundary, a high point within the park, that causes precipitation to flow in two directions, ultimately feeding both Paint Creek and Stony Creek. The diversity of habitats is remarkable. Large areas of the park have agricultural fields that are tilled and planted by a local farmer, which helps keep invasive plants out until the area can be restored to natural habitat.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

But once I step out of the farm fields, the magic begins! A forest with vernal pools, a bright meadow, a boggy swamp shaded by trees, a seasonal stream, and a hidden marsh surrounded by a nearly impenetrable circle of native shrubs. So feel free to join me as I walk through some of this  wild and wonderful park on a hot summer day.

The Forest and Its Wetlands

I started down the edge of the farmer’s field to the west of the maintenance shed, walking carefully so as not to damage the Fogler’s soybeans. The field was dotted with wildflowers, like Pale-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus) which attracted the attention of the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis),  a butterfly that seems to be plentiful this year!

Pale-leaved Sunflowers shine in the shade under the trees that line the farmer’s field.
A Red-spotted Purple butterfly rests in the cool shade near the sunflowers.

Once I entered the cooler woods on the north edge of the field, I began to see blue-green wetlands shining in the dim, dappled light.

Blue-green wetlands glow in the distance as you enter the forest.

Oh yes, mosquitoes buzzed, but I patted on more insect repellent and headed for the water, because I knew that’s where I’d see the most wildlife. And sure enough, as I settled on a log near the water, a rustle behind me turned out to be a young White-tailed deer buck (Odocoileus virginianus) peering curiously at me from behind the greenery.

A young buck stares intently at me from the greenery near a wooded wetland in the forest.

I could hear an Eastern Wood-Pewee singing plaintively in the distance, a nice soundtrack for my entrance into a mysterious forest. A plop! at my feet made me aware of a young Green Frog (Rana clamitans), covered in Duckweed (genus Lemno), who’d been basking on a log just moments before.

A young Green Frog cools down among the Duckweed in a shady wetland.

Far out in the water, two Twelve-spotted Skimmer dragonflies (Libellula pulchellachased each other around a fallen willow until one finally settled for a moment. It was too far away for a good shot, so here’s my photo of a male in Bear Creek marsh several years ago.

A male Twelve-spotted Skimmer settles on a stalk in a marsh.

The forest wetlands were a busy location for courting that afternoon. A pair of Emerald Spreadwing damselflies (Lestes elatus) had evidently mated just before I arrived. Below you can see the female grasping the stem, her abdomen curled inward, preparing to lay eggs on a plant, while the male above keeps a wary eye for predators or other males.

The female Emerald Spreadwing Damselfly curls her abdomen to lay eggs on a plant while the male guards her from above.

It was hard to see how glamorous these Emerald Spreadwings are in the dim light, so I was pleased when a male landed in the sunlight nearby.

A male Emerald Spreadwing stops in the sunlight for a moment.

One of the stumps in the wetland was decorated with the wheel-shaped web of an Orb Weaver Spider (family Araneidae). It glowed in a ray of sunlight. According to Wikipedia, “Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Most orb-weavers tend to be active during the evening hours; they hide for most of the day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location.” Very tidy, eh? That might explain why I never saw the spider and there was virtually no detritus in the web. I’m not sure what to think about the extensive web on the stump below. A practice run?

The wheel-like web of an Orb Weaver spider

At the water’s edge, three “conks” of  Shelf/Polypore fungi shone white against the tracks in the wood, maybe the feeding galleries of emerald ash borer larvae .

Three shelf fungi “conks) on a log traced by a tunneling bark beetle.

Near another shady vernal pool wetland, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) gazing toward the water from a small piece of wood. Perhaps it was a fond last look since this little creature will soon move uphill a bit from the forest pool in which it hatched. Finding a place to hibernate under the leaf litter, it will freeze solid until spring. No heartbeat, no breathing, no movement. This seeming miracle is made possible by a glucose anti-freeze of sorts produced by its liver. As regular readers of the blog know, this strategy for survival never fails to astonish me.

Perhaps  this  tiny Wood Frog is contemplating its winter hibernation when it will freeze solid.

As I neared the edge of the woods, where it opens to the meadow, familiar plants were there to greet me.  I could have wished for less attention from Enchanter’s Nightshade, (Circaea canadensis) which at this time of the year is producing seed within burr-like fruits. Looking high into the trees, I strayed into a large patch and my socks were covered. For the rest of my walk, I became a transportation vehicle for Enchanter’s Nightshade fruits!

Enchanter’s Nightshade lies in wait for passersby to carry its seeds away to new locations.  My socks, for example, make a fine carrying device.

Another forest edge plant, Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), spreads its seed in a different way. Once the seed is mature, any disturbance can send its seeds flying up to three yards!

Once Jumpseed (pink flowers) produces mature seeds, bumping into the plants will propel the seeds up to 3 yards away.

Another native wildflower that hugs the forest edge, Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), is called Spotted Touch-Me-Not for the same reason. Its mature seeds also spring forth from the fruits when they are disturbed.

Jewelweed also throws out its seed when touched, earning its other name, Spotted Touch-me-not.

The Meadow that Slopes Down to the Marsh

The meadow that slopes down to a marsh at Watershed Ridge

Walking out into the hot, moist meadow, I found myself knee deep in dense grasses and flowers. The sunlit field was slashed with long dark shadows from the forest as I waded through the dense growth underfoot.  All around me, dragonflies patrolled the flower tops, since the presence of a meadow in which to show off their colors and flying skills and a nearby marsh full of vegetation is their perfect habitat for mating and laying eggs. Widow Skimmers and Meadowhawks (genus Sympetrum) were everywhere. [I suspect the Meadowhawks were Ruby Meadowhawks (Sympetrum rubicundulum) but I’ve learned they can be confused with others unless you capture them and look closely – which I’m not at all interested in doing!)

A female Widow Skimmer displays against a grass stem.
A female Meadowhawk in bright sunlight cools herself by positioning her wings and abdomen.
A male Meadowhawk nearer the marsh spreads his wings to attract a mate.

Tiny butterflies fluttered through the flower stems adding their bit of color to scene. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

As I struggled down toward the marsh, lifting my knees high to get through the lush tangle of stems, I begin to notice the plants near the marsh that love having “wet feet.” Mine, actually, were getting a bit wet, too!

Hearing sharp chipping calls behind me, I turned around to find an adult Song Sparrow  (Melospiza melodia) warning its offspring to stay out of sight. This may be a female since they often begin their molt later than males do. The youngster stayed out of sight within a nearby bush.

The adult Song Sparrow warned its youngster to stay hidden with a chipping call.

Adult birds can be a bit scarce in late July and August because many are molting a whole new set of feathers. They’re generally not a pretty sight in the process, I can tell you! They’re not hiding out of vanity, of course; they’re just more vulnerable as wing feathers are replaced. I could hear the “witchety, witchety” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)beyond the wall of native Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) which prevented me from seeing into the marsh. And a Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) “miaowed” from the Dogwood as well, making only a brief appearance. So I took the bird photos below in other parks at other times.

Ben’s Balancing Act in a Shady Swamp

Swamps are generally defined by ecologists as a forested wetland. Watershed Ridge Park has a beauty.  Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, put on his waders one afternoon and went to explore this habitat at Watershed Ridge while working on a plant inventory of the park. What an adventure! The water may look shallow, Ben told me later, but the muck beneath it can be very, very deep! To explore the swamp, Ben tested each step and only went into the water once he found firm footing. Otherwise, he stepped or jumped from one hummock to another. Some of the hummocks were made by  “windthrows,”  fallen trees uprooted by the wind which had become covered by vegetation. Others were made by stumps of trees that had probably been felled years ago and were now overgrown with plant material.

While moving from hummock to hummock, Ben spotted some interesting and unusual native plants. How about Duck Potato (Sagittaria latifolia), also known as Common Arrowhead? I know I’d never heard of that one before! Ducks and other creatures love to eat its submerged tubers which store nutrients for the flower’s regrowth and/or reproduction.  And since, we humans love our favorite tuber – potatoes –  why not the name Duck Potato?

Duck Potato, so named because ducks and others eat their submerged tubers.

Ben found another unusual little beauty in the swamp, a Wild Calla (Calla palustris). Wild Calla is the only species in the genus Calla which is within the family Araceae. That family includes what are commonly called Calla Lilies (though they aren’t true lilies or in the Calla genus) and our old friend Jack-in-the-pulpit. It appears that the Wild Calla in Ben’s photo below had already been pollinated because, like Jack-in-the-Pulpit, the flowers are disappearing, replaced by green, berry-like fruits that will turn red in the autumn. Such a find!

A Wild Calla whose flowers have already been fertilized .  The resulting green fruits will turn red in the autumn.

Ben also spotted a sedge that he’d never seen in our parks before. Sedges (plants in the family Cyperaceae) are a big family of plants that look like grasses or reeds, but have triangular-shaped stems instead of flat ones. Papyrus and Water Chestnuts are in the same family. What I enjoy about sedges is that they often have such interesting spikes, like the one Ben found, Tuckerman’s Sedge (Carex tuckermanii). It also appears to have finished flowering and started producing fruits.

Tuckerman’s Sedge, a grass-like plant in the Watershed swamp

Along with these rewarding finds in the Watershed swamp, Ben was treated to a snack of High-bush Blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) as he balanced precariously on top of those floating hummocks!

Ben was also rewarded with High-bush Blueberries as he explored the swamp.

His treat was only fair, really, since he had to carefully avoid the abundant Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) scattered through the swamp. While he came home with a small Poison Sumac rash, it was a small price to pay for discovering cool, new plants and wild blueberries as far as Ben was concerned. Poison Sumac takes the form of a shrub or small tree and  grows only  in very wet places like swamps and bogs. My thanks to Ben for exploring this Watershed habitat. I don’t think I’ll be pulling on my waders anytime soon…but I’m very glad he did!

Poison Sumac, photo by Mawkaroni at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

When sufficient rain falls, a small stream flows out of Watershed’s swamp and finds its way through the woods westward,  eventually feeding the marsh I spoke of earlier at the foot of the big meadow. It’s not an impressive stream, but it feeds the plants in the marsh, which brings the insects, which feed the birds…you get the idea. Nature depends on connections like that.

A small seasonal stream flows westward from the swamp to the marsh at the foot of the big meadow.

Time to Head Home

By now, my damp feet, my tired knees and my socks decorated with Enchanter’s Nightshade made me aware that it was time to leave.  So I trudged back up the meadow, through the dim woods where the Pee-wee still asked its question,  “Pee-weee?”, along the Fogler’s soy beans and across the lawn to the cornfield beyond the shed.  There a group of young Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) hung out on the cornstalks, moving restlessly like a bunch of rowdy teenagers, while their weary elders probably went on molting while hidden in the bushes and fields nearby.

The cornfield became a gathering place for young Red-winged Blackbirds.

I was standing next to a large tree stump when a juvenile House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) popped out of the vines that covered it.  This young bird  was a bit older than the plush-looking little Wren I’d seen at Stony Creek Ravine a few weeks ago.  But it was clear that the Watershed wren had still not quite grown into its beak. Surprised at how close I was, it hopped nervously for a moment, looked away, looked back – and popped back into the leafy cover. Caution won out over curiosity.

My Watershed adventure complete, I headed home, content that I’d experienced the natural world in the same way I’d relished it as a child growing up on Lake George Road. Yes, my arm had a few itchy spots here and there, my tired knees felt wobbly and water squished in my shoes –   but I’d meandered on paths of my own making,  out of sight of other humans, a quiet part of something wild and much older than I – and yet close enough to the kitchen at home that I’d be there in time for dinner. Thanks for coming along.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: inaturalist.org; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology 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, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, and others as cited in the text.

 

Case of the Missing Species: Bear Creek’s Fields and Forests from 1976 to Today

Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide recently surprised me with an intriguing document – a thorough natural history survey of what became Bear Creek Nature Park compiled in 1976 by a 14 year-old boy! Clearly, this boy was a remarkable naturalist. It turns out that’s not terribly surprising, since he is Mark Tomboulian, the son of former long-serving Parks commissioner, Alice Tomboulian, a remarkable naturalist in her own right. In 1976, the absentee landowner, Mr. Deveraux, rented out areas of his land to local farmers. The Tomboulians lived right across the road and Mr. Deveraux granted permission for exploration by the young naturalist and his family. The photo above left shows Alice and her children conducting nature study at the Deveraux property in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Mark is the center child. The right photo from 2016 shows two volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in what is now Bear Creek Nature Park. Bear Creek is still a great place to learn and explore!

Blog by Cam Mannino

As I browsed Mark’s hand-drawn maps and long lists of wildlife, I noticed birds and especially plants that no longer live in Bear Creek Nature Park, or are rarely seen. Since restoring our natural heritage is at the heart of the Parks Commission’s stewardship work, I thought I’d share with you what Mark saw in 1976 that is either missing or at best, more rare in Bear Creek Park today.

[Note:  Because the birds and plants in this blog are rare or missing in Bear Creek today,  I have no photos of them. So I’m using many photos by generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who permit others to share their work. Each photo is credited in the captions or text. My thanks to all these fine photographers.]

What Changed in Bear Creek’s Meadows?

1969 – Children on a field trip on the eastern path at Bear Creek, an agricultural field at the time.

The photo above was taken in 1969 as a school group went down through an agricultural field on what became the Eastern Path at Bear Creek. Mark must have traversed such a path in his childhood, too.  Mark’s maps show small areas of  “fallow fields” throughout the park where the native and non-native plants we see today survived in isolated patches.

2017 – Boneset and Joe Pye flourish along the same eastern path, which now traverses a meadow which hosts both native and non-native wildflowers.

Over the years since the land was purchased by the Parks and Recreation Commission, large areas of the park have steadily been restored. Controlled burns and protection from development have allowed native grasses and wildflowers to spread and flourish. The photo above of native Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) just off of the edge of the eastern path last summer is evidence that beautiful, natural meadows are thriving at Bear Creek.

It will take time to bring back the meadow and marsh birds that Mark was able to see during his childhood. When he was a little boy, the Northern Bob-white Quail (Colinus virginianus) whistled its rising two-note call, “Bob-white!” in the background of every summer day as small flocks foraged across the fields. Their numbers have declined by “roughly 85% between 1966 and 2014,” according to Wikipedia, due largely to habitat loss. Luckily, Bob-whites persist in states to the south and west in habitat where the land is disturbed by fire. These birds do well in newly grown grass that produces the seeds, cover and nesting materials they prefer. So if we’re lucky and continue restoration, perhaps we will hear their calls again on warm, sunny afternoons.

Northern Bob-white, a common bird at Bear Creek in 1976, is missing these days. (Photo by Greg Lasley CC BY-NC)

During the spring and summer 40 years ago, male Eastern Meadowlarks perched and sang on fenceposts, logs or treetops in Bear Creek’s meadows. Their descending, flute-like call with its many variations, complemented the rising call of the Bob-white. Meadowlarks usually have two, sometimes three mates at a time, so they have lots of singing to do! Today meadowlarks are quite scarce in our parks, but since they need at least 6 acres of grassland for each territory, perhaps the continued meadow restoration  will provide them with more nesting opportunities.

Eastern Meadowlark singing by Greg Lasly (CC BY-NC)

The glamorous Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), a popular non-native gamebird, used to stride through the fields and woods at Bear Creek Nature Park. These pheasants can rise almost vertically from the grass at a speed of up to 40 miles per hour! Their cackling call was a common occurrence in 1976, but is seldom heard in our parks these days. Female pheasants prefer to scrape out their shallow nests in tall grass where overhead predators can’t get at them. So as our native grasses take hold and fill the fields, these colorful birds may spring up again from Bear Creek’s meadows .

Ring-necked Pheasant by Dale Hameister CC BY-NC (1)
Ring-necked Pheasant, photo by Dale Hameister (CC BY-NC).

Mark Tomboulian saw four nests of the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) in the Bear Creek marsh in the spring of 1976. I’ve only seen a solitary bird that cruised the Center Pond more than 10 years ago. The Gallinule likes complex marshes and wetlands where it can walk on vegetation with its very long toes or dabble underwater like the Mallards. The Parks Commission efforts to return the marsh to its original habitat may mean that Gallinules raise their young there again in the future.

Common Gallinule by kakalotli (CC-BY-NC) (1)
Common Gallinule with its colorful beak and legs. Photo by kaklotli (CC BY-NC)

What Changed in Bear Creek’s Oak-Hickory Forest?

1979- Trillium and May Apple carpet the forest floor across Gunn Road from Bear Creek

In his book, Incredible Yesterdays, George Comps, who lived on the land that is now Bear Creek Park in the 1940’s, reported,  “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium).” The photo above , taken in 1979 by the Tamboulians, shows  Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) carpeting the forest floor 500 feet north of Bear Creek, across the road.

2012 – Bear Creek’s forest floor today with large bare areas.

The photo above  shows the largely bare forest floor of Bear Creek in May of 2012. Many forest wildflowers that Mark saw on the forest floor simply are no longer there.  Trilliums, for example, exist only in a few small patches  and in some years they don’t show up at all. What happened?

I’m afraid that a large part of the answer is deer. When Mark Tomboulian compiled his survey in 1976, deer were a rare and exciting sight in Oakland Township. But because of development and less deer hunting in the township, the deer population exploded. In the spring, hungry deer devour trillium and many other forest wildflowers before they can bloom. During the winter, they feed on the tiny, slow-growing oak saplings, a behavior that threatens the very future of our oak-hickory forest.  

Mark’s survey mentions a couple of woodland birds that we don’t see anymore in the oak-hickory forest. The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is known for attracting its mate by drumming the air with its cupped wings. The drumming sound is often compared to a sputtering motor, and can carry up to 1/4 mile!  (Turn up your volume and check out “male drumming” at this link.)  According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, in the far north part of its range, this interesting bird dives into deep snow to roost for the night! Quite interesting bird behavior!

The Ruffed Grouse needs young trees for cover and forage. As deer feed on young saplings, our aging forest is less appealing to them. Photo by Susan Elliott (CC BY NC)

Ruffed Grouse need young forests for both cover and food, so the aging of Bear Creek’s forest, exacerbated by the lack of young oaks and other saplings caused by deer browsing, works against the reappearance of Ruffed Grouse at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Alice Tomboulian recently told me that Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) used to nest on their property across from Bear Creek Nature Park, and Mark recorded seeing them on the park property in 1976. Alas, they are rarely seen at the park these days, though they are occasionally seen other places in Oakland County. These striking woodpeckers have developed some specialized skills. They can pluck insects out of the air in flight and they store nuts, seeds and the occasional grasshopper in cracks of bark for later use. Red-headed woodpeckers were plentiful in the 19th century; Audubon reported  100 shot from a cherry tree in 1840! But now their numbers are in decline and they are listed as “near threatened.” Scientific studies are needed to discover the cause and measures to increase their numbers. We can only hope that they return to Bear Creek which provides the snags (standing dead trees) they need for nesting and plenty of the acorns that they love to eat.

The Red-headed Woodpecker no longer nests in the forests of Bear Creek. Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY NC)

What’s changed most in the forests of Bear Creek since 1976, though, is that many wildflowers are simply missing. Imagine how colorful and interesting the floor of the oak-hickory forest would be if these forest flowers that Mark recorded could return to the uplands and wetlands under the forest canopy! (Click on pause button for captions.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Challenge of Restoring Our Natural Heritage

Western slope from the south
Western meadow in early September 2015

The meadows and marsh in Bear Creek are already well on their way to reclaiming their original diversity of native plants. Controlled burns and some invasive shrub control have already allowed many prairie and wetland plants to become more abundant. Ben and his volunteers monitor the health of the vernal pools each summer, keeping an eye on the amphibian and reptile communities. At some point, the invasive shrubs that crowd the big loop north of the Center Pond will need to be removed so that the original open meadow there can be restored. And yearly removal of invasive plants like Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) will need to continue throughout the park. But already we are enjoying the benefit of years of stewardship in these areas.

Oak-hickory forest in October

Restoring the ground cover and bird diversity in the oak-hickory forest presents a greater challenge. As long as large numbers of deer consume the wildflowers and small trees on the forest floor, the woods will age without renewal. Solutions aren’t obvious. Planting missing wildflowers or small trees is pointless if the deer population stays at its current level. Fertility control for deer is labor intensive, costly, requires continual repetition, and according to some biologists, has yet to be conclusively proven effective except in enclosures or on islands. (See the second footnote below for “pro” and “con” opinions.) Fences would have to be very high,  prevent the movement of other animals and alter a park’s natural appearance, while being costly to install and maintain over such large areas. And culling and/or hunting is resisted by many people, despite negative effects of high deer density on both human well-being and deer population health. Unless effective solutions are found and proven, it seems we will eventually have to choose. We can have either an uncontrolled deer population with all of its risks, or a lower density, balanced herd that allows us to enjoy both beautiful deer and striking woodland vistas with carpets of wildflowers. Tough decisions!

Meanwhile, we continue our stewardship work, doing the best we can to steadily restore the beauty and diversity that we’ve inherited from the past, passing it forward to future generations.

1.Footnote:   My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Managr Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.
2.For pros and cons of controlling deer fertility, I found these three websites useful. The first is a presentation made to the Ann Arbor government by the Humane Society supporting the idea.
https://www.a2gov.org/departments/community-services/PublishingImages/Pages/Deer-Management-Project-/HumaneSocietyUSCouncilPresentation07132015.pdf 
The second is the opposing view from a Professor CW Dick, a U-M biologist and director of the U-M Herbarium, though he stresses that in this article, he does necessarily represent the U-M's views on the subject, but his own.  
https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/cwdick-lab/2016/04/17/the-pseudoscience-of-non-lethal-deer-management/
The third is from Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, a group that formed to explore solutions for overabundant deer in Washtenaw County. https://www.wc4eb.org/what/herd-reduction/sterilization/