Tag Archives: Little Bluestem

Worried About the Planet? Let’s Make a Difference One Garden at a Time.

It’s admittedly a worrisome time for those of us  who love our small, blue planet. Devastating fires, raging floods, 30 billion fewer birds in the last 50 years, a UN report that 100 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction within decades. According to Eduardo Brondizio at Indiana University, half a million species have “insufficient habitat for long-term survival.” Their best hope is restoration of their habitat.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Aha! Now here’s something you and I can do something about! And we can do it without leaving home, or participating in protests or influencing recalcitrant politicians. We can enrich the habitat right beyond our kitchen windows. And it won’t take sacrifice – in fact, it’s rewarding! It won’t take giant sums of money or raising taxes. All it takes, dear kindred spirits, is adding native plants to our gardens and yards – as many as we can plant each year. By doing so, we can make a HUGE difference to the survival of species. Stick with me here. The news keeps getting more hopeful as we move along.

Is Your Yard Full of Non-native Plants?  Mine Is…

I’m betting your garden is a lot like mine – filled with non-native trees, grass, shrubs and flowers that evolved in distant countries.  I’m thinking of common garden plants like Lilacs (Syringa vulgaris) from the Balkans in Southeastern Europe, Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from eastern Asia,  or Vinca (Vinca minor) from Europe, Africa and Asia.  Take a short world tour in this slideshow and discover where a few of our most popular garden plants originated. [Use pause button for time to read captions.)

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Our non-native, international gardens look lovely;  butterflies sip nectar from the flowers and insects never leave a hole in the leaves.  The turf grass looks like a seamless green carpet if we fertilize it and water it regularly.  So what’s the problem?

Well, in their homelands, our non-native plants were not a problem.  They did just what nature asks plant to do – pass on  the sun’s energy (through photosynthesis) to all the other organisms in their habitat that can’t do that.  In its native Europe, invasive Phragmites (Phragmites australis subspecies australis), for example,  supports over 170 insect species. But not here! Here the invasive, non-native grass crowding every wet roadside supports only 5 species – and it’s been here for centuries!

Burning won’t kill phragmites! Here, we’re using controlled burning to remove dead Phragmites that was treated in fall 2014. We remove dead material in the hope that native plants may emerge.

Problem: Our Gardens are Missing One Essential Feature – Plentiful Caterpillars

Now you may be thinking, “Caterpillars eat holes in leaves! The lack of caterpillars is not a problem!!!” Well, actually, it is. Like me, you’ve probably always thought of your garden or lawn as an artistic or decorative enterprise. And it should be! We all need beauty around us. But nature needs our garden flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to be productive, as well as beautiful. Our yards also need to nourish creatures large and small who live around us. The sad truth is that  most of our gardens are green, colorful food deserts that leave nature hungry and malnourished. Luckily, we can easily change that!

Insects: “The Little Things that Run the World”

Insects, including butterflies, moths, and many other pollinators keep an ecosystem fed. They really are, as the famous biologist E.O. Wilson said, “the little things that run the world.” An insect’s chubby caterpillars chewing and hunching along a plant stem provide essential food for the whole web of life. Birds stuff them down the scrawny throats of baby birds; caterpillars are soft and filled with the fat and protein nestlings need. Adult birds snag insects from the air, pluck them off the ground, and snatch them from leaves. They even spend winter days probing loose bark looking for frozen insect eggs or caterpillars to get the protein that helps keep their small bodies warm on icy nights.

Without enough caterpillars, birds won’t lay a full clutch of eggs in the spring. Their  young will not be as large and healthy. And they need a lot of them! Chickadees, for example, need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to raise their clutch of nestlings! Caterpillars are simply the most important food source for birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and some mammals. Seeds and fruits contribute to food webs too – but caterpillars are essential.

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So Why Are Our Yards Missing So Many Caterpillars?

Ninety percent of our native caterpillars, the young of daytime butterflies and the moths who maneuver through the night, are picky eaters! They can only eat plants with which they co-evolved. They are specialists who, over eons, have overcome the chemical defenses of particular native plants and are now adapted to eat them and nothing else. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to switch to what’s available. It would take thousands of years of evolution to make that possible. So if our caterpillars don’t hatch out on a native plant, they generally die of malnutrition before reaching adulthood.

The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), of course, is the classic example; its caterpillars can eat only one genus – the milkweeds (genus Asclepias).  Monarchs will sip nectar from all kinds of flowers, but their caterpillars need one of the milkweed species for food that will nourish them to adulthood. And 90% of all our insects face the same challenge of finding the native plants their young can eat. Not enough native plants means not enough insects and their caterpillars, which means not enough birds, not enough amphibians –  and on it goes as hunger spreads through a habitat’s food web.

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A Beautiful, Simple Solution: Plant More Native Flowers, Grasses, Shrubs and Trees

So many environmental issues are beyond our control. But we can control our yards, our gardens, the fields and woods on our land. And we can turn around the declining numbers of butterflies, pollinators, birds and more by nourishing wildlife around us with beautiful native plants. They come in all kinds of colors and shapes. Some thrive in wet areas, some in dry. Some need the sunshine, some the shade. Some bloom in only one season, some in more than one. Some are even green all winter! Here’s just a tiny, rainbow sampling  to whet your appetite!

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Our Gardens and Yards Can Change Gradually, Right?

We don’t need to overhaul our gardens overnight. I plan to just gradually add in more native plants each year. Ideally, our goal is to reach at least 70% native – but any increase in native plants benefits our local habitats. For example, I can’t afford to eliminate the non-native woods of invasive Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) next to our driveway – but I can remove its invasive sprouts wherever I come across one. And maybe year by year, we can remove a bit more of the Vinca and Lily-of -the-Valley that have choked out native woodland flowers on the forest floor. I’m thinking  of removing Locusts that are crowding the few native Wild Black Cherry Trees (Prunus serotina) in the woods and perhaps adding in a few native understory trees to help out the birds and insects.

Dense woods of non-native Black Locust

Three years ago, I started taking on the invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) that has encircled our yard and infiltrated the woods for years. Pulling them out by the roots is quite easy; my 4-year-old neighbor enjoyed doing it with me! And the reward at our house is that beautiful, native White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) now rises out of the earth each autumn wherever I pulled the Garlic Mustard in the spring! (Have a look at the beautiful bank of white blossoms below!) I’m anxious to know what else may be hiding in the seed bank under the forest floor!

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If placed in the right environment, native plants are less fussy than non-native plants we usually get from the garden store. They’ve evolved in our ecosystem so they don’t need the regular watering, fertilizing or soil amendments that non-natives usually do. In fact many of our native plants do better in poor soil! Rain generally provides enough water for them, except in severe droughts. You’ll need to experiment to see what works, just as you do with non-native plants. Some will grow more vigorously than you’d like and need to be thinned; consider sharing them with neighbors! Others will need to be moved to a new location. That’s OK! It’s all a learning process, right?

A Word about that Lawn…

Douglas W. Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, a sort of  “bible” for native gardeners, points out that millions of acres in America are covered by our lawns. In fact researchers say that the American lawn covers an area the size of New England! Turf grasses are non-native and require huge amounts of water, chemical fertilizers and herbicides to keep them  green. Mowing them frequently also uses lots of fossil fuel.

Now neither Doug Tallamy nor I are not advocating that you ignore your lawn and let it grow into a fallow field full of invasive plants! What Tallamy and other conservationists are asking is this: Could you do with less grass and plant more native gardens? Could you plant a native White Oak (Quercus alba) in your front yard? (White Oaks can support over 500 different insect species and still look great! Could you put native shrubs along your driveway? Maybe you could plant a more formal native garden in the front with drifts or masses of native plants that love to be planted close together.  (No need for mulch!)

Grass paths could be used to guide you through your landscape; turf grass is great to walk on. If your children play outside (and I fervently hope they do!), leave a play area but surround it with native wildflowers or flowering native shrubs. And where you have slopes or large open areas with plenty of sun, consider taller native grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) or Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a variety of sun-loving prairie plants. Native grasses and shrubs provide artistic structure in a garden, but also give caterpillars safe places to spin their chrysalises and cocoons.  The possibilities are endless.

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An Inspiration for the Future:  The “Homegrown National Park”

In his newest book,  Nature’s Best Hope, Dr. Tallamy proposes a glorious vision of what a dedicated nation could create for its people and its wildlife. He envisions all of us together creating huge swaths of native habitat by linking our native-growing neighborhoods into a “Homegrown National Park.” Imagine that! Our new national park could be as large as 20 million acres if we all reduced our lawn areas by half. Wow! An audacious idea, but theoretically possible. For the moment though, our goal can simply be to enhance the habitat around our own houses and perhaps eventually a network of houses and neighborhoods full of both life and beauty.

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Wild geranium and wild columbine make a stunning spring combo

Imagine Your Native Garden as Living Landscape, a Beautiful Habitat Where Nature Thrives

February is a great time for garden dreaming. Envision the possibilities outside your kitchen window. A green path wends it way between native gardens that change with each season. Warm patches of sunlight bring butterflies looking for nectar. Perhaps fledgling bluebirds beg to be fed beneath your native flowering shrub. In the shade of the native tree canopy, migrating birds stop by to sing while looking for caterpillars or to pluck a few berries on their way south for the winter. I’m finding a whole new set of yard dreams myself. I hope you conjure up a few too, and add some natives to your yard this year.

RESOURCES:

Ready to Plant Some Native Plants this Spring and/or Fall?  We Can Get Them for You Wholesale!

Starting last year, our Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, created a new native plant sale for township residents.  All the information for this year’s sale is right at this link  or under “Native Plant Sale” at the top of the Natural Areas Notebook home page.  But you need to order by March 4th!

Need More Detail about Native Plants, In-Depth Information or Answers to Frequently Asked Questions?  

  1. Get hold of a copy of any of Dr. Douglas W. Tallamy’s books:  Bringing Nature Home – How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants (Timber Press);  Nature’s Best Hope – A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard (Timber Press), and one he wrote with native landscaper, Rick Darke, The Living Landscape – Designing for Beauty and Biodiversity in the Home Garden.
  2. Listen to this podcast of Dr. Tallamy being interviewed about native plants.
  3. Find native plants for your county by using this national database and putting in your zipcode!
  4. Check out the somewhat more comprehensive blog about native plants that I wrote last year after attending the Wildlfower Association of Michigan annual conference.

Short Walk at Gallagher Creek: Grasshoppers Galore, Winged Wayfarers, and Acres of Seeds

Canada Wild Rye rolling like waves in the fields at Gallagher Creek Park

The exuberant voices of children flow from the playground at Gallagher Creek Park. But beyond its boundaries, the park quickly feels very different on a fall day. The fields enveloping the playground are a waving sea of tall stems loaded with seeds nodding and bobbing in the wind.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

On the short path that  winds to the east, grasshoppers leap left and right under my feet, clinging to grass stems and then scurrying to the ground. And out at the edge of the creek itself, small migrators flit and bounce from branch to branch, excited by the wealth of food that trees and plants near the water provide for the next leg of their journey south.

Grasshoppers Large and Small Popping  Up Everywhere!

Grasses and sedges thriving in the cool fall air in the native gardens at Gallagher Creek Park

Children seem to love grasshoppers. They’re often the first insect that they get to know.  After all, they’re  harmless, funny looking – and they jump! I love them too and Gallagher Creek Park provided a large variety last week. I didn’t have to go far to see them. The largest ones were hopping among the lovely tufts of yellow and green grasses and sedges in the native gardens that surround the playground.

The bright green and black Differential Grasshopper (Melanoplus differentialis) probably hoped to nibble on grasses and wildflowers as it scooted along the edge of the native garden. In some years, especially in big farming states like Iowa,  when weather conditions create swarms, these grasshopppers can be a pest for grain farmers. On the other hand, one of its favorite foods is Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida), so fall allergy suffers should appreciate this large, green grasshopper!

The Differential Grasshopper can be brown or green, and in the fall, the female can lay up to 200 eggs in the soil where they overwinter.

The Two-striped Grasshopper (Melanoplus bivittatus), like the Differential Grasshopper, lays its eggs in the earth where they begin development in the summer. Once cold weather comes, the eggs go into a dormant period called “diapause.” They finish developing and hatch in the spring. Notice the  lovely striping on the Two-stripe’s thorax and the bright red lower section of its back legs with tiny black pegs used for stridulation, rubbing the legs together to create the grasshopper’s chirp.

The Two-striped Grasshopper, like the Differential, does not migrate so its one season  life ends after the first hard frost.

I couldn’t get a great photo of this fast-moving, secretive grasshopper, so it’s a bit hard to see here. Dr. Parsons at the Entomology Department at Michigan State University said that as a consequence, he could only say that this one was “most likely”  the Narrow Winged Grasshopper (Melanoplus angustipennis) This grasshopper’s favorite food is asters (family Asteraceae), so it’s definitely at home in our fields, which are full of asters, especially in the autumn.

The Narrow-winged Grasshopper moved quickly down into the grass every time it hopped!

Just step outside of the playground onto the mowed path and you and your children will be treated to small grasshoppers spraying out from your feet in every direction! The trick is see one up close or catch one. They are quick little critters, these Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) and very abundant! The bulbous plate at the tip of the abdomen on the one pictured below indicates that it’s a male Red-legged. Females have pointed abdomens with an ovipositor at the end for planting eggs in the soil.

Male grasshoppers, like this Red-legged Grasshopper, are normally smaller than the females.

Migrators Hang Out Near the Creek for Food, Water and Rest

Gallagher Creek runs from west to east across the park and eventually ends up in Paint Creek near the Cider Mill, near the intersection of Gallagher and Orion Roads.

Sometimes I get very lucky. I left the trail and wandered across the eastern field down toward the creek and found a place to stand under a big tree, hidden by its shade. As I’d hoped, small birds bustled among the willow branches searching for insects, spiders or their eggs. And evidently, they found a bonanza! So did I, as I spent a delightful half hour or so in the company of small, beautiful and very busy birds. Spotting them with the camera focused correctly as they flit and hop from limb to limb, moving in and out of the sunlight, can be super challenging but really fun.

My first thrill was holding my breath while a  chubby little olive brown bird with a white eye ring  dashed out of the greenery for just a few seconds and paused. It was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) twitching its wings while considering where to hop next. I caught it just in time! The ruby crown is hidden on the top of its head and generally only appears in spring when it’s courting.

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet travels to Canada to mate and raise young. Kinglets are now on their way to the southern US, and may go as far as central Florida.

I felt especially lucky when in the distance, across the creek in a willow, a Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa) darted from limb to limb. Its golden crown was visible, but can be raised into a crest during its courting season; that happens farther north in Michigan or in Canada. This kinglet may spend the winter here, since it can tolerate very cold weather. Here are two photos to show you its plump, teardrop shape and its bright yellow crest. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Kinglets are often seen in the company of migrating sparrows, so I was very pleased – but not surprised – when a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) landed on a willow branch and paused. What a beauty it is with the yellow lores at the corner of its eyes and its white stripe on a black crown. White-throated Sparrows can be black and white or black and beige. Males tend to prefer the black and white females, but perversely, all the females prefer beige and black males! You may see these beauties under your feeder so look carefully at those small brown birds you might otherwise ignore!

White-throated Sparrows breed from northern Michigan all the way to Hudson’s Bay, but they winter from here to Florida.

Overhead, two Sandhill Cranes flew across the park, trumpeting their hoarse calls. According to several sources, these cranes have one of the longest fossil records of any living bird, from 2.5 to 10 million years. Imagine that! Long before modern humans walked the earth, Sandhill Cranes traveled ancient skies on their huge wings. I’m always glad to see them with their toes pointed so perfectly like prima ballerinas.

Sandhill Cranes calling in flight over Gallagher Creek Park. Soon they’ll be on their way to Florida for the winter.

The invasive European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) isn’t going anywhere this winter. They live all over North America year ’round! Yes, they are very aggressive in attacking the nests of native birds, but they do look dazzling in the winter. Here’s one on a snag at Gallagher Creek Park in its jazzy white tipped feathers. The tips will wear off in time for breeding season so that it can return to its iridescent purple-green head and breast for courting.

Starlings became a problematic invasive species once they were brought to the US in the 19th century.

Seeds, Seeds, and More Seeds as Nature Sows for Spring

Black-eyed Susan and Virginia Wildrye seed heads with crimson blackberry leaves in late afternoon sun

All kinds of plants are fruiting, the happy result of blossoms successfully pollinated by bees, butterflies and other insects. They embody the promise that life goes on despite the cold somnolence of winter. I’m trying to learn the names of at least some of my favorite  flowers, grasses and trees when the leaves have fallen and all that’s left are drying seeds and nuts. So here are three favorites from Gallagher and then a slideshow of some I’m still learning.

In 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, first showed me these seed capsules at Gallagher Creek Park.  The modest, rangy Bladdernut shrub  (Staphylea trifolia) produces 3-chambered seed capsules that hang from the branches like little paper lanterns. Inside each cell is a  shiny brown seed that rattles as autumn breezes shake the capsule. Eventually the whole neat package  is carried away on wind or water and the seeds are released.

The slender, rangy Bladdernut shrub isn’t glamorous but produces drooping clusters of green and white blossoms in the spring and very cool seed pods in the summer and fall.

One of the plants in the native garden, Northern Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa) is a member of a genus (Liastris) that  I love for its bright purple blossoms that bloom from the top of the stalk down. I was so pleased to see its puffy little seedheads this week, adding an interesting texture to the scene. And look at those tidy little seed capsules at the top. I guess I’m learning that I like this plant when it blooms and when it stops blooming! I’ve got a photo of its relative, Rough Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), so you can get some idea of the plant in bloom.

The Gallagher native garden introduced me to Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). Tall graceful stems topped by a panicle of fine seeds bend and sway in the wind, having risen from round, green tufts of leaves near the ground. Watching them dance can be mesmerizing.

The fields at Gallagher are a patchwork of  interesting shapes and textures. Here’s a quick sampling from a short walk on and off the trail – the plants as they look now, preparing to sow their seeds for next spring – and as they look in other seasons.

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Good Short Autumn Walks Require Pausing and Looking

The Chipmunk, busy storing seeds and nuts in a special chamber below ground, pauses to soak up some sunlight.

Consider the chipmunk in the photo above. As chipmunks usually do, it was scurrying about at the bottom of a tree, looking for food to store away for the winter. But, for some reason, it decided to just stop and stare out into the field for a few moments. And it occurred to me, that’s what I was doing – pausing and looking.

Binoculars swinging against your jacket are a good reminder to stop and look carefully. Those twitching stalks and stems in a field of dry wildflowers might prompt you to raise them for a better look. Little birds are very likely to appear out of the grass, pull off seeds, then drop quickly to the ground again to pick them up. Look closer through your binoculars.

That “little brown bird” on the trail ahead might turn out to be one that you’ve missed all these years. Stand quietly and let the “binos” show you its special colors or patterns. It takes some practice to develop binocular skills; I’m still working on mine. But when it works, it’s such an “aha!” to see the texture of subtly colored feathers, the barbershop stripes of an “ordinary” butterfly’s antenna, or a tiny insect sipping at the heart of a flower.

And then other little beauties only require your eyes. Consider going alone now and then, leaving even the dog behind. Open a dry seed head and and let the seeds roll into your palm. Notice the pattern that fallen needles make beneath a white pine. Marvel at the aerial maneuvers of a late season dragonfly. Capture what you’ve noticed in a photo  perhaps, so you can share what you’ve seen at home.

All it takes is just …. a pause. Move slowly, stand  and look. Breathe the cool autumn air. Just “be” for a few moments as the pale autumn light falls on you, shining through the leaves.

Photos of the Week: Restoring Nature’s Beauty with Fire? Yep!

Ben VanderWeide, Alex Kriebel and Volunteers Vinnie Morganti, Jim Lloyd and Parks Commissioner Dan Simon at Marshview Park for a “controlled burn.”

This week, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, Stewardship Specialist Alex Kriebel and a team of trained volunteers created a controlled burn around the sports fields at Marshview Park.  Our native plant species are adapted to fire after living for thousands of years with fire on the landscape. While lightning-sparked fires probably occurred occasionally, most fires in the last few thousand years were sparked by humans. The Native Americans in southern Michigan regularly used fire to clear and fertilize land for agriculture and to attract deer and other wildlife with tender, new growth, an early method of herding. As a result, our grasses and wildflowers have evolved to thrive after a burn. In fact, some grow only sparsely until a fire triggers them to emerge,  bloom and seed. And luckily, many of the invasive species in our parks, which didn’t evolve with burning, are weakened by fire.

The burn process begins after the crew reviews safety procedures and checks the wind, making sure that weather conditions allow the smoke to rise as quickly as possible to minimize effects on neighbors. Then fire breaks are created or double-checked where necessary by mowing or raking around the edges of the burn area. This gets rid of fuel that would allow the fire to spread where not wanted. In the case of the sports fields, the green grass and paths provided ready-made fire breaks.

The green grass of the sports field and the pathways provide fire breaks during a controlled burn.

Some members of the fire crew, under Ben’s supervision, use drip torch canisters to spread fire, creating a low creeping flame.

Volunteer Vinnie Morganti with a drip torch used to spread fire.

Others carry water tanks on their backs to spray trees or bushes that need protection and to put out all smoldering embers when the burn is complete.

Dr. Ben with a water tank to protect trees and put out smoldering embers
A volunteer drips fire while another crew member sprays trees and puts out embers
The fire spreads slowly across the burn area

The result will be burgeoning growth of native plants, including wildflowers and grasses.  After the first controlled burn in spring of 2016, Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) made an appearance at Marshview Park.  Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) burst forth in the summer along with the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose huge leaves follow the sun during each summer day. (Photo below by Aaron Gunnar of inaturalist.org)  And in autumn, New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) made a glorious,  royal purple show around the edges of the sports fields while Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native grass, filled the parking lot islands with its graceful russet stems. (Use the pause button if you can’t see the captions).

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And with these native plants come insects that nourish birds and other native wildlife, while the increase in beautiful butterflies delights the human eye.  So, yes, controlled burning paradoxically helps us restore the wild diversity of beauty that is Oakland Township’s natural heritage.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: LOST LAKE – Big Birds, Big Hill, Big Diversity of Life

Cam walking into BC
Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Until recently, I’d visited Lost Lake Nature Park (on Predmore west of Cranberry Lake Park) only in the winter and marveled at its amazing sledding hill. I’d spent a delightful snowy afternoon taking action shots of kids and adults as they whizzed by on their sleds during Winter Carnival. Fun place! I’d visited once in spring with  the birders and seen a cloud of Yellow Warblers whisking through the trees at the top of the hill.

But it occurred to me that I didn’t know what this 58 acre park had to offer in the summer. So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent quiet hours watching water birds as I explored around the 8 acre “kettle lake.” I hiked up through the woods after a rain and was astonished by colorful mushrooms of all shapes emerging at every turn in the path. I ambled down the sled hill in the sunshine among native wildflowers and swooping dragonflies. Let me show you a sampling of what I found.

Lost Lake Itself and Its Wetlands

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Lost Lake is a “kettle lake” left by a retreating glacier.

As the audio sign near the lake explains, about 10,000 years ago, an “isolated block of glacial ice melted and filled a depression, or ‘kettle,’ in which it sat.” Kettle lakes are “natural wells, refreshed by groundwater springs.” Wetlands encircle the lake. Right now, the cat-tails and reeds near the water are fringed with early fall wildflowers. A sapphire blue one , with a name that sounds like an exclamation – Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) creates a striking contrast against the yellow Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and Riddell’s Goldenrod (Solidago riddellii).

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Great Blue Lobelia is plentiful on  the southern edge of Lost Lake.

The cheerful blooms of Nodding Bur-Marigold/Nodding Beggar-Tick (Bidens cernua) edge the shore near the floating dock. It’s a native annual that spreads through re-seeding in the fall.

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Nodding Bur-Marigold, also called Nodding Beggar-tick, is a native annual.

In the water nearby, graceful spikes of lavender rise above the water. These lovely native plants have the unlovely name of Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata), clearly named by a fisherman who appreciated his catch more than the flowers nearby! Found in “high quality wetlands,” according to the Illinois Wildflowers site, it produces large fruits occasionally eaten by ducks.

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This graceful. aquatic native, has the unlovely name, Pickerelweed!

Lavender and yellow seem to autumn’s chosen colors when it comes to wildflowers. The Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) of summer that edge the parking lot are waning and the Smooth Asters (Symphyotrichum laeve) are beginning to emerge among them.

Large portions of the pond are dotted with native Fragrant Waterlilies (Nymphaea odorata). I couldn’t catch their sweet scent, but lots of little creatures – beetles, small bees, flies –  evidently can. These elegant blooms produce abundant pollen. Turtles, beavers, muskrats and the occasional deer wade in to feed on the huge, round leaves.

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Fragrant Waterlilies produce abundant pollen for insects and their leaves provide foods for muskrats, turtles and beavers.

According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, Waterlily blooms last 3 or 4 days, but once the petals wither, a fruit develops whose stalk bends downward so it can mature underwater. When the seeds are ripe, they are released and float to the surface where they’re carried by water and wind until they sink to the bottom for germination. I saw new blossoms on every trip because of buds like these (love the  neatly-folded, small green bud below the big yellow one!).

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A Yellow Waterlily (Nuphar advena) bud about to open with a closed small green bud next to it.

[Edit:  I forgot to include a small Green Frog (Rana clamitans[) that I caught peeking from between the lily pads.  Like the juvenile birds who seem to grow into their beaks, I wonder if little frogs like this one need to grow into their enormous eyes! Lovely how the sunset that evening colored its small world.]

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A small Green Frog came out from between the lily pads as the setting sun turned the water golden.

Under the water, I saw small fish of various sizes schooling. The audio sign indicates that several different species live in the lake, including bullhead, blue-gills, perch, bass and northern pike. What I saw, I think,  were Minnows (family Cyprinidae).

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Evidently perch, bass, blue-gills and others live in Lost Lake but I  saw only Minnows.

Twice as I approached the lake, I was greeted by the site of large water birds. One morning two Great Egrets (Ardea alba) stood at the eastern edge of the lake.

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What appears to be an adult egret with a juvenile at the eastern edge of Lost Lake.

I thought perhaps the larger was an adult and the much smaller was a juvenile. The larger one preened and both foraged for frogs and small invertebrates in the mud at the edge of the pond. After 20 minutes, the large one took off flying and the small one followed. They simply circled for a few minutes and then landed to eat again. I wondered if the older was helping the younger strengthen its flight muscles for migration. Just a guess, though.

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The egrets took off and circled for a few minutes before settling to eat again.

While watching the egrets, a large flock of Canada Geese flew overhead, calling to each other. The egrets looked up and watched, just like I did. (Hover cursor for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

On my second visit to Lost Lake,  a pair of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) waded and foraged in exactly the same area that the Great Egrets had used on my previous visit. Sandhills are grey birds, sometimes with what Cornell Lab calls a “rusty wash.” I’ve read, too, that they use mud to preen which often makes them appear brown. Seeing them dancing gracefully up in the air and floating down when mating in the spring is a sight to behold.

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On the following visit, a pair of Sandhill Cranes foraged in the same area as the egrets.

The Woods: An Oak-Pine Barren

Near the pond, a wide variety of trees tower overhead – Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), White Oak (Quercus alba) which is already producing bright green acorns and a variety of pines, including huge White Pines (Pinus strobus). The dry, sandy acidic soil here support an Oak-Pine Barren, a special plant community where the most common trees are widely spaced pines and oaks. To mimic the frequent fires that maintained the open tree canopy, the Natural Areas Stewardship crew burns the woodlands at this park every few years with careful use of prescribed fire.

The path to the woods goes west from the lake, beyond the vehicle barrier signs in front of the Nature Center. Along the way, a native perennial, Bee Balm/Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) fills a sunny spot along a fence line.

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Bee balm along a fence on the way to the woods at Lost Lake

On a moist morning after a downpour, I followed the short path that winds up through the woods toward the top of the sledding hill.

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The path that starts west of the lake leads through the woods to the top of the sledding hill.

The warmth and moisture had caused the appearance of an astonishing variety of mushrooms, which are the “fruiting bodies” of the fungi living under the soil. Mushrooms produce the fungi’s spores above the soil surface so that they can be scattered for reproduction. In that way, they are like the blooms of flowers carrying the seeds for next year’s crop. But what a diversity of shapes and colors on one morning alone! Below is a gallery of mushrooms, some beautiful, some homely, but all ready to disperse spores on the same damp morning.

Click on the photos to enlarge but I’m afraid I can only tentatively identify a couple of toxic ones. The tall, thin white one with a cap appears to be an early stage of  the dramatically named Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) mushroom. It belongs to the toxic genus Amanita, which probably also includes the  red or red-and-white mushrooms pictured hereAnd the green mushrooms on tree bark are probably a shelf fungus called Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor).

Along with oaks and pines, the woods has many Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) with their distinctive 3-pronged leaves that smell like root beer when plucked. Sassafras evidently thrives in the sandy soil which underlies a Oak-Pine Barren like this. Here are the huge leaves of a tiny sapling trying to make the most of the forest light.

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The large leaves of a tiny Sassafras sapling

Nearby by, a black lump of mud seemed to jump in deep shade. Looking closer, I spotted a  very small Eastern American Toad nicely camouflaged against the forest floor. See if you can spot it; it took me a minute when focusing my camera!

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An Eastern American Toad is perfectly camouflaged against the moist forest floor.

Here it is up close.

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Here’s the little creature up close.

Near the top of the sledding hill, at the edge of the forest, native Bottlebrush Grass makes an appearance. The unusual shape of its “awns” (bristle-like appendages) seems to mimic the pine needles nearby and its pale stalk lights up in the smallest amount of sunlight.

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Bottlebrush grass at the forest edge catching the sunlight with its awns that look like pine needles.

Back Down the Big Hill: Sunshine and Prairie Plants

Emerging from the forest shade and descending into the bright sunlight at the bottom of the hill, you’re suddenly surrounded by dry prairie plants of all kinds. Right now,  plumes of Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) glow in the fall sunshine and native Bumblebees (genus Bombus) hover among the blossoms, making the most of late-season nectar.

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A Bumblebee moves among the blossoms of Showy Goldenrod searching for nectar.

All kinds of native grasses thrive from the top of the hill to the bottom – Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

Ruby Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum rubicundulum) kept me company as I descended the hill, even quietly posing for a closeup on a beautiful stalk of Big Bluestem.

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A Ruby Meadowhawk poses on a stalk of Big Bluestem.

What I think was a Violet Dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis) hovered along the path as well. Damselflies seem to love places where a forest meets an open meadow.

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What I think is a Violet Dancer damselfly on a dry grass stalk on the sledding hill at Lost Lake

Stopping back at the lake at the end of one walk, some frantic activity at the edge of the water caught my eye. Amazingly, four pairs of Ruby Meadowhawks were mating simultaneously! Linked together, each of the four pairs rose and fell, quickly dipping into the water and then zooming upward again. Here’s the best blurry photo I could get of the 4 pairs enacting their dragonfly drama.

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Four Ruby Meadowhawk pairs beginning the mating ritual at the same time.

A male begins the mating ritual by grasping onto the female right behind the head with pincers at the end of his abdomen. Then the two bend toward each other so that the female can extract sperm from the male’s abdomen, forming the mating wheel that I posted at Gallagher Creek a few weeks ago. I did get one closeup of one pair showing the male grasping his mate. Quite a sight, eh? Not much romance among dragonflies, it seems – but then they are called “dragon” flies…

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A male Ruby Meadowhawk initiates mating by grasping the female behind the head with pincers at the end of its abdomen.

In a large White Oak near the pond, the impressive paper nest of Common Aerial Yellow Jackets (Dolichovespula arenaria) hung among the leaves. This Yellow Jacket species is distinct from the ground-nesting Yellow Jackets of the species Vespula with which I’m more familiar. Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculatamake these gorgeous exposed nests too. But if you look closely, you’ll see that the inhabitants of this one, flying in and out, definitely have the yellow and black pattern of the Yellow Jacket. Isn’t it amazing how these insects chew wood pulp and shape it into these graceful spheres, filled with perfect hexagons and sturdy enough to survive all kinds of summer weather?

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Aerial Yellow Jackets entering and leaving their nest

Four Seasons of Varied Recreation

I’ve featured here the natural richness of Lost Lake Nature Park.  But beyond wonderful winter sledding (there’s a warming house too!),  other recreational opportunities are also available. Kayaks for exploring the lake more closely can be rented from the Parks Department by registering at least one week in advance. Check info at this link. Whether you rent or bring your own kayak, there’s an easy-to-use launching platform on the floating dock that also makes kayaking easily accessible by people with disabilities.

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Kayak launching is easy from the floating dock.

Consider bringing a lunch to eat at the picnic tables in the shade near the water.  Or fish in the sunshine from the floating dock (with a current license, of course).

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Picnic area next to Lost Lake

The house you see from the parking lot is the home of the caretakers’ family and is a private residence.  But on the lower level is the Nature Center which houses a project workroom and  a display of taxidermy which allows children to see a coyote, skunk, owl, fox, heron and others up close.  (Photo,  copyrighted by CMNTv,  is a screen shot from a YouTube video.)

screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-3-48-50-pmThe Nature Center is not open on a daily basis,  though plans are afoot to expand its use with open houses and children’s day-camping.  The PRC contracts with Dinosaur Hill to host field trips for Rochester school children each year.  This year,  area kindergarteners will be invited.

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Nature Center at Lost Lake on the lower level of the caretakers’ private residence.

Lost Lake has lots to offer in any season.  The PRC holds a variety of events here, including this fall,  Yoga by the Lake, a Marsh Bird workshop, a Pumpkin Bowling Event and more. See the details in the Fall 2016 newsletter at this link.  I hope to explore the edges of the lake and its wetlands in a kayak before winter comes. Maybe you’d enjoy a picnic after fishing, watching water birds or simply gazing into the golden heart of a waterlily. The short, steep trail through the forest to the top of the sledding hill and down will get your heart pumping in shady woodland landscape. Look for the hole of a local Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) near the top of the hill. Or come sledding on a snowy Friday night under the lights or on a winter weekend afternoon with the kids. It’s your park so I hope you take time to enjoy it!

Footnote:  My sources for information are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.