If You Restore It, They Will Come: Water Birds Discover Our Newly Restored Wetlands

At Blue Heron Environmental Area, a Moist Patch Becomes an Impressive Pond!

Last fall, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, worked with with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to restore a wetland in the north section of Blue Heron Environmental Area along Rochester Road. Ben had noted a significant wet area in the current agricultural field and guessed that years ago, a farmer working there had drained a wetland. The hope was that building a small berm would capture and hold the water running off the field, filtering out nutrients and sediment before it entered the beautiful wet forest immediately to the west. Meri Holm, a wildlife biologist with USFWS, designed a small berm that was installed in late September 2020.

Well! On March 31, I stopped by to see what that smallish excavation at the north end of the field looked like now – and here’s what I saw!

The newly restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area expanded beautifully this spring!

Needless to say, I was astonished! This graceful expanse of water now stretched far beyond the original excavation site! As my binoculars swept across this blue expanse, I thought I saw two small lumps on a log near the pond’s center. I approached slowly and discovered that the two lumps were two sleeping ducks and not only ducks, but ones I’d only seen once before, American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes). Though I stood near the road’s edge, they moved off the log to swim slowly down the pond. Once there, they tucked their heads beneath their wings and went back to sleep while floating.

Two American Black Ducks on the newly restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

American Black Ducks have traveled a hard road to survive. According to local birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass, their numbers plummeted during the 1930’s when southern Ontario, Canada converted large areas of wetlands to agriculture. These changes meant a loss of habitat for the Black Ducks but created favorable habitat for Mallards. Mallards and Black Ducks can interbreed and since Mallards evidently have the stronger genes, biologists feared that the Black Ducks would slowly become extinct. Mixing with Mallards as much as they do, Black Ducks also were taken in large numbers by duck hunters until 1982. At that time, the Maine Audubon Society and the US Humane Society sued to protect the Black Duck and as a result, today their numbers have stabilized! A victory for conservation and the American Black Duck! So here they are now enjoying the new wetland envisioned by Ben and supported by our Parks and Recreation Commission. Excellent news!

I came back several times to watch from a distance to see if the Black Ducks stuck around. A week later, they were tails-up in the water, eating greedily while being watched by a pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) who’d stopped by that afternoon. The ducks may ultimately search out a more secluded wetland in which to nest, though. Cornell’s All About Birds website says they prefer a “well-concealed site” and this lovely wetland is too new to have developed much cover for them this spring.

The two American Black Ducks fed enthusiastically beneath the restored wetland while two Canada Geese calmly looked on.

A few days later, I noticed some smaller shorebirds at the north end of the pond. I thought at first they were Killdeer but as I began to pull away in my car, I realized they were much taller birds. And then I saw their bright yellow legs and quickly pulled off the road to investigate. To my delight, two shorebirds had discovered this new wetland – what appeared to be a Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca), possibly accompanied by a Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) to the left in the stubble. (It’s camouflaged quite nicely so look carefully!)

Yellowlegs in the restored wetland at Blue Heron Environmental Area.

I consulted with Ben VanderWeide and Ruth Glass and we all felt confident that the one standing on the log is a Greater Yellowlegs. It’s a larger bird with a long sturdy bill and now, in its breeding plumage, it has bars extending behind its leg. The one to the left in the stubble may be the Lesser Yellowlegs because it appears to be smaller, a bit daintier and has a slimmer bill – but we can’t be sure when so much of its body is hidden. Both birds spend the winter in marshes along the southern edge of the U.S. and pass through Michigan on their way to mosquito-rich bogs and fens in or near the boreal forests of northern Canada. They are partial to shallow wetlands in fields as they travel, so keep an eye out for them as they migrate through our area.

On each visit, I saw other water-loving birds hanging out at the new wetland as well. In the cattails near the road, a pair of Red-winged Blackbirds were doing a bit of foraging and courting. The male of course burst forth periodically in his signature trill to announce his territory. He used a lot force to do so, plumping himself up, raising his red epaulets and shouting out his call. The female listened calmly from a stalk a bit farther down the road. She looks very different from the male – richly striped in dark brown and white. [Click photos to enlarge.]

Much of the area south of this restored wetland is still being planted by a local farmer. The crops prevent the growth of invasive plants until the area can eventually be restored to prairie. But a diverse prairie seed mix with native grasses and wildflowers will be installed in the uplands around the restored wetland later this spring! Down in last year’s stubble near the pond, several Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) scooted about, probably negotiating territory, foraging and getting a look at potential mates. Killdeer prefer to nest on bare ground near a wetland, so we’ll see if they can find a suitable spot at the wetland this year. I’m fond of the Killdeer’s dapper look and its orange eye rim that matches the splash of orange over its tail in flight.

A Killdeer makes short runs through last year’s stubble as it forages and decides on mates and nest sites at the edge of the newly restored Blue Heron wetland.

I’m excited that we’re seeing waterfowl and shorebirds in this wetland during the first spring after its restoration! It looks like Ben’s idea is already bearing fruit.

Restored Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park Become a Waterfowl Sanctuary

Back in 2019, the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commission used its Land Preservation Fund, with a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, to extend Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park by 208 acres of former agricultural fields and forests. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) holds the wetland “conservation easements,” there. They began the project by constructing low berms and breaking the agricultural drainage tiles, allowing water to again flow to the surface. They also planted thousands of wetland shrubs grasses, sedges and wildflowers within the protective fence that they installed to protect the young plants from voracious deer and us humans. Once the wetlands emerged within the conservation easement, water-loving birds wasted no time in making use of them. When I arrived in early April this year, flocks of birds were scattered across the ponds.

The northern section of the fenced Conservation Easement at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Through my binoculars, I was delighted to see at least four species of ducks in the flocks. I walked down close to the fence and thrust my 400mm lens through an opening, trying to see which species were visiting. The first ones I saw that made me grin were the Northern Shovelers (Spatula clypeata). Their large bills reveal the origin of their name. These dabbling ducks swish their heads from side to side under water to filter out seeds, tiny crustaceans and invertebrates with the comb-like edges of their very large bills. Once they rest and recharge, the Shovelers will head north to breed in Canada. It’s wonderful that these wetlands that were drained long ago have emerged again to provide these striking birds with a safe stopover on their way north.

A pair of Northern Shovelers rest at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park on their way to their breeding grounds in Canada.

Three other species of dabbling ducks cruised about the conservation ponds, but some were far off within the protected area and too small for me to take a decent photo. So I’m grateful to the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who shared their photos with me below.

The Green-winged Teal (Anas carolinensis), the smallest duck in North America, is such a beautiful little bird. I watched a flock of these little ducks flow down to a distant pond within the fence. The small patches of florescent green on their secondary wing feathers (not visible below) sparkled brilliantly in the late afternoon sun. The vertical stripe on the “shoulder” of the male Green-winged Teal also helps identify them from a distance.

Green-winged Teal, the tiniest of North American ducks, may pass through our area to breed a bit farther north in Michigan and on into Canada. Photo by David Martin (CC BY-NC).

Blue-winged Teal (Spatula discors) also joined the the flocks of ducks exploring these restored wetlands. The males’ large, white crescents on either side of their bills make them easy to spot from a distance. Aren’t those speckled bodies amazing, too? These small ducks breed in our area before returning to the southern coasts or the Caribbean in the fall.

Two male Blue-winged Teal with the distinctive white crescents on either side of their beaks. Photo by Melainewall (CC BY-NC).

Of course, the ponds rippled with the relaxed pumping of the Mallards’ orange feet as well. Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are larger than the Teal and the ducks that seem least worried by my presence. I couldn’t resist a quick photo as I watched a particularly glamorous pair in their fresh breeding plumage swim in my direction. What fine specimens of their species!
An elegant pair of Mallards in their fresh breeding plumage.

Out in the tall grass within the conservation easement, a flock of Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) foraged quietly together. One lone crane stood near me in the plowed field. As it kept an eye on me, I wondered if it was a sentinel or perhaps was just a less social member of the flock. Eventually, though, it flew down to join the others. Ruth Glass thought perhaps one pair that she saw here were looking for a nesting site. I’ll keep an eye out for that! I’d love to see a young crane start its life at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park.

Recreating Lost Habitat

Restored wetland at Watershed Ridge Park with one Canada Goose resting at its edge. Its closeup photo is below.

Time after time I’ve read that the numbers of various insects, birds, native plants and animals are declining dramatically. And most often the first reason given is “loss of habitat.” Native plants are being crowded out or even actively killed by invasive species that take over their habitat. Pollinators and other insects are in severe decline worldwide partly because the native plants on which their young must feed are disappearing from their habitats. The numbers of many birds are in a nosedive and what do scientists think is the cause? Right, one of the factors, along with climate change, is habitat lost to cultivation, drained wetlands, development and the proliferation of non-native plants.

But here in our little corner of the world, we’ve begun to recreate habitat. Abandoned farm fields full of non-native flowers, trees and shrubs are being reclaimed and transformed into rolling meadows of native wildflowers.

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park, July 12, 2018, restored from a former agricultural field.

Residents are gradually introducing more native plants into their gardens, providing crucial sustenance for caterpillars which either mature into butterflies, moths and other pollinators or provide the best of baby food for hungry little nestlings who rely on them each spring.

In the wetlands that Ben and his stewardship team are restoring in the township, land once drained of its water now hold glistening pools that provide a haven, a food supply, a safe nesting area and a cool drink on a hot day to the creatures that share our landscape with us.

Nature spent eons carefully refining complex and closely interdependent native habitats. We humans have changed them dramatically, especially in the last two hundred years. The result has not been good for thousands of the creatures and plants that live with us here. Maybe we can’t reverse all the habit destruction around us. But here in Oakland Township, thanks to our Parks and Recreation Commission, the Land Preservation Fund and stewardship efforts, we are doing what we can. If we all continue to “do what we can,” who knows what we might be able to accomplish in restoring the environments that nature designed for us.

A solitary Canada Goose enjoying the water and spring sunshine at the restored wetland at Watershed Ridge Park.

Lost Lake Nature Park: In Autumn, It’s the Little Things

Autumn color edges Lost Lake on a crisp fall day

Autumn begins to pare nature down to a few essentials. Earlier, cold nights and warm days provided a riot of color which has now begun to mellow into golds and russets.  Glamorous flowers subside in the chill, and butterflies have either departed or completed their brief lives. Bird song is replaced by chitters and calls, except for the call-and-response bugling of  geese and sandhill cranes as they wheel and soar high above us, heeding the siren call of the south.

So I always imagine that making discoveries to share with you will be more difficult in fall and winter. And to some extent that’s true. But what’s really required is that I pay more attention to the little surprises that nature always has in store. What’s moving in the leaves beneath that tree? What’s that peeping I hear in the reeds? What tiny saplings emerged this summer that I’d missed in the hubbub of a summer day?

So please join me for a relatively short, virtual hike around this fifty-eight acre park. Maybe you’ll be as intrigued as I was by the variety of its habitats and by the “little things” that went unnoticed until autumn began its work.

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It’s Called Lost Lake, so Let’s Begin at the Dock

A Great Blue Heron winging its way across Lost Lake

As I approached the lake on my first visit, I looked up between the autumn treetops to see the graceful silhouette of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). Between the slow, powerful beats of its magnificent wings, it glided swiftly through the thin, blue air. These stately birds will travel just far enough in the fall to find open water where they can feed. I just learned that they have special photoreceptors in their eyes that allow them to feed at night as well as in daylight. Wouldn’t it be magical to see one fishing in the moonlight?

But down on the surface of the lake, only one calm, female duck cruised the chilly water. I wondered why she was alone – no mate yet? But she seemed quite serene as she silently surveyed her surroundings.  

A solitary female Mallard seemed to enjoy being the only bird on the lake.

She wasn’t alone for long though. Behind me the raucous honking of a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) broke the silence that she and I enjoyed. About thirty of them appeared from behind me and circled the pond, constantly announcing their arrival. At one point, they flew right above me so that I could hear the snap of the joints in those powerful wings and the air pouring through them. They descended to the surface and formed a long, single-file line on the far edge of the pond and went completely silent. Peace descended again around the pond.

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At the east edge of the lake, a solitary goose kept company with two small companions – a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). You may have to look carefully for the second one; it’s near the goose’s tail feathers with its back turned away from the camera.  

A Canada Goose rests while two little Killdeer forage in the mud nearby.

I say “kept company,” because though the killdeer lifted their angled wings to fly off to other muddy edges, for some reason, they kept returning to their very calm, large companion. I imagine some particularly yummy food source lay buried in the mud there  – maybe snails, aquatic insect larvae, or even the odd crayfish. But the harmony between the species was a peaceful sight.

Later I saw the Killdeer foraging on a mud flat on the north side of the lake with a small, brown and white bird with yellow legs. When I researched at home and then consulted expert birder, Ruth Glass, she confirmed that I’d seen a Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and she added that seeing them at this time of year was “a rarity.” How exciting! This sandpiper searches out much the same food as the Killdeer, though with its sloping beak, it can probe a bit deeper in the mud. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website informs me that they “probe damp mud for buried prey, using the surface tension of the water to transport the item quickly from their bill tips to their mouths.” Neat trick! Here’s my somewhat blurry photo of the two smaller birds; my lens didn’t quite reach two small birds on the north shore of the pond. So I hunted up a better photo of the Least Sandpiper taken by jmaley at inaturalist.org.[Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another little Sandpiper – perhaps the same one –  also showed up near two huge Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis), but I didn’t get a decent photo before it flew. The two big cranes preened and foraged on the east edge of the lake. Both the little Sandpiper and the Cranes will soon migrate south, the Sandhills to Florida or the Southwest and the Sandpipers to the gulf states. I’m glad I got to enjoy a rare sighting of the sandpiper and to bid farewell to all of these water birds before they started their long journeys. 

Two Sandhill Cranes at the lake edge

On an almost spring-like morning a week or so ago, as the sun glittered on the water, I watched a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) make a bee-line across the lake. The wake it created with its head made it seem that it was pushing a splash of sunlight. This furry little rug of a creature was using its webbed feet and side-swishing tail to propel itself speedily across the lake!

A muskrat creating a wake as it quickly crossed Lost Lake

I followed it until it dove with a small splash and finally discerned on the west side of the lake, a large, well-camouflaged lodge at the water’s edge piled with the stems and leaves of Fragrant Water Lily ( Nymphea odorataand other aquatic plant material. The entrance to its spacious home is underwater with an entrance way that slopes upward to keep the living quarters dry.  When I looked around to see if I could tell the direction from which it had come, I noticed the beginnings of a small feeding platform. During the long winter months, the muskrat, breathing slowly, will periodically cruise under the ice, taking the food it can find – mostly plant material – up into the fresh air for a meal and a bit more oxygen. It had deposited a freshly harvested lily pad on it when I arrived the next morning.

But it was the tiny creatures around the pond that surprised and delighted me most.  On one warmish fall day, I kept hearing an odd twittering croaking coming from the reeds on the east side of the pond. What was that? Small birds? No sign of a flock. Crickets? Maybe, but it seemed very fast for crickets. It sounded a bit like frogs, but it had been so cold at night. Why would frogs be singing in the autumn?  

The next day, I made it a point to explore the east edge of the lake, edging as close as I could to it from Lost Lake Trail, where I hoped to find a clue to the mystery chorus.    

The southeast end of Lost Lake from the dock.

The scarlet berries of Michigan Holly/Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a wetland shrub, would no doubt be feeding birds and perhaps other animals during the winter months, while propagating itself around Lost Lake. This cheerful, native holly loses its leaves but keeps its bright red drupes (a fruit with one seed or pit) well into the snowy winter months. If you have a wet spot on your property, you might think about this native ornamental beauty!

Michigan Holly is a native bush that is reportedly easy to grow with few diseases or pests.

Walking through dry leaves near the lake, something tiny jumped near my feet. I stopped and took a long look and finally tracked down a very tiny (maybe 1-2 inch?), very pale frog clinging to a stick at the foot of a tree. I was totally mystified – a tiny frog in the autumn? And when I got home and looked at the photo more closely, I was astonished to seed the “x” markings on its back –  a Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)???!

A Spring Peeper appeared in the woods at Lost Lake, an odd sight in the autumn.

After a bit of online research, I found the website of the Orianne Society in Vermont whose mission is to help preserve habitat for amphibians and reptiles. Generally, Peepers quiet down once their mating season concludes in late spring. But evidently on cool, wet fall days, spring peepers are known to call and the reason isn’t entirely clear. But one hypothesis is that by late August, peepers are almost fully mature. But they will soon begin to shut down their metabolism to survive the winter, freezing almost solid, protected by internal anti-freeze. So the theory is that on warmish days, they may try out their spring songs out of an abundance of hormones. What a surprise!

However, the chorus by the lake didn’t sound a bit like a chorus of spring peepers; it was much too fast and not melodius. My best guess now is an unseen twittering flock of crickets or small birds that just stayed down in the tall aquatic vegetation at the lake’s edge. I never saw a flock of birds emerge and eventually the chorus went silent. So the mystery continues.

I went back to the dock, curious if there were any other frogs that I’d missed there. As I scanned with the binoculars, I suddenly noticed a small upright form near the edge of the dock. Another frog – but not a peeper! I approached stealthily with my camera, pausing periodically, moving very slowly. Eventually I got close enough to see a distinguishing field mark – a thin ridge of skin running from the back of the eye and curving around the tympanum, the frog’s round eardrum. My best guess is that this little frog was an immature female because her throat was white rather than yellow and she was very small. It can take up to three years for a bullfrog to mature. I hope this silent little one found her way back onto the muddy bottom of the lake before the night temperatures dropped again.

An immature female Bullfrog sitting quietly near the lake edge on a warmish fall day

A mowed area surrounded by trees and wetland just west of the lake hosts a shining stand of Yellow Birch trees (Betula alleghaniensis). I love to see them on a sunny afternoon because their bronze bark shines silver in the sunlight and forms lovely curls and frills like other birches. Yellow birches are one of the tallest of their kind.This particular one had a definite list to the east, probably caused by wind and the moist soil it prefers. If you love birches and have moist soil, this glamorous bark adds some serious pizzazz to the landscape!

Into the Forest With a Different Pair of Eyes

A wise pair of “eyes” peered out from a fallen log among the leaves.

A huge smile and a little “Oh!” accompanied my discovery of this log in the forest at Lost Lake.  I’d been thinking about my need to pay attention, to look closely at this moist, wooded habitat because I remembered that small, special moments can occur in nature once autumn arrives.  And suddenly, these seemingly ancient, Yoda-like eyes were staring at me from a fallen log! I love that it also appears to be winking!

Leaving the lake behind and starting down the woodland trail beyond the caretaker’s house at Lost Lake always feels like I’m moving into another world. On the left the forest sweeps upward into a rolling landscape.

The forest at Lost Lake stands on rolling slopes that rise to the sledding hill.

On the right as you walk farther in, the land continues downward to a moist wetland area full of mosses and mystery.

The forest trail slopes down toward a moist wetland area.

The trees within the moist lower area of the forest grip the wet soil with roots that grow above the ground. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, told me that these “buttressed roots” probably provide extra support in the soft soil. I also read that in poor soils, they can provide a wider area for seeking nutrients, though that may not be an issue in this forest at Lost Lake Nature Park.  

Buttressed roots provide the trees in the wetland area with more support and more nutrients.

What’s especially enchanting in this forest are the mossy gardens that form over the tops of these buttressed roots. Moss, ferns, leaves and some small plants have created a plush cushion surrounding this maple tree.  

Moss forms a plump cushion over the buttressed roots of this tree.

Intermediate Wood Ferns (Dryopteris intermedia) are tucked close to the trunks of several trees in this part of the woods. This fern glows emerald green for most of the winter in the moist shade of this part of the forest. It spreads by spores like other ferns, but doesn’t spread easily, so it could be successful in a continually moist shade garden, I imagine.  

Intermediate Wood Fern loves the moist shade of the wetland area and will stay green throughout the winter.

By looking carefully downward as I walked, I spotted several tiny saplings emerging from the fallen leaves. In the lowland area, the moist soil suited a tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor), whose four leaves had gathered all the sun available in the forest shade. It’s got a long way to go before reaching the 40-60 feet possible for this species of oak.  

A Swamp White Oak sprouting in the moist shade of the lowland forest area

The steep slopes of the Lost Lake forest create a lot of fallen logs. Without the distractions of flowers, insects and birds calls, I focus on them more in the autumn. Besides the peering knothole eyes above, I noticed an aging log with the bark peeled back to reveal its reddish brown sapwood which carried water and nutrients up to the treetops or down to the roots when the tree was alive.   

Under the bark of a log, the sapwood of the tree glows rich red-brown in the forest shade.

And of course, mushrooms are at work recycling the nutrients of  fallen trees back into the soil. The cold nights have done in most of them, but I appreciated the ruffly edges and autumn tones  of these aging Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor).

Turkey Tail mushrooms decorate a fallen log in the moist areas of the Lost Lake forest.

A Quick Trip to a Possible Future

Oakland Township Parks and Recreation also has a small piece of property across Turtle Creek Lane, a private road on the west edge of the park.  I walked north up the lane a  short distance and found the “Park Property” sign to be sure I wasn’t on private land.  Native Huckleberry colonies (Gaylussacia baccata) flourish in the dappled shade of this more open woods. As a shrub, Huckleberry produces black berries and its leaves turn lovely shades of red in the fall.

A native Huckleberry colony on park property across the road.

I walked up into that lovely wood and headed north a short distance to the edge of the marsh.  In the distance, a stand of yellowing trees interspersed with green conifers towered over the spongy soft earth of a huge, circular bog. 

A marsh west of Lost Lake Park with a bog in the distance.

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory defines a bog as a”a nutrient-poor peatland characterized by acidic, saturated peat and the prevalence of sphagnum mosses and ericaceous [acid-loving] shrubs.” Often bogs are the remains of glacial lakes that formed and then drained away as the 2 mile thick ice sheet withdrew from Michigan about 10,000 years ago. In fact, Lost Lake itself is a “kettle lake” that formed from a melting block of glacial ice. This marsh and bog are part of a spectacular piece of land that the Parks Commission hopes to purchase in the future if we are fortunate enough to receive a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. Keep your fingers crossed, please!

Standing at south edge of the marsh, I could see the yellowing needles of Tamarack trees (Larix laricina) and their bog-loving companions, Black Spruce (Picea mariana). Here’s a closer look:

The Tamaracks’ needles turn yellow and drop in the fall. The spruces stay green.

Despite being conifers, the Tamarack’s needles turn yellow and drop in the autumn leaving them bare during the winter like other deciduous trees. The spruces earn the name “evergreen,” by regularly shedding only their older needles as newer needles take their place. Both of these species thrive in very cold temperatures with soil that is acidic and continually wet.  According to Wikipedia, Tamaracks, for example, tolerate temperatures as low as -85 degrees Fahrenheit! Black Spruces prosper in the snowy boreal forests of Canada and the Arctic. But here they are in Oakland Township, remnants of the Ice Age!

Back to the Park, a Climb Up the Hill and Down

Looking down the sledding hill at Lost Lake Nature Park

Returning to Lost Lake Nature Park, I started up the forest trail that leads to the top of the sledding hill. On the way up, I passed small patches of Blue Wood/Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), one of the late season asters that appears in August and lasts into October and can fit itself into a wide variety of habitats. It was accompanied by one of my favorite grasses, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) whose seeds are carried on the wind by arrow-shaped “awns.” Nearby, lichen and mosses made a mosaic of green on a large rock. I begin to crave color as autumn and winter move on.   

Near the hilltop, I met up with a tiny cricket pausing on a fallen Sassafras leaf. I thought perhaps it was a Tinkling Ground Cricket (Allonemobius tinnulus) because they live in wooded areas and sing in the fall – and don’t you love the name? But when I contacted Dr. Parsons of the Michigan State University Entomology  Department, he informed me that five crickets in the genus Allonemobius live in our county and sing in the fall, but, as is often the case with insects, he couldn’t really make a firm identification from the photo. He could assure me, though, after listening to a short recording I made by the lake, that neither of these crickets were in the unseen chorus. So that mystery remains a mystery. But I was pleased to meet this little creature and watch it slip under a leaf as I walked on.

A cricket on the forest trail, sitting on a sassafras leaf.

Just over the east edge of the sledding hill, a group of young Sassafras saplings (Sassafras albidum) wobbled in the wind, their tiny trunks supporting large leaves. I always admire nature’s strategy of equipping saplings with huge leaves for gathering in the sun. The roots of Sassafras were once used to make root beer, though now the root bark is considered a carcinogen. But you can still get a whiff of root beer from the stem of a freshly cut leaf or twig. Sassafras trees are often identified by their three-lobed, “mitten-shaped” leaves, but actually unlobed, two-lobed and three-lobed leaves often appear on the same tree. Here are the trembling Sassafras saplings and an unlobed Sassafras leaf bejeweled after a rain.

I decided to skirt around the rim of trees that surrounds the sledding hill rather than plunging straight down. And I was happy I did when I came across this tiny Eastern White Pine sapling (Pinus strobus) thrusting its way through the leaf litter. This little native pine is another fine example of how autumn causes me to look more carefully and be delightfully surprised. I have a soft spot for White Pines, the tallest conifers in Michigan,  with their blue-green, silky needles  and I doubt I would have noticed this tiny tree in the color and bustle of the spring and summer. 

A tiny Eastern White Pine sapling emerging from the leaf litter

When I reached my car to return home, there in a White Oak (Quercus alba) by the parking lot hung a giant abandoned residence, the nest of  some sort of  Yellow Jacket Wasp (genus Dolichovespula or Vespula), possibly the Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), which is actually a species of Yellow Jacket, not a true hornet (genus Vespa). These social insects make nests above and below ground out of chewed wood pulp. The colony dies in the fall, except for the fertile queens that overwinter in tree bark or leaf litter and start a new nest each spring. The gratuitous beauty of these nests constructed by small insects never fails to inspire awe in me. How do they sculpt it using only tiny legs and mouths? I headed home happy to have seen one more small miracle.

A wasp or bald-faced hornet’s nest in a Bur Oak tree at Lost Lake.

In Autumn, Little Things Mean A Lot

Lily Pads floating over fall reflections in Lost Lake

See what I mean about autumn giving emphasis to the small, the unnoticed? Because this more austere season gets down to essentials, I’m pushed to pay closer attention. And when I do, wow, there’s a rare sighting of small brown bird with yellow legs, a miniature pine, a pair of ancient eyes peering from a log or a pale spring peeper scrambling among the fallen leaves. In the warm seasons, I might have missed these little surprises and I’m very thankful that I didn’t.  And I’m especially grateful that I get to share them with you, too. Thanks for joining me.

The road home from Lost Lake in mid October.

A Bevy of Migrators Discover the New Wetlands at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) are a common sight this spring at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

While I spent late March and early April scouting out Watershed Ridge Park, the migrating birds –  and ducks especially – discovered the sparkling new wetlands at the 208 acre expansion of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. As part of this park’s restoration, the tiles that had drained the field while under agriculture were broken. Water began to naturally rise to the surface, recreating the wetlands that once acted as a refuge for wildlife. (For a brief description of this process, see an earlier blog on this park.) So this spring, weary migrators of all kinds began making the most of this new place to rest and forage. Some will spend the summer here raising young. Others relax for a few days and then head north on a strong south wind.

So this blog will be a bit different than others. Thanks to Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager and Ruth Glass, a local expert birder of many years, I received a copious list of the ducks and other migrators that the two of them have already seen at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this spring before I made my visits there. Though they watch and appreciate birds, they rarely take photos of them.

Some photos and all text
by Cam Mannino

A fine local photographer, Joan Bonin, who frequents this park occasionally, was kind enough to share some of her impressive photos with me. And I’ve supplemented my recent photos and hers with photos from the generous photographers at iNaturalist.org. So now, thanks to all of those helpers, I can share some of the wild life that’s visiting our newest natural area. The number of beautiful migrators and year ’round birds spotted at this park is dazzling.

[A note:  Visiting this new section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park is difficult right now, because there’s no parking lot and not much in the way of trails, just tire tracks encircling the fenced enclosure that contains the wetlands within the conservation easement held by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE, formerly DEQ.) But the Parks and Recreation Commission hopes to have a parking lot and some trails mowed by this summer. Meanwhile, consider exploring the original 60 acres that features the ravine itself and is accessible at the end of Knob Creek Drive. And if you visit the east expansion, please stay back from the wetlands so that you don’t flush the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. We’ll let you know when this larger part of park is ready for prime time!]

Restore the Wetlands and They Will Come!

One of the large ponds that formed last autumn at Stony Creek Ravine when the drainage tiles installed years ago were crushed and the water rose again naturally.

It gladdens my heart to know that weary migrating ducks and shorebirds are gliding down from pale, spring skies to settle on these pools. Here are a few that Ben, Joan and Ruth saw. What a collection of special ducks!

American Wigeons floating in a restored wetland at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The ducks floating inside the conservation easement in the photo above are American Wigeons (Mareca americana). Wigeons are dabbling ducks, as are all the ducks seen at the huge new expanse of Stony Creek Ravine this spring. I imagine that ducks must be able to gauge water depth from the air since we’ve yet to see any diving ducks, which require deeper water. Dabblers tip up, tails in the air, to forage beneath the water for grasses, mollusks, small crustaceans and insects. Unlike diving ducks, dabblers have legs positioned forward, which allows them to waddle and forage on the muddy edge and sometimes on dry land. The legs of diving ducks are positioned farther back on their bodies to provide more thrust for diving,  which means that walking on land is awkward at best for them.

American Wigeons have a short bill so they can pick grains off terrestrial plants as well as aquatic ones. Here’s a closeup shot from BJ Stacey at iNaturalist. Pretty jazzy green eye patch, eh? And I like the white bill and crown, which the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says is where they got the nickname “baldpate.” Hope I can remember that for ID purposes!

American Wigeons are dabbling ducks that can eat both under water and on land. Photo by BJ Stacey (CC BY-NC)

Ben alerted me to the presence of Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca) in the newly restored wetlands, but though I’ve visited the park several times, I’ve missed them! The bills of Green-winged Teals are edged with comb-like structures called lamellae. By dipping their beaks in the water or wet mud, they can strain out tadpoles, mollusks, crustaceans and such. Both Ben and Ruth spotted 14-16 of these small ducks in the easement ponds at various times this April.

Green-winged Teal strain food through comb-like structures on their bills. Photo by Philip Mark Osso (CC BY-NC) .  

It’s not surprising that a duck with the Latin genus name “Spatula” has a huge spoon-shaped bill! Look at the size of that bill on the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata) below! They feed by swinging it from side to side in shallow water to sieve out creatures from the shallows. The male’s bill is black and the female’s orange. These migrators don’t stick around Michigan for the summer. Maps at the Cornell Lab show them heading northwest to breed in western Canada and Alaska or northeast to breed as far north as Maine or New Brunswick. Northern Shovelers may move south for the winter, but prefer cooler summers when raising young.

The Northern Shoveler is identified by its large spoon-shaped bill. Photo by Chris Butler at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors) are tiny ducks that make long migrations.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology says they spend the winter either in the Caribbean, a likely destination for our Michigan population, or Central and South America for western populations. They usually arrive late in the spring and leave in early fall; Ruth saw some in mid-April at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Blue-winged Teal breed and rear their young in Michigan summers. The male’s white “paint stripe” behind the bill will be a field mark I’ll look for in the future, as well as sky-blue wing patches beneath their wings when they rise into the air. (Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org)

A tiny, long distance traveler, the Blue-winged Teal can breed in Michigan. Photo by Jaden at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

Champion bird spotter Ruth Glass also saw Gadwall (Mareca strepera) and American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) among the flotillas at Stony Creek Ravine. Gadwall may escape notice from a distance, mistaken for your average brown female duck. But look at the beautifully intricate patterning on its breast and flank in the photo below! Cornell Lab reports that these sweet-looking ducks occasionally “snatch food from diving ducks as they surface.” Sneaky little ducks! They’ll head to northern Canada to breed. Glad they took some R&R with us!

The delicate pattern of its feathers sets the Gadwall apart from other ducks . Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY-NC)

One of the ducks that Ruth Glass saw was not a migrator American Black Ducks  (Anas rubripes), according to the Cornell Lab, live here year ’round, but they are shy ducks and often mistaken for female mallards. They actually hybridize with Mallards so some have green patches on their heads. Hope I recognize them if I see some this summer!

American Black Ducks are often seen in the company of Mallards and are mistaken for mallard females. Photo by Joanne Redwood (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Ruth and Ben finally spotted some shore birds in the conservation easement wetlands as well. Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes) love flooded fields so the shallow ponds are perfect for them. The feathers of  this shorebird were fashionable in the 19th century so their numbers declined. They  rebounded when hunting them was outlawed in the US and Canada in the early 20th century. Sadly though, they are in decline again because of the disappearance of wetlands. So hooray for Oakland Township’s Land Preservation Fund and the Natural Resources Trust Fund for enabling Parks and Recreation to acquire and protect this habitat that is so important to these birds!

Though tolerant of other shorebirds during migration, Lesser Yellowlegs fiercely defend their nests in northern Canada. (Photo by jdmanthey CC BY-NC)

Cornell Lab says that the Greater Yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) is known for its strident alarm calls and will perch high in trees to keep a sharp eye out for nest predators. They migrate from Central America or the Caribbean to the boreal wetlands of northern Canada in order to breed. Its beak looks about as long as its legs! Other field marks include a longer, slightly upturned bill for foraging in deeper water and barring on the flanks that go much farther toward the tail. Pretty subtle differences, aren’t they?

The Greater Yellowlegs has a much longer bill than the Lesser Yellowlegs and wades into deeper water. (Photo by jdelaneynp CC BY-NC)

After having failed to see these two Yellowlegs several times at the park, I finally saw a lone one stalking around one of the shallow ponds near Snell Road and took a long distance shot through the fence. Ben and Ruth both guess that it’s a Greater Yellowlegs.  It’s easier to judge the two types of Yellowlegs when they are wading around together and the differences in their bill size, barring on their flanks and overall body bulk are more apparent.

A Yellowlegs foraging in a shallow wetland at Stony Creek Ravine.

And of course, the nattily-dressed Killdeer, a plover who likes a bit of mud at its feet, has taken up residence within the wetlands as well. Since these birds simply scratch out a depression in the soil to lay their eggs, the sparsely vegetated soil of the wetlands provides great habitat. I took this photo between the fence wires and the Killdeer with its large orange eyes paid me no mind.

Killdeers may be happy to nest  inside the protection of the  conservation fence near the water.

Ruth Glass’ Rare Sighting

Ruth Glass reported a rare bird in Stony Creek Ravine Park this spring – the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis kriderii). Some experts consider it a sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk; the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other experts identify it as a color morph of that more common hawk. Whatever, it is rare to see a Krider’s this far east in the United States! Ruth described its normal territory for me. “Krider’s breed on the northern Great Plains of Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winter on the southern Great Plains south to the Gulf Coast, and east into the Mississippi River Valley.” She observed it through her scope for part of an afternoon, but hasn’t seen it since, as it no doubt headed north. What a magnificent and lucky sighting! Here’s a closeup of a Krider’s by an iNaturalist photographer; Ruth said that it’s in very much the same pose and background as the one she saw.

A Krider’s Red-Tailed Hawk showed up for Ruth Glass at the park. A rare sight this far east! (Photo by Mark Greene at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

I saw two of our more common Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) riding a thermal high in the air on a sunny morning at the park. Bathed in the bright sunlight, one of them flew to the field where I was walking and  hung overhead, as if it were scoping me out. Glad I’m not a mouse or a chipmunk! Note its brown belly-band and brown head, unlike the Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk above.

“Snow Birds” of the Fields Also Find Their Way Here.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park also hosts a wide variety of upland birds which, like human “snow birds,” leave us behind in the autumn and return each spring. Ruth spotted a pair of  American Kestrels (Falco sparverius) hunting from atop the fence posts at the park. One afternoon, a monumental chase occurred in which one kestrel grabbed a vole in its talons and the other screamed as it chased its compatriot over the fields trying to snatch it away. Wish I had seen that. Glad Ruth did!

The American Kestrel is our country’s smallest falcon. Photo by Pablo H. Capovilla at iNaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

The Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) also dropped in at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Ruth loves these birds as much as I do. As she says, “They are such a fun bird! As a close cousin of the Mockingbird, the strangest noises come out of them, including: cell phone beeps and rings, car alarms, sirens, scolding noises, many other birds’ songs, etc.” She took a lovely photo of one through her scope at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

Brown Thrashers are great imitators of noises as well as other birds’ songs. Photo by Ruth Glass with permission

Ruth can identify minor differences between sparrows – and their songs! This month at Stony Creek Ravine, she came across two that are rare sightings for me. I’ve never identified the Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Though it can be heard in the early morning, its name refers to its evensong at twilight. Looking through binoculars, the field marks for this little sparrow are a thin eye ring and a tiny chocolate-colored patch at the top of its wing.

The Vesper Sparrow sings even as it gets dark, hence its lovely name. Photo by Bryan Box (CC BY-NC)

The Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) loves grassy meadows, the denser the better; they build their nests on the ground amid deep thatch left by last year’s stems. I wonder if the one Ruth saw a few weeks ago will nest at Stony Creek Ravine; a lot of the land was cleared to create the conservation area. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Savannah Sparrows are very common – but I’ve only seen this striped sparrow with the yellow patch around its eye twice. Here’s my photo from Draper Twin Lake Park in 2018.

A field mark for the Savannah Sparrow is the yellow patch in front of the eye.

One Sunday afternoon, my husband and I watched the flight of a returning Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) who settled onto a tree limb. Herons normally nest in rookeries so I’ve no idea where this one will settle into its communal nursery. I was just glad that it had a good long look at Stony Creek Ravine from its perch at the edge of the trees north of the wetland enclosure. Amazing how such a large bird can look so tiny against that lovely dark woods!

A Great Blue Heron perched in a tree beyond the north edge of the conservation easement  

Ruth arrived high on the Outlook Point between the restored wetlands at dusk to see the mating flight of the American Woodcock (Scolopax minor). She tells me she’s seen three of these “timberdoodles!” I finally got a good look at one last year when Ben held his annual Earth Day Woodcock event, sadly cancelled this year due to the need for social distancing. At dusk, this oddly-shaped bird makes a buzzing beep, sounding  a bit like the cartoon Road Runner. Then it sails high up in the darkening sky, spirals down and lands right where it took off. Quite a courtship ritual! I’ve scared them up right from under my feet at least three times in various parks, but with no chance for a photo. Fortunately iNaturalist photographer Ty Smith was luckier than I was.

Woodcocks are known for their dramatic spiral mating dance performed high in the sky at dusk. (Photo by Ty Smith (CC BY-NC)

My trips to Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month have given me a chance to welcome back a couple of my favorite sparrows. The Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its pinkish beak and feet showed up for me about 10 days ago. The males sing their bouncing ball song all over the park right now. Maybe the shy, quiet one that my camera caught (left below)was a female. The male Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) tirelessly repeated his courting song that ends in a quick buzz or trill. And as always, he accommodated me by sitting on a perch in the open and ignoring my presence completely. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Here’s just a sampling of the variety of birds that the four of us – Ben, Ruth, Joan and I – have enjoyed in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park this month. Such abundance –  and I’m sure we’ve not yet seen all there is to see!

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With Apologies to John Donne: No Creature is an Island…

Old Oak at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

I must admit that at first it felt a bit odd using so many photos by other people in this blog. Usually the observations and photos are mostly mine. But it’s occurred to me that it’s somehow fitting to be supported by others’ efforts in this season and during this hair-raising global pandemic. In early spring, the bird world is busy with all kinds of cooperation. Migrating birds often travel in large flocks for safety and to find the habitats they need. Mating birds work cooperatively in building and protecting nests. And in the human sphere, we’ve become conscious during the virus outbreak of how much we depend on the assistance of others – all the workers in hospitals, grocery stores, police and fire departments, pharmacies, research labs as well as teachers,  journalists and parents working from home. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the observant eyes and photography skills of others are central in this week’s blog. My thanks to Ruth Glass, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Joan Bonin and all the generous photographers who share their work on iNaturalist. And my gratitude, too, to the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation Commissioners and staff who worked for years to preserve this special natural area for the benefit of all of us – and more importantly for the wildlife and plant life that sustain us every day in so many ways.

And now to John Donne’s meditation on community written in 17th century England, another time and place of plagues:

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

Watershed Ridge Park: Virtual Hike #2 in a Pathless Park

Welcome back to Watershed Ridge Park for our second virtual hike through this as yet pathless 170 acre park.  (If you missed the first hike, click here.) This week’s exploration will take us to the western area of the park, which is a little easier to explore than the east.  Starting in 2016, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township natural areas stewardship manager, started habitat restoration in old farm fields which had grown into thickets of invasive shrubs. Forestry mowing eliminated the standing shrubs, and follow-up treatment and brush mowing  knocked back the invasive plants and shrubs in this area of Watershed Ridge. He then sowed in some wonderful native plants, including grasses which add a golden sheen right now to the upland slopes in the west of the park, as you’ll see a bit further into our walk.

WRP_AerialMap_Hikes2

Aerial map of Watershed Ridge in 2017. Hikes 1 in yellow. Hike 2 in red.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Starting from the parking lot on W. Buell Road (A), we’ll walk along the grassy edge (B) between two fields and head back into the woods to pay a visit to a pond full of singing frogs (C). Emerging from the woodland edge, we’ll enter a big, wild meadow that slopes to a small marsh (D). We’ll follow the forest stream from last week’s hike that burbles its way out of the large marsh to the park’s northeast (H).   It meanders from marsh to marsh before exiting under Lake George Road (E). Our return will take through the western farm fields (F,G) and back to the parking lot. So please, lace up your virtual boots and join me!

The Woods Filled with Frog Song!

As I headed out of the parking lot to the north one afternoon, a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) advised me from deep in a tangle of vines,  to “Cheer up! Cheer up! Cheer up!”  (Listen to the Cardinal under “Duet” at Cornell Lab.)

A Northern Cardinal amid a tangle of branches at Watershed Ridge.

Feeling even better than I did when I arrived – thanks to his greeting – I headed toward the woods north of the field to my right. Halfway there I realized that the ice had melted in the wetlands since my last visit, because I heard…frog song!

A wetland full of singing Wood Frogs at Watershed Ridge.

Arriving at the muddy edge of the pool, I spotted the concentric ripples that I was looking for. At the center of each was a Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus). Wood Frogs spend the winter frozen solid under a log or in leaf litter. Miraculously, they thaw out as the weather warms and rush to nearby water to mate. Imagine how good it felt for this little frog to be stretched out floating at the surface on a spring day. The one below was just beginning to kick and recreate the ripples around him.

When mating, Wood Frogs float on the surface of the water and make a chuckling call to each other.

The whole throng of amorous Wood Frogs floated with their legs extended and kicked their back legs occasionally which kept the concentric circles ripping outward. Vernal pools tend to dry in warm, summer weather so the frogs start to mate quickly in early spring. They benefit from the absence of fish in vernal pools who might make a nice meal of the frogs’ eggs if they were present. Throughout the process of my observations, Wood Frogs make a throaty chuckling sound, as if they are as amused as I am by the whole spectacle.

Out of the Woods and Into the Big Meadow!

The big sloping, meadow that appears as you step out of the woods has been in the process of restoration for several years. Now in early spring, the meadow is sere, brownish gold and easy to traverse since winter snow tamped down last year’s stalks and new growth has barely begun. The marsh at the bottom of the slope (D) is edged in scarlet stands of Red Osier (Cornus sericea). This wetland is fed by the stream that runs out of the much larger marsh (H)  in the northeast section of the park.

Pano Meadow at WR (3)

The sloping Big Meadow in golden hues on a spring day.

In the summer, the Big Meadow is a challenging hike because the native grasses and wildflowers can grow waist-to-shoulder high. A view of the water is even more obscured in warm weather when the shrubs that surround the marsh leaf out. But what a glorious sight the meadow is on a summer day! Butterflies, dragonflies, and summer birds flutter, zip and soar above its changing summer palette of emerging wildflowers.

Ben’s panorama of the Big Meadow in August of 2017.

The Dry Uplands of the Big Meadow and Water Meandering Out of the Marsh

The upland slopes of the Big Meadow seeded during restoration with native Virginia Wild Rye

What’s loveliest about the uplands of the Big Meadow right now is the golden glow of large stands of Virginia Wild Rye (Elymus virginicus), a native grass that the stewardship crew seeded onto these graceful slopes.

Virginia Wild Rye , a native grass, sown by our stewardship crew as part of restoring the west side of the park.

The uplands of the Big Meadow are dotted by a variety of trees.  One of my new favorites has three different common names: Hop-hornbeam, Ironwood or Musclewood (Ostrya virginiana).  I love the latter because doesn’t the wood look like a muscular arm?

The trunk tells me why one common name for this tree is Musclewood.

I came across something in the uplands that I hadn’t seen before and didn’t initially identify. It think it was a deer rub, a spot on a tree where a deer has rubbed the area between its forehead and antlers. The sweat glands there will deposit a scent during the annual rut in order to “communicate a challenge to other male deer,” as Wikipedia puts it. The bark certainly looks like it’s been torn upward from below. If a naturalist or  hunter has any other idea about  how this shredded bark happened, though, please educate me!

What I think is a deer rub on a tree at the edge of the woods.

On a visit to the uplands on a sunny day in early March, I was surprised to find a patch of orange, gilled mushrooms. Mushrooms when the ice had barely started to clear from the marshes? My helpful friends at the Mushroom Identification Facebook page identified them for me as Flammulina velutipes, commonly called Winter Mushroom. According to the website fungusfactfriday, “it particularly likes warm spells in the winter and cold snaps during other seasons.” Though it’s theoretically edible, it’s evidently easily confused with a highly toxic mushroom called Gallerina marginata. So unless you are an expert, don’t try these if they show up on your own property.  And please don’t pick any mushrooms in our parks; they are a food source for squirrels and other animals. I found more detailed information on these fungi at a  University of Wisconsin website.

Winter Mushrooms at Watershed Ridge Park are theoretically edible but easily confused with another highly toxic one – so beware! And please don’t pick mushrooms in our parks.

Down near the marsh, the stream that found its way from the large northeast marsh moves on. It runs west at the bottom of the meadow, leaving a soft muddy surface perfect for the earliest of spring wildflowers, Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus). These strange,  pungent blossoms rise just above the mud; the stems remain below. This ancient and almost alien-looking flower produces temperatures from 27-63 °F, which assists the plant’s reproduction in a couple ways. The heat melts the snow around the emerging mottled hood (spathe). Early pollinators – flies and some bees – are attracted to the carrion-like smell which the heat carries out of the plant. The plant also provides them with a warm refuge from the cold – and while inside, the insects pollinate the flowers on the spike (spadix). Skunk cabbages are an ancient plant and live a long time because their roots contract each year, pulling the stems deeper into the soil. So as Wikipedia notes, ” in effect [skunk cabbage} grows downward, not upward”!  How’s that for an amazing feature!

Skunk cabbage blossoms and perhaps the emergence of their big green leaves?The stems grow underground.  Year after year the roots contract and pull them deeper into the soil.

Before long the flowers will wither, but huge green leaves will emerge, using photosynthesis to provide the energy for the underground growth. Here’s what the leaves looked like at a wetland in Bear Creek a few years ago.

As the blossom withers, the green leaves emerge to feed underground growth.

Near the edge of the marsh, a deer had met its end, probably serving to feed the coyote pups or the adults that I heard in the eastern woods last week. Not being a hunter, I’d never looked closely at deer teeth before. These were accompanied by a skull and some ribs; no doubt both the coyotes and the crows had picked them clean. A strange, melancholy sight, but then deer are so over abundant here that I don’t begrudge the coyotes a good meal at the end of a long winter.

A skull, ribs and these strange teeth tell of a coyote foraging for its family near the marsh.

The stream keeps flowing west toward Lake George Road through a drainage ditch excavated by a farmer at some point in the past. Leaving the meadow, it carves its way into the woods, creating mini-ravines that I needed to navigate in order to keep exploring. Along the edge of these ditches, trees have adapted in a variety of odd ways, like the snail-shaped tree (right below). Some of this flow, Ben says, will be strategically plugged in upcoming wetland restoration work, and in some wet parts of the western farm fields small berms will be placed to slow down water running off the fields, allowing the water to recreate the shallow ponds and saturated soil of years ago.  [Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.}

Eventually, the water finds its way into a small marsh right at the edge of Lake George Road (E on the map), between W. Buell and Stony Creek Roads. On the left is the view of the marsh from Lake George Road, the way I’ve seen it since childhood when I rode my bike past it. On the right is the view I finally got after 60 years or so – looking east from the wooded slope of  Watershed Ridge Park toward the road. A fun moment for me.

The stream runs under Lake George Road, taking a turn as it flows west toward Paint Creek. And in the shallows, multiple blossoms of Skunk Cabbage popped up like small bouquets from the muddy soil. A fine spring display!

Skunk cabbage cropping up within the stream as it flows past Lake George Road

Heading Back through Steeply Rolling Farm Fields

Wetland, farm field and woods – three basic elements of Watershed Ridge Park

Stepping out of the woods, into a farm field in the west of the park (F), I carefully negotiated my path across a small stream and around a little wetland, when I saw a small brown bird sail into some shrubs nearby. It turned out to be a returning  Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia); you can discern the spot at the center of its striped upper breast. This may have been a tired male scouting territory, since it wasn’t singing its spring song of several bouncy notes followed by a trill. Cornell Lab of Ornithology recordings demonstrate that Song Sparrows in other parts of the country sing somewhat different versions of the spring song. So I guess some birds have “dialects,” too!

A Song Sparrow’s field marks are a striped upper breast with a dark spot at the center.

This is one of the fields that the Ben hopes to slowly restore with the prairie plants that were here before European settlement. Wet areas and steep slopes that erode when tilled to expose bare soil will be planted with deep-rooted native grasses and wildflowers. Prairie plants provide food and cover for all kinds of birds and butterflies so those sloping hills will be not only a gorgeous sight,  but productive as habitat. Portions of the western fields and the big fields on the east side of the park, however, will continue to be farmed.

A beautifully shaped Eastern Cottonwood Tree (Populus deltoides) graces the edge of this field if you walk up the tree line – or if you see it at a distance as you head north from the parking lot. I love the delicate tracery of the branches now and wonder if it will look as beautiful to me once it’s leafed out. I’ll let you know.

The beautiful architecture of a Cottonwood Tree at one edge of a farm field at Watershed Ridge.

In the field nearest the road intersection (G), a small wetland provides a good spot to look for birds.  One shiny, late afternoon,  my husband and I spotted a crouching Killdeer within the glare off the water. I think it must have been a loner without a nest  yet, since it didn’t immediately fly away, keening its high-pitched call over the fields. 

The Killdeer was hard to see amidst the glitter of late afternoon sun – which seemed fine with bird who stayed perfectly still.

After stumbling into the open through some feet-snagging brambles between fields on another day, I startled a solitary Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) who’d settled peacefully on the little pond.

A Mallard lifts off from the small vernal pool in the corner of the field at Buell and Lake George.

And farther up the hill, I missed getting a photo of two Sandhill Cranes that must have been feeding there. Frustrating! But then, overhead, a Cooper’s Hawk sailed right above me and I just managed to get my camera pointed upward in time! A lovely compensation for scaring off three beautiful birds!

And with that lovely finale, I headed back to my car.

Nature’s Uncomplicated Generosity

A daytime moon over a farmed field at Watershed Ridge Park.

Thanks for traveling with me this week and last at Watershed Ridge Park. I still want to explore the eastern woods, but I’ll probably wait until drier weather to find my way around the large wetland there. And I’m anxious to see if the deer have left any woodland wildflowers in those moist woods. So perhaps May will be a time for Virtual Hike #3 at Watershed Ridge. We’ll see.

The moon over the field seems to be taking an afternoon nap with its cheek resting on a pillow of blue sky.

A friend of many years recently wrote that lovely phrase “nature’s uncomplicated generosity” when describing the solace of the wild. She let me borrow it here because it expresses two qualities I always appreciate when under a big sky – especially one with a sleepy moon in it! Wildness exists purely in the present moment; it doesn’t regret the past or anticipate the future. It just is. When we venture into nature, it offers itself to our senses with no real effort and yet is generous enough to sustain a continuous flow of experiences. For the hours I’m out exploring, my attention is drawn from one detail to the next, crowding out all the noisy thoughts that normally push me through the day. If you can get out in the fresh air in any way during this self-enforced exile, please do. Putter in your early spring garden, let a breeze cool your cheeks near an open window or outside your back door. Or during this solitary time, hike on the path that poet Robert Frost eventually chose, the one “less traveled by.” I think you’ll find, as I do, that it can make “all the difference.”

Bear Creek Nature Park: A Welcoming Refuge from the Holiday “Must-do’s!”

The meadow west of the Center Pond in December

At our house, we’ve just emerged from the joyful-but-somewhat-frantic bustle of the festive season. From just before Thanksgiving through the New Year, we enjoyed the noise, color and craziness of the holiday with lots of friends and family  – but it feels like we just didn’t stop moving for weeks!  I imagine that’s true for lots of you too.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

I managed to keep some  scraps of my sanity by – you guessed it – venturing out into the parks. Our home is about five minutes from Bear Creek Nature Park; that became my most frequent escape hatch. So here’s a look at the wildness nearby that (with a small nod to Will Shakespeare) knit the raveled sleeve of my cares during the last several weeks.

 

It All Began before Thanksgiving…

Ice forming on the Center Pond on a bitter day in November

In the first half of November, before the rush of the festive season, wild visitors from farther north began to filter into Bear Creek. The birding group got a glimpse of a Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca) in the bushes. These large, chubby sparrows are usually rusty red with chevrons forming the stripes on their breasts. Since I didn’t get a good shot that day, here’s one in a very similar setting from generous iNaturalist photographer, Joseph Salmieri.

A Fox Sparrow by Joseph Salmieri (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

The birding group also saw a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) feeding in the grass along a path in early November. These birds make lovely black dashes against the snow on a winter day. They travel here from their breeding grounds in Canada – perhaps all the way from Hudson’s Bay! They’re often my first real sign that winter’s on its way.

A Dark-eyed Junco along the trail at Bear Creek in early November

The second half of November bore down on me suddenly since Thanksgiving came so late this year. Snow fell; the temperature dropped. Yikes! Time to design Christmas cards, turn my photos into a family calendar, think about gifts for special people. Out in the park, birds kept me company to soothe my jitters. One afternoon, my husband and I came across what seemed to be a friendly gathering of birds. Five species hung out together, moving about foraging and chattering in a grove of small trees near where Bear Creek runs out of the pond.

Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) caught our attention first as they chatted in a small tree. A male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) listened in from behind a branch. The bluebirds probably moved a little farther south to escape the cold for a while, though some may return for short visits during the winter and some may be year ’round residents.

Five bluebirds socialize before moving south while the House Finch, a year ’round resident, listens in from behind a branch.

The House Finch just bears up in the cold of a Michigan winter. Like other small winter residents, he keeps warm by crunching on copious amounts of seed and fluffing his feathers into a winter jacket.

house-finch-male-bc.jpg

A male House Finch will stay with us all winter. Love how the red shows between his wings!

The woodpeckers, too, are a hardy crew. A Downy Woopecker male (Dryobates pubescens) tapped along a tree trunk searching for insects eggs or a frozen caterpillar, quite uninterested in the bluebirds.

A male Downy Woodpecker kept up a tapping rhythm near the bluebirds.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) joined the gathering on a nearby Wild Black Cherry tree (Prunus serotina). He seemed to be craning his neck to hear what was going on with the bluebirds behind him! But in reality, of course, he was just demonstrating the caution that all wild birds do when feeding.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker looks about while foraging at another tree trunk.

The fifth member of the bird gathering was the industrious Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor), who pretty much ignored the others, having found something very interesting at the end of a branch.

A Tufted Titmouse sees something worth its attention at the end of a dead branch.

On the big loop path beyond the bird gathering, a White Oak leaf (Quercus alba) testified to the frigid temperatures. The water droplets on it had frozen and magnified the leaf’s veins in a way that always fascinates me.

Frozen water droplets function like a magnifying glass on a white oak leaf.

Our feeders at home got busy around Thanksgiving as well, providing visual entertainment as we buzzed by the windows, working on Christmas projects. New guests arrived at the feeder this year – the Hairy Woodpeckers (Dryobates villosus). Here the female sits in an aging black oak outside the window, just beyond the feeder.

A female Hairy Woodpecker in profile shows off her long, thick beak.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish the Hairy from the Downy Woodpecker at a distance.  But when both arrive at a feeder at the same time, the difference in size is readily apparent!

The Hairy Woodpecker has a much heavier bill and is much larger than the Downy when seen up close at a feeder!

The Holiday Pace Picks up in December…

Eastern Meadow at Bear Creek on a later winter afternoon

Oh, boy. Hurried wrapping of presents for family in Australia. Multiple trips to the Post Office to send calendars to friends overseas and around the States. Trips out of town for special gifts. But on the way home from the errands, a stop at Bear Creek to slow down, breathe the sharp air and redden my cheeks.

One dark, late afternoon and as I entered the park, I noted an alarming sight. A lovely but deadly Oriental Bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) had wrapped itself around a tiny tree. This terribly invasive plant will slowly strangle this sapling if it isn’t carefully removed and its roots treated with herbicide. Sad that such a colorful vine should have such a powerfully negative impact! Birds do eat the berries at times, but unfortunately get very little nutrition from them.

Vines like this invasive Oriental Bittersweet that wrap around trees can strangle them. And the berries have scant nutrition for our birds.

Looking for more benign color, I came across lots of rich green moss (phylum Bryophyta) in the forest. Mosses, unlike plants, can actually grow very slowly in cold temperatures, if not under snow or ice. Some mosses actually survive in Antarctica! Our mosses cope with winter winds by being close to the ground and benefit from the moisture of winter rain and melting snow. They can also go dormant when moisture is low and then regenerate quickly after a rain. What a relief to the eye to come across these bright green mosses on a wintry day! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A golden fungus and a bright yellow lichen appeared at various places in the park in December.  These bright touches against bark or leaves always catch my attention on a gray winter day.

Reminders of summer past help me put things back in perspective during the  holiday bustle. An abandoned nest of what I think was Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) hung low in bush. Yellow Jacket Wasps (Vespula maculifrons) also build aerial nests occasionally, as well as using underground burrows, but theirs are usually higher up than this one. The hornets created this masterpiece with overlapping, striped scallops. Since the hornets nicely camouflaged the nest in a leafy bush, I’d missed it completely in the summer. Amazing that these tiny creatures can create such a beautiful design on the outside of their architecture and those myriad, perfect hexagons inside!

Along the path to the west of the Playground Pond, the abandoned, but still intact nest of last summer’s Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) swung gently in the winter air, but no fledglings rock within it now. Another architectural marvel, this one was woven out of plant fibers over the course of one to two weeks by a female Oriole. Such sturdy nests and they’re only used for one season!

A Baltimore Oriole nest woven last spring by a female using only her beak! And it’s sturdy enough to survive winter winds!

Some summer plants still stand tall in the fields, bearing their seeds for hungry birds. The giant Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) has done its duty. It’s  been picked clean, probably by the flocks of American Goldfinches in the park.

Prairie Dock from last summer has already offered up its seeds for hungry birds.

Its huge, spotted leaves that feel like sandpaper in the summer now lie crumbling beneath the stately stalks.

The huge, sandpaper-like leaves of Prairie Dock are now giving their nutrients back to the soil.

In December, Goldfinches had not yet devoured the seeds of this Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). This one was so fluffy that it looked like it was dressed in a down jacket for the winter. But with winter wind and wet, heavy snow, it will bow down to the ground before spring, making way for new sprouts.

A Canada Goldenrod still stands upright, looking like its dressed for winter weather.

One afternoon, my husband I found a gorgeous rock embedded with quartz crystals. From its location, I’m guessing it was  hidden under a vernal pool for most of the year. It shone white in the winter woods, looking like a stray snowball from a distance. Isn’t the coloring and crystal structure lovely? So rare to see such a large, white rock.

A beautiful white rock, perhaps granite mixed with quartz and feldspar crystals.

And Then the Post-Holiday Slow-down

Bear Creek meanders south from Gunn Road to join Paint Creek just west of the Paint Creek Cider mill.

Presents are put away.  Decorations are being stored in the basement. The bevy of much beloved guests is dwindling. And the park has gone mostly silent. Perhaps you’ve noticed that birds are a bit tougher to see or hear in Bear Creek Nature Park now. Sometimes they’re present, but I wonder if  their diminished numbers may be due to something good – a plentitude of winter feeders in the surrounding neighborhoods.

On our last visit, we heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods on the township hall trail and perhaps the “ank-ank-ank” of a White-breasted Nuthatch somewhere on the Big Loop. We watched a family of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) settling into some tall trees off the western field. The adults arrived first and one began calling. When no young arrived, the calling adult looked back at its mate and they cawed until all the presumably younger members gathered with them in the tree tops. Crow families often stay together for more than one season, the young helping the adults feed the nestlings of the next generation. Such intelligent and social birds!

Down at the Center Pond, the ice had temporarily melted and a pair of Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) glided across the dark surface. They’ve evidently made their December choice of partners and will now spend the winter together before mating in the spring.

A mallard couple keeping company on the pond while the ice is gone.

Signs of spring feel rare and welcome after Christmas and its encouraging to notice that plants have already made preparations. A fuzzy little Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) held onto its seeds at the edge of a woodland trail. This plant produces oblong fruits with a thimble-like shape and pattern in summer that change into cottony tufts full of seeds in the fall. It keeps its seeds right into winter and depends on the wind to spread them. But it has another couple of strategies for survival. It produces a substance that discourages other seeds around it from germinating and its tap root is accompanied by rhizomes (underground stems that sprout and make roots) that allow it to spread beneath the soil. Look how its seed tufts in the photo below just happened to form an image of a frowning human profile, something I didn’t notice until I developed the photo! What fun!

I call this tufted seedhead Thimbleweed Man. Do you see the profile face looking right in the top stem?

The trees produce leaf buds in the fall which sometimes have a waxy surface to help retain moisture in the winter cold. The American Dogwood (Cornus florida) makes neat, round, little flower buds that face upward at the branch tips. Separately and sometimes just below the flower buds are leaf buds. I’ve only found one American Dogwood in Bear Creek Nature Park ; it’s on the east side of the Big Loop. Each fall and winter, I look eagerly for these buds with their pointed tops turned to the sun. In spring, I enjoy the way the white bracts (modified leaves) open to reveal a small cluster of yellow flowers at the center.

I saw this lovely bud on the Big Loop but can’t identify it yet! I loved its golden glow on a gray day! If any of you know which tree produced this bud, please tell me in the comments! It almost looks as though the leaves started to break from their buds with the warmer temperatures after the holidays.

A mystery plant – but isn’t its bud a pretty color?

Down near the Center Pond, I spotted the cache of an American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) beneath the trunk of an old Shagbark Hickory tree (Carya ovata). I could hear the owner scolding me from deep within the tangled brush nearby, but I never got a clear look at it. Shagbark Hickory is a fine example of how productive native trees can be in their habitat. According to the Illinois Wildflower website, these big, distinctive trees provide sweet nuts for raccoons, squirrels, chipmunks and many birds. Their leaves host a wide variety of insect caterpillars and so are often sought out by birds like chickadees, vireos, warblers and others. The long shards of shaggy bark provide winter shelter for insects and even nesting sites for small birds like the Brown Creeper. And they’re deer and fire resistant! – though the saplings may be gnawed by rabbits. What a contributor to a healthy habitat!

The consumed cache of an American Red Squirrel at the foot of a large Shagbark Hickory which supplied most of the nuts. Hope this squirrel has other caches for the coming winter months!

Shagbark Hickory bark provides winter shelter for overwintering insects and nesting sites for birds.

On the way back down to the Township Hall the day after Christmas, we spotted the festive bark of another tree. Nice Christmas colors,eh?

The reddish bark and green moss on this Sassafras tree looked quite festive at the holiday season!

Ben identified the tree for me as one of the tallest Sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) that he’s ever seen. We were certainly impressed! Its bark can sheer off, leaving this red layer exposed. Sassafras is another generous host, providing food for butterfly caterpillars like the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and for many moths. Bobwhites, Wild Turkeys and many songbirds feed on their pitted fruits called “drupes.”

A very tall, native Sassafras tree on the trail from the Township Hall

The Comforts of “Home” on a Winter Walk

A Walnut tree against a stormy sky at Bear Creek Park

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that… wildness is a necessity.”
― John Muir, in Our National Parks

Sometimes I notice that I’ve become an “over-civilized” person, don’t you? I find myself feeling crabby from too many “must-do’s,” feeling hemmed in by walls and getting stale from breathing what feels like the same old air. That’s when I rediscover Muir’s insight.  Wildness really is a necessity – maybe for all of us, whether we know it or not. Even in winter, I regularly need to immerse myself in the crazy quilt of a meadow full of  dry grass stems and listen to the pulsing roar of wind rushing headlong through the crowns of trees. The wild language of crows backed by the drumbeat of woodpeckers tunes me to a different key. For a short time, I’m enfolded within a complex world much beyond my small human one. And somehow that allows me to rest. I pull my hat down over my ears, snug up the scarf at my neck and I’m home, at ease in a place where I’m welcomed – and so are you – as just another creature making its way through winter days.