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!
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.