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.
It’s Called Lost Lake, so Let’s Begin at the Dock
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 odorata) and 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 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!
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)???!
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.
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 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.
On the right as you walk farther in, the land continues downward to a moist wetland area full of mosses and mystery.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
In Autumn, Little Things Mean A Lot
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.