Tag Archives: Monarch

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.
The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

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

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

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insects: “The Little Things that Run the World”

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

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

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So Why Are Our Yards Missing So Many Caterpillars?

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

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

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

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

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Our Gardens and Yards Can Change Gradually, Right?

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

Dense woods of non-native Black Locust

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

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

A Word about that Lawn…

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

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

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

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

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

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Wild geranium and wild columbine make a stunning spring combo

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

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

RESOURCES:

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

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

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

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

Beauty in Every Season: A Year-End Review of our Parks and Natural Areas

Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of  the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor  some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.

Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls

The Tree Line Between Two Prairies, Charles Ilsley Park

Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a  peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping  of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times,  when we feel  a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks,  a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later,  I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal,  catches my  eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)

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Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs

Golden Alexanders carpet the woods near the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail

Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!

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Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom

East Prairie Ilsley 2017 (1)
Member of the birding group at Charles Ilsley Park in July

Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching  a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it.  A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition.  The birding group, binoculars in hand,  spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh.  Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?

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Autumn 2017:  Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed

Autumn color at Cranberry Lake Park

Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead,  as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation.  Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail,  tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of  Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at  both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!

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Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?

As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff.  And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!

Charles Ilsley Park: Our First Restored Prairie in Bloom! And Oh, the Butterflies and Birds!

 

The Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park
Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Charles Ilsley Park sways with grass and colorful wildflowers right now as restoration begins returning the rolling fields to the prairies they once were. The eastern prairie, featured this week, is breath-taking!   Butterflies dance in and out of native Black-eyed Susans, bees hum, grasshoppers leap at your feet and dragonflies swoop above the Yarrow and Bee Balm. Birds perch and forage at the trail edges and sing from the woods.

These former farm fields, once full of invasive and non-native agricultural plants, are gradually being restored to provide for the birds, insects and other wildlife that historically nested and foraged here. A new path through the thirteen acres of the eastern prairie now provides a perfect quiet stroll on a sunny morning or afternoon.

Birds are Plentiful, Colorful and Sometimes Difficult to See

At this time of year, adult birds are busy feeding and over-seeing either nestlings or fledglings. So they’re deep in the leaves, high in the sky, or down in the grass, foraging for whatever will feed the young. Here’s a graceful female Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) with seeds in her beak approaching her nearby nest hidden in a clump of leaves that hangs right over the trail as you enter the park.

A female Baltimore Oriole with seeds in her beak for her nearby nestlings

Earlier in the summer, the bird boxes along the trail into the park were busy places! A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) took over a rather dilapidated one.  You’ll notice in one of these pictures, the wren is pecking at a spider web. Cornell Lab says that wrens often put spider egg sacs into their nest box so the spiders will rid it of mites! (Click on arrow for slide show; use pause button for captions.)

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The Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) spread its huge wings as it swooped in and out feeding its mate or young in June. Now the box seems to be just a stop-over spot as it soars and dives in the meadow beyond.

Look at the size of those wings!
And look at those wings folded!

Thanks to Laurie Peklo, a member of the birding group who cleaned out the nesting boxes this spring, the Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) also found a home at Ilsley again this year.

A male Eastern Bluebird guarding his nest box.

A few weeks later, we saw a Bluebird fledgling in a tree, perhaps the male’s offspring. Baby bluebirds take a while to turn really blue, so I’ve also included a photo of a bit older one begging in our front yard. (Click on photos to enlarge; use back arrow to return to blog.)

When you reach the sign about Prairie Restoration, you’ll see that the center of the park is brown and mowed. Don’t worry.  Ben VanderWeide, township stewardship manager, and his crew are just preparing the ground so that in the fall, it can be sown with native prairie plants – just as the eastern prairie was planted two years ago, and the north and west were planted last year. In a few years, we’ll have close to 50 acres of prairie in this park!

On every recent visit, a male Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) has sung from the bushes on the hill in the center field. That’s why Ben left the greenery there when the field was prepared for prairie planting – to protect their young. The photo below, was taken in the spring when one male came a bit closer and really belted out his “witchedy, witchedy” song!

The “witchedy” song of the Common Yellowthroat can still be heard at Ilsley, but in spring he really threw back his head and SANG!

Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) foraged in the grass of the trail on one of our birding walks. Its pink-ish beak matches its pink legs – an easy field mark for these little birds. Ben describes their rolling song as a bouncing ball.

A Field Sparrow foraging at the edge of the trail

Young Chipping Sparrows (Spizella passerina) and their elders forage there as well. Thanks to birder extraordinaire, Ruth Glass,  for the identification! (Click on photos to enlarge.)

Ruth also identified the rather scruffy  Eastern Wood- Pewee fledgling (Contopus virens) below.  

A rather scruffy-looking, juvenile Wood-Pewee

We birders heard an adult one singing in the woods near the eastern prairie last week, but didn’t see it – as is often the case with singing Pewees.   Luckily, one landed near our deck at home a few weeks ago, singing its name on a rising note  – Pee-weeee! Nice to see one up close and personal!

An adult Eastern Wood- Pewee
Indigo Bunting

In a clump of trees on the south side of the east prairie, an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) sang from a very tall snag on my last three trips to Ilsley. He must have a nest nearby. He’s so far up, singing his song in phrases of twos and threes, that it’s hard to even see he’s blue!

But my husband and I were lucky enough to have one fly down to a small tree near us while walking at Addison Oaks about ten days ago. Such a glorious bird!

An Indigo Bunting – one of the rare moments when I’ve seen one up close!

As some of the birders exited the eastern prairie last Wednesday, they saw a very unusual bird, a Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons). I didn’t get a look before it flew – so here’s a lovely photo from a generous Creative Commons photographer at inaturalist.org, Donna Pomeroy.

An unusual sighting at Ilsley – a Yellow-throated Vireo. This photo is by Donna Pomeroy (CC-BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

We also saw the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) again. Here’s a photo of this elusive bird by gifted local photographer, Bob Bonin.

The Red-eyed Vireo as photographed by gifted local photographer, Bob Bonin

Prairie Wildflowers – What a Sight!

Black-eyed Susan cover the northern edge of the eastern prairie as you walk in

In 2015, the eastern prairie was sown with native seed acquired through a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It will take three or four summers of careful stewardship for these native, drought-resistant prairie plants to grow deep roots and reach full bloom. Although this is only their second summer, the native wildflowers are already carpeting the prairie with color.

Ben mowed the field once this year already and will mow once more in August.  This relatively high mowing reduces the seed production of annual and biennial plants (like burdock, thistle and Queen Anne’s Lace) and allows sunlight to reach the prairie plants while they are small and growing roots. Look  at just of few of the native wildflowers already coming up!

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And we still have autumn flowers to look forward to!

That Carpet of Prairie Wildflowers Brought All Kinds of Butterflies!

What a glorious sight! All over Ilsley’s eastern prairie, butterflies float and flutter in and out of the colorful tapestry of native plants – sipping the nectar and enjoying the sunlight. The birders sighted a relatively uncommon black butterfly called the Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), though it took a lot of talk and research to identify it correctly! Luckily, the next day I saw the very similar Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and was able to study the photos to spot the distinctions between the two. Here’s a swallowtail identification link I found very useful.  (Note that on this site,  the butterflies’ names are above rather than below the photos, which can be confusing at first.)

This is the male Spicebush Swallowtail. Notice that he only has white dots along the edge of his forewing, a faint line of pale blue dots above and a wash of blue (or blue scaling) on each hindwing.

A male Spicebush Swallowtail, a fairly rare butterfly to see in our area though they do frequent southern Michigan

The Black Swallowtail has a larger second (or postmedian) row of  yellowish spots above the row at the edge of its forewings and its more intense blue is contained in spots, rather than a wash of blue. It has a complete orange dot on each hindwing. This is the female, I believe, since her orange dots have a black center and the male’s are solid orange. Whew! Glad I had photos to help me![Correction:  I now (2020) believe this is a male Black Swallowtail.  Males have two rows of yellow spots.  Females have one row of white spots.  Both have an “iris” in the center of the orange spots.

The male Black Swallowtail, also at Ilsley, looks very similar to the male Spicebush but the Black male has two rows of yellow spots and the “iris” in the middle of the two orange spots..

My husband and I saw a third swallowtail flying high into the trees at Ilsley – the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Here’s a photo from Bear Creek several years ago, just to remind you of its beauty, too. The female of this species can also be black!  But that’s for another blog…

Male Yellow Swallowtail butterfly closeup on bull thistle

One hot morning, four different Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) drank from blossoms on the Eastern Prairie. They didn’t leave their wings open for long when they settled; they only used them to move from bloom to bloom. Perhaps closed wings kept them cooler, since less sunlight would fall on their closed wings than on open ones. I’ve learned that dragonflies tip their bodies vertically to stay cool on really hot days for that reason.

Some of the birders spotted a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) one Wednesday morning when I was off looking at the Spicebush Swallowtail.  So here’s an older Bear Creek photo of one of those also.

Look for Red Admirals at Ilsley too!

On my last trip to the park, I saw a finger-nail-sized, triangular-shaped, white butterfly that I could not identify (help anyone?) and a tiny orange one that I believe is a Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan). To assess their size, consider that the little white one is under a Daisy Fleabane and the orange one is on a blade of grass! Interesting things come in small packages, eh?

A Spray of Tiny Grasshopper Nymphs,  a Nice Big Carolina Locust, and a Widow Skimmer Dragonfly as well

On the path that crosses the center of the Eastern Prairie, you’ll see – and hear! – hundreds of tiny grasshopper nymphs jumping off the path. They sound like rain falling on the taller grass stalks! Only about an half inch long now, they’re hard to identify. My guess is they’re Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum)The larger one in the slideshow below is definitely a Red-legged but it’s still a nymph, too. These guys molt 5-7 times before reaching adulthood. The brown Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) is much bigger, about 2 inches.

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Of course no prairie is complete without dragonflies! Female, or possibly juvenile male, Widow Skimmers (Libellula luctuosa), with yellow abdominal stripes, hunted above the greenery last week. Adult males eventually develop a white wing band next to the dark one and their brown abdomens take on a bluish-white sheen as they mature.

A female or juvenile male Widow Skimmer dragonfly

Step by Step, Restoring Our Natural History

Eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park.

We all love local history, so it makes such perfect sense to restore our natural areas, too. At Charles Ilsley Park, we have an opportunity to see what our township looked like before European settlement, when Native American tribes lived on the rolling oak savannahs covered with tall grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced oaks. Even more importantly, natural areas restoration re-creates at least some of the rich diversity of plants, insects, birds and other wildlife that historically shared our green corner of the world. We’re on our way now to something very special here in Oakland Township.  Come have a look!

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia;  Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; other sites as cited in the text.

Bringing Our Heritage Back to Life: Prairie Restoration

This post was written by Cam Manino, a resident of Oakland Township. Cam has been walking in Bear Creek Nature Park for decades, observing the birds, plants, and other organisms that call the park “home.” She’s also a talented photographer and shared her pictures for the post below. If you’d like to help out with prairie restoration, we have projects going right now and would love your help! Just give us a call.


On February 19, Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, held a second interesting workshop, this one on prairie restoration in Oakland Township.

Prairie, you might ask? Amazingly, yes. Historically, Oakland Township had three important kinds of ecosystems that are almost lost now – prairies, wet prairies and what are called “oak savannahs.”   We have lost 99% of them since 1800 to farming and development, but also to invasive species that have dominated certain areas.

A prairie, by definition, has less than 1 tree per acre. These prairie plants and grasses require fire to bloom or at the very least, tolerate fire. When Indians lived here, they burned the land on a cyclical basis to fertilize and plant and these native plants adapted to thousands of years of regular fire. Later, along the train tracks, for example, repeated fire gave them just the conditions they needed. Since the fires have ended, though, the prairie has slowly disappeared leaving areas that the Parks Commission is working to restore. Here’s a lovely little prairie plant from the wet prairie along the Paint Creek trail, a wildflower called “Grass-of-Parnassus:

Grass of Parnassus, a beautiful wildflower that grows in wet prairie in Oakland Township. Photo by Cam Manino.
Photo by Cam Manino.

Or here’s butterfly milkweed on dry prairie which is beginning to spread and prosper at Bear Creek due to controlled burns by the Parks Commission.

A monarch butterfly on butterfly milkweed. Photo by Cam Manino.
Photo by Cam Manino.

At the workshop, I learned that savannahs are not only in Africa. They are any piece of land with widely spaced trees (5-60 per acre) with a variety of grasses between them. As of 1800, Oakland Township was about 2/3 oak savannahs with a wide diversity of grasses. Where fire was prevented by settlement, these plants eventually got overrun by shrubs, woody plants and invasive species that crowded them out. For some, their buds have remained underground for years waiting for fire! Like the butterfly milkweed, here’s an example of big bluestem emerging in Bear Creek park after a controlled burn by the Parks Commission:

Big bluestem at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Cam Manino.
Photo by Cam Manino.

Some characteristics of these striking, tough native grasses and wildflowers are that they 1) are dependent on fire or are fire adapted; 2) they are adapted to grazing animals; 3) they tolerate drought and 4) they love sun.

The benefits of restoring these grassy savannahs and prairies are many. We could begin to see grassland birds return that many of us haven’t heard or seen in years – like the bob-white, bobolinks, meadowlarks, Henslow sparrows and others. Butterflies and a variety of other creatures become more abundant. Wildflowers bloom – like rare orchids and wild lupine that can be found in small patches along the Paint Creek trail in May. The grasses themselves swaying in the wind on a summer day are beautiful. Preserving these native plants and grasses enrich the biodiversity that was left in Michigan after the glaciers withdrew, leaving this very special set of habitats, which are rare in the Great Lakes region, for our enjoyment here in Oakland Township.