Tag Archives: New England Aster

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.

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

A Short Walk: Through the Blue at the Wet Prairie

I thought I’d experiment with periodic pieces that feature all the great natural features and creatures to be seen on a short walk in our township parks and natural areas. I expect that some of you feel too busy for a longer stroll (though I highly recommend trying to find the time when you can).

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

So now and then, I’ll share what I’ve found in just a 20 – 30 minute hike, with the hope that you’ll be inspired to take some brief excursions into nature to renew yourself in the midst of life’s everyday hubbub.

A sign on the west side of the Paint Creek Trail, just north of Silverbell Road, marks the location of the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie

The Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail is located a short distance north of Silverbell Road, just west of Orion Road. It’s a delicate habitat without trails into it, so I thought I’d take you on a short virtual walk through its spatters of blue flowers on a sunny autumn afternoon.

The prairie here is called “wet” because the water table is near the surface, keeping the ground fairly wet for a good part of the year. In some areas the unique soils won’t let water penetrate deep into the soil. So in the spring, water pools on the surface, but later in the summer summer it’s very dry. Like many prairie plants, the beautiful wildflowers here evolved to cope with those changes. They also thrive after fires, since both lightning and the trains that  ran along the trail years ago caused plenty of them. If given relief from non-native plants, these  hardy, adaptable native blooms flourish and spread. Many of the plants at the wet prairie are specialists to soils rich in calcium, or calciphiles.

An area full of blue Fringed Gentians on the Wet Prairie

At the moment, the Wet Prairie is dappled in blue. Fringed Gentians (Gentianopsis crinita) grow enthusiastically across this grassy area. As each blossom unfolds, you can see the delicate fringe that lines the deep azure petals. Look for them on a sunny day, because they don’t open when it’s cloudy.

A Fringed Gentian just opening its fringed petals.

When I first began coming to the prairie about 5 years ago, Fringed Gentians were scarce – a few here, a few there. But thanks to the prescribed burns, systematic removal of competing non-native plants by our Stewardship crew, and probably some luck from the weather, their numbers seem to be very good this year. What a sight now to see groups of them blooming among the native grasses!

One of several groups of Fringed Gentians that have emerged after dedicated stewardship efforts from the Parks Commission.

Another azure beauty blooms among large rocks on the southwest side of the prairie. Bottle Gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) has an unusual, closed blossom that never opens.  Instead, the sturdy Bumblebees need to push their way inside, taking pollen with them when they pop back out and head for the next flower. It’s a clever strategy for enticing a highly effective pollinator like the bumblebee, but excluding the small insects that might take nectar, but not do much serious pollinating!

Bottle Gentian blossoms are pollinated primarily by bumblebees, a great pollinator big enough to get inside the blossom which never opens.

Like most prairies right now, the Wet Prairie also hosts other blue beauties, like the Smooth Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and Sky Blue Aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). The flowers of these two asters have very similar color, so you have to check the leaves to tell them apart. Smooth blue aster has smooth leaves with leaf bases that wrap around the stem, while Sky Blue Aster (also known as Prairie Heart-leaf Aster) has rough leaves with bases that don’t wrap around the stem. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, a fount of useful information on Midwestern flowers, these little asters feed a huge number of native bees, as well as providing seeds for one of my favorite winter visitors from the far North, the Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea).

Sky Blue Asters provide their lavender blue to the scene as well as pollen and nectar for bees and seeds for birds and other creatures.

Along the Paint Creek Trail near the park, and in the fenced exclosure at the back of the prairie, the hardy, vivid New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) glow in the sunlight – and migrating Monarch butterflies (Danaus pleixippus) feed avidly on them.

New England Asters seem to be a favorite plant with Monarch butterflies during the fall migration.

Some very unusual, white wildflowers sit close to the ground in many spots around the Wet Prairie right now. The delicate, dark green-striped Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia glauca) blooms are almost at the end of their season, but they’re still shining up from the grass in many places. I’ve never seen this wildflower in our other parks so I’m always happy to learn it’s blooming here in late summer/early fall. I think that in the photo below, the small orange and green satellite next to the flower is a very cool Grass-of-Parnassus seed head!

Grass of Parnassus is close to the ground – an unusual wildflower!  Next to the blossom is one that has gone to seed.

We have our own little orchids blooming in the Wet Prairie too.  Small, spiraling stalks of native Ladies’ Tresses (genus Spiranthes) bloom here and there on the north end of the prairie. Actually, according in U-M’s Michigan Flora website, seven Spiranthes orchids and many other orchids bloom in various areas of Michigan  – a surprise to me! Many of these orchids are in decline because of illegal harvesting and high deer densities, so please just look when you see an orchid.

A small spiraling stalk of Ladies Tresses’ orchid is right at home on the Wet Prairie in the autumn.

A Few Extra Treats

The big butterflies are almost gone here, but I was lucky enough to see a beautiful small one that I’d not come across anywhere for about 3 years. The Common Buckeyes (Juonian coenia) love yellow flowers for some reason and that’s right where I saw one, poised at the tip of Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis). Buckeyes migrate to Florida and other southern destinations for the winter, so this one may have just been passing through. I’m glad I happened to cross its path!

A Common Buckeye probably on its way south for the winter.

The Common Buckeye isn’t common for me, but the Clouded Sulphur actually is, especially at this time of year! I enjoy these small yellow butterflies because they have a lovely flutter in the grass at the end of the year, when so many other flying beauties have disappeared. I just learned this year that these tiny butterflies also migrate south. They’re actually found all over North and South America at various times of the year!

Clouded Sulphurs fly south for the winter after breeding in our area.

Near the edge of the trail right across from the Wet Prairie, a large, dense patch of acorns lay underneath a small White Oak (Quercus Alba) and what I think was a mature Black Oak (Quercus veluntina). I assumed initially that these two trees had dropped the acorns directly below them. But later my husband suggested that perhaps  this big dense patch of acorns was an attempt by a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) to begin its cache for the winter. Maybe? Red squirrels do make piles of nuts at the foot of the trees in which they nest and then defend them from other creatures. I’m just not sure that a cache is likely so close to the trail –  but who knows? A nice autumnal sight in any case.

Could this be the winter cache of an American Red Squirrel, or just the result of acorns dropping from the nearby oaks?

Maybe Take a Nature Break?

So as you can see, a short walk can reap some nice rewards. A 20-30 minute walk in our parks in any season will offer up delightful surprises deep in the grass, hovering in mid-air, climbing up a shrub or perched high in a tree while you take a refreshing break from your daily routines. And crisp autumn days with cool cheeks, white sunlight and less biting insects are a real tonic after hours inside. So consider treating yourself to even a small dose of nature this week. I’m betting it will do you good. It always does for me.

The Milkweed Connection: A “Welcome Home” for Our Superhero Monarchs

Monarch on Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum)

Great news! Reports from the Monarch Butterfly wintering grounds in Mexico say that this will be another good year for Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in our area! Monarchs of the Midwest and Northeast count on us to provide a big pulse of wildflowers with nectar to sip and lots of Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) on which to lay their eggs. Monarchs are very choosy! Their caterpillars can only become butterflies by eating  the leaves of plants in the Milkweed family.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

In February, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, hosted an interesting and  thorough presentation by Dr. Nate Haan of Michigan State University on the topic “Monarch Butterfly Ecology and Conservation.” So here’s  a bit of what he shared with us that might help you and I be prepared for the arrival of these beautiful pollinators. My thanks to Dr. Haan for his presentation and to the photographers cited in the captions of some photos below for helping me tell the amazing story of our “super generation” of Monarchs.

The Life of a Monarch from Egg to Adult

One end of the Monarch migration starts each late summer/ autumn here in Michigan and other Midwest and Northeastern states. Monarchs that traveled here in spring sip wildflower nectar, mate and lay eggs on the underside of milkweed  leaves. Their favorite milkweed is Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), though any milkweed in the Asclepias species will do. More about that later.

A monarch butterfly egg on the underside of a Common Milkweed leaf (Photo by Merav Vonshak (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org

Only about 2-10% of the Monarch eggs hatch in the fields, because they are food for a wide variety insects and spiders.  But for the lucky few, small caterpillars emerge from these eggs.  They begin by eating the egg itself and then going on to eat the leaves of the host milkweed plant. Milkweed has tiny silver hairs as a protection against predators, but over the eons Monarch caterpillars have learned to shave them off!  They then attach their hind end to the leaf and move in a half circle eating, which prevents most of them from getting stuck in the milky latex that gives milkweed its name. Then the little caterpillar molts, shedding its exoskeleton to become an increasingly more colorful and larger caterpillar. It takes them five molts to reach full size.

A Monarch caterpillar (probably a 2nd instar)  eating a milkweed leaf. Photo by permission from Tanya Harvey at http://westerncascades.com/2017/07/04/a-week-of-monarchs-and-milkweed-day-1/

The sticky, milky latex is the plant’s second defense against predators, because it can gum up a caterpillar’s mouth. But the fifth and last  molt of the Monarch caterpillar has found an even more effective way to defuse the threat than the first instar did. The large yellow and black fifth instar’s technique is to make a quick bite into the main vein of the leaf, releasing pressure and waiting until the liquid drains out.  Then they can continue to eat anywhere on the leaf. Here’s  my photo of a fifth instar eating Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) along the Paint Creek Trail.

A 5th instar Monarch caterpillar eating on Butterfly Milkweed

It takes 10-14 days for the caterpillar to complete 5 molts.  It then leaves the milkweed behind, finds a horizontal surface, attaches itself with a silk pad and molts again. This time the caterpillar creates an opaque green chrysalis with gold trim! The chrysalis hardens after a short time and the butterfly begins to develop inside. This pupal stage lasts for another 10-14 days.

A Monarch chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer Pam Kleinsasser (CC BY NC)

Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.

Monarch emerging from its translucent chrysalis, photo by inaturalist.org photographer gvelazco (CC BY-SA)
A Monarch butterfly taking off on a sunny afternoon

The Super Powers of our Monarch “Super Generation”

The Monarchs fluttering over our parks in August and September are gifted with two super powers: they live much longer than other Monarchs, and they can fly over 3000 miles to overwinter in Mexico. I’ve cited this quote from National Geographic before in discussing monarchs but it bears repeating. According to Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López, a research scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico “…when fall rolls around …, a special ‘super generation’ of monarchs that can live up to eight months will make use of air currents to wing all the way back to Mexico—a seemingly impossible feat for such a delicate-looking insect.”

Monarchs arriving in central Mexico for the winter. Photo by Carlos Dominguez-Rodriquez (CC BY-NC) at inaturalist.org.

It can take up to two months for our Monarchs to reach the mountains of central Mexico. They spend the winter there, protected by the micro-climate created by Oyamel, or “Sacred” Fir trees (Abies religiosa).

Monarchs wintering in Mexico, photo by Mario Castañeda-Sánchez (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

In the spring, our “super generation” monarchs then start the journey back to Michigan by flying as far north as Texas. After mating and laying eggs there, they die, and their offspring carry on the migration north. It takes four or five generations of Monarchs along the way, each living only 5-7 weeks (instead of 8 months!) for the last of our super-generation’s offspring to land with such exquisite delicacy on the wildflowers in our parks. As Dr. Pablo Jaramillo-López says in National Geographic, “This makes the migrating monarchs so unique as they are the same species but for some reason live much longer.”

Monarch on Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The Threats that Monarchs Face

A graph showing the general decline in the number of Monarch butterflies. Data from 1994-2003 were collected by personnel of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR) of the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) in Mexico. Data from 2004-2019 were collected by the WWF-Telcel Alliance, in coordination with the Directorate of the MBBR. 2000-01 population number as reported by Garcia-Serrano et. al (The Monarch Butterfly : Biology and Conservation, 2004)
The Monarch Joint Venture is a national partnership of federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses and academic programs working together to conserve the monarch butterfly migration. The content in this article does not necessarily reflect the positions of all Monarch Joint Venture partners.

Monarch numbers go up and down but sadly, over the last two decades the trend is generally downward as you can see above. So what’s the problem?  As usual, there are multiple factors. Dr. Haan named five:

  1. Logging in their overwintering area in Mexico makes surviving in the mountains more difficult. The Mexican government and non-governmental organizations are working on finding sustainable projects that can support local economic alternatives for people living in the Monarch’s wintering grounds.
  2. Less wildflowers and more agricultural crops in the Great Plains and Midwest states. This leaves less nectar resources to feed the Monarchs and fewer milkweed stems on which to lay eggs for successive generations. Some farmers are changing their approach to their grazing and crop land to accommodate the Monarch’s need for milkweed.
  3. According to the Monarch Joint Venture website, OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a parasite can get on the wings of adult Monarchs, who then spread this parasite on the milkweed leaves when they mate or lay eggs. If caterpillars eat the leaves, they become infected with the pathogen that can cause a developing Monarch’s wings to be too weak to get out of its chrysalis and may shorten the lives of adult Monarchs. Tropical forms of milkweed sold by nurseries tend to be associated with this parasite and they should be avoided. Dr. Haan reported also that  Monarchs bred from more tropical areas, like Florida, may carry OE, too.
  4. Insecticides used on garden plants can be lethal to butterflies, as well as other beneficial insects. Perhaps the greatest problem is milkweed loss in the Midwest, which is the core breeding habitat for Monarchs.  Milkweed used to be much more common around and on farms.
  5. In the late 1990’s many farmers turned to Roundup Ready genetically modified seeds which makes their crops resistant to Roundup.  This allows farmers to spray Roundup on their crops,  which kills milkweed along with other unwanted plants without hurting their crops.   As a result, Dr. Haan said, scientists estimate that 40% of the milkweed needed by Monarchs, is gone, maybe a billion stems in the last 20 years, which coincides with the decline in Monarch populations.
MilkweedInCorn_NateHaan
Milkweed used to be a common weed in crop fields. Illustration by Nate Haan.

So How Do We Help Our Friendly Local Monarchs?

Well, we can use less insecticide and when we do use it, follow directions carefully. We can avoid growing non-native milkweeds that carry the parasite OE. We can plant milkweed to support developing caterpillars and nectar-producing native flowers to feed the adult Monarchs. Coneflowers, asters and goldenrods, and many other prairie flowers that prefer medium to dry soil and full sunlight flourish just when the super generation of Monarchs is beefing up for the long migration. Of course, lots of other butterflies, bees and other pollinators loves these flowers too!

 

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Varied Milkweed Species Feed Young Monarchs and Add Color to Our Fields and Gardens

Maybe the biggest  – and most beautiful – contribution we can make to the welfare of Monarch butterflies is to plant more milkweeds in our fields and gardens. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) multiplies both by the parachuting seeds we all loved as children and by its extensive network of roots. So it can spread too quickly to be a great garden plant. But it’s perfect in big sunny fields or natural areas.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

If you are lucky enough to have Common Milkweed on your property, it will help, Dr. Haan told us, if you trim/mow  down about a third of the milkweed stems on your property in late June or early July. He and his associate’s research shows that Monarchs prefer to lay more eggs on the tender stems that re-grow because they are easier to eat and more nutritious .

Graph showing how monarchs laid more eggs on new growth from milkweed stems mowed in mid-July (green-shaded area) than on milkweed unmowed (orange line) or mowed in mid-June (blue shaded area). Graph by Dr. Haan.

Since most of our milkweed plants are full grown by August, their leaves are old and tough and Monarch egg predators are present in large numbers. If you can trim or mow some of your milkweed plants in mid-summer, they will re-sprout and provide the softer leaves on which Monarchs like to plant their eggs in late July or early August for the migrating “Super Generation.” Those new stems also contain less predatory insects and spiders, meaning monarch eggs may have a better chance of surviving.

Luckily, If you’d like Monarchs in your yard or garden rather than a field, there are other kinds of milkweed for those settings. Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) tends to stay in one place. It needs a dry to medium moisture level and lots of sun. And what a beautiful orange to match the Monarchs! Other butterflies and pollinators love them too, of course!

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a female Monarch

Swamp Milkweed aka Rose, Pink or Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) also loves sun, but as the word “Swamp” implies, it likes “wet feet” or at least medium to moist soil.

Swamp Milkweed blooming in August grows best in a moist spot.

If you have a shady area with medium to dry moisture levels, try planting the graceful Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exultata) with its cascade of bluish-white blossoms.

Unlike most milkweed, Poke Milkweed can grow in fairly shady areas.

Native plant nurseries (see the list in an earlier blog) can show you other native milkweeds as well. If possible, find ones that are Michigan genotypes since they will grow most easily and serve admirably as host plants for our Michigan Monarchs.

So Rewarding to Make a Difference, Isn’t It?

A “Super Generation” Monarch feeding on New England Aster before migration

Who knew, when I was a child, that milkweed plants would begin to diminish and the Monarchs would begin to decline as a result? And now we know, according to the recent summary of a biodiversity report, that as many as a million other species worldwide are in the same situation.

It’s easy to despair, I know – but let’s not! The best antidote to despair is always doing what you can in your own corner of the world and supporting others who share your concern for nature.

And in the case of the Monarch butterfly, it can be as simple as planting milkweed! Or it’s as easy as planting native flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees in our yards instead of exotic plants. With no recent shared history, these exotic plants don’t always feed butterfly caterpillars and other beneficial native insects.  Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s changing the non-native turf of your own lawn into large gardens filled with colorful native plants with paths of mowed turf leading from one to the next. Or it’s maybe creating a native prairie out of an old agricultural field like our township stewardship crew and some nature-loving homeowners are doing.

Eastern Prairie Ilsley July
Eastern Prairie at Charles Isley Park on July 12, 2018

All it takes is just caring, learning and getting started.  I’ve begun. The township parks stewardship crew has begun. Many of you have already begun.  What we can hope is that others will join us.

 

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.
The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.