This week, Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, Stewardship Specialist Alex Kriebel and a team of trained volunteers created a controlled burn around the sports fields at Marshview Park. Our native plant species are adapted to fire after living for thousands of years with fire on the landscape. While lightning-sparked fires probably occurred occasionally, most fires in the last few thousand years were sparked by humans. The Native Americans in southern Michigan regularly used fire to clear and fertilize land for agriculture and to attract deer and other wildlife with tender, new growth, an early method of herding. As a result, our grasses and wildflowers have evolved to thrive after a burn. In fact, some grow only sparsely until a fire triggers them to emerge, bloom and seed. And luckily, many of the invasive species in our parks, which didn’t evolve with burning, are weakened by fire.
The burn process begins after the crew reviews safety procedures and checks the wind, making sure that weather conditions allow the smoke to rise as quickly as possible to minimize effects on neighbors. Then fire breaks are created or double-checked where necessary by mowing or raking around the edges of the burn area. This gets rid of fuel that would allow the fire to spread where not wanted. In the case of the sports fields, the green grass and paths provided ready-made fire breaks.
Some members of the fire crew, under Ben’s supervision, use drip torch canisters to spread fire, creating a low creeping flame.
Others carry water tanks on their backs to spray trees or bushes that need protection and to put out all smoldering embers when the burn is complete.
The result will be burgeoning growth of native plants, including wildflowers and grasses. After the first controlled burn in spring of 2016, Foxglove Beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis) made an appearance at Marshview Park. Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) burst forth in the summer along with the Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), whose huge leaves follow the sun during each summer day. (Photo below by Aaron Gunnar of inaturalist.org) And in autumn, New England Asters(Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) made a glorious, royal purple show around the edges of the sports fields while Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a native grass, filled the parking lot islands with its graceful russet stems. (Use the pause button if you can’t see the captions).
And with these native plants come insects that nourish birds and other native wildlife, while the increase in beautiful butterflies delights the human eye. So, yes, controlled burning paradoxically helps us restore the wild diversity of beauty that is Oakland Township’s natural heritage.
We tend to think of autumn as colored leaves and crisp air. But the prairies and meadows of the township parks celebrate fall with flowers. Many asters love cooler weather and right now the restored prairies of Charles Ilsley Park are dressed in white wildflowers, dotted with splashes of gold. Butterflies and bees still flutter and hum among the blossoms and grasshoppers still spring like popcorn out of the grass as you walk. Birds, including occasional summer visitors headed south, eat the plants’ berries and seeds or snag a few insects from bare soil or tree limbs. The frantic growth of summer is indeed ebbing, but the park still bustles with life as it awaits the first frost.
Note: Click here for a map of the park to help in visualizing the various trails and prairies described.
Entering Along the “Great White Way”
Walking along the mowed trail into Charles Ilsley Park before the latest heat wave, a nodding crowd of graceful Panicled Asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) stood on either side, like a crowd at a procession. Occasionally, a spray of New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) added a little royal purple to the view.
Just before sunset one afternoon, several migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) flitted among the branches of a tree along this trail. This little bird was probably on its way from Canada to Florida or the Caribbean. Let’s hope it finds its favorite foods and perches after the terrible storms there this fall!
Among some bare branches, a couple of Mourning Doves gave me a closer look.
And below, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled a dead branch for insects, looking for a snack before retiring for the night.
A quick movement out of the grass onto a nearby tree turned out to be a Katydid (family Tettigoniidae) moving slowly along the trunk with its ungainly legs. Katydids are generally nocturnal and sing at night. I’m guessing this one’s a female because of what appears to be a sickle-shaped ovipositor for laying eggs. Aren’t her antennae amazing? Grasshoppers have short antennae, but katydid antennae are extravagantly long.
The Central Meadow Will Soon Become a Prairie
Don’t be dismayed by the browned surface in the central area of the park. Like the other three sections already restored (east, north and west), the invasive shrubs and non-native plants have now been removed from this area. This fall, matted grass and leftover branches will be removed and the central area will be planted with native wildflower seed. Just as in the other three prairies, it will take 3-5 years for the native plants to fully bloom because as drought-adapted wildflowers, they need time to put down long roots before putting energy into flowering. But even now, life goes on in this brown landscape.
Blue is the first spark of color you’ll see in the restoration area – because the Eastern Bluebirds are everywhere! Many of them are using their former nesting boxes for perches as they fly down and forage in the soil and whatever grass remains.
Blackened stems, dead grass and bare soil make a perfect landscape for Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) who prefer to nest and forage on open ground. They are known to nest on rooftops, golf courses, even parking lots! They scuttle up and down the restoration field at Ilsley, making periodic quick stops to see if they’ve scared up anything to eat. In autumn, Killdeer gather in small groups (I saw five ) as they migrate as far as Central and South America for the winter, though many choose southern Florida as well.
When Killdeer fly, they make a keening call and the feathers on their rumps, just above their tails, flash orange in the sunlight. Look for two flying Killdeer in this quick shot.
Another ground forager is still here but will also join small groups for migration. Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus ) love ants, so they too are quite happy to forage in the newly re-sprouting grass or on the bare soil in this area of the park. You’ll often see 3 or 4 together on the ground.
A Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) flew up from bare earth as I approached the far end of the restoration area. I’ve never been able to catch a photo of one flying; they’re just too quick for me! So on the left is my photo of the locust on the ground, but on the right is a photo by Joshua G Smith at inaturalist.org who shows us its wing by gently holding the insect. You can see why these grasshoppers are often mistaken for butterflies when taking their short flights! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
At the far end of the restoration area are a few bushes that form a line across the bottom of the north prairie. On all four trips to the park, an EasternPhoebe (Sayornis phoebe) rested in the low branches of a tree there – a perfect perch for a flycatcher who actually prefers ground foraging to catching flies!
With all those birds around, this immature Northern Brown Snake (Storeria dekayi) had better be careful! These harmless, little snakes (they don’t bite!) are born with a white “collar” around their necks and are either brown or gray. As they mature, the collar disappears and the head is darker. So I’m guessing this one is a juvenile on its way to getting rid of that collar!
Lots of Life on Three Prairies – East, North and West!
We’re gifted currently with three prairie plantings at Ilsley in various stages of restoration. The eastern and northern prairies are now in their second summer, the western prairie is in its first. All of them host a wide variety of wildflowers, butterflies, bees and birds.
Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) have turned the eastern prairie white this fall. The northern prairie, full of invasive thistles last year, is now covered with Brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba), a species of Rudbeckia that I just learned about this year! The western prairie is cloaked in white Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) at the south end, and golden with Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) at the north end. Natives like Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and some Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) have returned to sway in the breeze above the eastern and northern prairies, which now have mowed trails. The western prairie trail grew over during the summer, but the soft plants make it easy walking. We’re on our way to 50 acres of prairie in this park! (Click on pause button for captions.)
Insects on the Prairies
Both Bumblebees (genus Bombus) and European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) buzz quickly over the native blossoms, making the most of late fall nectar. One late afternoon, native bumblebees were driving honey bees off of some flowers with a quick dart toward them, while on other blossoms, honey bees were hassling butterflies.
Eventually, however, peace was restored and each found their own blossom on the Calico Asters.
At mid-summer, the prairies were full of large butterflies – Monarchs and three kinds of Swallowtails. This month, though most of the larger ones are missing; only a few tardy Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) sip at blossoms. The unseasonably warm weather may have prompted them to tarry a bit longer than other Monarchs who began moving in September. We hope they make it to Mexico before the cold sets in!
A variety of smaller butterflies, some as small as your thumbnail, move restlessly among the blossoms on all three prairies. The Painted Lady butterfly(Vanessa cardui) is only 1.5-2.0 inches. It migrates some years and not others, but often winters in Mexico like the Monarchs. Its caterpillars eat thistle foliage and the adult butterflies love thistle nectar. This one was sipping daintily along with two other Painted Ladies on non-native Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) on the northern prairie.
The other small butterflies seemed endlessly restless, doing much more flying right now than eating. I managed to photograph three – but the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus centaureae) eluded me, so I’ve borrowed a photo from inaturalist.org with the permission of the photographer, Marian Zöller.
Birds Enjoying the Prairies
Birds of all sizes frequent these prairies during the year. Many of them, like the Tree Swallows, have already begun their fall migration. But one evening at the far end of the eastern prairie, a solitary Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) foraged, probably for just-hatched Red-legged Grasshopper nymphs(Melanoplus femurrubrum) that sprang in hundreds from the grass. Suddenly, it lifted into the air. I wonder if it, too, is beginning its migration to Florida or the Caribbean? I’m afraid I was too taken with its size, beauty and the snap of its huge wings to set my exposure accurately, but it was a lovely sight just before dark.
In an old apple tree on the edge of the western prairie, a flock of pale House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)pecked happily at the aging fruit. Usually House Finch males are much darker red, but the intensity of the color is determined by what they eat while molting. I have a feeling these were eating apples (or the bugs within them) instead of bright red berries!
And a first for me in Oakland Township! Last Sunday, a Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)spiraled high into the air over the western prairie, riding upward on a rising current of warm air. What a very special moment to see this powerful bird peacefully enjoying the heat of the prairie on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
The View from the Oldest Trees
Two huge oaks trees seem to anchor the past firmly in the present at Charles Ilsley Park. One stands at the south end of the center area that’s being restored and the other stands at the east end of the eastern prairie. The size of these old oaks with their huge trunks and spreading crowns means they’ve been here for hundreds of years, standing watch over the land. Pausing under the eastern prairie tree one afternoon, I took a photo of that tree’s “view” of the restored prairie.
It pleased me to imagine that maybe that tree is “looking out on” on a prairie that’s beginning to look a bit like the one it “saw” when it was young so many years ago. And as we watched the bald eagle float above the western prairie, I wondered if it was seeing what its eagle ancestors saw from high in the sky long ago. Humans are such forward-looking creatures, always planning and moving toward the future. It’s a marvel that here in our township, and in other townships around the country, we’ve chosen to set aside areas like Ilsley where the history of our land and its native creatures can be preserved. The trees, wildflowers, birds and butterflies – all of it connects us firmly to our past – and if we continue to be good stewards, will sustain and delight us for years to come as we move into the future.
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; inaturalist.org;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;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.
One hot fall morning, a male Red-bellied Woodpecker “kwirred” cheerfully as it hopped among drooping vines, plucking fall fruits along the Paint Creek Trail north of Silver Bell Road. Down near the ground, beneath the towering stalks of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) on the Wet Prairie, native wildflowers bloomed, often unseen. This special prairie is “wet” because the soil just below the surface doesn’t allow water to penetrate. That leads to very wet conditions in the spring, but droughty soil in the heat of summer. It’s a “prairie” because prairie plants, which are adapted to fire, thrived here despite repeated wildfires over the years caused by the railroad. As a result, an unusual mix of autumn wildflowers, in exotic shapes and vivid colors, flourishes on our Wet Prairie.
When I walk outside in the morning, I feel a chill in the air that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. The days are getting shorter, and somehow it’s already September. Where did the summer go?
After hot summer days, I always look forward to the mild temperatures, fragrant cider, and just-barely-changing leaves of early fall. Even without these cues, wildflowers would announce the changing season if I’d just woken from a long summer nap. The timing of flowering can tell us where we are in the annual orbit around our star. By comparing the timing of flowering and other natural events from year to year, a science called phenology, we can learn how plants and animals respond to changes in their environment. Pretty cool!
I found some outstanding wildflowers this week while checking on the progress of our habitat restoration projects at Gallagher Creek Park and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. Check out these photos to see how nature announces fall, then go find some wildflowers in real life! It’s going to be a beautiful weekend.
Last week, we explored nature in Bear Creek when it was a working farm 75 years ago. I thought it would be interesting to continue following its history to learn how it became our first publicly protected park. And the source for that information was the “mover and shaker” who envisioned turning this abandoned farm into Bear Creek Nature Park and helped make it a reality – Parks and Recreation Commissioner Alice Tomboulian.
Many thanks to Alice and her husband Paul for sharing their knowledge of Bear Creek 45 years ago – and their photos below that I’m using with their permission! Also thanks to Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale for great info and photos of the Grand Opening of the new park developments in 2003!
1969: Exploring an Abandoned Farm
Much had changed since the 1940’s when the Comps family lived on the farm. With no animals grazing, the grass in some Old Fields had grown tall, while rental farmers raised corn in others. The county had widened Snell Road, taking out the old sugar maples that once graced the front of the farmhouse. The county had also straightened Gunn Road, eliminating a steep curve that went around the far north of Bear Creek marsh by building a new straight crossing with a metal culvert. Sometime in the 60’s, the old farmhouse burned, leaving today only a remnant of an outdoor grill built by George Comps’ father in the 1940’s or 50’s from stones on the property. (Hover over photos for captions. Click on photos to enlarge.)
When Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their family moved to Oakland Township in 1969, the land that became Bear Creek Nature Park was abandoned farmland still owned as an investment by Mr. Devereaux of the Richard C. Devereaux Foundation in Detroit (now of Bloomfield Hills). The Tomboulians were naturalists and lived across from this lovely piece of land. Alice was a volunteer at Seven Ponds Nature Center in Dryden and Paul headed the department of Chemistry and Environmental Health at Oakland University. They recognized the importance of those 107 acres – the marsh, the wetlands, the plants and wildlife – for conservation and preservation. In those days, children and their parents exploring empty land was common and not thought at all to be trespassing. So the Tomboulian family skated on the pond near Gunn Road and explored the woods and fields.
Early 1970s to 1977: Nature Study at Bear Creek
Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their three children used the land that would become Bear Creek as a perfect spot for nature study. Even Alice’s stepmother joined in! Exploring the marsh, for example, took some gusto in those days before the docks were available for observation. So Alice and her stepmom waded in, fully dressed in old clothes, to explore the reeds for coot nests and other denizens of the marsh. Along the way, of course, they also picked up the same kind of trash my husband and I retrieve in the park from time to time to this day!
One day Alice heard a chain saw roaring across the road and hurried over to see who was cutting down trees. It turned out to be the landowner, Mr. Devereaux. Rather than questioning her interest, Mr. Devereaux was pleased that someone was watching over and protecting his land and gave his permission to explore and later, granted permission for Baldwin School field trips for nature study. Soon school children, their parents and teachers began arriving through a narrow path from Collins Road, which today is a much wider, developed path from the Township Hall. The children below and in the photo at the top of the blog, some sporting “Ranger Rick” neckerchiefs, would be in their fifties by now.
On that field trip on a sunny June day in 1969, the children did a bit of exploring around the pond, though of course no viewing from a deck was possible since none existed. Note the difference between 1969 and now. In 1969, the northern side of the Center Pond was edged only with tall grass – most of it non-native grazing grasses and native reeds. Now the north side of the pond is surrounded by thickets of some native and many non-native invasive shrubs .
Here’s another group of Baldwin school children coming down the Eastern Path in June of 1969. Then a narrow foot path wound down through the eastern Old Field where the grass planted to feed the cows was starting to grow tall.
Now a wider, developed trail follows the same path but over the years, thanks to the stewardship of the Parks and Recreation Commission, native Canada Goldenrod and other native wildflowers have made a big comeback. Black-eyed Susans, Coneflowers, Prairie Dock and Common Milkweed, beloved by Monarch butterflies, live peaceably beside non-native wildflowers like Queen Anne’s Lace and Ox-eye Daisies.
Yellow Cone Flower is a perennial native wildflower.
Queen Anne’s Lace
In 1974, an ecological survey of Oakland Township by Paul Thompson of the Cranbrook Institute of Science confirmed the importance of the land that is now Bear Creek. He briefly described the area that is now Bear Creek. as having “an excellent cattail marsh…several dozen muskrat lodges…an oak hickory woodland of moderate sized trees, and a number of small woodland ponds.”
1977 – 2003 Bear Creek Becomes a Park, Wild and Undeveloped
In the early 70’s, Alice and Paul Tomboulian and their children continued their nature study on the land that was to become Bear Creek Nature Park. Mark, the Tomboulian’s younger son, was a born naturalist. Over the years that he explored Mr. Devereaux’s land, he kept a list of every plant, animal and bird he saw. Here Alice and her three children are doing some nature study at Bear Creek marsh in the 1970’s. (Photo from an article in the Pontiac Press, now the Oakland Press.)
In the ’70s, Alice was serving on the Oakland Township Board of Trustees. Armed with her own nature study and her son Mark’s wonderful list of the wildlife and plant life in the marsh, she proposed to the Parks Commission the creation of the township’s first park by buying Mr. Devereaux’s property. And in 1977, The Oakland Township Parks Commission purchased the 107 acres of land which is now Bear Creek Nature Park using $305,000 from the Parks Millage Fund.
At the time, township residents preferred keeping the parks with access only by footpaths. But problems needed to be solved in Bear Creek Marsh. Over the years, the metal culvert under Gunn road installed in the 1940’s had rusted and partially collapsed. The drainage became blocked with runoff and debris from roadwork and development. Water flooded the marsh, creating unnaturally high water levels, “sometimes giving the appearance of a 8 acre lake,” as Paul Tomboulian puts it. The high water was drowning a very special native habitat relied on by native wildlife. (Hover cursor over photo on right for caption.)
Alice, the PRC, and the Township worked with the Oakland County Road Commission for 16 years to correct this problem. According to Paul Tomboulian, the old culvert eventually “was replaced with a new 78-foot long pipe in 2003, new water levels were set, and erosion control measures near Gunn Road were installed.” Now, the water level has returned to more normal levels and bulrushes, cattails and marsh wildlife are returning to Bear Creek Marsh.
Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) at Bear Creek Marsh
Monarch on native Beggar-tick
September 2003 – Bear Creek Becomes a Fully Developed Nature Park
Later, when the Parks Commission became the Parks and Recreation Commission, the PRC moved to make Bear Creek Nature Park even more accessible to the public. With the approval of commission members, Parks Director Mindy Milos-Dale sought out and wrote the Township’s first grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. The grant proposal was accepted and paid for 44% of the cost of facilities improvements at the park. They included ADA accessible limestone trails, wooden boardwalks, docks and overlooks in wetland areas, a picnic pavilion, a children’s play area, a gravel parking lot and restroom facilities. The remaining cost was matched from Parks Millage Funds.
After all the careful planning and financing was done, Bear Creek Nature Park had its Grand Opening on September 27, 2003. Visitors, like us today, enjoyed the Old Fields filled with the gorgeous orange and purple of fall’s Canada Goldenrod and New England Aster. They could hear Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes crying overhead as they headed south. Visitors watched water birds from the observation deck as they do today. Muskrats and snapping turtles swam peacefully in Bear Creek Marsh.
What a journey! We owe a debt of gratitude to the vision, consistent effort and careful study of the Tomboulians, PRC commissioners over the years, Parks Director Milos-Dale and the support of many park-loving Trustees whose foresight and careful planning protected the marshes, meadows and woodlands of Bear Creek for all of us who enjoy its very special beauties today.