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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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).
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.
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!
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 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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finally, the chrysalis becomes transparent and the the butterfly emerges to dry its wings before taking flight.
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.”
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).
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.”
The Threats that Monarchs Face
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 .
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.)
Girls see-sawing on the “dragonfly” at Gallagher Creek after the installation of the equipment last fall.
Playing on the “Stand ‘n’ Spin”
Two girls playing on the hollow “log” at the Gallagher Creek playground last fall after the equipment was first installed.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).
Cat-tails are seeding in the marsh on the park’s west side.
A Blue Jay probing for cat-tail seeds.
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.
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.
A large puffball appeared along the treeline for the second year in a row.
Turkey-tail mushrooms on a stump at Gallagher.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play
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.
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.