October is autumn’s transition month. Some days are warm and sunny, creating almost an illusion of late summer or early September. And on those days, a few bees and butterflies flutter across my path, caterpillars bump along through the grass and native wildflowers still bloom in the fields. A turtle in the Draper marsh basks in the thinning light.
Change is in the air. Let’s look back to see what October had to offer as we take the first cold, rainy steps into the austerity of November.
Early October: Late Season Wildflowers Host the Occasional Bee or Butterfly
One Sunday afternoon in October, a Common Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) fluttered down onto the trail right in front of my husband and I. In the summer, Draper Twin Lake Park hosts a rainbow of butterflies. Some mate, lay their eggs and expire, leaving caterpillars behind in their chrysalises. But this colorful little butterfly migrates south for the winter and returns in the spring. Perhaps it stopped at Draper to sample the various goldenrods, since it prefers yellow flowers. Can you see the slightly bug-eyed expression on its face? I laughed to think it was as surprised to see my husband and I as we were to see it land right in front of us!
Late October: Swaying, Russet Prairie Plants Provide a Fall Feast for Wildlife
The video above may look like a sea of dry brown stems to you. But to the birds, particularly the American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis), it looks like your heavily laden Thanksgiving table. In just the video’s 40 seconds, you are seeing hundreds of thousands of seeds: Indian Grass, Coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, Stiff Goldenrod, Little Bluestem and many more. On the August birdwalk, we spent a happy ten minutes or so watching a flock of goldfinches swaying on bobbing stalks as they stuffed themselves with Stiff Goldenrod seed (Solidago rigida). First there were two and then suddenly there were five all scrabbling to feed on the abundant seed heads.
Relishing Autumn’s Transformation
The Draper prairie with its great looping trail really may look dry, brown and lifeless to some hikers. But not to me. At this time of year, I feel a lot like Ratty, a “country gentleman” sort of muskrat in the children’s classic Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, a book I quoted in an earlier blog. Like me, Ratty senses the restlessness of autumn. He heads out into a farmer’s field, much as I waded out into the tall grass of Draper’s northern prairie: “…he thrust into the great realm of wheat, yellow, wavy, and murmurous, full of quiet motion and small whisperings. Here he often loved to wander through the forest of stiff strong stalks that carried their own golden sky away over his head — a sky that was always dancing, shimmering, softly talking; or swaying strongly to the passing wnd and recovering itself with a toss and a merry laugh. Here, too, he had many small friends, a society complete in itself…”
Ratty is a kindred spirit. Autumn also plunges me into the bending and tossing grasses and the whispering of dry stems where I can stand shoulder deep in the prairie and just “be” with it all. Like him, I sense a community of other creatures in the flocks of fidgety birds, the agitated butterflies searching for the last bloom, the relentless plodding of a caterpillar through the grass stems. Autumn’s restlessness urges me to celebrate the change, change and change again of every season. I appreciate that reminder.
Before European settlement, our special area of Michigan was actually an Oak Savannah with large expanses of tall waving grasses,
widely scattered, spreading oaks
and other native trees, shrubs and prairie wildflowers. During the spring and summer, ground-nesting birds like the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) settled among tall grass stems, producing young. Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) sang their burbling song while swaying on grass stems. The Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) whistled their slow song from perches in low shrubs. Later, in the 1800’s, non-native game birds like Ring-necked Pheasants(Phasianus colchicus) were introduced and took advantage of the tall grass for cover.
On November 14 and 15, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, took a huge step forward in prairie restoration on 20 acres of Draper Twin Lake Park and another 18 acres in Charles Ilsley Park. The hope is that residents will be able to experience the land as it may have looked before and that native residents – birds, animals, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees of the prairie – can return, adding more rich diversity to the plants and wildlife of Oakland Township.
The process began in the summer of 2014 as crews working with Dr. Ben began removing the non-native and invasive species that had taken over the land after farming had ceased. This meant long hours of cutting woody invasive trees and shrubs like Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose and Glossy Buckthorn which had quickly colonized the open land, and then treating the stumps to prevent re-growth. The process continued this summer until one beautifully rolling 20 acre field was finally prepared for planting in Draper Twin Lake Park.
Two other rolling fields of 5 and 13 acres at Charles Ilsley Park were also cleared and prepared.(Click on double photos for larger view. Rest cursor on photos for captions.) Two more 15 acre fields are being prepared for planting in 2016 and 2017.
Dr. Ben sought out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to purchase wild seed for these areas and then carefully selected a list of plants suitable for our specific sites. Township residents will need to be patient, since prairie flowers spend their first two to three years putting down deep roots. These deep roots help prairie plants survive drought conditions or fire to which they became adapted over thousands of years of fluctuations in climate and periodic fire. In fact, carefully controlled prescribed burns will be used periodically on these prairies in the future because regular burning helps native plants thrive and thwarts non- natives who are not adapted to it. Some native plants even require fire in order to bloom!
A few flowers will begin to appear next spring, but the prairies should really start blooming vigorously by the spring and summer of 2018. Here are just a few of the prairie grasses and wildflowers that will be gracing our prairies then. (Click on photos to enlarge them and hover your cursor over the photo for plant names.)
Along with these more familiar native plants, Dr. Ben also included grasses and flowers that used to bloom here but that we see less often now. Click on these links to see Foxglove Beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis), Wild Lupine(Lupinus perennis), andSky-blue Asters(Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). And that’s only a sample of the 36 species of plants Dr. Ben ordered!
With those plants up and growing, our parks can attract more butterflies and native prairie birds like those mentioned above or maybe other special species, such as the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), or Henslow’s Sparrow.
So that November weekend, Jerry Stewart from Native Connections brought equipment designed for planting native seed. Jerry first carefully calibrated the seed drill for the seed type, planting rate, and depth. He then loaded seed in the hoppers and was ready to go.
Four of our former OT stewardship technicians, who had worked hard to clear land for this project, joined Dr. Ben and Parks Commissioner Colleen Barkham (not pictured) to see the moment when the seed finally went into the ground. The former technicians are now finishing up school or pursuing careers in various environmental fields.
Now the native seed is in and next spring, sturdy native wildflowers and grasses will begin sinking their roots deep into the soil, a survival strategy that will take them 2 or 3 summers. And then in year three or four, we will be able to watch prairies in full bloom again in Oakland Township. As time passes we hope the wildlife return – butterflies floating above swaying grass and native wildflowers, while the Bobolinks sing and the “Bob-White!” whistle returns to grace the summer months. Dr. Ben shared some photos taken on the Flint Hills prairie in Kansas (where he completed his doctorate) in order to help us dream until then.