Bear Creek Nature Park can be surprisingly busy on a late autumn afternoon. Couples sit chatting on a bench, while pairs of other species are gliding together on the Center Pond or cozying up in the hollow of a tree. Birds soar overhead or chatter from distant branches.
And meanwhile on the north side of Bear Creek, Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, along with hard-working volunteers and a forestry mower, are ridding the park of invasive shrubbery. And what emerges from their efforts is a beautiful, rolling oak savanna landscape! You may be a bit shocked at first by the change – but trust me, you’re going to love it!
Pairing Up in Autumn
Spring may be for lovers but autumn’s got its own appeal. One late afternoon, a young couple came wandering down a forest path toward me, the girl giving me a shy hello. And shortly thereafter, as I approached the north platform of the marsh, a slightly older pair of friends relaxed on the bench, just enjoying together the golden light of an autumn day.
Nearby at the Center Pond, the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were paired up as well. Mallards choose their mates in the autumn once they’ve finished their molt. They won’t mate until the spring, but they spend the winter hanging out together. Kind of nice, really….
A third couple showed up in the comfortable, big hole in a White Oak (Quercus alba) where I’ve often seen Raccoons (Procyon lotor). They were looking pretty cozy as the sun went down. You may see only one in the photo below at first, but note that there’s a third ear showing! The second raccoon, sleepier or less curious than its companion, stayed hidden behind the first. Raccoons are generally solitary but they occasionally den up together and sleep through cold snaps, especially in December and January. They don’t actually hibernate, which would involve slowing down their metabolism for a continuous period. This sleepy-eyed raccoon could be a female and its kit; the young generally stay with their parent for close to year. But from their size, I’m guessing it’s two young raccoons of the same sex – they den that way too – just waking up as the night comes on.
More Birds and a “Bear” of Sorts…
As I approached the pond one afternoon, a flash of slate blue and a ratcheting call alerted me to the presence of a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon). Though Cornell tells me I should see them year ’round, I only seem to spot them in the spring and the fall. Again this time it was a noisy, solitary male; kingfisher mating pairs only associate in the breeding season. He stayed off in the distance but I could tell it was a male from the single blue band on his chest. Females have two bands, one blue and one chestnut brown.
A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) circled high above the eastern meadow, scouting for a snack before nightfall.
On a snag near the marsh, a female Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) drilled for her evening meal. Downys look a lot like Hairy Woodpeckers, but are smaller and have shorter, sharper beaks and dark dots on their outer white tail feathers. Hairy Woodpeckers have a longer, heavier, spike-like beak and clear white feathers on the outside of their tails.
During the bird walk at Bear Creek Nature Park two weeks ago, we were treated to the sight of a good-sized flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). At first we saw just one of two.
And then Ben spotted a whole flock on the western slope where they eventually landed in a single tree, as if decorating it for the holiday season!
A couple of migrants had arrived as well. The Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea) had just arrived from Alaska or Hudson’s Bay where it raised its young this summer. This bird loves cold weather but the far north is too extreme even for Tree Sparrows at this time of year, so it traveled south to relax in a balmly Michigan winter!
Another migrator was just passing through. I didn’t catch a photo two weeks ago, but here’s a photo of the White-throated Sparrow (Zonothrichia albicollis) from a previous autumn. Notice the yellow lores above its eyes! Handsome bird!
And About that Bear…
As you know, there are no actual bears in Bear Creek Nature Park. But there is, of course, the Wooly Bear, the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella). I have a particular fondness for these little creatures because they so often introduce children to the pleasures of nature. Wooly Bears, as you may recall, curl into a ball if handled as a defensive move. So placing one in a child’s hand often elicits surprise and laughter as the bristles of its brown and black hair tickles a youngster’s palm. In fact, I recently saw this happen to little children at Gallagher Creek Park. So here’s Bear Creek’s only bear, at last.
Volunteers Open New Vistas at the Marsh
When farm fields were abandoned in the township decades ago, aggressive non-native shrubs quickly took over the fields and surrounded wet areas. Bear Creek Marsh has been surrounded by these non-native shrubs for many years. But in late October, Six Rivers Land Conservancy and a group of industrious volunteers from Fiat-Chrysler helped Ben VanderWeide and stewardship specialist Alyssa clear huge thickets of glossy buckthorn from the edges of the marsh at the eastern edge of the Oak-Hickory forest. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
The crew created huge piles of the invasive shrubs which Ben plans to burn during the winter months. The stumps of the buckthorn shrubs were carefully treated. As you can see above he uses a blue dye with the treatment to be sure he’s covered the stumps completely in order to prevent re-sprouting.
The end result of their remarkable effort is that we have wonderful new views of the marsh which we could never enjoy before! And, of course, other native plants can thrive at the edge of the marsh!
An Oak Savanna Emerges from a Tangle of Invasive Shrubs
Before farming came to Oakland Township, the landscape was defined by tall native grasses, native wildflowers and widely spaced oak trees – what is called an “oak savanna.” That grassy, open landscape is just beginning to be restored at the north end of Bear Creek Nature Park – and it is just spectacularly beautiful!
Until last week, invasive Glossy Buckthorn shrubs filled the entire area surrounding the Center Pond, just as it had surrounded the marsh. Starting at the edge of the forest, the Buckthorn and a few other invasive shrubs formed super dense thickets filling the entire loop trail and the trail edges up to the forest. The photo below, taken the first day that the major restoration began, shows just how densely the Buckthorn had grown!
Because of those shrubs, the trails had become tunnels between non-native vegetation. Here are the two arms of the Big Northern Loop and the trail behind the pond as they looked before restoration began and how they look now after we started the restoration process.
Eastern Trail on the Big Loop
Western Trail on the Big Loop
Trail Behind the Center Pond
Before the forestry mower arrived, Ben carefully marked the trees to be saved and the areas filled with invasive shrubs that required removal. The operator of the mower, an employee of the Ruffed Grouse Society that owns the machine, carefully avoided the trees Ben had marked and even preserved other young oaks that he found buried in the thickets. As the mowing proceeded, what gradually appeared behind it was an oak savanna – oaks and a few other trees sprinkled across a plain – the very type of landscape that thrived here hundreds of years ago! All that’s needed are tall native grasses and wildflowers.
When Ben took me last week to see what had begun, I was astonished and delighted to discover vistas that I’d never known were hidden beneath all those shrubs! Here’s the western loop trail stretching south toward the pond. Now I could see a cleared meadow dotted with young oaks and other trees with the edge of the forest on the perimeter. What a difference from walking through a tunnel of buckthorn!
I could stand in the center of the loop which had been an impassible tangle of shrubs and look south down an undulating slope to the whole expanse of the Center Pond, a viewpoint I’d never had before!
When Ben and I left the western loop heading back up the trail toward the south, the forest stood tall beyond the newly cleared field. We could now see the forest, a dark wall of hickories and oaks, that embraced the new landscape. We were no longer inside a tunnel of shrubs that blocked everything but the treetops beyond. Ben looks pretty pleased with the work after the first day of restoration, doesn’t he? He should be!
A Landscape Resurrecting
When I followed that path around to stand again on the observation deck at the Center Pond, I realized the scope of the transformation emerging at Bear Creek. Now the graceful, flowing curves of the landscape began to dip and rise in graceful curves beyond the pond. These three photos together can give you some idea of what I saw standing there, looking north from west to east across the pond.
I’m guessing that you can tell I was thrilled at the transformation taking place at Bear Creek. I have walked this park for over 25 years and at one point, I walked it every day for 3 years. It’s essentially my “home park,” and I know it intimately. So when Ben first talked of changing it, I was skeptical. When I came to see the first day’s restoration work last week, I actually stopped in my tracks as I came to the pond and gasped – and then I began to smile. That smile never left my face as I wandered through a vastly changed Bear Creek that for me had suddenly become even more beautiful. The feeling of “rightness” was so powerful. This, I felt, was the way this land was meant to be. It seemed as if the earth could take a deep breath, that the oaks that had been hidden among the tangle of shrubs were now stretching to the sky, ready to grow taller and stronger in the sun and the wind.
It will take years of hard work to complete this transformation. Buckthorns don’t give up easily. This winter Ben will plant native grass seed among the shards left from the shrubs, the broken wood eventually returning its nutrients to the earth. In the spring, the buckthorn will vigorously produce sprouts again and Ben and his crew will have to persist in keeping the ground that they gained for the oaks, the native plants and the wildlife.
Eventually, when the shrubs have subsided, Ben can plant the area with native wildflowers. Turtles will emerge from the wetlands to find soft soil in which to dig their nests and lay their eggs. The native plants will slowly sink their roots deep enough to survive fire and drought. And if we’re patient and lucky, they will finally come to full bloom. And that’s when we’ll be able to see birds and butterflies fluttering and floating between and above the oak trees, over the rolling grassland – some perhaps that we haven’t seen in a long time. And won’t that be a sight to see?