What Makes a Wet Prairie?
A few months ago, you may have seen my blog post detailing the controlled burns that took place in some of our parks. While writing that post, I ended up researching how fire would affect certain habitat types that we burned and became interested in what makes those areas so unique. One such habitat is the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie that was partially burned along the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silverbell Road. If you visit, we would like you to view the wet prairie from the trail to prevent trampling sensitive plants. Because of this, it may be difficult to see what makes this area special at first glance. However, our recent work in this area has afforded me the opportunity to share some of the unique aspects that result from the conditions presented by wet prairie.
When I first visited the wet prairie this spring, I noticed that it wasn’t exactly as wet as advertised. However, revisiting the site after some significant rainfall revealed an increase in standing water, and the area started to live up to its name a little more. I soon discovered that wet prairies occur in areas with poor drainage, leading to periodic fluctuations in water levels that many of its plant species depend on. While helping with the prescribed burns in a few sections along the Paint Creek trail this spring, I learned that water isn’t the only element that plays a role in this ecosystem. Like other prairie habitat types, fire is more than welcome here. The burn we administered this spring will help recycle nutrients and control competing invasive species.
Stewardship Work in The Wet Prairie
Outside of the area that was burned this spring, we have been incorporating mechanical methods to keep invading species at bay and maintain the unique features that are present. Many understory plants associated with a more open oak canopy can be found in the wooded areas of the wet prairie. Unfortunately, certain fast-growing tree species like red maple have become more prevalent made the area much more shaded. One way we have been attempting to increase the growth of new young oak trees is through selective tree girdling of these shade-tolerant species. To girdle a tree we strip a complete ring of bark around an unwanted tree and apply herbicide to the exposed inner sapwood. The result will be a dead snag, allowing more light to the woodland floor and leaving more room for oak species in the canopy and savanna plants in the understory.
In addition to tree girdling, the other stewardship crew members and I have been working to remove other unwanted, invasive species through hand-pulling, mainly targeting garlic mustard, dame’s rocket, spotted knapweed and white sweet clover.
Natural Features Galore
Surveying for various invasive species involves spending a lot of time looking at what other plants are populating the area. Through this process, I discovered the many unique native plants that resided in the wet prairie. The presence of both sunny and shaded areas with wet and dry characteristics create a marvelous diversity of herbaceous plants. Many species contribute to a wide spectrum of flowers depending on the time of year. Such species include blue-eyed grass, butterfly milkweed, hoary puccoon, shrubby cinquefoil, Michigan lily and Culver’s root to name a few. Seeing this beautiful diversity helps drive home the purpose behind our stewardship work in these areas.
Of course, the many unique wildflowers of this habitat attract many pollinators as well. The stewardship crew happened to spot several species of butterflies including viceroys, monarchs, and great spangled fritillaries. We’ve also spotted many birds, notably a pair of great crested flycatchers nesting in a dead snag. Unfortunately, these birds were too quick for our cameras. I also happened to stumble upon a turkey that was nesting right off of the Paint Creek Trail. It may have seen me coming, but I certainly did not see it until I was inches away from its nest.
Stewardship Work in the Fen
The wet prairie isn’t the only unique habitat that can be seen from the Paint Creek Trail. Just a few miles north on the trail between Gunn Road and Adams Road, you may be able to see another interesting area that we have been working to protect: the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen. While we didn’t administer a prescribed burn here this spring, my interest and research into unique habitat types lead me to discover a lot of similarities between the wet prairie and the fen. A fen is also a special wetland characterized by soils composed largely of decayed plant material, and is unique in that it is fed by carbonate and calcium-rich groundwater groundwater. Because of these conditions, fens boast a high diversity of plant species including tamarack, poison sumac, and a variety of fen-specialist sedges and wildflowers.
Our work in the fen has mainly consisted of controlling the densely growing non-native narrow-leaf cattail population that has spread and threatened native biodiversity. We control cattail using what we call the “glove of death,” which involves wiping the stem of each cattail with a glove sprayed with an aquatic herbicide. While very selective, I found this process to be one of the more difficult and meticulous invasive control methods we have experienced as it requires us to move carefully through the cattails to avoid touching herbicide-covered plants. Fortunately, we recently experimented with another treatment option that could potentially expedite the process of cattail control in denser areas. This method involves wiping larger areas of cattails with an herbicide-coated towel. Since the cattails are taller than most of the other plants, this treatment is selective.
Many of Michigan’s endangered insect species require these habitat types to survive. The Poweshiek skipperling, Hine’s emerald dragonfly and Mitchell’s satyr butterfly all rely on fens and spring-fed wetland habitat. While not all of these species have necessarily been spotted in Oakland County, the preservation of this habitat type is important wherever possible. Working in these areas is an interesting opportunity to be able to see how our efforts directly impact the land we work in. Some of these effects may take years before there is a greater noticeable change, but others are directly visible from one year to the next. For example, it was interesting to see how many fewer cattails there were in the fen this year after spending time treating them last year. It is in an honor to be taking part in the process of maintaining these unique Michigan wetlands.
If you’re interested in learning more about wet prairies and fens, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s website provides plenty of information on these habitat types and which plants and animals you can expect to see there: