Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: Summer’s Long Goodbye Begins

The northern meadow at Stony Creek Ravine, partially fenced off for wetland restoration

Summer’s slow demise in late August/early September urged me to acknowledge the need for letting go. Tiny warblers seem to suddenly disappear as they head south. Canada geese begin their practice runs, forming loose “V’s” while trumpeting across the sky. Hummingbirds feed ravenously at any available nectar, gaining 25-40% of their body weight before the long journey to Mexico. Some fledglings still flutter, cry and pursue their parents for a meal; others hone their newly acquired foraging skills. Spiraling through the trees, they seek out the feast of eggs or caterpillars that the pollinators left behind. The meadows quiet down as molting birds hide their bare heads in the greenery hoping to be unseen. Wasps buzz above our outdoor meals, struggling to supplement diminished sources of food.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I spent quiet hours at the newer, eastern section of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park during these waning days of summer. Come join me in the thinning sunlight and share the ebullience of young birds, the sprays of grasshoppers beneath my feet, and the persistence of butterflies on late summer blossoms that are hallmarks of this transitional season of the year.

Birds, Experienced and Not-so-experienced, Forage and Flutter

A flock of Barn Swallows gathered on a fence at Stony Creek Ravine after foraging over the wetlands for flying insects

I spent my days at Stony Creek Ravine exploring the open fields visible from the top of the Outlook Hill in the eastern section of the park. Much of this area is fenced in to protect small shrubs and trees planted in the re-emerging wetlands. Thousands of native plants were sown there when the old drainage tiles from previous owners were broken to allow water to flow again to the surface. In the spring, pools form and migrating waterbirds glide in for a bit of R&R.

Right now, though, the fenced-in sections are moist but little standing water remains after a hot summer. Social birds flock to the fences to chatter together. Solitary birds, some unusual ones this season, forage within the fence boundaries. Other just need a place to periodically perch while scouting for seeds among the tall grass and flowers within or around the fencing. My photographer friend, Bob Bonin, generously shared some of his excellent photos of birds he came across while patiently waiting near the fence line. It was the right place to be, as you’ll see below!

Young Fledglings Practice Their Foraging, Flying and Landing Skills

One of my mornings at Stony Creek Ravine was in the company of Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide’s Wednesday bird walks. As we entered the park, we spotted several young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) whisking in and out of the shrubbery, bits of blue on their wings shining in the sunlight. Three of them spent a remarkable amount of time exploring a hole in a distant snag. We wondered if, being cavity nesters, they were just curious about holes in general or if this hole might have been the one from which they fledged only weeks before.

Three young Bluebirds took turns looking into this hole in a snag. Had it maybe been their nesting hole? We’ll never know, will we?

On another visit, an adult Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) regally surveyed the area from the tallest branch of a bare tree. Perhaps the adult I saw (below left) was keeping its eye out for its offspring, a juvenile that Bob Bonin saw a few days earlier (below right.) Both birds will shortly be heading to forests in South America where they will feast on fruit during the winter. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Bob also spotted a female Orchard Oriole (Icterus spurius) and perhaps one of her offspring. Like their bright orange relatives, the Baltimore Oriole, these birds build pouch-like nests. They breed in our parks each year but are less noticeable to most of us. The male is a dark russet orange and black and the female is yellow. Orchard Orioles depart for their overwintering grounds earlier than many other birds, so by now they’re on their way to Central America.

I fell instantly in love with this little puffball. Local bird expert, Allen Chartier, tells me it’s a juvenile Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). This young bird can relax a bit longer than the distance migrators. Song Sparrows travel around just enough during the winter to keep themselves out of the worst of Michigan’s cold season.

This wee Song Sparrow juvenile can use autumn days to perfect its foraging skills. It will need them to handle a Midwestern winter.

A few other small birds appeared for me along the fence line. A little Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) sings one of the most recognizable calls of a summer day – the rising “Pee – weeeee?” that sounds like an oft-repeated question. Birdsong beginners, like me, appreciate a song that identifies this little flycatcher who can be difficult to spot otherwise. Bob Bonin spotted a little Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) who’ll be heading off to Florida before long. And he also saw a young Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) with its telltale pink/orange beak and feet.

Breeding Season Over, Adult Summer Visitors Relax Before Migration

My friend Bob brings patience as well as skill to his photography. He caught sight of two birds at the park that people rarely see and waited until he got the shot he wanted. One was a “leucistic” Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) which means that it had partial pigmentation loss. Unlike the complete loss of pigmentation of albinos which also causes white, pink or red eyes, leucistic animals have partial pigmentation loss and their eyes are dark. Bob also waited over two hours for a closeup of another unusual bird, a Sedge Wren (Cistothorus stellaris) as it foraged for spiders and insects down in the dense grass, sedges and small shrubs within the fence. This is ideal habitat for Sedge Wrens, but since they are unpredictable nomads, we can’t count on seeing them every year.

Stony Creek Ravine hosts some more common summer residents as well – and we’re always glad to see them as well.

The plaintive cry of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) fell from the trees around a marshy area filled with sedges (genus Carex), ancient, grass-like plants that thrive in moist ground. When it suddenly appeared overhead, I caught it twice with my camera, once like a magnificent arrow streaking across the sky, and once in mid-scream from a prey’s eye view. Glad I’m too big to be carried away for dinner!

The fierce glare of a red-tailed hawk against the summer sky. What a striking, powerful predator!
The cry of a Red-tailed Hawk must put fear in the heart of every rabbit or field mouse within earshot.

Down Below, Butterflies, Bees and Late-Season Grasshoppers Harvested the Last of Summer’s Bounty

One of late summer’s most glamorous residents appeared in August, the glorious Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), North America’s biggest butterfly. If you’d like to attract some to your garden, two of its favorite native plants are Rose/Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and all of the goldenrods, both of which bloom in late summer and early fall If you can also tolerate thistles, they seem to favor them quite a lot more than we do!

At first glance, it’s easy to confuse the black and gold-spotted dorsal ( upper) sides of the Giant Swallowtail and the Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes,) especially if they’re flying. But compare the ventral (lower) side of the wings. The underside of the Giant Swallowtail’s wings are yellow and the Eastern Black’s (below) are black. I was lucky to see both feeding at thistles during my visits to Stony Creek Ravine.

Smaller butterflies and moths float and flutter in the grass as well, of course – and one well-fed caterpillar just chews its way along.

As regular readers know, I’m intrigued by insects of many kinds and want to convince all comers to just enjoy them. So here are some of my other favorites during late summer at Stony Creek Ravine.

Hardy Native Wildflowers Mix with Plentiful Non-natives until Restoration Advances.

A glorious spread of native wetland Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida), a relative of the other Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) that thrives in all types of open habitat.

Though the fields in the eastern section of the park have been cleared of many non-native shrubs, native wildflowers are not plentiful yet in the fields at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. The long stretch of native wetland Black-eyed Susans in the photo above is a glorious exception. Restoration of a healthy habitat with more diversity has begun with seed planting at this large park, but it will take several years to come to fruition. So I have to smile seeing sturdy native blooms holding their own amidst the non-native plants on the Outlook Hill, in the surrounding fields and near the wetlands. Here are some of the other stalwart native competitors declaring their presence at this amazing 268 acre park.

One native plant that’s rampant at the park this year may not please everyone – Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia.) So if you suffer from hay fever, now is not a good time for your visit! Please remember, though, ragweed pollen is dispersed by the wind; that’s why it ends up in noses. So please don’t blame your sneezing on innocent goldenrods that bloom at much the same time. Their pollen is heavy and falls right to the ground, far from sensitive noses!

Common Ragweed, photo by iNaturalist.org photographer pes_c515 (CC BY-NC)

Oh! And One Creepy Fungus that I Just Have to Share!

One of the benefits of being in a birding group is having more eyes and ears seeking out interesting details in the landscape, plus access to other people’s areas of expertise. For example, the energetic, hardworking summer natural areas stewardship technicains each year provide me, at least, with younger eyes and ears, youthful enthusiasm and a knowledge base more updated than mine!

In late July, while walking up the path to the ravine, Emma Campbell, one of this summer’s technicians, stopped to comment on a spiky bump in the trail that most of us stepped around, assuming that it was just a sharp piece of root. But Emma carefully broke off one small portion and finding it white inside, correctly identified as a fungus spookily called Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha). Evidently it’s a common fungus that grows from rotting wood; as you can see below, this one emerged around the remains of a stump. What a Halloween-ish discovery! Thank you, Emma! Wish I could have creeped out some friends with this one when I was a kid!

A fungus called “Dead Man’s Fingers” for obvious reasons.

The “Oohs” and the “Ughs” of Nature’s Impulse to Keep Fostering Life

Unless you are a hopeless romantic, every close observer of the natural world knows that nature is not all “sweetness and light.” The lives around us in nature can be both big and beautiful like the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) or small and homely like the Fall Webworm (Hyphantria cunea). It can be full of tenderness, like birds tirelessly feeding their young or ruthless in its need to survive, like a hawk tearing the flesh of its prey. It can be inspiring like a flight of fall geese or macabre like the Dead Man’s Fingers fungus. But whatever qualities it has for us humans, nature itself doesn’t judge and never despairs. Against all odds, nature just proceeds eon after eon in service of sustaining life, whatever that takes. The “nature of nature,” as it were, is to adapt, survive and assure the existence of the next generation.

We humans, as just another species, would do well to take a lesson from the creatures and plants that surround us. We cannot afford to despair as our behavior changes the climate, threatening life on this special blue planet. Generations could stretch on into the future indefinitely if we would do as all other creatures have evolved to do – adapt, change, survive and above all, work hard to ensure that long after we’re gone, life continues on a healthier path than we’re on right now. If we do, our grandchildren and their descendants will honor our efforts and that honor will be well deserved. Let’s not disappoint them.

Letting Nature Breathe Again: Restoration at Cranberry Lake Park

North meadow at Cranberry Lake Park after forestry mowing

Ah, at last! The native trees and plants can breathe again! Many of the invasive shrubs that had crept across open areas at Cranberry Lake Park are gone. Now the sun washes across the landscape, rain sluices into the ground, nourishing the roots of native trees, grasses and wildflowers waiting for spring. As the carpet of mowed stems and branches decompose, the nutrition previously taken up by autumn olive, privet, glossy buckthorn and other non-native shrubs can gradually re-nourish the soil. The diverse wildlife that evolved with our native plants will once again benefit from the food and shelter that they’ve depended on for thousands of years. With the help of careful stewardship – treatment of non-native re-sprouts and the spreading of native seed – a habitat will be reborn.

So come have a a look at the new vistas in the park. I can’t show it all, but maybe I can give you taste of it. Along the way, we’ll see a few creatures that shared my walks during the mostly gray days of November and early December.

Miraculous Transformation Along the Hickory Lane

To appreciate the dramatic changes made by forestry mowing, here to the left is a typical view of most paths at Cranberry Lake Park before the restoration work began – and it’s not too scenic, I must say. A tangle of invasive shrubs and vines created very little nutrition for wildlife, left only a narrow edge along the path for native wildflowers and had spread thickly into the fields beyond the trails. The almost impenetrable density of the shrubs blocked views of wetlands and the open vistas of large trees that had existed before the invasive plants took over. The invasives also took up nutrients and shaded out native plants all over the park.

As I headed north from the parking lot at West Predmore Road and stepped into the Hickory Lane, I first noticed that I could see into a wetland that I’d struggled to reach from the opposite side last summer when a group of volunteers and staff monitored a vernal pool there. How nice to see it so clearly from this direction! Perhaps you can see the density of shrubs on the far side, which is what used to exist along the Hickory Lane.

A wetland along the Hickory Lane, now visible after the removal of invasive shrubs

The mature trees along the Hickory Lane, of course, were not touched and only a scrim of shrubs remain between them. Look at the contrast between the un-mowed left side and the open area in the distance on the right! I was immediately tempted out into that cleared meadow.

The Hickory Lane with recently mowed meadow on the right and dense shrubbery remaining on the left

I found a place to slip between the trees and look at the landscape that had appeared. I’d never seen this sight before!

Once dense with shrubs, this beautiful meadow with mature trees opened up before me.

I was elated! The large trees, once shrouded with thickets of invasive shrubs, now stood clear in the November light. I wandered across the shredded trunks and branches of the former thicket, looking down for any signs of native plants which had survived beneath that carpet of invasives. And even though it was early November then, I found two. The tiny evergreen plant popping out in the photo on the left below is named Haircap Moss (a Polytrichum species). These plants thrive in moist, partial shade so they may eventually disappear in this location and be replaced by more sun-friendly species. And on the right below is native Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) which does well in the sun. Its flowers provide sustenance for butterflies and moths in spring and its tiny berries do the same for wildlife in the summer.

This sprawling meadow is divided by a tree line and in the northern section, a huge Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) stood tall in the sunlight, freed at last from the tangle of invasives. It still had one intruder, though. One of the least welcome invasives, Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), hung in its branches. Though the mower had chopped it off near the ground, it will try to make a comeback since its seeds will drop to the ground or be carried all over the park by birds.

A huge Shagbark Hickory in the newly mowed field with a few strands of Oriental Bittersweet clinging to its branches.

This invasive vine spirals up tree trunks, choking them while climbing to the sunlight. It shades out growth below and since it accumulates in the canopy can make trees vulnerable to being toppled in high winds. I saw a smaller tree felled in just this way farther east in the park. (See below left.)The hickory will survive, but a nearby tree in the restored meadow (below right) was heavily infested with Bittersweet. Look at the number of berries that can be spread from one vine!

Now that the field has been forestry mowed, our township stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his crew will take on the extensive follow-up processes to prevent re-sprouting by carefully applying herbicides to invasive shrubs like Bittersweet, or by girdling the trunks of non-native trees. Once that’s completed, native plant seeding can begin. We can do our part by not using Oriental Bittersweet for fall decorating and by cutting and treating any stems that appear near our homes.

The clearing of this wonderful meadow also brought the beauty of the Long Pond into view – a series of linked ponds that runs north and south on the eastern side of the restored meadow. What a treat to get close like this! I look forward to seeing the water glinting through the trees next summer and seeing the water fowl that drop in to forage or rest during migration.

The Long Pond from the eastern edge of the restored meadow beyond the Hickory Lanea vista not seen until the forestry mowing was completed.

Blue sky days were rare in November. Most of the time, the sun struggled to get through heavy cloud cover.

The sun was dimmed by dark clouds on three of my four trips to Cranberry Lake Park.

On one of those cold, dark days, when most birds were silent, I heard a gruff squeak repeated incessantly by a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) who fled from one tree near the Hickory Lane to another. (Click here and choose the December call recorded in New York near the bottom of the list for a sample.) I thought it might be issuing a warning but I couldn’t see a threat. Later however, I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) eyeing me from high in a distant tree and wondered if it prompted the Red-belly’s call.

On one of the snowy, quiet days on the Hickory Lane, it cheered me to see the tracks of little animals who’d visited the lane just after the snow fell the previous night or early that morning. I wasn’t alone! I followed the tracks of an Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) for quite a distance, a squirrel, probably the tiny Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), had bounded across the lane and a White-footed Deer Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had left its stitching tracks as it scurried diagonally across the spot where two paths met.

Opening Up the Path to Cranberry Lake

Like the Hickory Lane, the path to the lake had been crowded with non-native invasives. Once the forestry mower got to work, though, the lake could actually be glimpsed from far up the trail.

Along the trail in November and early December, birds were more heard than seen on dark cold days. Of course, Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) still trumpeted overhead. I love it when they get close enough to hear the snap of their wings!

A squadron of Canada Geese honking their way to warmer climes.

Along with the usual year ’round inhabitants, I did get to see two more unusual birds , migrators that I’d missed earlier in the autumn. Early in November, the birding group spotted a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus) high up in trees near the lake. The numbers of these pale-eyed blackbirds have “plunged an estimated 85-99 percent over the past forty years,” according to Cornell University’s website allaboutbirds.org. The ones near Cranberry Lake were too high for my lens to reach that day, but luckily I’d gotten a closer look back in 2017 at Bear Creek.

Rusty blackbird female at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2017. Note the pale eyes on these close relatives of the Grackle.

On one late November visit, a speckled Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) surprised me by stopping by so late in the season. Since they are known to like open areas in woods, maybe this one found Cranberry Lake Park a good stopover after a late start at migration.

A late-migrating Hermit Thrush

When the birding group reached Cranberry Lake early in the month, a bobbing flotilla of ducks floated in the distance.

Hundreds of ducks floated, fluttered and cruised along Cranberry Lake in early November

The ducks stayed out of the reach of even our binoculars. But some of the more expert birders were able to discern three species by the patterns and colors on their wings or heads: Buffleheads, Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks. Later in the week, I was able to get a bit closer to the Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) when a friend let me cross his lawn on the far side of Cranberry Lake. (Thanks, George!)

Bufflehead ducks spend the winter with us wherever they can find open water.

My photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, shared his photos of a variety of ducks on open water at Stony Creek Metropark one January. Here are Ring-necked Ducks (Aythya collaris) hanging out with a larger group of Redheads (Aythya americana) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) on a cold winter day. For Ring-necked ducks the white swoop on the flanks and the stripe at the base of the bill are good field marks for this black-and-white diving duck. Some Redheads spend the winter here, but most migrate to the Gulf coast.

Ring-necked ducks (the black-and-white ones) hanging out at Stony Creek Metropark with Redheads and Mallards.

Paul also shared some fine photos of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) who frequent Cranberry Lake as well as the lake in Stony Creek Metropark during the winter. Here’s a male and female Hooded Merganser and one of a lucky male who snagged a crayfish!

I found a photo of the Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis) by a generous photographer at iNaturalist.org. These ducks may have been migrating through when the birding group saw them in early November. They tend to spend the winter along the Gulf Coast. The ruffled “cap” on the back of its head is what separates it from the very similar Greater Scaup.

That fuzzy little ridge at the top of the head makes this a Lesser Scaup instead of a Greater one! Photo by Robert Pyle (CC BY-NC)

Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) with their bulbous orange and black bills fed actively on the far side of Cranberry Lake. The Cornell All About Birds website describes the difficulties presented by these beautiful, but non-native birds. “Their aggressive behavior and voracious appetites often disturb local ecosystems, displace native species, and even pose a hazard to humans.” Our native Trumpeter Swans (Cygnus buccinator) were once endangered, and though Cornell Ornithology says they are “recovering,” they still have a hard time competing with Mute Swans. Trumpeters, which have solid black bills, breed in our area, but winter farther south.

A Quiet Walk Back Wakes Me to the Small Details of a Winter Walk

The last of autumn on Cranberry Lake Park’s eastern meadow in late November

On these four quiet days in the park, I didn’t see much wildlife on my way back through the park’s eastern section. When that happened, I looked more carefully downward and as usual I was rewarded by paying attention. Below a wooden walkway over a small wetland on the trail, leaves made a mosaic under a skim of ice. That’s the kind of detail I can miss when looking up.

The dry Showy Goldenrod plumes (Solidago speciosa) drew my attention to bands of late autumn color at the edge of the Eastern Meadow. Along the paths, fertile fronds of Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), clad in their bead-like sori, contain the spores for next year’s crop.

Dry Wild Cucumber Vines (Echinocystis lobata) were draped like garlands across bushes here and there in the park. In summer, the vines look delicate and airy. In autumn, they produce the prickly seed capsules that give this plant its name. Each capsule opens in the fall, dropping four seeds from within its two chambers.

Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone Cylindrica) is a favorite of mine in early winter. I often miss its modest flowers in the spring. I begin to notice it when its small green center begins to extend into a cylinder as it forms its thimble-like fruit. I appreciate it most when colder weather prompts its seed head to burst forth in a cottony tuft filled with tiny black seeds.

So Exactly What is Being Restored at Cranberry Lake?

A thicket of native Gray Dogwood on the path back to the parking lot

At times, I’ve thought of restoration projects as similar to the restoration of an historic home. The work that Dr. Ben VanderWeide and our stewardship crew perform restores natural vistas that thrived here for thousands of years before European colonization. At Cranberry Lake Park we’re removing invasive shrubs and vines so that native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers can reestablish a mosaic of forest and meadows. That’s historic preservation, for sure!

But what’s essential to understand about the work being done in our parks is that it’s about much more.

One presenter at a Michigan Wildflower Conference compared nature’s intricate systems to the thousands of lines of code in your cellphone, each one of which depends on the performance of thousands of others to make the system work. Imagine, the presenter said, randomly removing just one line of code from your cellphone. You wouldn’t do it! The system might crash!

Nature spent eons perfecting its “coding,” creating a delicate balance that fed and sheltered a huge variety of life forms. Sometimes unwittingly, sometimes knowingly, humans have removed one “line of code” after another from nature’s finely-tuned system. It’s happened everywhere on our small, blue planet, even right here in our yards and parks. Non-native plants introduced into our parks, fields, and gardens can act like an aggressive computer virus, spreading quickly, damaging nature’s finely balanced systems with destructive force.

So as we begin a new year, let’s celebrate that in our little spot on the globe, we’ve chosen to support stewardship and restoration in our natural areas. As the native wildflowers, trees and grasses that nature fostered for eons return to their rightful places, they provide a healthy foundation for the rebirth of our meadows, forests and wetlands. We can justifiably hope that with time and effort, some small part of nature’s intricate and carefully balanced “lines of code” can be restored to our ecosystem. If so, the myriad of complex relationships that once thrived here will again sustain the rich variety of life that nature planned for us.

Charles Ilsley Park: A-Flutter with Wings of All Sizes

Text and Photos
by Cam Mannino

At the end of May, spring migration wound down and the breeding season heated up. The migrators and the year-round avian residents of our parks busily set about nesting and tending their newly hatched young. Their bright wings flashed color into the pale spring sunlight, much to the delight of hikers like me and my new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle.

Meanwhile, in the meadows, the tiny wings of small butterflies and moths fluttered at my feet and in the tall grass at the trail edge. The wings of ant-sized solitary bees beat almost invisibly as they probed blossoms for nectar. It seemed the whole park vibrated with wings!

So come hang out with Paul and I as we wandered the meadows, wood edges and forested wetlands of Charles Ilsley Park, enjoying the company of winged creatures.

Summer’s Yearly Visitors Offer Song, Color – and New Life! – to Park Visitors

Our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben Vanderweide (far right) joins a birding group from Seven Ponds Nature Center in watching a migrating Blue-headed Vireo at Charles Ilsley Nature Park.

In May and early June, birdsong filters down through the fresh green leaves as birds arrive from wintering in warmer climes to enjoy the bounteous feast of insects provided by a Michigan spring. Migrators journeying farther north may pause to forage and rest like the Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius) spotted high in the treetops by the birders pictured above.

A Blue-Headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius). Photo by willemspan at iNaturalist.org (CC BY)

But many birds settle here for the summer, making the most of the abundant food and shelter our parks provide. Some sweep insects out of the air. Others pluck them off bark or probe for them in the ground. While Paul and I didn’t manage a joint trek through Charles Ilsley Park, we both saw a similar rainbow of birds singing to declare their territory or carrying off caterpillars to feed mates on the nest or newly hatched nestlings.

Birds In or Around the Tall Grass of the Prairies

My visits to Charles Ilsley Park usually begin by walking along the entrance path while monitoring some of the township’s nest boxes. Two other trained volunteers and I keep records of the first egg laid, the hatch and fledge dates and any issues that develop around the nest, like predators (House Sparrows, for example). We submit the data to Cornell University’s NestWatch site as part of a citizen science project.

This year three different species have settled in the boxes that I monitor. Eastern Bluebird babies (Sialia sialis) have broken naked from their shells, begged for food and ultimately found their way into the big wide world. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

Paul and I were both lucky enough to see the adults working to make this happen. It looks like the female of both of these pairs was delivering food for her young while the male stood watch.

A House Wren (Troglodytes aedon) in one of my boxes laid her eggs in a very tidy circle. Wrens fill their boxes almost to the top with twigs, topping them off with just enough grass and feathers to cushion their young. Somehow, the female makes her way into that tight spot to incubate her tiny eggs. I imagine the crowded box discourages predators from entering. By the way, this is an extreme closeup; the wren’s eggs are just a bit larger than a dime!

House Wren eggs laid in a neat circle within a nestbox crammed with twigs and topped with grass and feathers.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) take up residence in our boxes as well. After building a nest of dry grass, they collect feathers, almost always white ones, to create a soft covering for the eggs. It’s amazing how many white feathers they find; I’ve read, though, that they sometimes snitch them from other Tree Swallows! Paul got a lovely photo of a male perched like a pasha on another dry Evening Primrose stalk. These striking birds glide above the meadow grass, beaks agape, collecting insects as small as gnats and as big as dragonflies.

At the end of the entrance trail, beyond the nest boxes, I’m greeted by restored prairies rolling off in all directions. In May, Ben brought in a contractor to do a major prescribed burn in Charles Ilsley Park. The low flames moved across the east and north prairies, even taking in the forests around them as part of the planned burn.

The Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park four days after the prescribed burn.

It was a dramatic sight in the first few weeks to see the blackened land begin to flourish again. The burn replenishes the soil with nutrients held in the dry plants, and the blackened surface and warmth of the fire provides a longer growing season for many native plants. Many non-native plants can be thwarted by periodic fire, unlike our fire-adapted native species.

Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie three weeks after the prescribed burn.

At the entrance to the eastern prairie, an up-and-down two note call issued from the small copse of trees. Wow! I was lucky enough to see a Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) at close range. Usually I only hear vireos because they tend to stay high in the crowns of trees. What a delight to watch this one hop about in small trees long enough to get a quick photo!

One of my favorite migrators spends the winter among the colorful birds of South American forests. Dressed elegantly in black and white with its upright posture and white tail band, the Eastern Kingbird paused for Paul while surveying its territory. Kingbirds can be aggressive toward birds near their nests, even large ones flying high overhead.

An Eastern Kingbird can be spotted at a distance by its upright posture and white tail band. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

An assortment of summer sparrows make the most of our restored prairies. Once I began to pay attention to their varied songs and patterns in brown, black and white, they added interesting detail to my hikes. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, helpfully compares the song of the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) to the sound of a bouncing ping-pong ball. It starts with slow, sharp bursts that rapidly accelerate into a series of quick, rat-a-tat-tat notes. The melodies of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) can vary but are usually characterized by a couple of quick notes followed by a short melody that ends in either a trill or a buzz. For me, the songs of these two birds are the soundtracks of summer in all of our parks.

Birds in the Treetops and Forested Wetlands of Ilsley’s Western Trails
The western woods at Charles Ilsley Park features vernal pools like this and a long, mysterious marsh.

A large wetland runs along the northern edge of the park’s western section. It lies beyond the moist forest that edges the trail and may be missed by some hikers. Luckily, Paul willingly went off trail to get closer to the green surface of the long marsh which is covered with plants that are often mistaken for algae. Common Duckweed (Lemna minor) in my photo below is the small, leaved plant that floats on the water and Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) is the tiny plant between the Duckweed which can multiply to form a dense mat on the water surface, as it does right now at Ilsley’s western marsh.

The larger leaves are Duckweed and the smaller are Water Meal which has created a thick green mat on the surface of the long western marsh at Charles Ilsley Park.

Evidently, a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) found it quite a suitable surface for exploring! I wonder if its nest is high in the trees nearby? Wood Ducks are perching ducks that use the hooks on their webbed feet to negotiate tree bark. According to the Cornell All About Birds website, their ducklings can fall fifty feet from their nest into the greenery below without injury.

A male Wood Duck calmly makes his way through the Water Meal plants on the surface of the park’s western wetland. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

Two adult Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) and their four goslings demonstrated the appeal of a nice lunch of Water Meal and Duckweed.

Exploring in the west of the park, Paul spotted the impressive Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus). Inspired by his success, I spotted it later too, but it was rapidly hawking insects out of a high tree at the time. According to Cornell’s All About Birds website, this bird spends almost all of its time seeking insects high in the canopy or scooping them out of the air. Sometimes, Cornell says, it may even “crash into foliage in pursuit of leaf-crawling prey”! I want to learn their rising two note call so I can see their chocolate wings and lemon breasts more often!

The Great Crested Flycatcher’s yellow breast should make it easier to spot from below as it hunts high in the tree canopy. I’m still learning to spot it, though!

On the May bird walk at Charles Ilsley Park, several brightly colored migrators decorated the treetops along the western trail. All of the colorful characters in the slideshow below can breed in our area. So during late June and early July, keep yours eyes open for the nests or fledglings of this avian rainbow when hiking in shrubby areas or at the forest edge!

Pollinators’ Danced at My Feet, Fluttering Their Small Wings Along the Grassy Trails

Since Paul kindly agreed to look upward and outward for birds, I felt free to gaze down into the grass along the trails, looking for the tiny butterflies and moths that often appear before larger insects. On the bird walk, a member spotted the small Eight-Spotted Forester Moth (Alypia octomaculata) that sports puffs of orange hair on its front and middle legs. As the Missouri Department of Conservation points out, it can easily be mistaken for a butterfly: it eats nectar, flies in the daylight and its antennae thicken at the end somewhat like butterfly attennae. This one appeared in its favorite habitat, the place where the field meets the forest. The adult moth feeds in the sunshine, then lays its eggs in the shady woods on grapevines or Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), the host plants its caterpillar loves to eat.

The Eight-Spotted Forester Moth lays its eggs and pupates in the forest, but the adults feed in the sunshine at the forest edge.

The birding group also watched a tattered Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) feed on invasive Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata.) It looks as though overwintering in a log or under tree bark took its toll on this one! Nearby, we spotted a strangely still Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes). The Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels informed me that their host plant is Common Prickly-Ash (Zanthoxylum americanum), a small, thorny tree on which the female can detect a citrus scent with her antennae. I wonder if this Giant Swallowtail was drying its wings after having recently emerged from its chrysalis on a nearby tree.

A few days after seeing the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, I found a very similar small moth at my feet on the trail. It too was tiny and black with white spots, but its orange patches were on the surface of its forewings. With help from the passionate moth lovers at the “Moths of Eastern North America” Facebook page, I learned its name. This thumb-sized, diurnal insect, called the White-spotted Sable Moth (Anania funebris), is referred to as “holarctic,” because it inhabits the majority of continents on the northern half of the planet! This particular Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively feeding off the clover blossoms on the trail, one after another. Though this moth must be quite abundant, I’d never noticed one before.

A White-spotted Sable Moth seemed to be exclusively interested in clover blossoms on the low grass of the trail.

During several different visits, I noticed other small butterflies and moths that kept me company along the trails. The two tiny “tails” at the edge of the hindwings give the Eastern Tailed Blue its name. The Pearl Crescent is named for a small white shape on the underside of its hindwing. The caterpillar of the Peck’s Skipper chews on turf grasses but seems harmless among the wild grasses of our parks.

On my last visit, a dramatic Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limentitis arthemis astyanax) glided by as I entered the park. I sometimes still mistake them for Spicebush Swallowtails (Papilio troilus troilus) because of the blue, iridescent blush on the top (dorsal) side of their hindwings and the orange spots on the ventral (lower) side of their hindwings. But the Purples have no “tails” and the orange spots beneath form a single line on the hindwings instead of the double line of the Spicebush Swallowtails, as you can see below.

The Beautiful and the Less So: Justifying (Maybe?) My Fascination with Less Likable Creatures

Dr. Doug Parsons, director of Michigan State University’s Bug House, helped me identify a couple of tiny insects that intrigued me. I’d watched what I thought were tiny wasps on almost every dandelion on the trail through the park’s Central Prairie. Dr. Parsons explained that these were not wasps, but Cuckoo Bees (genus Nomada).

Dr. Parsons wrote that this solitary bee “sneaks into the ground nest of the host bee,” most often a Mining Bee (g. Andrena), and “lays her eggs in the cells that the host bee has stocked with pollen for her own larva.” Since Mining Bees never return to the nest after stocking them, the Cuckoo bee’s egg hatches into a larva undisturbed, kills the host’s egg or larva and feeds on the stored pollen. The official term for a creature which does this is a “nest kryptoparasite,” a suitably creepy word for such behavior! Birds in the Cuckoo family do the same, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds – hence the name Cuckoo Bee. This native bee resembles a wasp in part because it has very little hair on its body. Dr. Parsons explained that bees are often fuzzy in order to collect sticky pollen. Since the Mining Bee collects the pollen that feeds the Cuckoo Bee’s young, this sneaky interloper doesn’t require the other bee’s hairier surface. Ah, another fine example of evolution working its magic.

The Cuckcoo Bee lays its eggs in the pollen-stocked nest of other solitary bees, eliminating the need for pollen-collecting hairs on its body.

Last week, I also observed a nondescript, brownish moth fly onto a grass stem, fold itself up and almost disappear. It was quite a challenge to locate it in my camera’s viewfinder! Dr. Parsons confirmed that this little moth is the Eastern Grass Veneer (Crambus laqueatellus). Evidently, some folks refer to these members of Crambidae family as “snout moths” because their long mouth structures resemble pointed noses. Dr. Parsons told me they can be “serious pests in lawns and golf courses” because their caterpillars eat turf grass roots. He isn’t sure, though, that they cause problems in our parks where their larvae may consume a variety of grasses. For me, its disappearing act, pointed “snout” and racing-striped wings were just odd enough to make it a fascinating find.

The Grass Veneer Moth is perching vertically on a small grass blade, its wings folded and its long “snout,” (which is really part of its mouth) pointing straight up. And look at that weird white eye! A delightfully odd little moth with its brown racing stripe, don’t you agree? OK, maybe not…

I’m sure that I puzzle some of you by including unglamorous, fiercely predatory or even destructive creatures in these nature blogs. Sometimes it puzzles me too that I want to explore them. But I guess for me, all of these creatures – from the Cuckoo Bee to the glorious Great Crested Flycatcher – play an essential role in the great drama of nature. By learning a name for these fellow players and the roles they perform on our shared stage, the whole spectacle and my role in it become clearer for me, more coherent – which in these chaotic times is a pretty good feeling! It’s my role – our role perhaps – to honor and respect nature in all its complexity during an era in which too many dishonor the natural world, ignore it or take it for granted. I know you, like me, care enough to watch, learn and share what you learn with others when you can. And that encourages me. Thanks for being here.

Draper Twin Lake Park: Work Begins to Restore a More Natural Landscape

Restoration north of the parking lot in the west section Draper Twin Lake Park

Ask anyone in my family if I’d ever be celebrating the felling of trees and they would look at you incredulously and start laughing. Cam? The original (occasionally literal) tree hugger?!

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I had a favorite 100 year old sugar maple that befriended me as a child and I spent happy hours high in the branches with my books and snacks. When that tree and others were being felled for a housing development in the field next door, my mother – not a born nature lover – went to bat for those trees, even contacting the governor’s office since “environmental protection” was in its infancy then. But to no avail.

So imagine my astonishment at finding myself standing in the western section of Draper Twin Lake Park with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, delighting in the scene pictured in this video!!

A Forestry Mower Removing Non-native Trees and Shrubs at the west section of Draper Twin Lake Park



Restoring the Habitat of the Past to Provide for a Healthy Future

The trail to Twin Lake before restoration began

My pleasure, of course, stemmed from my growing understanding and appreciation of restoration. That monster of a machine, a forestry mower, was removing a gigantic glut of non-native trees and shrubs. (See the photo above!) For decades, this natural area of grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced native trees had been farmed. The bare soil, depleted of its native diversity, suffered an invasion when farming stopped in the 1970s; trees, shrubs and other plants from Europe and Asia made the most of a great opportunity. Escaping from farms, flower gardens or landscaping, invasive plants found their way to this habitat. Benefiting from the absence of the competitors or conditions they had to contend with at home, they spread wildly. Our local plants and trees couldn’t compete. They didn’t evolve with these new arrivals and so had no defenses for countering their steady increase. It would take millennia for our native insects, birds, diseases, and plants to eventually evolve and adapt to these new plants, too long for the survival of the many species that depend on them.

That’s where our stewardship crew steps in. Ecological restoration attempts to give our local trees, grasses and wildflowers a fighting chance to thrive. When it succeeds, native plants can then provide for the whole food web that evolved with them. As you can see below, the forestry mower opened up fields and forest, beginning the process of restoring the landscape that nature designed eons ago.

The trail to Twin Lake after this fall’s restoration began

It’s not that non-native trees and shrubs are “bad”; they functional beautifully in their home environments. But they aren’t able to effectively nourish and protect the creatures that live and evolved here in Oakland Township. Butterflies may sip at non-native garden flowers, but their caterpillars generally can’t eat non-native leaves or fail to reach maturity if they do. Birds may eat non-native berries but they almost universally feed their nestlings nutritious caterpillars which are full of fat and protein. Fewer native plants means fewer caterpillars which means fewer birds, a ripple effect that then moves on through the food web. Restoring native plants to an area means lots of nature gets fed and sheltered.

Meet the Most Common (and Pesky) Invasives at Draper Twin Lake Park

Invasive shrubs lining the trail to Twin Lake before restoration this fall

So let’s get more familiar with the highly invasive shrubs and vines that ended up dominating so many of our natural areas, including Draper Twin Lake Park. For the most part, they started out in nurseries which unwittingly (or occasionally wittingly) sold them to landscapers and homeowners as decorative additions to their gardens. Some of the most infamous and tenacious invasive shrubs in our parks include Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), shrubs that produce plentiful fruits which unfortunately provide scant nutrition for our birds. Generally non-native fruits provide sugars (carbohydrates) for wildlife but don’t have the fats (lipids) that birds, for example, require for migration or winter survival. Research at Michigan State University has shown that birds prefer native fruits when they can get them, but will eat the less healthy non-native fruits if nothing else is available. Once eaten by birds or other animals, invasive trees and shrubs spread far and wide through their droppings.

The fruits of Oriental Bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) are particularly pernicious. The outer yellow skins peel back to reveal red fruits, attracting both birds searching for a late season food source, and humans who unwittingly use them for decorative purposes. Birds enjoy the sugars in their fruit during late fall, but since its seeds can last a long time in the guts of birds, the plant can be spread long distances. Once established, the vine climbs quickly, reaching for light in the treetops. As the vine spirals up the trunk, it girdles and slowly strangles the tree. When the vine reaches the crown, its foliage shades out the tree’s leaves, weakening the tree. Its weight makes the tree’s crown heavy and vulnerable to toppling in high winds. It’s a real femme fatale, this vine with its pretty fruits and its deadly growth pattern.

Many invasives quickly form dense thickets in a field or woods through underground stems (rhizomes) or root suckers. Their density chokes out the sun, rain and space that our native plants require. Below is a photo from Bear Creek Nature Park that demonstrates the density that once surrounded a pine tree, killing its lower branches. And on the right at Draper Twin Lake Park, a young oak had the same problem until the restoration began this fall.

Some invasives, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), produce giant quantities of seeds which can be carried on the wind and once sown, the trees grow incredibly quickly. Growth of 3.5 to 6 feet each year of its first four years is considered normal! It also releases toxins into the soil to prevent or inhibit the growth of plants around it. In the photo on the right below, Ben placed his hand where the second year growth of one of these trees began! Faster growth means that these trees shade out neighbors and mature faster than others, allowing them to spread quickly.

You might be as surprised as I once was to learn that even some of our common and long-beloved bushes can spread invasively. That’s part of what happened at Draper Twin Lake Park. Ben found huge thickets of non-natives like Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from Asia and Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) from southeastern Europe on the western section of Draper; they both probably once surrounded the house when a farm was located here.

The Removal of Invasives Goes Beyond Mowing

Once the forestry mower has done its work, hard work lies ahead. Stumps of invasive shrubs that the mower missed are cut and carefully dabbed with herbicide to prevent re-sprouting. Some, like the persistent Tree-of-Heaven, will require further treatment and periodic mowing to discourage new growth. Oriental Bittersweet can only be removed by cutting the vines and then carefully treating the roots to prevent regrowth. New sprouts will also need to be treated repeatedly for some time, a tedious but necessary process. Some larger trees are treated by a process called “drill and fill” in which holes are drilled around the tree and herbicide is introduced. When the tree dies, it will still remain standing, storing its carbon for years to come and providing shelter for woodpeckers and other cavity nesting animals, like red squirrels or raccoons. The stewardship staff will spread native plant seed to help bring back what was choked out by the invasive trees and shrubs – native grasses first, then wildflower seed in a year or two after the invasive shrub re-sprouts have been controlled. Further down the road, prescribed fires may be used to encourage our fire-adapted native plants.

Winter Wildlife and I Explore the Newly Restored Landscape

On one of my visits to the western section of the park, Ben showed me the remains of a beaver dam and the small pond this industrious builder had created. The dam consisted of a few small trees and some plant material patched together with mud. Though we saw a few pencil-shaped stumps in the area, Ben’s guess is that when the beaver began this project a couple of years ago, it couldn’t find enough small willows or cottonwoods, its preferred building materials, to meet the beaver’s need, so it abandoned the idea. However, the beaver did create a lovely little pond behind the dam. And the little dam slowed the water down enough that Ben was surprised to find much drier footing further south in the marsh while doing a plant survey in 2020!

In the fields east of the trail, a few winter birds kept me company as they sought out frozen insect eggs or larvae in the trees newly liberated from the crush of invasive shrubs.

A small group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browsed between the newly thinned trees in the forest. Deer consume dry grasses, but unfortunately they much prefer acorns and small oak saplings in fall and winter, affecting the quality of our forests. According to a Tufts University website, in winter they also rely on insulation from stored fat and more of the coarse dark hairs in their coats called “guard hairs.” Glands in their skin produce oils that help their coats repel water, an advantage on snowy days.

Deer browsing for grasses, twigs and small trees in the thinned forest after restoration.

One snowy morning, I spent twenty minutes or so tracking a small animal. Its prints lay in a single line, which usually indicates a fox or coyote. Wild canines, unlike domestic dogs, place their hind foot carefully into the track of the front foot on the same side, making a neat row of single, or “direct register” tracks. The tracks that I was following intrigued me because they were much smaller than most that I’d seen. After puzzling a bit, I suddenly noticed that the tracks had no nail prints at the end of the toes. And with that, I remembered that wild canines share direct register tracks with another group of animals – cats! What I’d been tracking was the small, roundish, direct register prints of a house cat! Cats, unlike canines, walk with their toenails withdrawn in order to keep them sharp for hunting – or they may have had them removed by pet owners. I shook my head, laughing at myself for tracking a cat and went back to the trail.

Squirrels and squirrel tracks were everywhere that morning! Their tracks usually appear as a block of four prints like the ones below. I think these belong to the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), because the larger five-toed tracks of their hind feet are slightly in front of the four-toed tracks of their front feet; that’s the pattern left when these little guys take off and land, pushing down with the front feet while swinging the hind feet forward. I also saw a larger Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) high up in the small branches of a tree, probably making a meal of the tiny leaf buds.

Down by the Lake, a Little Avian Hysteria

Twin Lake with perfect ovals, possibly caused by warmer water flowing upward and rotating during a thaw-freeze cycle.

Winter silence had descended when I arrived at the dock on Twin Lake one cloudy afternoon. In the deep quiet, I got intrigued by strange ovals on the lake surface. It was fun to imagine a squadron of flying saucers landing on the surface, but I was curious to do some research when I reached home. From assembling the hints I could find online, I’m guessing that they may be caused by rotating convection currents created by warm water rising and cold water falling during a frost/freeze cycle, inhibiting ice formation. But if you have better information, please let me know in the comments.

Suddenly far across the lake, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) began circling high above the trees. I caught one with my camera as it spiraled lazily. Red-tail hawks are believed to mate for life, though they quickly choose another mate if one of them dies. This pair may be nesting in the area since the Wednesday bird group saw two of them in the trees across the lake a couple of weeks later.

One of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks far above the trees across Draper Twin Lake.

Just as I spotted the hawks in the distance, a screech of alarm calls broke out from a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) nearby. They flashed out of the trees in a large group, flying away to the south. Evidently, the hawks must have gone unnoticed in the forest until they rose into the air to do a little scouting together. Their appearance startled the crows who were too flustered to harass or “mob” them as they often do. My camera managed to catch one in mid-caw after it launched off a limb.

A crow cawing in sudden flight as two red-tailed hawks appear over the treetops.

After the noise subsided, I turned to look at a Muskrat lodge (Ondatra zibethicus) off the side of the dock. Muskrats may have been dozing inside since their metabolism slows way down in the winter. Or it may have left its dry sleeping chamber above the water line, swum down through its underwater entrance and begun cruising slowly along under the ice, searching for a meal. Note that unlike beavers who build their much larger lodges with trees, branches and sticks, muskrats build with mud and cattail stems or other aquatic plant material. This one was also surrounded by graceful stalks carrying the dried pom-poms of Whorled Loosestrife seed heads (Lysimachia quadrifolia). A tidy winter abode, I think.

My Evolving Understanding of “Letting Nature Takes Its Course.”

The path leading back to the parking lot after restoration began

It took me a few years of working in the parks with Ben before I fully understood the beauty and power of restoring our natural areas. I approached restoration suspiciously at first, having grown up with the ethos,”Let nature take its course.” How could altering the landscape through mowing, felling trees and shrubs, and the occasional use of herbicides be good for nature?

Remembering the Landscape of My Childhood

The first step to understanding restoration was noticing what was missing today. One day early on as a Parks volunteer in 2015, I asked Ben what birds might return if we restored the Oak Savannah landscape – grass, trees and widely spaced oaks – that had existed here before European settlement. Among other birds, he mentioned the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Ah! That name instantly brought back memories of the two-note song of that quail whistling from summer fields around my parents’ home on Lake George Road when I was a child. I live very near my family home now, but I haven’t heard a Bobwhite sing for more than 50 years. The native Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) that towered over my head as a little girl was replaced by housing and short, green, non-native lawns in my teen years. As ground feeders and nesters, the Bobwhites needed that tall, stiff grass to protect them and their young from hawks and other predators and they no doubt fed off the seeds that fell from those dry stalks in the autumn. The increasing use of pesticides in farming plus habitat loss have both contributed to an 85% decline in the numbers of the Bobwhite Quail since the 1970’s. I miss them.

Northern Bobwhite Quail by Robin Gwen Agarwal (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Listening to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, at a Michigan Wildflower Conference in 2019, I was reminded of the moths that used to dance in groups around our porch light on summer nights – or splattered against the windshields of my parents’ car. I suddenly realized that I don’t see as many moths clinging to our porch windows or fluttering in the headlights now as I did years ago. The reason, I learned, was that the caterpillars of most moths and butterflies need native plants in order to feed and mature into adults; my yard, like most of my neighbors, was filled with decorative plants, shrubs and trees native to places all over the world – like Norway and Japanese Maples – but fewer of the ones more common in my childhood. Native oaks and other native trees provide sustenance for the caterpillars of many species of butterflies and moths. Here are two examples of what we may be missing: Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Pagoda/Alternate Leaf Dogwoods are the preferred hosts for many insects including the spectacular Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora Cecropia). Oaks are especially generous, hosting the caterpillars of hundreds of species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), including the impressive Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

When I was a child in Oakland Township, seeing a White-tailed Deer was a rare treat. At that time, large expanses of active or abandoned farm land surrounded by woods allowed them to stay out of sight. Today development has crowded deer closer to our homes and gardens and on to our roads. The forest floor, once covered in wildflowers like trillium are more often choked with non-native shrubs or vines that take advantage of the open ground left by herds of deer browsing on the tender sprouts of wildflowers in spring or saplings in winter.

So it turns out that I was wrong. The non-native plants that fill our fields and surround our personal property were not a matter of “letting nature takes its course.” Quite the opposite, in fact. The carpets of invasive plants were the effect of humans unwittingly but actively changing our native habit over the last two hundred years.

The Good News? We Can Work to Restore What Nature Created
The trail nears the lake which now can be seen through the trees

So finally I understood that what humans had done could in some measure be undone. True, we can’t completely recreate nature’s original landscape design on any large scale or in such rich diversity. But the people of Oakland Township have made an ongoing commitment to preserving and restoring natural areas here wherever possible. Thanks to them, Ben and his crew are systematically decreasing the invasive plants in our natural areas and giving the plants that nature provided eons ago a chance to thrive again. Homeowners like us are choosing to integrate native plants and trees into our landscapes and turning turf into meadows and wildflower gardens. If enough of us create native neighborhoods, perhaps I will live to hear the whistle of the Bobwhite once more.

That’s why I, an inveterate tree lover, could celebrate the felling of invasive trees that day at Draper. What I was seeing as the forestry mower cleared away the brush was stewardship – restoring and caring for a productive, diverse ecosystem that nature took thousands of years to perfect. As the old hymn goes, I “…was blind but now I see.”

Looking east over the marsh that divides the west and east sections of Draper Twin Lake Park

Watershed Ridge: Changes Afoot!

The field above the western marsh at Water Ridge in late autumn

Until now, Watershed Ridge Park’s 170 acres have been a challenge to explore. A visitor needed to be ready for waist-high fields and of course our township’s wonderful wetlands in all their wet-footed glory. But in early November, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, the Oakland Township stewardship manager, laid out its first trails which were created by the maintenance crew. The new trail skirts the edges of fields still sown and harvested by local farmers who keep invasive species at bay until this rolling landscape can be restored to the wildflowers and grasses that are part of our historical legacy. But even in the autumn, the hedgerows and woods that edge the fields provide shelter and sustenance to a variety of birds and this November, even one special migrator, as you’ll see below. And in summer, birds sing and nest, wildflowers bloom in profusion and butterflies, moths, bees and other insects enjoy the bounty.

Text & Photos by Cam Mannino

So come take a walk with me along the edges of the newly created path which starts from the parking lot. It’s a very muddy path right now, so I recommend wearing old shoes! Or maybe you can walk just off the edges in the tall grass to save the grass seed planted on the paths in anticipation of next spring. Follow along on the map that Ben’s provided to show you the route.

I’ll introduce you to a few creatures that make their home here and some that are just passing through. But mostly, I want to give you the “lay of the land,” and show you some stewardship projects underway that will make this park even more beautiful for us and nourishing for wildlife as the years go on.

Follow along by looking for the letters in the blog post indicating spots of interest on my hike.

The Path West to (what I’m calling) Southwest Field 1 (A on map)

The new trail crossing Southwest Field 1 to the hedgerow cut

This trail begins in the parking lot, follows Buell Road west and then gently curves north. The parking lot on Buell can be a great place to stand quietly and look for birds in the tall trees and in the tangle of vines that weave through them. On my first November visit, I watched European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) wheeling down into the treetops. Eventually one moved close enough for a photo. Its iridescent breast glowed emerald in late afternoon sun, accenting the white dots of its winter plumage. Despite being aggressive birds, their swooping flocks, called “murmurations, ” that rise, fall, flow and ripple through the sky are truly mesmerizing.

A solitary European Starling in its winter garb. Quite a beak, eh?

A House Finch pair (Haemorhous mexicanus) peered out from the vine-covered shrubbery. The male’s cherry red head and breast gets its color from the pigments in the food it eats. For that reason, red fruits are particularly favored since the brown and white striped females prefer the males whose red is most vivid. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

I followed the curving path to where it cut between Southwest Field 1 and the next one north, which for now, I’m calling Southwest Field 2.

Creating a Wetland Extension (B) in Southwest Field Two (C)
The hedgerow cut between Southwest Fields 1 and 2

As I stepped between the two fields, a small bird landed on a shriveled wildflower lined with seeds. At first, the red patch above its eyes made me think it was an oddly colored House Finch – but, no. I knew that scarlet crown, pinkish breast and dramatic striping had to be some unfamiliar bird – one I’d never seen before. It turned out to be the Common Redpoll (Acanthis flammea), a winter finch that rarely comes this far south in Michigan; this little guy flew all the way from the Arctic, the boreal forests of Canada’s far north or Hudson’s Bay! In fact, Cornell Ornithology Lab says a Redpoll banded in Michigan once showed up in Siberia! (Check out the link for other amazing facts about these little birds!) Redpolls are unpredictable, erratic migrators. This year significant numbers of them chose to land in our area, according to Ruth Glass, local birder extraordinaire. I feel very lucky to have seen this one!

A Common Redpoll which is not so common in southeast Michigan which is the extreme southern edge of its winter range.

Once past the hedgerow, I walked over to the edge of the slope to look down on one of Watershed Ridge’s new wetlands. Ben, our Stewardship Manager, wanted to restore wetlands in some of the fields that have been agricultural for so long, often in areas that had been tiled or ditched to drain wetlands when the area was first farmed. The restored wetlands will capture and filter nutrients and sediment from the water before it enters creeks, streams and lakes downstream. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) helped design the grade of the slope around the new wetland to gather the rain water that runs down from the fields above. They also provided the crew and equipment to insure that the grades of the slopes were created accurately according to their design so that they would hold water. The construction took place in October and seems to have worked beautifully; the pool was beginning to fill nicely after late autumn rain.

The expansion of the wetland in Southwest Field 2

Now the stewardship team will wait to see how the wetland works over the next year. For example, will it dry like a vernal pool or have some standing water all year? Then Ben can decide which plants will thrive in or around this new water feature. It may look like a modest pool at the moment, but in time, we can hope it will flourish with aquatic and wetland plants that will feed and protect wildlife.

A flock of other winter visitors, the Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), fluttered from one corner of this huge field to the other. A solitary Junco let me capture its portrait at the shadowy edge of the woods to the north. In contrast to the Common Redpoll, this sleek, black-and-white sparrow with its white outer tail feathers is a regular winter visitor from the Canadian forests.

Dark-eyed Juncos are often the first winter migrants to arrive from northern Canada.

Nearby a year ’round resident of the area, a male Downy Woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) spiraled around a branch searching for food beneath the loose bark. It looks like it’s given this perch a good going-over! These little woodpeckers often like to hang out with mixed flocks of birds for protection from predators.

A Downy Woodpecker drilling for insects or insect eggs on a dead branch

When I visited Watershed Ridge Park in early November, some insects still kept me company. At the muddy edge of a tilled field, a Carolina Locust (Dissosteira carolina) crept slowly over the furrows, perhaps looking for the soy beans left after the harvest. The least destructive of locusts, these insects do eat grasses but sometimes beans are their preferred diet, according to the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station.

A Carolina Locust may have been looking for soybeans left behind after the farmer harvested them.

The Field Two trail turns back east and heads for Field Three (E) just east of the parking lot by cutting through a hedgerow (D).

Cut through the hedgerow from Southwest Field 2 to Field 3
Following the Trail into Field Three (E), Then Off Trail Through the Forest (F)
Trail from Field 2 through the hedgerow to Field 3

From the hedgerow cut, the trail runs alongside the forest and then circles the field to return to the parking lot. But my choice one November afternoon was to go off trail through the woods. This moist woods is alive with frog song in the spring months. But now it’s almost silent, so that the crackle of my footsteps on the deep layers of Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and White Oak (Quercus alba) leaves sounded loud and a bit intrusive.

Red Oak leaves have pointed lobes tipped with bristles and White Oak leaves have rounded lobes.

Among the leaf litter, I noticed a Northern Red Oak leaf with a peach-colored pom-pom attached. With help from Dr. Gary Parsons at Michigan State University’s Entomology Department, I learned that it was a Woolly Oak Leaf Gall, the winter abode of a very tiny insect larva called a gall wasp. Callirhytis lanata, this particular gall wasp, would look like a dot on your finger tip; it’s only 1-8 mm long, about a third of an inch! When the wasp lays her egg on a Red Oak leaf, either she or the larva which hatches from egg secretes a substance that stimulates the leaf to create these gall tissues that form the pom-pom. Inside the gall, the larva eats those tissues, pupates, and a tiny new adult wasp emerges in the spring. If the gall isn’t invaded by a predator, the fuzzy little pom-pom is a safe, cozy spot to spend the winter!

A Woolly Oak Leaf gall forms a warm, enclosed getaway where the larva of tiny wasp can spend the winter.

Farther east in this woods, I was confronted by what appears to be the deadly effects of invasive species, those life forms that may be relatively harmless in their native lands, but become destructive where they are not native. I came across a graveyard of large trees (G) that had died and fallen rather than been cut by humans. Ben’s best guess was that they were likely Ash trees (genus Fraxinus) decimated by the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis). Ash trees in the native range of Emerald Ash Borer in northeast Asia share evolutionary history with this insect and can protect against damage; trees in North America and Europe are naive to this insect and not yet resistant. Since it was discovered in our area in 2002, Emerald Ash Borer has killed millions of ash trees just in southeast Michigan. Ben tells me that this insect infestation continues to be a problem in our township. In the same way that Dutch Elm Disease affected elms years ago, it is still killing small ash trees before they get a chance to mature. So please don’t transport firewood from our area which can further spread this kind of devastation!

A large area of fallen ash trees killed by the Emerald Ash Borer between 2002 and the present.

Lichens and moss appear on fallen logs throughout this forest, but I tend to notice them most in the austerity of autumn. Wikipedia describes lichens as “self-contained mini-ecosystems” or composite organisms made up of a variety of fungi and either cyanobacteria or green algae along with other tiny microorganisms. (Their scientific names vary based on the fungi species within them.) These tiny ecosystems survive on all kinds of surfaces, in all kinds of habitats, all over the world. Though they are not plants, the algae or cyanobacteria in lichens can produce sugars through photosynthesis to feed the fungi and the fungi in turn create a protective structure that gathers in the water and minerals needed for the photosynthesis, a symbiotic relationship. Some lichens are thought to be the oldest living organisms, settling in on the bare rock of the early planet.

This may be a “cructose” lichen with flakes on the surface that Wikipedia describes as “a bit like peeling paint.”

In November, the mosses (Bryophyta) at Watershed Ridge Park were thinning and less lush. But when I took a moment to focus on them, I could imagine the small community they host on each log. In her book, Gathering Moss, bryologist (a botanist specializing in mosses) and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes moss as “the most ancient of land plants.” These tiny plants inhabit nooks and crevices worldwide and in doing so, Kimmerer compares their roles in the forest to the roles corals play in oceans – removing water impurities and hosting within their structures a myriad of tiny creatures necessary to the larger ecosystem in which they exist. Mosses also slowly help process logs into soil over decades and even rocks into sand over eons. I’d love to see the tiny creatures moving within these land-based “reefs” of moss, in the same way fish and eels inhabit an ocean reef. But I’ll need a magnification loupe and a lot more training before I can do that!

Mosses purify water and host tiny invertebrates that play their role within the life of a forest.

Off in the distance, at the eastern edge of this forest, a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) huddled over, apparently eating prey on the forest floor. Suddenly it flew up, skimmed quickly along the tree line and then headed out for the larger forest beyond the field.

A Red-tailed Hawk foraging just beyond the forest at the edge of the Eastern Field.

Years ago a farmer had dredged a ditch to drain the eastern wetland that stretches behind the eastern fields. To this day, the ditch carries water to another wetland. I turned to follow that stream back west to explore the area around and beyond that western marsh.

Water running through an old drainage ditch from the eastern to the west marsh.
Exploring the Meadow (H) Above the Western Marsh (I)
The slope above the eastern marsh, now covered with Showy Goldenrod

Walking back west, I arrive at a restored meadow that slopes down to the Western Marsh. During the summer, this lovely hill is covered in grasses and wildflowers. In this season, the field becomes an expanse of burnt golds and browns with the dried flower heads of various goldenrods. I’m learning to recognize wildflowers during their seeding season and this autumn, I mastered a few more. So here are four goldenrods in the sloping meadow as they appeared in the summer and as they look now, for those of you who share my interest in knowing the names of the plants and animals that share our local habitat with us.

As I stepped from the forest, a small orange butterfly popped up from among the goldenrods and sailed off into the distance. I pursued it, of course, but it never settled again. Luckily, I think I recognized it from its pattern, size and color. The small, orange and brown Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma) produces two generations each year and they look slightly different. The adults that emerge from logs or tree hollows in early summer have orange forewings, but much darker hindwings like this one:

The summer form of the Eastern Comma

The summer adults produce the winter adult that I saw at Watershed Ridge Park, which has similar patterning, but the hindwings are more orange. I think what I saw was a member of the winter generation which either overwinters or sometimes migrates. These butterflies feed on rotting fruit, tree sap or sometimes dung or carrion (!). So it’s not entirely surprising that I saw one fluttering above the goldenrod on a cool November day. Here’s a photo taken in November of a winter form Eastern Comma by a photographer just named “thoughton” at iNaturalist.org.

Winter form of the Eastern Comma by iNaturalist photographer “thoughton” (CC BY-NC)

A few days later I was treated to a sight that I’m learning to anticipate in autumn – the dance of the Winter Crane Flies (genus Trichocera). These fragile little insects rise from dead grasses in cool weather and bob up and down in small mating swarms of mostly males. Females evidently only join in to find a quick mate and then lay eggs in the ground. The adults overwinter in logs or under leaf litter and emerge in the late afternoon of warm spring, fall and occasionally even winter days.

The blurred wings of Winter Crane flies dancing in a swarm in the the meadow above the marsh

With some persistence, I was able to follow one of these crane flies to where it rested for a few moments on a blade of grass. Now I could see the delicate legs and body of this cool weather dancer. Winter crane flies are harmless and completely ignore humans. In fact, as I walked on, I strolled right through a troupe of them that just continued bobbing up and down around me. Such a light-hearted performance to a human eye!

A closeup of the Winter Crane Fly as it rests on a plant stem
Extending the Western Marsh

The farmer who built the ditch running from the eastern marsh to the western hoped, I imagine, to drain both to gain more tillable ground. So the drainage ditch water used to quickly run on beyond the western marsh – but not anymore.

Back in October, the Fish and Wildlife Service helped Ben created an elegant plug for the ditch (J) which will keep water in the western marsh and let it rise to the level it likely obtained before the farmer’s ditch lowered the water level. The Wildlife Service also scooped out a shallow spillway that will allow the water to flow around the plug and slowly re-enter the ditch beyond the plug. That will keep the plug from being eroded if the water rises too high in the marsh. Look how attractive and useful this new barrier is! (Marsh to the right, ditch to the left.)

The large plug created to hold more water in the marsh also makes a path between two fields.
The Northern Field and Its Newly Created Wetland (K)

Until recently, I didn’t know this huge agricultural field was part of Watershed Ridge Park!

The long agricultural field off Lake George Road constitutes the northern section of Watershed Ridge Park

One afternoon in early October, my husband and I walked the long length of the north field to see if we could catch a glimpse of the north edge of the familiar western marsh. We walked carefully along the edge of the farmer’s field in order to preserve his crop and then headed into the woods. Just a few steps from the field, we were immersed in a lush, green area of the park that neither of us had never seen.

My husband, Reg, in the woods above the western marsh

A little more sorting our way through the undergrowth and we were rewarded by a lovely sight – the north side of the marsh with abundant tall reeds and surrounded by large trees. I can’t wait to see this area in the spring and summer!

The northern side of the western marsh in October

Ben thought of a third water project for this park. As part of the October work, he asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to design a new wetland in the northern field, near the ditch plug. By mid-November, it had already begun to collect runoff from the slopes above. Like the other projects, the goal of this hydrological restoration is to regain wetlands that were lost to tiling farm fields and ditching streams. The restored wetlands will capture runoff from the adjacent fields and filter the water. What a sight to see this wetland full enough to reflect an autumn sky!

New wetland in the northern meadow at Watershed Ridge Park

It appears that wildlife is already taking advantage of a new water source. Deer tracks encircled the water’s edge. No doubt other smaller animals and birds will make their way here once the wetland is surrounded by plant life, rather than the wide open agricultural field. But that change won’t take place for a few more years.

Deer tracks surrounding the new northern field wetland.
Making Watershed Ridge Park More Welcoming – for Us and Other Species!
Acres of wetland surrounded by natural berm in the forest at the far eastern edge of Watershed Ridge Park.

Stewardship is a multi-faceted effort in our township: removing invasive species, mapping and surveying natural areas, monitoring vernal pools, sowing native seed, restoring native landscape, educating the public so they can more fully enjoy the nature around them, and so much more. And now Ben, our Stewardship Manager, has added the restoration of degraded wetlands to that list of tasks.

These pools, though relatively small now, will be a welcome addition to the parks, enriching the diversity of plants and animals around us. Water is just as crucial for other creatures as it is for humans. That’s why I always seek it out, muddy shoes and all, when I explore our parks. If they function as we hope they will, in the future butterflies, dragonflies and other insects will flutter and dash above these wetlands, courting, mating and producing young. Birds will dip their beaks on a hot summer day and the deer at the water’s edge will be joined by more nighttime creatures eager to slake their thirst in the darkness. Nature will find a warm welcome once the rolling landscapes sway and dance again with a rich assortment of native flowers and grasses .

And of course, with our new trails (and more to come), we humans can more easily be there too, enjoying that diverse natural world. Once the trails turn green, I hope you’ll find the time to follow these very accessible, gentle trails and perhaps venture beyond them to see all this remarkable park offers. It will grow only more beautiful in the years to come.

A solo dance by one Winter Crane Fly near the western marsh