Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Lost Lake Nature Park, a small 58 acre park probably best known for its sledding hills, hums with life in every season. Right now, fishers of all sorts – birds, animals and humans – are testing their skills against the fish in its 8-acre kettle lake. In the meadow that slopes upward along the sledding hill, dragonflies bask on dried flower heads in early fall sun while a crane fly dances over the soil, laying her eggs among tall native grasses and bright wildflowers. And deep in the woods that cover the slopes, an old tree stump sustains a vivid collection of life. On every short trip this month, Lost Lake sent me home with a little something special.
Around the Lake: Fishers, Flowers and Frogs
On each of my visits, GreenHerons (Butorides virescens) foraged and flew at Lost Lake. On my first visit, a young Green Heronstood at the corner of the dock, surveying the eastern pond in the late afternoon sun. The telltale field marks are the streaked side of its head and breast, its greenish yellow legs and its smaller size. Two adult Green Herons flew overhead, giving their distinctive alarm flight call (at this Cornell link under “advertising call”) and later I saw them more closely in a wetland down the road. The adults are a bit more glamorous than their young, I’d say.
On my second visit, the herons were only visible through binoculars on the far side of the lake. But the third time, I was rewarded. A very young green heron, about half the size of an adult, landed in the pond, flew to a mud flat fairly near the dock and began to fish. I watched this skillful youngster successfully snag a meal twice, and then watched as it struggled to swallow its trophies, as you’ll see in the slideshow below. (Use pause button to read longer captions.)
On my last visit, a small green heron again appeared, perhaps the same one, this time flying above the head of a fishing Great Egret (Ardea alba).
The egret was also a successful fisher, though swallowing took no apparent effort for this elegant bird with a long graceful neck. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
As I was leaving the deck one afternoon, I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. As I turned, an American Mink (Neovison vison)paused at the end of the dock before slipping away into the tall grass. I’d never been that close to a mink before. Quite exciting! Mink always live near water and do lots of fishing, eating crayfish, frogs, and fish as well as rodents and occasionally birds or their eggs. A mink coat, with its dark sheen of guard hairs, looks best on this little creature, I think. Since the mink moved too quickly for a photo, I’ve borrowed one from a gifted and generous photographer at iNaturalist who uses the name DigiBirdTrek.
On two afternoons over Labor Day weekend, human fishers showed up at Lost Lake as well – a threesome one day and a young couple another. Not sure if they were as successful as the green heron!
With all those fishers, it’s not surprising that this tiny green frog squeaked and leapt into the pond as I walked off the dock one afternoon. It may have been a young Bull Frog (Lithobates catesbeianus), since it has a fold around the tympanum rather than a ridge running back from the eye, which would indicate a Green Frog(Lithobates clamitans). Small bullfrogs are also more prone to squeaking when alarmed; I’ve never heard a squeak from a small green frog.I’m open to correction, though, since we can see so little of this small frog.
Admittedly, the pond is not at its best right now in terms of flowers. Many of the water lilies closest to the shore have withered into a brown mass and the brown leaves of some Pickerel Weed (Pontederia cordata) stalks protrude from the water near the shore. But in the distance, the water lilies float on a bed of green (see above) and in some places, the lovely lavender plumes of the pickerel weed still stand tall with their huge, graceful leaves. Along the shore, the sunny ball-shaped heads of Sneezeweed(Helenium autumnale) nod in the breeze near the delicate purple chevrons of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).
Down the road, at the same wetland where I saw the mature Green Heron, an elusive family of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) caught my eye. On each trip, I’d notice a threesome of young ducks being shepherded by the male parent. This dad wanted nothing to do with me and quickly herded his family around a bend, or behind greenery at the edge of the water. But one day I was able to catch two fairly good shots of dad and his three offspring.
Into the Woods: A Blackened Stump with Vivid Life and Some Clever Seeds
The path into the woods starts at the end of the driveway that runs in front of the caretaker’s home, and you’re welcome to use it. It’s a short, uphill path that is quite steep at the end and then runs quickly downward as you descend the sledding hill. The forest floor is deep green and beautifully dappled by sunlight.
On the dry, wooded hillsides, some native grasses and wildflowers are beginning to create and disperse seed. The long graceful pods of Sicklepod (Boechera canadensis), a native member of the mustard family, crack open when dry, releasing a long line of seeds to the wind. Jumpseed (Persicaria virginiana), another native, is appropriately named; according to the Minnesota wildflower site, its seed “jumps off the stem at the slightest touch,” sometimes as much as 10-13 feet. Cluster-leaved Tick-trefoil (Hylodesmum glutinosum) makes cool fruits called loments that have little pods with one seed each that travel by sticking to anything that comes close. And an old fave, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix), sends its seeds flying on arrow-shaped “awns” that can actually stick upright in the earth when they land. Plant evolution has produced some very creative ways to spread seed!
At the bottom of the hill, in the deeper shade of a wetland, I discovered an old black stump that hosted a variety of brightly colored life. According to Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, the insect and fungal life of felled stumps and logs help the forest by breaking down the nutrients held in the trees’ wood for hundreds of years. The process of decomposition can take as long as the life of the tree – in the case of oaks, up to 300 years! And eventually those released nutrients feed the tree’s offspring and other trees and plants. Well, this old tree stump, a White Pine (Pinus strobus), was busy doing just that. Its surface presented all kinds of colorful life that was busy working to break down its nutrients or using it for shelter.
What originally caught my eye was a group of tiny, deep orange/red mushrooms. I couldn’t determine the species of these mushrooms, though they could be an early stage of the Jack-o’Lantern mushrooms (Omphalotus olearius)featured recently at Bear Creek. A few minutes later a second spot of red caught my eye. A group of Harvesters (order Opiliones, suborder Eupnoi), which are arachnids, but not spiders, scrambled around the inside of the stump. The one below came festooned with tiny bright red mites! And then I spotted a ruby red ant, whose species I was unable to discern. And a lovely patch of green and orange moss with its sporophytes tipped with the capsules that contain its spores graced the flat top surface like a miniature forest. Quite a colorful bunch of creatures, bryophytes (mosses), and fungi working and living on this old stump!
Down the Hill to the Meadow – Basking Dragonflies, A Dancing Crane Fly, Wildflowers and Native Grasses
Wildflowers are still blooming in glorious color on the steep sledding hill, the small meadow below it and a short distance from the pond. A few Yellow Coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) hang on nearby, their drooping petals still golden in early autumn light, along with some Smooth Asters with their dark red or yellow centers (Symphyotrichum laeve). Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia), both late summer/autumn wildflowers, are being visited by native bumblebees. Pale/Thin-leaved Sunflowers (Helianthus strumosus), that love the forest edge, shine bright under the trees as you approach the wood. An Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), with its four-parted stigma forming the characteristic x-shape, stands alone at the edge of the parking lot. Near the entrance to the woods, the slender pods of Poke Milkweed (Asclepias exaltata), a milkweed of shady savannas, will eventually dry and break open to release their seeds to the wind. Among the flowers, native grasses sway, like Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) which is now flowering and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which has started to form its seeds.
Among these grasses, a group of Autumn Dragonflies (Sympetrum vicinum) rested on dried flower heads, needing a bit more sun on cool days. This species has a little cloud of yellow near the base of the hindwing. They hatch out in August and September, providing more late summer color. Mature males are the easiest to spot with their red abdomen. Juvenile males (in closeup below) have a yellow thorax and a yellowish brown abdomen, according to Wikipedia. And the females (second and fourth from the left in the photo at the far right below) have a brown thorax and a brownish/red abdomen. I find it hard to distinguish between females and juvenile males in Autumn dragonflies, so feel free to correct me!
One of the oddest sights at Lost Lake occurred on my last visit. I saw something with very long legs dancing vertically, up and down, above small holes in the earth between the grass stems. Eventually, after developing and cropping a lot of photos and doing online research, it became clear that I’d been seeing a Tiger Crane Fly (Tipula dorsalis) laying her eggs in the soil. Taking photos of a crane fly rapidly jumping up and down is a bit challenging, but if you look closely, I hope you can see her curving, vertical body as she pokes the needle-sharp ovipositor at the end of her abdomen into the soil. Her narrow wings and very long legs were splayed in every direction as she danced from one hole to another, laying potentially hundreds of eggs. Click this link from bugguide.net for a much better photo than mine!
By the way, crane flies are gangly, harmless creatures who can’t bite or sting humans or animals as the unrelated mosquitoes do. Crane flies live only 10-15 days and drink nectar, if they eat all (some don’t!). The only damage they do is in their larval form, when the caterpillars, called “leatherjackets,” do eat some turf grasses and agricultural plants.
The Persistence of Life
Despite the ravages of early September – hurricanes one after another, wildfires, earthquakes – here in the protected natural areas of Oakland Township, life persists. The young green heron successfully fishes its food from among the water lilies. In forest shade, the flowers and grasses produce seed, relying on another spring to foster the next generation. A crane fly dances above the earth, seeing to it that their offspring still float over the grass stalks when summer comes again. And what about us? Well, of course, we’re members too in that community of life on earth. I like the thought that as you and I foster and nourish that community, we’re doing our part to see that life persists on this little blue planet.
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben;butterfliesathome.com;Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm; Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3; Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels and others as cited in the text.