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!
Watershed Ridge, at the corner of Lake George and Buell Roads, is not yet an accessible park. Trails have yet to be created for exploring its forests, wetlands and meadows, though they are planned for the future. Large areas of the land are still under cultivation for agriculture; local farmer, John Fogler, rents fields within the park to plant soy beans and pumpkins. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
But last fall, our Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide, began removing an almost impenetrable cover of invasive bushes that had taken over part of this beautiful piece of land. And suddenly, the graceful contours of the land came into view.
The rolling slopes looked lifeless then. But what a transformation this spring and summer as sun finally reached the native wildflowers!
Part of the reason Ben chose this area for restoration was that he’d noticed unusual native plants struggling to survive in the shade of invasive bushes like autumn olive, glossy buckthorn, privet, and such. Last autumn, Smooth Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) and a small orchid called Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species) thrust their stems into the cool air. (Here’s a photo of the little orchid as it looked at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail.)
Right now I’d advise anyone to be cautious about walking through Watershed Ridge since it’s easy to get disoriented on 170 acres without trails (though a compass in your phone helps, I find!). Hikers need to use the edges of the farm fields so that they don’t damage the crops. The woody debris on the ground makes walking a bit tricky and there’s a fair amount of Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) to avoid. Photos below might help those afraid of all 3-three-leaved plants. The one on the left is poison ivy. Note the “thumb” on the leaves which is missing from other three-leaved plants like the Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) on the right. Poison-ivy often has reddish “feet” when it’s climbing a tree and grows along the trunk rather than around it.
So for now, perhaps consider an easier alternative.
Join me on a virtual walk from the entrance area with its busy young birds, into the forest with its woodland flowers and wetlands and beyond the woods to the meadow with a riot of native wildflowers, butterflies, an exotic moth and more!
Birds Grace the Simple Entrance off Buell Road
The best spot to park is on Buell Road at the firewood pickup site (1650 W. Buell Road is the approximate address – click here for a map). Just to the west you’ll see a work area for Parks and Recreation staff that includes a pole barn and bulk materials storage. This work area is closed to the public, but you’re welcome to explore the rest of the park.
The old fence rows near the entrance on Buell Road have many trees, shrubs and vines, so birds nested happily around the area this summer. In mid-July, this area was full of fledglings trying out their wings and pestering their parents. A flock of young Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) settled on limbs and fence posts, begging to be fed while their beleaguered adults either surrendered or tried to escape their noisy youngsters. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
A young Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), however, was off on its own, trying out its wings, exploring the pole barn (sheds are popular Phoebe nest sites) and flying down into the grass like any adult Phoebe might.
A young Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) was also off on its own and looking a bit dubious about what to do next as it sat in a nearby pine. This may be a young male since it appears that its juvenile red cap is slowly receding into the red spot that a male sports on the back of its head.
I failed to get decent photos, but two weeks ago, a pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) were still feeding their nestlings, flying back and forth between a tree on the west side of the area to a large willow on the east where they probably were foraging for insects before returning to the nest. Here are two not-so-hot photos!
From mid-July to mid-August, American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) raise their young. Unlike most native birds, they wait until mid-summer to breed, because they like to line their nests with thistle down, eat the seeds themselves and feed them to their young. Several were flitting among the thistles along Buell Road.
A male Northern Flicker with his dashing “mustache” perused the territory from the top of a snag.
A “High Quality” Woodland Sprinkled with Wildflowers that Love Moisture, Shade and Rich Humus.
When you step into the cool darkness of the woods on a warm summer afternoon, you notice that most of the plants bear modest little flowers compared to sunnier areas. Perhaps that’s because they’ve evolved growth and reproductive strategies that are different from the large, colorful blooms of a sunny meadow or prairie.
One good example is the unusual flower of a parasitic plant (not a mushroom!) that Ben helped me find, called Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora). This small, white wildflower typically grows in forests and lives on the photosynthesis of trees – especially oaks in our area – by tapping into the mycorrhizal fungi that connect the trees below the soil. As a result, it doesn’t use photosynthesis and contains no chlorophyll. According to the Illinois Wildflower website (a descriptive floral site), “This unusual wildflower is normally found in high quality woodlands” where there is “abundant humus.” Hooray for Watershed Ridge, eh?
The modest blooms of summer woodland plants primarily attract small bees, like sweat or carpenter bees, or flies, rather than honeybees or bumblebees. They also frequently spread by rhizomes (underground stems) and/or by making bur-like fruits that will stick to any passing animal, including you!
Wildflowers that enjoy dappled light find a home where the woods meets the now-open meadow.
Naturally, mushrooms also thrive in shady, moist places. Near the edge of the woods, I saw what I think are two kinds of highly toxic mushrooms from the genus Amanita. I believe they are either Amanita phalloides or Amanita bisporigera. In any case, Amanita mushrooms are also called “death caps” for good reason – so admire their exotic strangeness, but leave them right where they are. The yellow one may have been nibbled by squirrels or rabbits who can eat the toxins with no problem.
Wetlands Glow Blue/Green in the Deep Shade of the Woods
Two wetland pools shine in the darkness on either side of a ridge within the woods at Watershed. Near the western one, an old log is festooned with a huge number of tiny, stalked mushrooms which I can’t identify. They make quite a show against the dark, wet decaying log on which they are thriving. (Anyone have an ID for me?)
Ben saw two snappers on a log in one of these woodland pools, but they dove in before I saw them. I did see some of my favorite frogs, though. A small female Green Frog (Rana clamitans) (left)basked on a fallen log, while a male nearby (right) did the same. In the female, the tympanum (circle behind the eye used for hearing) is about the size of her eye; the male’s tympanum is about twice the size of his eye and he has a yellow throat.
At the eastern pool, a tiny, black-masked Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), perhaps 1/2 inch long, paused for its photo on a leaf. This one’s back and legs are bright green, perhaps from the Water Meal (Wolffia columbiana) or the algae in the pool nearby. It seemed an odd time of year to find an early spring frog, but Wikipedia says that occasionally Wood Frogs do breed more than once per year. Maybe the heavy rains contributed to more water and hence more breeding behavior? Just a guess.
At the edge of the soybean field just beyond the wood, every step scared up hundreds of small Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens). They sprang out of moist grass and huddled beneath the bean plants. These young frogs take about 70-110 days to develop after the females lay their eggs in the water between May to June. At about 2 inches long, they’re half the size of a mature Leopard Frog. Their numbers have generally been in decline since the 1970’s so what a delight to see so many of them here in the township on a protected piece of land!
A Riot of Color as Wildflowers and Butterflies Reclaim a Wild Meadow
Step out of the woods and the colorful signs of restoration engulf you. Once shaded-out by invasive shrubs, native wildflowers like Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) and Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the photo above sprang back into the sunlight that finally reached them. So exciting to see these plants come back with such vigor in the first season after the invasives are removed! (Use pause button to read captions.)
And with the wildflowers, of course, come the butterflies – but first, one glorious moth! When I first spotted this unusual creature, I thought it must be some sort of bumblebee. But no, it’s the Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis). It has fewer central scales on its wings than other butterflies or moths so the wings appear clear in places. It’s odd shape and hovering flight have also inspired the names “the hummingbird moth” (not to be confused with the European one of the same name, Wikipedia tells me!) or the “flying lobster!” A new creature for me!
On my first summer visit with Ben, we saw a glorious Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) sipping from some of the bee balm which emerged in great waves of color across the restored meadow this summer. What a sight!
Having seen the Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus) for the first time at Charles Ilsley Park a few weeks ago, I saw another male at Watershed Ridge. The clue is the wash of blue scaling on the wings. A week later I saw another one near the shed which was either the female, which has a less intense wash of blue scaling, or a tattered male who had already lost some of his scales. That Spicebush continually tried to chase off a female Monarch (Danaus plexippus) who was patrolling the same patch of flowers last weekend. The scales on her wings looked quite worn as well. Perhaps they’d worn each other out with all that chasing! I saw some fritillaries dancing together at a distance but not close enough for a shot. But the little Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) was kind enough to pose for a few moments.
The meadow slopes down to a sunny wetland that is probably fed by the creek running through the trees just east of the meadow. The stream bottom is bright orange, most likely a result of iron deposits in the soil. I loved how the sky was caught in the water’s surface as I looked upstream.
The resulting wetland at the meadow’s edge featured flowers that love “wet feet,” like Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).
With a wetland nearby, dragonflies, flying predators, swooped across the meadow on the hunt for other insects.
A Meadow Under Restoration Gets Us Dreaming
Witnessing the dramatic renewal that takes place when invasive shrubs are removed from park land is simply inspirational. What else, who else might return to this lovely piece of land once the Parks and Recreation Commission has time and the funds to develop this 170 acres? What seeds are waiting in the seed bank for their turn in the sun – perhaps even this autumn when the asters in their varied lavender-to-purple blooms or other autumn wildflowers rise from the earth? What other exotic creatures like the Snowberry Clearwing Moth might be sipping at future flowers? What birds might return to nest here? The possibilities are endless as the Ben and the Parks Commission work to renew the diversity of life which is our township’s natural heritage. So much to look forward to as this park progresses over the next several years!
Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 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; other sites as cited in the text.