A Great Field Season, and an Even Better Crew!

As we welcome the cooler weather, changing of the leaves, and pumpkin spice lattes, we have to say goodbye to our natural areas stewardship summer crew. From early April through the end of September the crew has been hard at work completing many projects that were given to them. These projects included pulling garlic mustard, control of woody invasive species, treatment of crown vetch and swallow wort, and the treatment of Phragmites. (If you would like to learn more about what we did, check out the excellent stewardship blog posts that the crew wrote this summer!) This list just barely scratches the surface of what they were able to accomplish. Without their hard work and dedication to land stewardship, we wouldn’t have accomplished as many projects this summer. The crew helped keep the natural areas in our parks beautiful and healthy.

Katri will be pursuing her master’s degree from Oakland University this upcoming winter, studying aquatic ecology. Parker is working on applying to graduate school this fall and trying to continue to gain experience in the ecology field. Finally, Max will be returned to Michigan State for his junior year to continue pursuing his degree in crop and soil science.

We truly appreciate all of their hard work, curiosity about the world around them, and positive attitudes this summer! Their contributions to our parks will be seen for years to come as we continue work into the winter and next summer. We want to wish them the best of luck in their next endeavors. We will miss you guys!

Ben, Katri, Parker, Grant, and Max (left to right)

Thinning Trees to Preserve and Restore Oak Woodland and Savanna Habitat

Have you ever wandered across a tree missing a ring of bark and wondered what was creating the ring and why? I too had these questions and they remained unanswered until I began performing the task as an Oakland Township Natural Areas Stewardship Technician. I learned that removing a complete ring of bark around a tree stem is called girdling, and it is used in Oakland Township’s natural areas to selectively phase out invasive trees by stripping off their nutrient pathways.

As deforestation awareness and efforts to plant trees continue to increase, girdling may register as counterintuitive. However, we girdle specific trees, and only in areas we are restoring to historic oak savanna or prairie communities. Lost Lake Nature Park, Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, and Bear Creek Nature Park contain these historic communities so we are focusing our girdling and restoration efforts this summer in these natural areas.

Although red maple and basswood are native to Michigan, they are quite damaging to the historic oak communities. These trees grow so abundantly that their dense stands take up the real estate, nutrients, and light that fire-dependent, light-loving understory plants require. In the dense shade under red maple it is very rare to find any young oak trees. At Lost Lake Nature Park red maples outnumbered the old growth oak trees 12:1!

In Oakland Township’s natural areas we use a low-cost, low-impact girdling tool composed of a metal handle and arched blade to strip the trees bark, phloem (sugar transport highway) and vascular cambium (cells that produce phloem and xylem) from the trunk. This tool is quite simple and easy to use, but you can also girdle with chainsaws and hatchets if you don’t have a special girdling tool.

As the girdled trees defoliate and phase out, the sun’s rays reach plants like poke milkweed, harebell and whorled loosestrife, providing the essential energy to thrive. Many other oak savanna and prairie specialist plants are either lying dormant in the soil as seeds, or holding out as small plants until the ideal light conditions are created. For example: hoary puccoon, a rare and high quality plant began to flower at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie when the canopy was thinned! Furthermore, there’s an abundance of small huckleberry and blueberry at Lost Lake Nature Park patiently waiting for an opened tree canopy to reach their full potential. I am very excited to revisit the areas we girdled in a couple years to see what new plants are claiming space in these beautiful communities.

Opening up the tree canopy and conducting occasional prescribed burns are important practices of Oakland Township’s restoration efforts, helping to reinvigorate our diverse and tightly knit natural communities. The landscape of southeast Michigan was maintained by the Anishinaabe people for thousands of years. This culturally related group of indigenous people inhabited much of the Great Lakes region and lived with the land through with a deep relationship and knowledge of its beautiful natural communities. Through cultural practices like prescribed burns and sustainable harvesting, the Anishinaabe maintained these unique oak communities. Now, after more than 200 years of degradation, we are doing our best to restore them and acknowledge the original stewards of the land.

Unique Wetland Communities Along the Paint Creek Trail

The wet prairie showing its ability to retain water after a rainy week

What Makes a Wet Prairie?

A few months ago, you may have seen my blog post detailing the controlled burns that took place in some of our parks. While writing that post, I ended up researching how fire would affect certain habitat types that we burned and became interested in what makes those areas so unique. One such habitat is the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie that was partially burned along the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silverbell Road. If you visit, we would like you to view the wet prairie from the trail to prevent trampling sensitive plants. Because of this, it may be difficult to see what makes this area special at first glance. However, our recent work in this area has afforded me the opportunity to share some of the unique aspects that result from the conditions presented by wet prairie.

An aerial view reveals the original path of Paint Creek that passes through the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie, highlighted in light blue. The wet prairie sits in the floodplain of this former creek. The current Paint Creek is highlighted in dark blue.

When I first visited the wet prairie this spring, I noticed that it wasn’t exactly as wet as advertised. However, revisiting the site after some significant rainfall revealed an increase in standing water, and the area started to live up to its name a little more. I soon discovered that wet prairies occur in areas with poor drainage, leading to periodic fluctuations in water levels that many of its plant species depend on. While helping with the prescribed burns in a few sections along the Paint Creek trail this spring, I learned that water isn’t the only element that plays a role in this ecosystem. Like other prairie habitat types, fire is more than welcome here. The burn we administered this spring will help recycle nutrients and control competing invasive species.

Stewardship Work in The Wet Prairie

Outside of the area that was burned this spring, we have been incorporating mechanical methods to keep invading species at bay and maintain the unique features that are present. Many understory plants associated with a more open oak canopy can be found in the wooded areas of the wet prairie. Unfortunately, certain fast-growing tree species like red maple have become more prevalent made the area much more shaded. One way we have been attempting to increase the growth of new young oak trees is through selective tree girdling of these shade-tolerant species. To girdle a tree we strip a complete ring of bark around an unwanted tree and apply herbicide to the exposed inner sapwood. The result will be a dead snag, allowing more light to the woodland floor and leaving more room for oak species in the canopy and savanna plants in the understory.

Parker girdles a red maple tree by removing a strip of bark all the way around the trunk. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

In addition to tree girdling, the other stewardship crew members and I have been working to remove other unwanted, invasive species through hand-pulling, mainly targeting garlic mustard, dame’s rocket, spotted knapweed and white sweet clover.

Natural Features Galore

Surveying for various invasive species involves spending a lot of time looking at what other plants are populating the area. Through this process, I discovered the many unique native plants that resided in the wet prairie. The presence of both sunny and shaded areas with wet and dry characteristics create a marvelous diversity of herbaceous plants. Many species contribute to a wide spectrum of flowers depending on the time of year. Such species include blue-eyed grass, butterfly milkweed, hoary puccoon, shrubby cinquefoil, Michigan lily and Culver’s root to name a few. Seeing this beautiful diversity helps drive home the purpose behind our stewardship work in these areas.

Of course, the many unique wildflowers of this habitat attract many pollinators as well. The stewardship crew happened to spot several species of butterflies including viceroys, monarchs, and great spangled fritillaries. We’ve also spotted many birds, notably a pair of great crested flycatchers nesting in a dead snag. Unfortunately, these birds were too quick for our cameras. I also happened to stumble upon a turkey that was nesting right off of the Paint Creek Trail. It may have seen me coming, but I certainly did not see it until I was inches away from its nest.

A nest of turkey eggs on the Paint Creek Trail berm

Stewardship Work in the Fen

The wet prairie isn’t the only unique habitat that can be seen from the Paint Creek Trail. Just a few miles north on the trail between Gunn Road and Adams Road, you may be able to see another interesting area that we have been working to protect: the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen. While we didn’t administer a prescribed burn here this spring, my interest and research into unique habitat types lead me to discover a lot of similarities between the wet prairie and the fen. A fen is also a special wetland characterized by soils composed largely of decayed plant material, and is unique in that it is fed by carbonate and calcium-rich groundwater groundwater. Because of these conditions, fens boast a high diversity of plant species including tamarack, poison sumac, and a variety of fen-specialist sedges and wildflowers.

A section of the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Fen

Our work in the fen has mainly consisted of controlling the densely growing non-native narrow-leaf cattail population that has spread and threatened native biodiversity. We control cattail using what we call the “glove of death,” which involves wiping the stem of each cattail with a glove sprayed with an aquatic herbicide. While very selective, I found this process to be one of the more difficult and meticulous invasive control methods we have experienced as it requires us to move carefully through the cattails to avoid touching herbicide-covered plants. Fortunately, we recently experimented with another treatment option that could potentially expedite the process of cattail control in denser areas. This method involves wiping larger areas of cattails with an herbicide-coated towel. Since the cattails are taller than most of the other plants, this treatment is selective.

Many of Michigan’s endangered insect species require these habitat types to survive. The Poweshiek skipperling, Hine’s emerald dragonfly and Mitchell’s satyr butterfly all rely on fens and spring-fed wetland habitat. While not all of these species have necessarily been spotted in Oakland County, the preservation of this habitat type is important wherever possible. Working in these areas is an interesting opportunity to be able to see how our efforts directly impact the land we work in. Some of these effects may take years before there is a greater noticeable change, but others are directly visible from one year to the next. For example, it was interesting to see how many fewer cattails there were in the fen this year after spending time treating them last year. It is in an honor to be taking part in the process of maintaining these unique Michigan wetlands.

If you’re interested in learning more about wet prairies and fens, the Michigan Natural Features Inventory’s website provides plenty of information on these habitat types and which plants and animals you can expect to see there:

Growing With the Seasons: Learning on Site

This post was written by Stewardship Technician Max Dunn

I am now more than halfway through my seasonal internship as a stewardship technician with Oakland Township Parks and Recreation. My work season is ending about 6 weeks earlier than the rest of the crew since I am heading back to college at the end of August. Although I haven’t been here long, I’ve learned and experienced more at this job than my past three combined. I am now able to confidently maneuver a truck and trailer, identify and treat multiple invasive species, input data into Geographic Information System’s (GIS), and most fun of all, experience beloved native plants in their natural habitats.   

Truck & Trailer Experience

In 2017 I purchased a 1997 Plymouth Breeze and have been driving it daily ever since. This small, easily maneuverable car stands 4.5 feet tall, a dwarf to the stewardship crews truck; a large-and-in-charge GMC 2500 standard 8 foot bed, often pulling a trailer. Driving a rig of this size and length may be common place for some of you, but it was very new to me. We first practiced in an open field to get comfortable then worked up to main roads. Before getting behind the wheel for the first time, thoughts of doubt and insecurity arose in my head. An occurrence that often accompanies me when learning new things. However, this time I realized my degrading thoughts and switched my outlook to one of confidence. This allowed me to be the controller instead of the controlled and made space for a present and enjoyable learning experience.

Backing up the trailer proved to be the hardest task for me since small trailers are very touch sensitive to your driving. It’s a great test of patience and focus and I have come to enjoy the sharp mental state it puts me in. Just remember, when you turn left, the trailer goes right. Unless it’s at too much of an angle, then it goes left. Also, this is an extension of your truck, so allow more space for clearance.

Although pulling a trailer can be a challenge, it is essential for our work. It’s equipped with a 130-gallon water tank, water pump, and heavy duty hose which supplies readily available water for prescribed burns and herbicide application. It requires a great amount of trust from Oakland Township to put this equipment into the hands of myself and the other stewardship technicians and I am grateful they have. I have gained numerous skills from this task alone which will stick with me well into the future.

Geographic Information System

GIS is an acronym for Geographic Information System, a mapping system that captures, stores, and displays data related to specific positions on Earth’s surface. The stewardship crew and I use an app on our phones called ESRI FieldMaps to document locations of invasive species and herbicide application out in the field. With each location, we input additional information such as plant density, herbicide concentration, and weather for that day.

This job introduced me to the hands-on aspect of GIS. I was familiarized with with these systems last spring in an agriculture class at Michigan State University and it was a great overview. But I have found that subjects like this are best learned from hands-on experience. Within the first three days on the job we were getting oriented and comfortable with the Field Maps app. It was early in the garlic mustard season, so documenting plant locations in the field was our orientation task (and what a great one to use since it is so prevalent!). It initially seemed like so much information needed to be included with the garlic mustard location. I was slightly concerned that I would miss out on something valuable and began to ask myself, “How do I properly estimate a plants density and how do I draw a polygon of the area we surveyed? More importantly, how do I remember the area I surveyed?” These all turned out to be useless concerns since the app is quite user-friendly.

Swallow-wort is an invasive plant that is related to milkweeds. It makes seeds attached to fluffy parachutes, so it can spread long distances to new areas.

I have really enjoyed scanning our parks for invasive plants like swallow-wort, and recording their locations and plant densities into the GIS. It is interesting to find a large, dense “mother” patch, then locate all the stragglers in an area. Once all the points are plotted, a rough dispersal outline is created which shows how far offspring of that colony spread. These dispersal outlines then provide valuable information for future stewardship crews because we can compare dispersal outlines throughout time and see how the plants respond to our treatments. If they are effective, the outlines will shrink in size.

Using this app consistently on the job site has taught me how to properly record data and take time to complete tasks that remove me from “actual field work.” My past three jobs were strictly manual labor so if I wasn’t working with my body, it was viewed as a waste of time. It took around a month at this job to break down that ideology and I have gotten much better at taking the time to input data.

Wildflowers at Gallagher Creek Park

One of the most enjoyable new experiences on the job has been finding mature, native plants in their natural habitats. It provides insight into how naturally occurring plants compare to landscaped ones in size, spread, and structure. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), for example, seems to be pretty adaptable. I have seen them in wetland areas with dappled light, semi-dry areas with full sun, and in landscaped beds. Furthermore, they can be quite small and slender in the wild when competing with other plants, but can be very full and wide in landscaped areas; give them space and they will grow! These differences were witnessed in May at the native plant beds of Gallagher Creek Park. 

Golden Alexanders in the native plant landscaping beds at Gallagher Creek Park. Photo by Ben VanderWeide.

Gallagher Creek Park on Silverbell Road, just east of Adams Road is probably best known for the playground. However, it also houses some amazing plants such as Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) and Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum).

The day before we went to weed the native plant beds around the playground in May, our Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide let us know that Yellow Lady Slippers would most likely be flowering in the park. When we got to a garden bed near the suspected area, we took a quick intermission from weeding and began our search. Early on, I stumbled across a beautiful wild lupine, the first one I have ever seen uncultivated and growing naturally. Their loose flower clusters and unique foliage are quite striking!

As I was framing a picture of it, I noticed a helical blade of grass twisting its way into the frame and took it as a foreshadow of a Yellow Lady Slipper sighting. I thought this because the grass perfectly mimicked the helically-twisted sepals of a Yellow Lady Slipper. After admiring the lupine and golden grass blade, we continued our search, and as foretold, stumbled upon a colony of Yellow Lady Slippers! Partially bloomed flowers resembled Corinthian helmets, while the fully mature looked like sunbathing aliens. It was interesting to see how small they were in real life and appreciate their complexity up close. That was truly a day to remember.

Spending time on job sites is something I look forward to. I have realized that as I experience something new, I also learn more about myself. I now tackle new task with confidence and take breaks from manual labor in order to do activities like data entry that have delayed returns. It has been great to grow alongside the abundant wildlife each workday, and I am amazed at how much I have experienced on the job. I am curious to look back in 5 weeks and see what else I’ve learned!

Summer Resident Birds in Oakland Township

This post was written by Katri Studtmann, Land Stewardship Technician.

As winter turned to spring and the days got longer and warmer, I started to get excited because I knew our summer residents were on their way back from their southern wintering grounds. As their sweet songs rang again in my neighborhood, I knew spring was on its way. Where I grew up in Minnesota, the first birds back that I typically noticed were the American Robin and the Red-winged Blackbird. Every spring, my family has a contest on who will see the first robin. There are rules to this contest, of course, you must either have photo proof of the robin or someone must be able to vouch that you saw it, otherwise it does not count. My dad took the title this year, spotting and sending a picture of a robin on February 27th. Here in warmer climate of Oakland Township in southeast Michigan, American Robins are year-round residents.

As March turned to April and April turned to May, I started to notice more and more of our summer residents showing up. Many migratory birds have spectacular and vibrant breeding plumage, so it’s fun to spot these beautiful balls of color shining in the trees. Spring is one of my favorite times to bird because the trees are not quite leafed out, so the birds are easier to see. Also, with the rapid influx of migratory birds, you are never sure what you will come across on your outdoor adventure.

Migration Mysteries

The past month has been particularly fun in the parks of Oakland Township for birding since May is typically peak bird migration season. When you take a second to watch and listen, you can notice birds you have never seen before. But why do birds migrate, and where do they spend winters? These are great questions that previously puzzled many people, but with extensive research on migratory birds, we have started to learn their secrets.

Male and female bluebirds standing guard over their nest box. If you look closely, you can see the female has some food for her chicks in her beak. In Oakland Township Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Some birds like the American Crow, Blue Jay, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Cardinal stick around Michigan all year long, but other birds travel great distances every spring and fall. In North America, there are over 650 species of breeding birds, and of those over half will migrate! Scientists have a few theories on why some birds migrate and some do not. The two main reasons birds will migrate are for food and nesting spots. As it becomes spring in Michigan, millions of bugs start to hatch – a fantastic food for many birds. Many migrant birds are insectivores (eat insects as a primary food source), so with the high influx of insects hatching in northern areas, this is inviting for many birds to make the trek north.

If the migrants stayed south in the tropics, there would be more competition for resources with the native tropical birds, making it harder to raise their chicks. Scientists theorized that many birds head north to breed because the more moderate temperatures make it easier to hatch their delicate eggs and rear chicks. Also, the longer days in the north give birds more time to feed their young every day. Then in the fall, when the days get shorter and colder and resources start to diminish, migratory birds make the trek back south for the winter.

Common Yellowthroat perching momentarily in a tree. Warblers are often difficult to spot because they don’t sit still long enough to get a good look at them. Picture by Cam Mannino.

Of the birds that migrate, there are short-distance, medium-distance, and long-distance migrants. Some examples of short-distance migrants are Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, American Woodcock, and Red-winged Blackbirds. They are usually the first birds back in the spring since they are only migrating a state or two south. In Minnesota, most American Robins migrate a little way south, but in southern Michigan, many Robins stick around all winter.

Some medium-distance migrants include the Green Heron, Great Egret, and Gray Catbird. These birds typically migrate south but just barely. They overwinter anywhere from Virginia to the southern U.S. Long-distance migrants are the truly impressive migratory birds because many of them flying to Central or South America every year.

Some long-distance migrants include the Tree Swallow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Wood Thrush, Orchard Oriole, Common Yellowthroat, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Kingbird, and Yellow Warbler. During the spring migration, there are some birds you may see for only a few days or weeks. These birds are migrating further north than Michigan to breed and are only stopping over for a few days on their journey north. This makes them especially a treat to see since the window to spot them is very small. Some migratory birds that stopped through Oakland Township this spring include the Blue-headed Vireo, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Palm Warbler, and White-crowned Sparrow. There are also some birds that winter in Michigan and then migrate further north to breed. A couple of examples of birds that winter in Michigan includes the American Tree Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco.

A White-crowned Sparrow at Charles Ilsley Park. Taken by Cam Mannino in May 2017.

Special Birds of Interest

A couple birds in particular that have fascinated me this spring are the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the Eastern Wood-Pewee. I spotted my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak this spring around May 14th. We were doing a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail, and my job for the first part of the burn was to stand on the trail and inform people about what was happening. As I was standing, I noticed a bird singing a sweet, complicated song. I started trying to dial in where it was coming from, then noticed the bright red chest of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak sitting in a tree not too far from me. I played his song on my Merlin bird app, and suddenly, he swooped in above my head and landed on a branch near me. I continued playing his song, and he swooped me a couple of more times. It was so cool to watch! Eventually, I stopped bothering him, and he flew away to sing his sweet song elsewhere in the woods.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak flying off of a branch and over my head.

About two weeks ago, I started hearing the unmistakable song of the Eastern Wood-Pewee in Charles Ilsley Park. My favorite part of the Pewee song is how they sing their name, “pe-weee, pe-weee.” They are tricky birds to spot with their gray-brown color. A few days later, I was at Lost Lake Nature Park and finally spotted one singing his song high on a branch. I watched him for a while, singing his little heart out high in a tree. Both the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Eastern Wood-Pewee migrate from Central or South America or the Caribbean every year to raise their chicks in the north.

Discovering the World of Birds

The next time you are walking about in one of the parks, take a moment to watch and listen to the birds singing in the trees. You might see one of our summer residents that are only here for a few months. And if you are lucky, you might even spot a bird migrating through to its nesting location further north, or to wintering grounds further south.

If you are new to birding, you have several options to become more comfortable spotting and identifying the birds you see. One great option is to come to our bird walks every Wednesday morning. Another is to find a friend who knows their Michigan birds well. I find the best way to learn how to identify birds is to go with someone who is experienced in birding. If you don’t have any friends that are adept at birding, there are some great resources to help you determine what birds you are observing. A simple field guide is always helpful, but I enjoy using bird apps like the Merlin bird app. With this app, you can look at birds that are likely in your area, pictures of the birds, and hear what sounds they commonly make. Hopefully, the next time you are in one of Oakland Township’s parks, you will see a bird you have not seen before!

Wednesday Bird Walk Link: https://oaklandnaturalareas.com/volunteer-calendar/birding-walks/