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/

Prescribed Burns for Healthy Habitat

Post written by Parker Maynard, Land Stewardship Technician. Post updated June 7 – we accidentally posted a version that wasn’t quite finished last Friday!

Volunteers and natural areas stewardship staff ignite the fields at Bear Creek Nature Park (Photo by Cam Mannino)

I can’t think of a more interesting and exciting way to start the stewardship season than by learning how to light up controlled fires to maintain the beauty of Oakland Township parks. Throughout late April and early May, the other Stewardship Crew members and I were involved in a unique hands-on training experience by participating in several prescribed burns. With the help of volunteers and contractors, areas within several parks underwent changes that will maintain and improve habitat and help native species thrive. As someone who has long been interested in the process of prescribed burns but has never had the chance to participate in one, I can easily say this was one of the most memorable stewardship activities I’ve participated in.

Learning Before Burning

Before I jumped into the action, I was able to learn about the purpose of such an intense process, as well as how to safely utilize and control fires. Through this training, I learned that fire is a regular and beneficial part of the natural cycle of many landscapes, from keeping open prairies free of woody and invasive species to maintaining fire-resistant oak forests. Although it seemed surprising, I learned that fire had historically found its way into these areas again and again, through Native Americans intentionally burning land or lightning striking the ground. In recent history, wildfires have been suppressed, making these habitat types more of a rarity. Fortunately, Oakland Township is working to help preserve what remaining prairie and open oak forests are present in our parks by administering these burns.

Comparison of a burned and unburned field at Bear Creek (Photo by Cam Mannino)

After learning the basics, I was able to observe a prescribed burn in person at Watershed Ridge Park with the rest of the Stewardship Crew. When we arrived at the park, we introduced ourselves the contractors that were going to be conducting the burn, who were busy prepping the site. The site preparation process involved creating a nonflammable boundary around the burn area called a “burn break”. Leaves and other flammable materials were cleared to form a portion of this boundary, but an existing wetland and farm field were also utilized as natural burn breaks since they weren’t likely to carry fire. After all preparations were complete, the burn crew gathered and was briefed on the plan We reviewed a map of the burn area, discussed wind direction and expected weather, talked about noteworthy topography, and went through the ignition and containment plan.

Into the Fire

After more observation and hands-on training, I was excited to be able to participate in a burn myself at Bear Creek Nature Park. This time, the burn would be conducted with a few volunteers, so my role was more integral to the process. Before we began, everybody suited up in proper personal protective equipment (PPE), which included a fire-resistant shirt, pants, gloves and a hardhat. Since I had never actively walked through a burning fire, I was wary as to how “fireproof” these clothes really were. However, I eventually felt safer after the fire began and I was walking in and out of burned areas with ease. We first ignited a slow backing fire by lighting the area against the prevailing wind direction with drip torches. These tools are handheld tanks with a wick to ignite the fuel mixture as it drips onto the ground. I like to think of it as a reverse watering can that pours fire instead of water. After I had gotten some practice with a drip torch, I began feeling more “in control” of the burn.

Lighting an area on fire is one thing, but it is just as important to make sure that the fire is put out afterwards. When we completed our burn, the crew spent a while putting out any actively smoking logs and other materials with backpack water sprayers.

Results of the Burn

So, what are the results of such an intense process? It is difficult to predict exactly how a landscape will react to a fire, but several changes will surely take place. The burning process helps to break down and get rid of dead organic matter and recycle nutrients back into the soil. When a burn takes place in the spring, many perennial plants are in a dormant stage and will be minimally impacted by the fire. Other plants may utilize this newly barren landscape as a chance to grow without as much competition. Plants that are adapted to these cyclical fires will be right at home in this newly created habitat as they are more accustomed to fire, whereas many invading species are not. In some cases, seeds may be spread manually in order to encourage specific species to thrive. The Stewardship Crew spent some time hand-spreading seeds and Natural Areas Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide utilized a tractor to spread seeds in areas that had been previously burned at Bear Creek.

Burned area at Charles Ilsley Park with fresh new growth a few weeks after the controlled burn

About a week after our burn at Charles Ilsley Park, I was surprised to see how green the burned fields had become in such a short time. I am especially interested to see how the wet prairie along the Paint Creek Trail will react to the recent burn that took place there, as it hosts many unique fire-tolerant plant species.

A robin looking for food after a burn (Photo by Cam Mannino)

Before participating in these prescribed fires, I was very curious as to how animals would react to the process. During a few of the burns, I observed turkeys, songbirds, and snakes fleeing from the burn area. It was clear that just as plants had evolved to withstand wildfires, many of these critters have as well. Even insects could simply burrow into the ground to evade the danger of fire. I realized that this emigration was only a short-term effect as shortly after the burn was complete, I began to see birds and even a Blanding’s Turtle return to area. I knew that the preservation of uncommon plant communities through burning will in turn help attract rare insects, birds, and other fauna to the area in time.

A Blanding’s Turtle returning to a burned field at Charles Ilsley Park

If you are interested in volunteering to participate in a future prescribed burn, there are annual trainings held in February. See Prescribed Ecological Burn Program | Natural Areas Notebook (oaklandnaturalareas.com) for more details.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit: What’s Under the Hood?

This week’s blog post was written by Stewardship Technician Max Dunn

Over the past few weeks, the stewardship crew has been hard at work pulling garlic mustard. As we grid the parks for these pesky weeds my eyes are also searching for Jack-in-the-Pulpit. Since we are walking every square inch of the parks to eradicate garlic mustard, I figured I should take some time to appreciate another plant. Life is all about balance right?

Jack-in-the-Pulpit flowering structures are composed of a modified leaf called a spathe and a pillar-like spadix which houses many small flowers and eventually striking red berries.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a widespread, eccentric perennial of woodlands that varies greatly in pigmentation, alters its sex overtime, and holds insects captive. This plant is easily recognized by its flowering structure, which is equipped with a hooded spathe and a pillar-like spadix. The spathe is a modified leaf that wraps around the spadix. This leaf initially caught my attention while gridding for garlic mustard because of their unique color patterns, ranging from a pure pastel green to a combination of dark green and waxy maroon. I am most interested in the underside of the spathe hoods since they create beautiful patterns, especially when the waxy maroon pigmentation contrasts pastel green veins.

The spadix also varies in pigmentation, but I found they tend to be green in Oakland Township. This pillar-like structure contains small, closely-arranged flowers that are either male or female depending on the plant. Nutrient reserves in the plant’s below ground corm (a modified stem for energy storage) helps determine the sex of the flowers. Plants with small corms and fewer stored nutrients are male, while plants with larger corms and more nutrient reserves are female. Larger corms allow plants to produce a second set of leaves and invest energy in female flowers that will produce striking, inedible red berries that are on display in the fall.

An interesting way to identify the sex of these plants is by looking at an insect trapping mechanism on the lower part of the spathe. Male spathes are equipped with a small little crook that allows pollen-covered insects like thrips and flies to easily exit and fly to a female flower. However, insects do not have an easy escape route in female plants since they lack this small crook in their spathe. With no easy escape these insects naturally spend more time near the flowers of the female spadix, frantically walking around and pollinating the flowers of the spadix more effectively.

These forest floor plants are an awesome sight if you take a second to look under the hood. The color variation of the spathes are beautiful and fascinating. If you catch a female at the right time you might just find a victim of successful pollination! Jack-in-the-Pulpit will be flowering for a couple more weeks so enjoy these unique plants before they finish flowering for the year. Comment below if you have a favorite Jack-in-the-Pulpit color variation!

Meet Our 2021 Natural Areas Stewardship Crew!

We’re excited to welcome our 2021 seasonal stewardship crew! Katri Studtmann, Max Dunn, and Parker Maynard joined us mid-April and will be out in the parks doing much-needed ecological restoration work until the end of September. Since starting a few weeks ago they have already helped with prescribed burn, pulled garlic mustard, spread native plant seed, and maintained our native plant landscaping. Each has written an introduction, so keep reading to learn about the unique background and skills they bring to our parks. Drop a comment to help us welcome our crew!

Max, Parker, Katri, and Stewardship Specialist Grant Vander Laan spread native plant seed at Bear Creek Nature Park (L-R)

Katri

Hi, my name is Katri Studtmann, and I am one of Oakland Township’s Land Stewardship Technicians for the summer! I graduated from Michigan Technological University in May 2020 with a degree in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Ecology. During college, I played for the Women’s Soccer Team, and I also was a part of a Fish Biology and Ecology Lab.

During my senior year, I did an honors research project in that lab. My project looked at the effects of removing the upper maxilla bone of brook trout to see if it was a viable alternative bone to complete microchemistry analysis. Microchemistry analysis is important for species of conservation concern like brook trout so that the researchers can know which streams and creeks they need to protect where brook trout spawn. A few summers ago, I worked for the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota as an Avian Intern taking care of sick, injured, and orphaned baby birds. During this internship, I had the chance to work with many different bird species and learn what many baby bird species look like. This past fall, I worked for the University of Minnesota as a Research Forest Ecology Intern working on their B4WARMED project, which looks at the future effects of climate change on the native trees of Minnesota through artificially warming the soil and air.

I hope to go to graduate school soon studying direct and indirect anthropogenic effects on the environment. As a kid, I was curious about anything and everything outside. This curiosity led me to study ecology in college which allowed me to learn and explore even more outside. In my free time, I enjoy mountain biking, skiing, camping, hiking, running, and playing soccer.

Max

My name is Max Dunn, I am currently studying Crop & Soil Science at Michigan State and will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in December 2022. I spend most of my free time hiking through the meadows and woodlands of Lake Orion in search of various native organisms, with most of my attention spent on wildflowers and birds. My passion for these topics stem from a geology class I took in high school with Mr. P. He would guide us into the seemingly uncharted territory of Bald Mountain State Park twice a week to reveal and teach us about the biotic/abiotic diversity in nature. Up until this class I spent my time outdoors in areas such as the quaint lake I live besides, my yard, or an athletic field, so these natural woodlands were completely new to me. I was amazed at how much there was to see and experience when you simply slow down and increase your awareness.

I started exploring different parks on my own time and soon realized I preferred meadows over woodlands and began spending a lot of time in Orion Oaks County Park.  I took up the hobby of identifying Michigan’s native forbs, dazed by all the different plant structures and searching for new ones whenever I could.  To my dismay, I realized that there were as many invasive species as natives, and that the natives were not as diverse as I once thought. Realizing these natural areas were lacking in diversity and being invaded by non-native species pushed me to get involved with organizations that value these topics and work at restoring the meadows and woodlands near me.

After attending a presentation by Ben two winters ago I set a long-term goal to get employed as a Natural Areas Steward to learn about the restoration process and bring native diversity back. I completed this goal in April and will be working along the Oakland Township Parks and Rec crew until August! I am grateful to be given this opportunity and look forward to maintaining and restoring the beautiful nature areas of our township.

Parker

I have always been particularly interested in the power of plants. When I was young, I was fortunate enough to learn about the wonders of gardening right from my own backyard. I was amazed at the process of creating food simply from planting and taking care of seeds. I couldn’t believe that produce didn’t just come from the grocery store, but from the earth itself!

Growing up in Oakland County has afforded me many other opportunities to appreciate the outdoors and our state’s many great natural resources. I learned many practical skills and made some great memories while camping away from home. I particularly took interest in the many trees and other plants I had never seen in the suburbs. These experiences helped solidify my passion for nature and later lead me to realize the importance of working in the field of conservation.

While attending college at Eastern Michigan University, I reignited my love of gardening by helping to manage the community garden on campus. It was here that I met some students who introduced me to the university’s Environmental Science program. Originally planning on studying music, I had never given a second thought to a bachelor of science. However, I realized I would love nothing more than the opportunity to pursue a career to help preserve our planet’s natural wonders for future generations.

Since graduating, I have learned a lot through working with a variety of conservation-based organizations and professionals who share my passion for the environment. I have experienced conservation work in many forms, from helping manage parks and natural areas to leading educational interpretive nature programs. I am especially glad to be back working with the Oakland Township Parks and Recreation stewardship crew for my second season. With this experience, I hope to give back to the state that has provided me with so many great outdoor memories and recreational opportunities, and better help determine my future path towards graduate school and beyond.

The 2021 Natural Areas Stewardship Crew completes a prescribed burn at Bear Creek Nature Park in April. Parker, Max, Katri, and Grant (L-R).

THIS WEEK IN STEWARDSHIP: A Summary of Summer

This post was written by our stewardship technicians, whose season officially ended at the end of September. We are thankful for their contributions to keeping our natural areas beautiful!

As the season for the summer crew ends, we would like to thank Alex and Marisa (seasonal land stewardship technicians) and Alyssa (our former Stewardship Specialist) for all of their hard work. Grant started as a seasonal technician this year, and will be staying on as our new Stewardship Specialist. They got hands-on experience natural areas management, obtained different certifications, and gained leadership experience that will help in their future endeavors. Our crew always had a positive, hardworking attitude that we will miss! We wish you all the best of luck!

The crew

The 2019 natural areas stewardship staff (L-R): Ben, Alyssa, Marisa, Grant, and Alex

During this field season, the crew gained experience with many tasks. The season started with the installation of new nest boxes and the restoration of old ones at Bear Creek Nature Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, and along the Paint Creek Trail. These boxes were set up for the purpose of increasing the bluebird and tree swallow populations. An enthusiastic group of volunteers monitored all of the boxes through from April to August!

A Tree Swallow checks out the new nesting possibilities.

A tree swallow on one of the new Peterson-style nest boxes we installed at Bear Creek Nature Park this year.

Then it was straight into garlic mustard removal. The crew pulled garlic mustard from many parks like Cranberry Lake Park, O’Connor Nature Park, Blue Heron Environmental Area, Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, and many others.  It takes quite a long time to remove garlic mustard from these parks, but it is truly necessary to prevent its detrimental effects in mature forest. We found less garlic mustard this year, so our persistent work seems to be paying off! If you would like to know more about garlic mustard, how to identify it, or more please visit the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network website.

 

During this season, the crew completed native landscaping at Gallagher Creek Park around the new playground. They were able to plant over 25 different species of wildflowers, grasses, and sedges, as well as six species of trees and shrubs. The purpose of the native garden beds is to help educate the public on different kinds of native species that they could use in their own landscaping. It was also planted with pollinators in mind, including bees and monarch butterflies. We even found some monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed in August! Don’t forget to check this area through the year as this cool mix of native plants continually repaints its canvas.

 

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Our next big task was controlling crown vetch (Securigaria varia) and swallow-wort (Cynanchum species) in the parks. These two species are a high priority for us, so we treat them anywhere we find them in the parks. Like garlic mustard, they are aggressive, and beat out native species for nutrients and space. The control was done using herbicides due to the ineffectiveness of hand pulling, mowing, and burning.

DTLP_Swallowwort2019

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.

After that the crew moved on to do woody invasive species control, including common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, privet, honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, and autumn olive. This control was mainly done at Bear Creek Nature Park using the cut stump technique. The crew was able to get through a large portion of the park, as well as put a large dent in the glossy buckthorn that has taken over the area around the marsh on the north side of the park. Like most invasive species, both buckthorn and autumn olive have a tendency to out compete native species, take over areas, and become detrimental to the health of the ecosystem. Buckthorn can lower the water table in wetlands, and secretes a chemical that interferes with amphibian reproduction!

cut-stump-bcnp.jpg

Marisa shows off a pile of buckthorn cut during a volunteer workday this summer

Some smaller tasks that were completed were our yearly photo monitoring of several parks including Gallagher Creek Park, Charles Ilsley Park, Draper Twin Lake Park, Stony Creek Ravine, and a few others. These photos are for our records to see the changes in these areas over time. We also completed our lake monitoring (Secchi disk and total phosphorus) which was done through the Cooperative Lakes Monitoring Program (CLMP). This is done to monitor the quality of the lake and help identify problems.

 

The crew had the opportunity to attend workshops throughout the season including one that focused on the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, a chainsaw safety workshop, and a wetland grass identification training. They also received several different certifications including first aid, CPR, herbicide applicator, and chainsaw safety and use.

Chainsaw

Marisa practices various cuts with a chainsaw during our training workshop

Throughout the summer, there have been several different volunteer workdays and Wednesday bird walks. These include garlic mustard control, woody invasive species control, and providing assistance for our native plantings. We would like to extend a big thank you to everyone that came out and helped us at these different volunteer work days. The Wednesday bird walks are lead by Ben, the Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, and take place at a rotation of five parks. If you are interested in volunteering or attending the bird walks, please check our the website pages linked above or the parks newsletter for upcoming events.

Bird walk

Marisa finds a bird in her binoculars at the Wet Prairie

It has been a long field season, but the crew has managed to complete a lot this summer. It is rewarding to see all that we accomplished! Be sure to be on the look out for the occasional update this winter from Ben or Grant, the new Stewardship Specialist.

Rattlesnake

Thanks to 2019 stewardship crew for all of your excellent work!