Field Note: Restoring the Past and Preserving the Future in the Wet Prairie Woodlands

On a gray day in mid-December, while buzzing about trying to complete a myriad of Christmas errands, a message appeared on my phone from Dr. Ben VanderWeide, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager. He wanted me to know that he and a small crew were working in the woods at the Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Aha! Ben knows that restoration of that particular woods is of special interest to me! So when a free moment appeared, I grabbed my camera and headed north on the trail from Silver Bell Road to see the transformations taking place in one of my favorite restoration projects.

A Reminder about an Historic Change in Paint Creek

As I’ve explained in a previous blog, for eons Paint Creek wandered through the floodplain west of the Paint Creek Trail just north of Silver Bell Road. But in the late 19th century, the stream bed was moved to accommodate the railroad that ran along what is now the Trail. Since then, the water in the original bed comes from rain, snow melt, and some groundwater. After human intervention dramatically altered the water flow (or hydrology) of the area, non-native bushes, vines and trees invaded the wet meadows and moist open woodland along the former stream bed.

The new, non-natives had distinct advantages. Their predators – insects, fungi, animals – were left behind in their countries of origin. They could easily compete with native plants whose predators are also native. The open tree canopy closed, and the woodland floor darkened. And over the next century, invasive shrubs and vines gradually choked off or shaded out most of the native plants that had bloomed for millennia in the woodland and wet meadows and along the former creek bed.

A 1963 aerial photo showing the old bed of Paint Creek (blue), the core wet-mesic prairie area (green), and the current active restoration area outlined in red.

The Restoration Process Begins to Unfold

Most of the work at the Wet Prairie since its acquisition in 2003 had concentrated on the core wet-mesic prairie and the wet meadows to the south. In 2018, a parks prescribed burn contractor conducted a controlled burn in the north half of the park which top-killed huge thickets of non-native brush. Restoration was off and running! But much more was needed, of course, and heavy equipment was impractical in a delicate, very moist area.

So in late 2020, Ben, stewardship specialist Grant VanderLaan, staff from Six Rivers Land Conservancy, and volunteers took on the monumental task of cutting and carefully burning as many non-native bushes and vines as possible in the northern wet meadows and woodland. In some areas, careful application of herbicides to stumps and small re-sprouts followed in order to eliminate invasive species while doing as little harm as possible to any native plants still struggling to survive beneath the non-native thickets. It was an exhausting, laborious process, but what a transformation was taking shape!

This past autumn, the crew’s goal was to continue to increase light reaching the woodland floor to help the special mix of woodland wildflowers, grasses, and sedges return. To do this they reduced the number of fallen ash trees caused by emerald ash borer damage, removed any last invasive shrubs, and thinned trees that were choking out the remaining oaks in the area. As they’ve done annually for several years, volunteers also collected and cleaned a record amount of native wildflower and grass seed from local populations. The Wet Prairie woodlands were an ideal location for sowing some of it once this fall’s work was completed.

Small Winter Fires of Brush and Fallen Logs Release Nutrients Back to the Soil

Piles of branches and logs from old dead falls piled where the canopy is tall and open.

In mid-December, Ben’s message appeared on my phone with a photo of a small part of the work area. Amazed at what I saw, I left Christmas prep behind and headed to the Wet Prairie. The work crew was small by then – just Ben, Grant and hard-working volunteers George Hartsig and Jon Reed. They had removed a remarkable amount of non-native shrubs and vines and piled them along with the ash deadfalls and thinned saplings in open areas where low fires on moist ground could not reach the canopy. Then they’d set the piles ablaze on the wet soil and tended the fires until they had turned to ash. Wet winter days are ideal for this work and I was happy to see plumes of white smoke rising in multiple spots throughout the woodland when I arrived.

Multiple fires burned in the moist woodland, tended by Dr. Ben, stewardship specialist Grant VanderLaan and volunteer George Hartsig.
A section of the woodland restoration area with burn piles smoking in the distance in the current work area.

I was delighted to see the woods opening further with the restoration work. Now patches of sunlight and rain could nurture the woodland floor, and struggling wet meadow plants could grow. Another part of the moist woodland could breathe again.

The “Comeback Kids”: Native Plants Return and an Iconic Bird Responds to Restoration

Though invasive plants had decimated many of the native species that once bloomed on the forest floor and along the banks of the stream bed, a few hardy survivors appear each year as restoration continues. Last year, in an area along the Paint Creek Trail formerly blanked by thickets of bittersweet, privet, glossy buckthorn and autumn olive, a gorgeous carpet of native Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) emerged on its own! Imagine how long those native wildflowers had waited for the sun and the rain!

Last summer, the stewardship crew spotted a Red-Headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) exploring a possible nesting cavity on a dead tree at the Wet Prairie. These birds prefer woodlands with open canopies and plenty of standing dead trees, just the conditions that restoration work had provided over the years (with some help from the emerald ash borer, in this case.) A hopeful sign that restoration will encourage the return of other species!

A Red-Headed Woodpecker at Paint Creek Heritage Area – Wet Prairie in summer 2022.

During my December visit, Ben pointed out some of the remaining green leaves or dry stems of sturdy native plants that have emerged since restoration granted them their days in the sunshine and rain.

A Final Step for this Year: Sowing Native Seed

Sadly, few native plants survived the long years of domination by non-native species. Ben would like to return more native wildflowers and grasses to this special woodland. So as the fires burned low this winter, Grant used a leaf blower to open patches around the cleared area to allow native seed to reach the soil. And George spread the collected seed mixes in the woods – a mesic savanna mix for consistently moist areas and a sunny wet meadow mix for wetter spots.

Isn’t it cheering that native seed prefers to be sown in the coldest months? It’s so counter-intuitive and I love that! In fact, many native seeds need the cold to germinate. Then these hardy native plants spend about three years growing deep roots until they fully bloom, ready for Michigan’s unpredictable weather. We’ll have to be patient, but with luck, the wait will be worth it. Here are a few of the plants we can hope to see taking up residence in the woodland at the Wet Prairie once they’ve established their deep root systems. (Click on black boxes at the edge of the frame to move through the slideshow below.)

Looking to the Past to Help the Future Flourish

Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) under the open canopy in a restored area within the Wet Prairie Woodland in 2021

As I watched the fires on that gray December day, I felt that Ben and his stewardship plans were not only restoring an ancient ecosystem that nature had developed over thousands of years. Restoration will also make it possible for nature, with a bit of help from us, to once more determine what will develop and thrive there in the future. At an online workshop I attended in November, Gregory Nowicki of the US Department of Agriculture summed up restoration with a quote he found that perfectly captured what I felt as I watched those fires slowly burning down in the Wet Prairie Woods.

Restoration uses the past not as a goal but as a reference point for the future. If we seek to recreate the temperate forests, tall grass savannas, or desert communities of centuries past, it is not to turn back the evolutionary clock but to set it ticking again.” (Falk 1990)

Yes! Nature knows best and humans, even with the best intentions, have interfered with ancient processes that supported a healthy, highly varied habitat. Those carpets of invasive plants appeared in our parks because humans moved them here from distant lands. But in Oakland Township, we are lending nature a helping hand, letting it get back to work at filling our parks and natural areas with healthy habitat that supports the birds, animals, and insects that share the benefits of nature’s bounty with us. What a Christmas gift Ben gave me when he sent me that text!

Photos of the Week: Expanding Nature’s Color Palette at Charles Ilsley Park

Cardinal Flower (aka Red Lobelia) and Great Blue Lobelia in a moist swale at Charles Ilsley Park

In the previous post, I collected all the gold and black vividness of August at Charles Ilsley Park – in blossoms, birds and butterflies.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But of course, Ilsley in August had lots of other hues. Nature seems incapable of limiting itself to just two colors in any season. So let’s see some of the other colorful brushstrokes from nature’s palette.

 

Stewardship Pays Off in Shades of Lavender in the Central Meadow

Lavender flowers emerged in the central meadow when a small wetland area was restored.

In the last few years, vernal pools have formed in the center of Charles Ilsley Park and a stream suddenly appeared crossing a trail on the east side of the central meadow. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, realized that a farmer had once laid tile to drain those ponds. By pulling out some of the  broken tiles, Ben restored a wetland area where the water can now seep underground instead of across the trail. As a result, a beautiful variety of lavender wetland flowers now bob and sway above the grass stems there.  Tall, erect Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) branches into tapering spikes covered with tiny flowers frequented by many kinds of bees.  The smaller,  lavender Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens) was a delightful new wildflower for me. These seeds were part of the wetland seed mix that were planted as part of the restoration process. After so many years of farming,  very few native species remained, so stewardship staff designed a diverse wetland mix to help these areas recover. And nearby where dry, prairie soil begins again, a balding Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) left a beautiful pattern as it shed its petals. [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Birds and a Jazzy Insect Add Blue to the Ilsley Palette

A couple of blue birds made their contribution to the color scheme. A juvenile Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) with just a few of its azure feathers showing, hid deep within the  the leaves of a giant oak along the entrance path. My photo attempt was hopeless. But a few days later, another small bluebird perched in an oak in my front yard. In the photo below, it seems to be studying the ground just before it swooped down and picked up a caterpillar. Well done, little bluebird!  A tiny Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) popped in and out of the shrubbery along the edge of the meadow. Even adults of this species are only 4-5 inches long and weigh 1-2 ounces! This little flycatcher twitches its white edged tail to stir up insects when surrounded by plants, though as you can see below, it probes bark for insects and their eggs as well.

A young Eastern Bluebird spotted and later caught a caterpillar below.

Gnatcatchers search tree bark for any insect or spider.

A Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher twitches its tail to scare up insects, but gnats actually don’t make up much of its diet.

If you see a large dragonfly helicoptering over the flower tops, it’s probably a Darner (Aeshnidae family. They are the largest dragonflies in North America, with the fastest flight and the keenest eyesight. The female has a needle-like ovipositor at the end of her abdomen so that she can slit open stalks and insert her eggs – hence, the name “darner.”  (My husband remembers relatives calling them “sewing beetles!”) They spend most of their time in the air on their powerful wings, so I was glad  to find this Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) resting for a moment on some dried Curly Dock (Rumex crispus). What an elaborate color scheme and pattern on this big beautiful insect!

The Green-Striped Darner’s compound eyes are so large that they almost touch. So it has great eyesight!

Stewardship brings Red, White and Blue to the Golden Western Meadow

Ben noticed a moist swale in the western meadow as he was planning for the prairie planting and spread some wildflower seed from plants that love “wet feet.” What a lovely treat to see Cardinal Flower/Red Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), white Swamp Betony (Pedicularis lanceolata) and Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) thriving within a low spot in a dry, sunny meadow! Charles Ilsley Park introduced me to a second new wildflower when I saw these Swamp Betony for the first time in August.

One of our eagle-eyed birders took a photo of a third new flower to add to my “life list,” Dotted Mint/Horse Mint (Monarda punctata). This Monarda, in the same genus as our lavender Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa),  has successive whorls of creamy white  blossoms dotted in dark purple growing above one another along its stem. Ben had included this flower in the seed mix when this meadow was cleared and planted as part of prairie restoration. I hope we see more of it! Thanks to Vinnie Morganti for loaning me her photo of this interesting tri-level  flower.

A three-story bloom on these lovely Dotted/Horse Mint stems!

Nature Loves Earth Tones

Of course, browns and greens are always the backdrop of nature’s palette. A soft brown fledgling with a striped breast played peek-a-boo with me through some shrubs one afternoon. I could hear its begging chirp from beyond the plants, but it took a while before it really peeked out into the open. Can you spot its tiny head near the center of this photo? (You might need to click on this photo to get a better look.)

A tiny brown bird poked its head in and out of the greenery at Ilsley.

Finally, it came out for more than a split second so I could snap a photo. I checked its identification with local birding expert, Ruth Glass. I proposed that it was a young House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and she  agreed it was. These little birds drive their parents nuts with begging constantly for hours around our feeder so I thought I recognized that insistent chirp!

A fledgling House Finch finally stops in the open for more than a few seconds.

A group of little brown House Wrens ((Troglodytes aedon) chattered away in an oak along the treeline, darting here and there among the branches. At last, one came out to look around.

A fledgling House Wren peers down from a bush after several minutes of begging calls.

Almost immediately an adult wren appeared to scold me for being there. I snapped a quick photo and departed, so as not to incur more wrath from an annoyed parent!

An adult Wren arrived on the scene and asked me to go away in no uncertain terms! Such a scold!

As fall arrives, nuts and seeds add more rich brown shades and lovely greens. The lime green nuts of  Walnut Trees (Juglans nigra) hang like tennis balls from limbs around the park and the Black Oaks sport clusters of bright green acorns with patterned brown beanies.

My candidate for this year’s most beautiful brown, though, are the  teardrop-shaped, russet seeds of the Foxglove Beardtongue/Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis). In mid-summer, this native wildflower stands tall, while sprouting graceful white blossoms. Its seeds and dark red stems now are almost as visually appealing as its flowers!

Harvesting the Last of Summer Colors

A wonderfully large and mysterious wetland I saw at Charles Ilsley Park for the first time in August

Isn’t that wetland above a lovely harmony of greens?  This wetland extends a long way on the north side of the far west trail that leads to the Wynstone subdivision west of the park. This one is  large, mysterious and full of life as most wetlands are. I just “discovered” it after many walks in Ilsley and felt like a visitor to an alien world.

I listened to the raucous begging of a Green Heron fledgling down in the bushes ner the water and caught a glimpse of an adult stuffing food into the youngster’s bill. Just a glimpse, no photo – but I didn’t mind. I just wanted to take in all the green-ness to remember on a black-and-white winter day.

Summer is clearly waning, now. The butterflies look tattered and worn. The summer wildflowers are brown and seeding. But we have lots to look forward to. The meadows now brimming with goldenrods will soon be splashed with purple asters. The migrating birds, wearing more sedate winter colors, and the last of the “super generation” Monarchs will be riding north winds toward warmer climes. Leaves will reveal the dramatic colors they’ve hidden under all that chlorophyll since they “greened up” in the spring. So maybe, like wise stewards, we should store up as much color as we can while the supply is plentiful. We may need the memory of it on a January day.