Stewardship Volunteering: An Invitation to Befriend Our Native Landscape

The native grass that I wandered through as a child which I later learned was native Big Bluestem.

As happens so often in life, I sort of backed into being a stewardship volunteer. I spent my childhood in Oakland Township forging paths through abandoned farm fields filled with tall grass. On a flannel blanket scented by the warm earth beneath, I settled beside a small wetland to read. My father knew where wild asparagus grew on Collins Road and rushed back home one afternoon to report seeing a trumpeter swan. We watched birds on a simple feeder in a bush outside the kitchen window. My brother and I could be gone all morning in the fields as long as we returned when the dinner bell rang. Being outside meant disappearing from adult supervision for hours on end, and we loved it.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

When my husband I moved back to this area, we began Sunday walks in Bear Creek Nature Park, just an abandoned farm when I was child. At a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting in 2015, I took the opportunity to ask the Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, about a giant tuft of stiff grass that jutted out at the edge of a field at Bear Creek. Did someone plant some exotic grass in our park? It looked very odd and ungainly. Ben explained that it was Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), a native grass that had once covered large areas of our township – part of our ancient natural landscape. Really? He suggested coming to a presentation that he’d planned to describe that pre-settlement landscape and the role of periodic prescribed fire in restoring and preserving it. Fire as a preservation technique? I took the bait and arrived home from that event bubbling with ideas about Michigan’s prairies and how they might be restored to us. That huge tuft of grass at Bear Creek Nature Park, it turned out, was probably a remnant of the grasses through which I’d roamed years ago, grasses which had emerged after field fires during my childhood.

That eye-opening presentation marked the starting point of what is now my seven-year journey into deepening my relationship with the natural world. I continue to appreciate nature in ever more intimate detail – and it never fails to simultaneously fascinate and soothe me. Through volunteering in a variety of ways, I’ve come to understand that I have a part to play in healing the landscape that nurtured me as child and still does. And in doing so, I experience a bit of healing myself.

So here’s my invitation to join us in this reciprocal process of enriching the native diversity of our natural areas while enriching ourselves. Perhaps you’ll discover an activity that suits your gifts or interests. For details on monthly events, click on a date on the calendar page at this link. [See the blue bar at the top of the linked calendar page.]

Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”

If our feathered neighbors intrigue you, perhaps these activities are for you!

Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group

Birders at Cranberry Lake Park watching several different migrating warblers in a nearby tree. Photo by Tom Korb, a member of the group

Every Wednesday year ’round (with a few weeks off in December), a group of us gather at one of the township parks. We come with binoculars (or Ben can loan us a pair) and head out on the trails. Some of the birding group members are amateurs. Others have birded for years and can recognize a bird by its song or its pattern in flight overhead. Learn, laugh, hang out with kindly people in all kinds of weather and be a citizen scientist at the same time! The data collected each week by Ben and stewardship specialist, Grant Vanderlaan, is reported to the Cornell University Ornithology Department’s ebird website where it can be used by researchers to learn more about our feathered neighbors.

Get “Upclose and Personal” with Birds by Monitoring Nest Boxes

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box.

We volunteers participate in another citizen science project, Cornell University’s NestWatch Project. Each volunteer takes responsibility for monitoring a set of bird boxes in one of our parks. After a yearly session on the do’s and don’ts of monitoring, we visit our boxes once or twice each week. I’ve peeked within the nest boxes of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia Sialis), Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), and House Wrens (Troglodytes aedon) to record the date of the first egg laid, the hatch date, the fledge date and other data. As a result, I’ve seen baby birds hatch, feed from their parents’ beaks and sail out into the big bright world on their first solo flight! What fun! I recommend it to you.

Need A Little Excitement in Your Life? Volunteer with the Prescribed Burn Crew!

Two trained burn crew volunteers, a woman dripping low flame, a man carrying water for dowsing when required

Many of our native plants are “fire-adapted,” which means they benefit from fire or actually require it to germinate! After a low burn, the nutrients of dry plants nourish the soil, the blackened fields absorb sun for a longer growing season and room is created for native plants and the creatures which need sun and rain. So although Ben hires contractors for complicated burns, he also provides training each year for members of a volunteer fire crew. All adults are welcome, regardless of gender. The volunteers don protective equipment provided by the Parks and Recreation Commission and that, plus training and on-site supervision by Ben, makes for a dramatic, interesting and safe experience. So add a bit of adventure to your life and provide our stewardship team and nature itself with some badly needed help!

This could be you! Trained and ready to help restore our natural areas with prescribed fire.

Share an Ancient Tradition: The Gathering and Preparing of Native Seed

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Gathering the Seed

On a lovely autumn afternoon, Ben invites us to gather in a prairie to collect native seed, something humans have done for thousands of years. I love these autumn events; they’re so incredibly peaceful , relaxing and so easily productive. Ben chooses the site where desirable seeds are plentiful and gives us brief instructions on how much we can harvest. We then move out into the fields and slip seeds from their stalks, dropping them into a labeled bag later to be cleaned and sown where needed in our parks.

Former Stewardship Specialist, Alyssa, gathering coneflower seeds among the Big Bluestem at Charles Ilsley Park.

Preparing the Seed for Sowing

Volunteers cleaning seed and Stewardship Specialist Grant VanderLaan weighing it on the right.

Early in December, volunteers and staff gather at the township’s pole barn on Buell Road to separate the seed from its pods or seed heads. We dress warmly, snacks are on hand and we set to work pushing the seeds through screens into tubs, bagging the stalks and stems for compost. Some seeds need to be rubbed through a coarser screen while standing in order to break them off sturdy seed heads. The seed for each species is individually weighed, its origin and collection date recorded and then stored away for sowing. We chat while we work and the whole feeling of the event is a bit like an old-fashioned barn raising or quilting bee!

Sowing the Seed

Native seeds need to be sown in late fall or early spring, when nature drops many of its seeds; wild seeds usually require cold temperatures in order to germinate. It lands on the soil surface and moves into the soil by the force of rain or snow during freeze/thaw periods. Many are tiny, almost dust-like, and ignored by the birds. Some seeds are carried below ground by animals or insects.

Our collected native seeds are most often sown by hand or occasionally with a hand-cranked seed spreader. Ben and his crew recreate nature’s process in our parks by spreading it on the surface of prairie sites prepared by burns or mowing, on the edges of wetlands or for aquatic plants, even on pond ice. Natives may need three or more years to reach full bloom because they first establish deep roots. Unlike non-native nursery plants, they’re tough survivors who’ve evolved to grow without fertilizer or much other human intervention in Michigan’s unpredictable weather!

The stewardship crew planting in early spring, 2021

Scoop Up Tiny Shrimp and Other Tiny Aquatic Critters: Vernal Pool Monitoring

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

Vernal pools are seasonal wetlands that form in low areas in the spring. They fill with snow melt and rain water, and then dry up in warm weather. As a consequence, these pools don’t support fish, which makes them a safe place for many creatures to breed and lay eggs. Tiny orange Fairy Shrimp (Order Anostraca) and appropriately named Fingernail Clams (Pisidium moitessierianum) are indicator species in these freshwater pools. Who knew shrimp and clams live and breed right in our parks? Likewise, our Wood Frogs (Lithobates syvaticus) and some species of Salamanders court and lay eggs here after overwintering in the uplands. Periodically Ben trains volunteers to record data from the vernal pools so that it can be reported to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory – a third kind of citizen science! Ben provides small nets and clear boxes and we don our high boots and wade in, learning first hand how to identify what dwells in these temporary pools that team with life that most of us have never seen before!

Enjoy Taking on the “Bad Guys?” Try Invasive Species Management!

Invasive species – like Bradford/Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana), Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and many others – are a big problem because they didn’t evolve here. In their original habitats in Eurasia and elsewhere, they did what our native plants do here, providing food and shelter for native species. But of course here, they are not among their native species. Consequently, they’re much less productive for our habitat. Their seeds may last longer in the fall, but offer little useful nutrition to our migrating birds – too much sugar, not enough fat. Butterflies may sip at non-native blossoms, but their young (the caterpillars) generally can’t/won’t eat non-native leaves, or if they do, fail to thrive into adulthood. Most caterpillars only feed on plants they’ve evolved with for centuries. Since caterpillars and their native plant hosts anchor the food web that feeds our birds and other creatures, the lack of caterpillars means a less healthy, more hungry habitat. Also, the predators that kept invasive species in check in their original habitats (insects, animals, fungi) aren’t present here – so invasives can quickly spread across the landscape with little opposition – robbing our native plants of the sunlight, rain, soil nutrients and pollination they need.

So here are a couple of examples to show how you might help preserve the rich diversity of our natural areas by eliminating non-native, invasive species:

Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines

Volunteers and stewardship staff took on clearing a large area of invasive shrubs and vines at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail in late 2020. Forestry mowing would have damaged the fragile ecosystem there. After weeks of work, clearing was complete and the resulting piles were burned on the winter snow. See the transformation process in the slideshow below.

Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning

No, garlic pulls are not at all like taffy pulls, unfortunately. Just nice folks who go out into woodlands with Ben and Grant to remove the nefarious, invasive Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). This introduced European plant crowds out many species of our native woodland wildflowers like Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum, May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), and Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis). Garlic Mustard, named for its scent, is easy to pull! A four-year-old delighted in helping me pull some near my home and did a fine job. The following year, a native wildflower emerged from the seed bank – the kind of reward we hope to see again in our natural areas! (Notice the historical photo below of the forest floor at Bear Creek in 1979!)

Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?

Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park in full bloom in July after wildflower seeding

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too. We volunteer because we want to be of use and what we discover is that the greatest benefit has been to ourselves! Working with Ben and the other stewardship folk, I have learned to be of use to nature. I’m happy to provide data to researchers learning to protect nesting and migrating birds or tiny shrimp. And it’s such a thrill to see a diverse tapestry of native plants emerge from the soil after decades of being buried beneath a heavy load of invasive shrubs or grasses. It invariably feels like I’m privileged to witness a small resurrection.

But what I’ve experienced is that the benefits for me often outweigh the relatively small part I play in the process. I’ve made bright, interesting friends both in person and here on the blog. What a delight to enjoy and learn from kindred spirits! I’ve stimulated my aging brain with new information that matters to me. I’ve exercised both my mind and my muscles as I head out in the fields to see what nature is ready to show me. This kind of volunteering makes me feel more alive!

But most importantly, through stewardship work, I’ve come closer to the natural world. In fact, I’ve come to feel embedded in it. We humans aren’t just walking on the earth, after all. We are an integral part of a vast and intricate system that feeds us daily, quenches our thirst, supplies our oxygen, clothes us, heats our homes, provides materials for the very roof over our heads and the tools we use every day – and nature does all that while gifting us with beauty! A field full of wildflowers, sunlight streaming through a break in the clouds, bird song and the whisper of leaves, the dance of tall grass in a summer breeze – all of that glorious art is gratis once we step out our door.

So I hope you’ll find a way to join us. More than 1500 acres of preserved natural areas in Oakland Township could use your attention and if possible, your helping hands. I guarantee that nature will richly reward your efforts.

Draper Twin Lake Park: Work Begins to Restore a More Natural Landscape

Restoration north of the parking lot in the west section Draper Twin Lake Park

Ask anyone in my family if I’d ever be celebrating the felling of trees and they would look at you incredulously and start laughing. Cam? The original (occasionally literal) tree hugger?!

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I had a favorite 100 year old sugar maple that befriended me as a child and I spent happy hours high in the branches with my books and snacks. When that tree and others were being felled for a housing development in the field next door, my mother – not a born nature lover – went to bat for those trees, even contacting the governor’s office since “environmental protection” was in its infancy then. But to no avail.

So imagine my astonishment at finding myself standing in the western section of Draper Twin Lake Park with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, delighting in the scene pictured in this video!!

A Forestry Mower Removing Non-native Trees and Shrubs at the west section of Draper Twin Lake Park



Restoring the Habitat of the Past to Provide for a Healthy Future

The trail to Twin Lake before restoration began

My pleasure, of course, stemmed from my growing understanding and appreciation of restoration. That monster of a machine, a forestry mower, was removing a gigantic glut of non-native trees and shrubs. (See the photo above!) For decades, this natural area of grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced native trees had been farmed. The bare soil, depleted of its native diversity, suffered an invasion when farming stopped in the 1970s; trees, shrubs and other plants from Europe and Asia made the most of a great opportunity. Escaping from farms, flower gardens or landscaping, invasive plants found their way to this habitat. Benefiting from the absence of the competitors or conditions they had to contend with at home, they spread wildly. Our local plants and trees couldn’t compete. They didn’t evolve with these new arrivals and so had no defenses for countering their steady increase. It would take millennia for our native insects, birds, diseases, and plants to eventually evolve and adapt to these new plants, too long for the survival of the many species that depend on them.

That’s where our stewardship crew steps in. Ecological restoration attempts to give our local trees, grasses and wildflowers a fighting chance to thrive. When it succeeds, native plants can then provide for the whole food web that evolved with them. As you can see below, the forestry mower opened up fields and forest, beginning the process of restoring the landscape that nature designed eons ago.

The trail to Twin Lake after this fall’s restoration began

It’s not that non-native trees and shrubs are “bad”; they functional beautifully in their home environments. But they aren’t able to effectively nourish and protect the creatures that live and evolved here in Oakland Township. Butterflies may sip at non-native garden flowers, but their caterpillars generally can’t eat non-native leaves or fail to reach maturity if they do. Birds may eat non-native berries but they almost universally feed their nestlings nutritious caterpillars which are full of fat and protein. Fewer native plants means fewer caterpillars which means fewer birds, a ripple effect that then moves on through the food web. Restoring native plants to an area means lots of nature gets fed and sheltered.

Meet the Most Common (and Pesky) Invasives at Draper Twin Lake Park

Invasive shrubs lining the trail to Twin Lake before restoration this fall

So let’s get more familiar with the highly invasive shrubs and vines that ended up dominating so many of our natural areas, including Draper Twin Lake Park. For the most part, they started out in nurseries which unwittingly (or occasionally wittingly) sold them to landscapers and homeowners as decorative additions to their gardens. Some of the most infamous and tenacious invasive shrubs in our parks include Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), shrubs that produce plentiful fruits which unfortunately provide scant nutrition for our birds. Generally non-native fruits provide sugars (carbohydrates) for wildlife but don’t have the fats (lipids) that birds, for example, require for migration or winter survival. Research at Michigan State University has shown that birds prefer native fruits when they can get them, but will eat the less healthy non-native fruits if nothing else is available. Once eaten by birds or other animals, invasive trees and shrubs spread far and wide through their droppings.

The fruits of Oriental Bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) are particularly pernicious. The outer yellow skins peel back to reveal red fruits, attracting both birds searching for a late season food source, and humans who unwittingly use them for decorative purposes. Birds enjoy the sugars in their fruit during late fall, but since its seeds can last a long time in the guts of birds, the plant can be spread long distances. Once established, the vine climbs quickly, reaching for light in the treetops. As the vine spirals up the trunk, it girdles and slowly strangles the tree. When the vine reaches the crown, its foliage shades out the tree’s leaves, weakening the tree. Its weight makes the tree’s crown heavy and vulnerable to toppling in high winds. It’s a real femme fatale, this vine with its pretty fruits and its deadly growth pattern.

Many invasives quickly form dense thickets in a field or woods through underground stems (rhizomes) or root suckers. Their density chokes out the sun, rain and space that our native plants require. Below is a photo from Bear Creek Nature Park that demonstrates the density that once surrounded a pine tree, killing its lower branches. And on the right at Draper Twin Lake Park, a young oak had the same problem until the restoration began this fall.

Some invasives, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), produce giant quantities of seeds which can be carried on the wind and once sown, the trees grow incredibly quickly. Growth of 3.5 to 6 feet each year of its first four years is considered normal! It also releases toxins into the soil to prevent or inhibit the growth of plants around it. In the photo on the right below, Ben placed his hand where the second year growth of one of these trees began! Faster growth means that these trees shade out neighbors and mature faster than others, allowing them to spread quickly.

You might be as surprised as I once was to learn that even some of our common and long-beloved bushes can spread invasively. That’s part of what happened at Draper Twin Lake Park. Ben found huge thickets of non-natives like Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from Asia and Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) from southeastern Europe on the western section of Draper; they both probably once surrounded the house when a farm was located here.

The Removal of Invasives Goes Beyond Mowing

Once the forestry mower has done its work, hard work lies ahead. Stumps of invasive shrubs that the mower missed are cut and carefully dabbed with herbicide to prevent re-sprouting. Some, like the persistent Tree-of-Heaven, will require further treatment and periodic mowing to discourage new growth. Oriental Bittersweet can only be removed by cutting the vines and then carefully treating the roots to prevent regrowth. New sprouts will also need to be treated repeatedly for some time, a tedious but necessary process. Some larger trees are treated by a process called “drill and fill” in which holes are drilled around the tree and herbicide is introduced. When the tree dies, it will still remain standing, storing its carbon for years to come and providing shelter for woodpeckers and other cavity nesting animals, like red squirrels or raccoons. The stewardship staff will spread native plant seed to help bring back what was choked out by the invasive trees and shrubs – native grasses first, then wildflower seed in a year or two after the invasive shrub re-sprouts have been controlled. Further down the road, prescribed fires may be used to encourage our fire-adapted native plants.

Winter Wildlife and I Explore the Newly Restored Landscape

On one of my visits to the western section of the park, Ben showed me the remains of a beaver dam and the small pond this industrious builder had created. The dam consisted of a few small trees and some plant material patched together with mud. Though we saw a few pencil-shaped stumps in the area, Ben’s guess is that when the beaver began this project a couple of years ago, it couldn’t find enough small willows or cottonwoods, its preferred building materials, to meet the beaver’s need, so it abandoned the idea. However, the beaver did create a lovely little pond behind the dam. And the little dam slowed the water down enough that Ben was surprised to find much drier footing further south in the marsh while doing a plant survey in 2020!

In the fields east of the trail, a few winter birds kept me company as they sought out frozen insect eggs or larvae in the trees newly liberated from the crush of invasive shrubs.

A small group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browsed between the newly thinned trees in the forest. Deer consume dry grasses, but unfortunately they much prefer acorns and small oak saplings in fall and winter, affecting the quality of our forests. According to a Tufts University website, in winter they also rely on insulation from stored fat and more of the coarse dark hairs in their coats called “guard hairs.” Glands in their skin produce oils that help their coats repel water, an advantage on snowy days.

Deer browsing for grasses, twigs and small trees in the thinned forest after restoration.

One snowy morning, I spent twenty minutes or so tracking a small animal. Its prints lay in a single line, which usually indicates a fox or coyote. Wild canines, unlike domestic dogs, place their hind foot carefully into the track of the front foot on the same side, making a neat row of single, or “direct register” tracks. The tracks that I was following intrigued me because they were much smaller than most that I’d seen. After puzzling a bit, I suddenly noticed that the tracks had no nail prints at the end of the toes. And with that, I remembered that wild canines share direct register tracks with another group of animals – cats! What I’d been tracking was the small, roundish, direct register prints of a house cat! Cats, unlike canines, walk with their toenails withdrawn in order to keep them sharp for hunting – or they may have had them removed by pet owners. I shook my head, laughing at myself for tracking a cat and went back to the trail.

Squirrels and squirrel tracks were everywhere that morning! Their tracks usually appear as a block of four prints like the ones below. I think these belong to the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), because the larger five-toed tracks of their hind feet are slightly in front of the four-toed tracks of their front feet; that’s the pattern left when these little guys take off and land, pushing down with the front feet while swinging the hind feet forward. I also saw a larger Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) high up in the small branches of a tree, probably making a meal of the tiny leaf buds.

Down by the Lake, a Little Avian Hysteria

Twin Lake with perfect ovals, possibly caused by warmer water flowing upward and rotating during a thaw-freeze cycle.

Winter silence had descended when I arrived at the dock on Twin Lake one cloudy afternoon. In the deep quiet, I got intrigued by strange ovals on the lake surface. It was fun to imagine a squadron of flying saucers landing on the surface, but I was curious to do some research when I reached home. From assembling the hints I could find online, I’m guessing that they may be caused by rotating convection currents created by warm water rising and cold water falling during a frost/freeze cycle, inhibiting ice formation. But if you have better information, please let me know in the comments.

Suddenly far across the lake, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) began circling high above the trees. I caught one with my camera as it spiraled lazily. Red-tail hawks are believed to mate for life, though they quickly choose another mate if one of them dies. This pair may be nesting in the area since the Wednesday bird group saw two of them in the trees across the lake a couple of weeks later.

One of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks far above the trees across Draper Twin Lake.

Just as I spotted the hawks in the distance, a screech of alarm calls broke out from a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) nearby. They flashed out of the trees in a large group, flying away to the south. Evidently, the hawks must have gone unnoticed in the forest until they rose into the air to do a little scouting together. Their appearance startled the crows who were too flustered to harass or “mob” them as they often do. My camera managed to catch one in mid-caw after it launched off a limb.

A crow cawing in sudden flight as two red-tailed hawks appear over the treetops.

After the noise subsided, I turned to look at a Muskrat lodge (Ondatra zibethicus) off the side of the dock. Muskrats may have been dozing inside since their metabolism slows way down in the winter. Or it may have left its dry sleeping chamber above the water line, swum down through its underwater entrance and begun cruising slowly along under the ice, searching for a meal. Note that unlike beavers who build their much larger lodges with trees, branches and sticks, muskrats build with mud and cattail stems or other aquatic plant material. This one was also surrounded by graceful stalks carrying the dried pom-poms of Whorled Loosestrife seed heads (Lysimachia quadrifolia). A tidy winter abode, I think.

My Evolving Understanding of “Letting Nature Takes Its Course.”

The path leading back to the parking lot after restoration began

It took me a few years of working in the parks with Ben before I fully understood the beauty and power of restoring our natural areas. I approached restoration suspiciously at first, having grown up with the ethos,”Let nature take its course.” How could altering the landscape through mowing, felling trees and shrubs, and the occasional use of herbicides be good for nature?

Remembering the Landscape of My Childhood

The first step to understanding restoration was noticing what was missing today. One day early on as a Parks volunteer in 2015, I asked Ben what birds might return if we restored the Oak Savannah landscape – grass, trees and widely spaced oaks – that had existed here before European settlement. Among other birds, he mentioned the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Ah! That name instantly brought back memories of the two-note song of that quail whistling from summer fields around my parents’ home on Lake George Road when I was a child. I live very near my family home now, but I haven’t heard a Bobwhite sing for more than 50 years. The native Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) that towered over my head as a little girl was replaced by housing and short, green, non-native lawns in my teen years. As ground feeders and nesters, the Bobwhites needed that tall, stiff grass to protect them and their young from hawks and other predators and they no doubt fed off the seeds that fell from those dry stalks in the autumn. The increasing use of pesticides in farming plus habitat loss have both contributed to an 85% decline in the numbers of the Bobwhite Quail since the 1970’s. I miss them.

Northern Bobwhite Quail by Robin Gwen Agarwal (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Listening to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, at a Michigan Wildflower Conference in 2019, I was reminded of the moths that used to dance in groups around our porch light on summer nights – or splattered against the windshields of my parents’ car. I suddenly realized that I don’t see as many moths clinging to our porch windows or fluttering in the headlights now as I did years ago. The reason, I learned, was that the caterpillars of most moths and butterflies need native plants in order to feed and mature into adults; my yard, like most of my neighbors, was filled with decorative plants, shrubs and trees native to places all over the world – like Norway and Japanese Maples – but fewer of the ones more common in my childhood. Native oaks and other native trees provide sustenance for the caterpillars of many species of butterflies and moths. Here are two examples of what we may be missing: Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Pagoda/Alternate Leaf Dogwoods are the preferred hosts for many insects including the spectacular Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora Cecropia). Oaks are especially generous, hosting the caterpillars of hundreds of species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), including the impressive Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

When I was a child in Oakland Township, seeing a White-tailed Deer was a rare treat. At that time, large expanses of active or abandoned farm land surrounded by woods allowed them to stay out of sight. Today development has crowded deer closer to our homes and gardens and on to our roads. The forest floor, once covered in wildflowers like trillium are more often choked with non-native shrubs or vines that take advantage of the open ground left by herds of deer browsing on the tender sprouts of wildflowers in spring or saplings in winter.

So it turns out that I was wrong. The non-native plants that fill our fields and surround our personal property were not a matter of “letting nature takes its course.” Quite the opposite, in fact. The carpets of invasive plants were the effect of humans unwittingly but actively changing our native habit over the last two hundred years.

The Good News? We Can Work to Restore What Nature Created
The trail nears the lake which now can be seen through the trees

So finally I understood that what humans had done could in some measure be undone. True, we can’t completely recreate nature’s original landscape design on any large scale or in such rich diversity. But the people of Oakland Township have made an ongoing commitment to preserving and restoring natural areas here wherever possible. Thanks to them, Ben and his crew are systematically decreasing the invasive plants in our natural areas and giving the plants that nature provided eons ago a chance to thrive again. Homeowners like us are choosing to integrate native plants and trees into our landscapes and turning turf into meadows and wildflower gardens. If enough of us create native neighborhoods, perhaps I will live to hear the whistle of the Bobwhite once more.

That’s why I, an inveterate tree lover, could celebrate the felling of invasive trees that day at Draper. What I was seeing as the forestry mower cleared away the brush was stewardship – restoring and caring for a productive, diverse ecosystem that nature took thousands of years to perfect. As the old hymn goes, I “…was blind but now I see.”

Looking east over the marsh that divides the west and east sections of Draper Twin Lake Park

Cranberry Lake Park: Spring Music in the Wetlands

In spring, nature generously replenishes the multitude of Cranberry Lake Park’s wetlands. Besides the lake itself, shady woodland ponds and pools glitter through the trees along nearly every trail at Cranberry. All of which makes me happy, because being near water is the surest way to find wildlife and interesting plants.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

I seek out wet places whenever I go visit our parks since so much goes on around wetlands. Right now, ferns unfurl and spring wildflowers emerge on the sunny or shady edges of trails. Birds sing and chatter from within or just outside of the wetlands, as they forage, perform for mates, challenge others for territory or simply celebrate the sun after a cold rainy night. Throughout the park on three spring mornings, glorious music kept me company as nature’s virtuosos joined in a  spring chorus.

An Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) found this insect larva where a wetland meets the eastern meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

After serious downpours, though,  it helps to know the trails well enough to avoid being confronted by a calf-deep small pond! Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township Stewardship Manager, has kindly created a map of my meanderings at Cranberry Lake Park. This route generally can be done with dry or at least only moderately damp feet. So daub on a bit of bug repellent and don some waterproof footwear as we head out to the sights and the special spring sounds of rain-soaked Cranberry Lake Park.

CLP_Update2017_BlogHike

Spring 2020 hike at Cranberry Lake Park. You can also explore this park on our interactive park map at https://bit.ly/3g0GaRs.

Heading North Accompanied by Bird Song

The north trail from the farm site strewn with apple blossom petals

Seeing that the water on the short trail out of the parking lot was ankle-deep and impassible, I headed across the cut grass toward the red-and-white chicken coop that is part of historic Cranberry Lake Farm. I turned onto the trail that looked as if a wedding had just ended, as it was strewn with fallen apple petals. High overhead, the sweet, whistling song of a male Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula) celebrated the blue sky morning with a joyful noise!

A male Baltimore Oriole greeting the morning with his high, flute-like song.

Across the way, a bit further on, I paused to listen to a male Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) repeating his quick “sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song. He was deep in the greenery so I waited and watched. Finally I resorted to playing the warbler’s song on Merlin, Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s very useful bird ID app. I don’t use it often to flush out birds because it can stress them. So I played it only once. And out popped the Yellow Warbler to check out the competition.

A Yellow Warbler male pops out of the greenery.

He hopped about a bit for a minute or two and then went back into the greenery and continued to sing. I was relieved that he seemed to have decided that the bird on the app was no match for him!

Tracking West Across a Meadow

I turned left at the round turkey brooder building and headed back west toward the Shagbark Hickory Lane.  Oops – the trail was flooded here too, but luckily, the maintenance crew had set up a boardwalk along the edge which, though a bit askew, provided relatively dry footing.

Along the east-west trail nearest to the farm, a wooden platform provides dry footing after a night of rain.

As I walked into the meadow, I noticed a large insect bumbling about among the dandelions on the trail. I’m so glad I stopped for a closer look! A Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis) trundled its hefty body from one dandelion to the next. The non-native dandelions provided the nectar that morning, though I’ve seen Clearwings (there are two kinds around here) most often on native Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) when it blooms later in the summer. These moths, which look so much like bumblebees, fly during the day, but if they find a good nectar source, they can forage in the evening as well. So check out bumblebees on your flowers and see if you can spot one of these moths!

A Snowberry Clearwing Moth can easily be mistaken for an oversized bumblebee! 

The Snowberry Clearwing Moth sipping nectar from a dandelion.

Dandelions were also being visited by a green florescent native bee. I’ve learned not to attempt identification of native bees. According to Doug Parsons, director of the MSU Bug House, you really have to be an expert who has both the insect and a magnifying glass in hand to positively identify them.But I do love to look for these small, solitary, native bees!

A native bee making the most of early season dandelions.

Wild bees hadn’t yet discovered the modest wildflowers of Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) when I saw these tiny blossoms down among the tall grasses of the meadow.  I imagine hover flies and bees will show up once a few more flowers emerge. If the plant is fertilized, it will set a tiny fruit which no doubt some bird or animal will get to before I do!

Wild Strawberries in the south meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

A Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) chatted its conversational song in the bushes at the back of the meadow. Catbirds held their loud “conversations” all over the park one morning, combining whistles, squeaks and bits of other birds’ songs. Finally this one emerged into a Wild Cherry tree (Prunus serotina) where I took a quick shot before he sailed back into the shrubbery to sing some more.

A Gray Catbird sang its long song full of trills, chirps, whistles and such from among the blossoms of a Wild Cherry tree in the meadow.

The vigorous breezes of a beautiful spring morning drowned out my recording of this male. But a Catbird I heard last year at Bear Creek Nature Park’s Center Pond will give you a feel for the long, complicated phrasing of its song. On this recording, Green Frogs (Rana clamitans) provide backup percussion from the water below!

By now regular readers know that I’m quite fond of the Eastern Towhee (Dumetella carolinensis) –  probably because its song was one of the first ones I learned to recognize.   A male perched in a small tree invited a nearby female to appreciate his rendition of  “Drink your teaaaaa.” She listened politely nearby. I was surprised to learn from Donald W. Stokes’ A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol.2 that Towhees make their nests on the ground like many sparrows. Once the nest is built, both adults become more secretive. The male stays away until the eggs hatch. At that point, he returns to feed both his mate and the young and continues helping the female with caring for the young from then on. So look for them in spring before they start nesting! [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

A Trip Down Hickory Lane

An old farm lane lined with Shagbark Hickories runs near the western boundary of the park.

A wonderful row of Shagbark Hickories (Carya ovata) line the western edge of the park. I love strolling along this dappled lane. The ground is  mostly firm underfoot and birds dart back and forth across the trail, forage along its edges and sing from the wetlands and fields off either side. Each spring I try to resist taking another photo of the large, almost rococo design of the Shagbark’s leaf buds. I failed to resist again this year.

The elegant design of an opening Shagbark Hickory leaf bud.

Ahead of me, I saw a Gray Catbird shoot across the trail and disappear. But as I got closer, I had the chance to watch it balancing on a twig over a large puddle to forage repeatedly for some kind of insects or larvae in the water. Once it had gathered a number of whatever it was, it jumped in for quick dip, ruffled its feathers and took off again.

A Gray Catbird foraging for insects or insect larvae in a large puddle next to the Hickory Lane.

Wild Geranium blossoms (Geranium maculatum) added dashes of lavender along the shady lane – some still in perfect form, others having served as a meal for the larvae of some hungry insect. A little damage to a blossom or leaf can mean a well-fed caterpillar to nourish a hungry baby bird. So holes here and there on plants are fine with me!

Two other native wildflowers graced the shade of the Hickory Lane. A cold snap had just ended, so the Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) looked a bit beyond its peak bloomBut the buds of Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) had just formed beneath its leaves when I lifted its stem for a peek.

An adult Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus) zipped across the path and froze when it saw me. I snapped my photo of the crouching little critter and waited. It dashed off and disappeared down a hole.

An adult chipmunk who’d taken its  young out on a foraging expedition.

Just as I lowered my camera, three baby chipmunks came tumbling onto the path, jostling each other as they raced after their parent and dove down the same hole. I wish I’d been fast enough to get you a photo of the babies, but alas, no. But I’ll include below one of my favorite baby chipmunk photos taken at home a few years ago.

A baby chipmunk about the size of the three I saw dash into a hole on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

Several metallic green Six-spotted Tiger Beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) darted down onto the path under the hickories. They can commonly be found in patches of sunlight at the edge of wooded areas. Despite their ferocious name and appearance, they don’t bite humans unless we handle them, and even then it’s an unnoticeably mild pinch, according to Wikipedia. Small caterpillars, ants and spiders, though, find them ferocious predators!

The Six-spotted Tiger Beetle is iridescent green with six white spots around the bottom edge of its abdomen.

On the Trail to the Lake Accompanied By Birdsong and an Amphibian Chorus

In the center of the park, several trails converge in a small meadow.  The one that heads out from the Hickory Lane and east to the lake was my choice. In the short video below taken on a glorious May morning, I spun around slowly where the trails converge, trying to record the bright blue sky, the fresh greenery and the birdsong soundtrack that was making me smile.

The background music was partially provided by a robust male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) singing his lyrical song that is similar to the Robin, but a bit sweeter. I wondered if he was establishing territory because I’d seen an older male singing nearby a few days before. I’m betting that the younger male’s elegant pink ascot and vocal ability won him the territory and a mate – unless experience counts with Grosbeak females. The older male looked like he’d seen a few seasons, but he was a vigorous singer as well!  [Correction!  The bird on the right is actually a male juvenile who has not yet finished molting into fully adult male plumage!  The telling field mark is the white eyeline and white feathers at the neck.   And the one the left is in his second or older year!   Thanks to Ruth Glass, local birding authority, who set me straight on this!   I’m learning all the time from readers of the blog!]

Near a wetland on the north side of the lake trail, I heard a quick song that I didn’t recognize. Ah! I spotted a small, bright yellow bird with a black mask and a fancy black necklace – the Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia). I actually heard two of these warblers on the way to the lake, but only one stopped hopping from limb to limb long enough to show me how beautiful he was. He’ll nest farther north in dense forests of spruce or hemlock.

The Magnolia Warbler actually nests in conifers and spends winters in the American south.

Deep within the shrubbery of every  moist area along this trail, I could hear the “witchedy witchedy” call of the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), but I have yet to see one this spring! I waited, watched, but no luck. I’m sure I’ll catch sight of one before long since Yellowthroats raise their young here. But for now here’s an earlier photo of another lovely masked bandit. I think he throws his head back farther than any other bird that I’ve seen – and his whole body vibrates with the song!

A Common Yellowthroat singing “witchedy, witchedy, witchedy” from a shrub near a wetland.

Warblers are challenging subjects for us amateur photographers. They’re tiny, they rarely stop to pose and they arrive when the trees are leafing out! So I was happy to catch a quick photo of a Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) as he busily spiraled around a trunk near the lake. It’s easy to mistake this little bird for a White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) or even a Brown Creeper (Certhia americana) as they circumnavigate trees. Theoretically, this little warbler breeds here, but I’ve only managed to spot one during spring migrations.

A Black-and-white Warbler spirals around a tree searching for insects with its slightly curved beak.

As I approached the lake, I heard an amazing chorus of amphibians singing.  It wasn’t any frog song that I recognized,  so I was puzzled. Eventually, a herpetology authority, David Mifsud of the Michigan Herp Atlas, helped me out. I hadn’t recognized the mating calls of the American Toad (Anaxyrus americanus)!

American toads were chorusing their mating song in Cranberry Lake.

I come across single toads in the park periodically, as I did with the Toad above last year at Bear Creek Nature Park. But I’d never before been in the audience as they sing for the females! The water out at the edge of the lake was rippling with their activity. Straining for a sighting, all I could see was a periodic flash of what appeared to be white skin thrust out of the water. I still don’t know if I was seeing toads mating or a fish catching a mouthful of courting toad!

The song was mesmerizing as one toad started the swelling sound, followed by others, until the trills died down. And then after a brief pause,  another round began. It reminded me of the buzz of cicadas on a summer day. Listen!

In the shade at the edge of the lake,  some Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) emerged from the moist earth and were unfolding from their parchment-like covers.  Ferns seem almost other-worldly to me, since,  like mosses, they are ancient. Fossil forms of early ferns appeared on earth almost 400 million years ago, long before dinosaurs roamed the earth about 200 million years later! Look at the brown cauls that cover the Ostrich Fern before it opens and then its unfurling green stem with a deep U-shaped groove, a hallmark of this native fern.

Ostrich Ferns unwrap from their brown coverings as they emerge.

You can see why they are also called “Fiddlehead Ferns,” can’t you? And here were a few a bit farther along in their growth. When the sun shines on their unfurling fronds, they just glow!

One Last Encouraging Song to Carry Home

A wet, somewhat battered Northern Cardinal singing with abandon

Since I knew the alternate trails would be too wet to traverse, I re-traced my steps back up the trail, down the Hickory Lane and out to the road. When I entered the parking lot, I was greeted by the cheerful whistle and “cheerups” of a Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) who’d seen better days. After some rainy, cold nights and perhaps an itchy case of mites, he seemed to be having the avian equivalent of a tough day. Despite that, his song was as upbeat and vigorous as ever. I listen entranced and never thought to record him, but luckily I had recorded another male singing the Cardinal’s ebullient spring song back in April.

I stood quietly and just listened to him for a few minutes before I left. And in these difficult days when grief, fear, and anger move in waves across our world, a battered bird still sang. It felt like a model I should try to follow. No matter what life throws at you, that scarlet messenger seemed to say, sing on! I mean to try. I hope you do, too.

Restoration Never Stops: Winter Planting and “Weeding” in Our Natural Areas

The Center Pond and the sloping trail to the west after December mowing by the stewardship crew.

Most home gardeners take a break during the winter. The gardens have been prepared for winter; no weeding or seeding is planned until spring. Winter is a time to dream about next year’s garden.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

But late fall and winter are busy times for our Parks and Recreation stewardship crew. Many native seeds need cold winter temperatures in order to germinate. According to the useful website Ecolandscaping.org, thawing and freezing loosen the outer coating of some native seeds, signaling them to germinate as the soil warms. The Milkweeds (genus Asclepias) and Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa) would be examples of native seeds that require the winter’s cold before germinating. [Use pause button to see captions below, if necessary.]

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Other seeds may need multiple seasons in the soil before they germinate – like Round-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) or Common Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

And of course, given the diversity of native plants, some seeds sprout and grow in one growing season like Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) or New England Asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).

Native Seeds Can Be Planted Almost Year ‘Round

Because native plants are adapted to our climate, very early spring, late fall and even snowy winter days can all be times for planting in our parks and natural areas. In November of 2015, the northern prairie at Draper Twin Lake Park was seeded. In this case, the planting area was huge and special equipment was required to get the native seed distributed evenly across the site. So Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, used a native plant contractor. By 2018, a lush prairie began to bloom at Draper Twin Lake Park.

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In the winter of 2018, Ben and his stewardship specialist did a very orderly planting of moisture-loving seeds in the emerging wetlands at Charles Ilsley Park.  Last winter when I reported on interesting tracks at Charles Ilsley Park, I  mentioned a neat grid of “tracks” on the snowy surface of one of the wetlands.

Of course, they were the footprints left by Ben and Alyssa as they seeded the spring-fed pond with a native wetland mix.  (The birders had trekked across the pond earlier in the morning.) Ben had planted Water Plantain (Alisma triviale), some sedges (grass-like plants), and bright purple Monkey-Flower (Mimulus ringens) along with other wetland species.

Many of the plants they seeded aren’t apparent yet.  But nature took temporary advantage of the spot. Up out of the wetland sprouted a native annual Witchgrass (Panicum capillare). We’ll have to wait for Ben’s plants to grow larger – but meanwhile, the seed bank has produced a grass that feeds the caterpillars of several Skipper butterflies  and produces late fall seeds for lots of birds, including cardinals, woodcocks, bobolinks, bobwhite quail and many others.

Native Witchgrass emerged from the seed bank in the prairie wetlands at Ilsley.

Sometimes, Ben hand sows the native seed that his crew and volunteers harvest each year from various parks. Here on a cool April morning of 2018, shortly after a prescribed burn, Ben is casting seed at Bear Creek Nature Park by hand in a tradition that dates back centuries. It’s a simple way to plant smaller amounts of gathered seed in certain areas that can benefit from more native plants.

Dr. Ben Vanderweide 2018 seeding smaller areas at Bear Creek in 2018 with native seed gathered by his crew and volunteers.

A Kind of “Weeding” Happens Year ‘Round as Well

Just as in a garden, removing or thinning unwanted plants is an endless stewardship task in natural areas. Invasive shrubs that crowd or shade out our native species can literally take over fields. To give native plants a chance to establish themselves, the non-natives must be removed repeatedly for several years in a row. Vines like Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) must be cut and treated to keep them from strangling trees by spiraling around their trunks – or to prevent them from climbing across the crowns of trees, making them so top-heavy that they fall in wind storms. Non-native wildflowers and grasses can be invasive too, while providing little food and shelter for wildlife. Late autumn and winter can be ideal times to do those jobs, when plants are pulling down nutrients into their roots.

In the fall of 2018, Ben arranged for a forestry mower to remove a huge area of aggressively invasive shrubs that had blanketed the fields north of the pond for decades.  Last year in early spring, with snow still on the ground, he and his stewardship assistant spent a few days carefully seeding this vast area with native seed since the area was too full of mowed shrub material to be planted by machine.

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A month ago on a dry winter day,  he went over the area again with a bushhog since many of the shrubs tried to make a comeback during the summer before they were spot treated in August. It was great to see these areas cleared again so that the architecture of Bear Creek’s natural rolling landscape could be fully appreciated once more!

The rolling landscape of the north section of Bear Creek Park after Ben bush-hogged again this December.

In 2016, I wrote a history blog about how Bear Creek Nature Park looked when it was a farm during the Great Depression.  In the library’s local history room is a book entitled Incredible Yesterdays (Ravenswood Press, 1977) by local author George Comps who lived on the property in the 1930’s. At one point, he described a moonlit night when he and his sister walked to the Center Pond. While George stood on the south side, his sister went around to her favorite “Big Rock” on the north side and they could see each other across the pond in the moonlight. When I wrote the 2016 blog, I bemoaned the fact that what I believe was that “Big Rock” was buried in invasive shrubs that also surrounded the pond, blocking the view to the other side. But with Ben’s last mowing of the land, the Comps’ favorite rock is once again visible and the view across the pond that they saw some 75 years ago is possible again. Now that’s both land and history preservation!

Last week, a different kind of “weeding” was happening at the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail. In last October’s blog, I described the very special conditions of this natural area that blooms with many unusual wildflowers throughout the growing season.

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Though adapted to fire and  both wet and dry conditions, these rare-but-sturdy flowers do need lots of sunshine. Over the years, trees have grown up around the edge of the Wet Prairie, shading out some of the sunlight these lovely plants require. So this January,  Ben and his stewardship specialist Grant, have been felling some trees to bring more sunlight to this special spot on the Paint Creek Trail. They’re also working to eliminate a large, dense thicket of Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus), like the ones they removed last year also at Bear Creek Nature Park’s marsh. An aggressively invasive bush, glossy buckthorn crowds out native plants and its admittedly attractive berries are also not as nutritious for wildlife as those of our native shrubs and plants.

Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work

February of 2018 at the Eastern Prairie at Charles Ilsley Park – an austere beauty seen through a scrim of Indian Grass.

The eastern prairie at Charles Ilsley Park is one of my favorites – a huge rolling expanse embraced by forest. In February last year, its austere palette of browns and dark grays suited the inward quietness of a winter day. This park has required years of “weeding” – removal of non-native shrubs, elimination of stands of non-native plants and coming this spring, another prescribed burn, if the weather allows. Like many of you, I imagine, I don’t relish the sound of chain saws against wood, the stoop work of treating stumps to prevent the return of invasive shrubs, the roar of mowers as they chew  through a thicket of invasive shrubs.

July at Charles Ilsley’s Eastern Prairie

But all of that is just preparing the way for native plants and their seeds to flourish. And the reward is great  – a richly diverse native habitat where bees and butterflies sip at blossoms, where birds build nests in the deep grass or along the tree line, where creatures and their young are fed by plants that they’ve thrived on for thousands of years. Jane Giblin, of the Michigan Wildflower Association, recently quoted someone who said we should “garden as if life depended on it,” because, of course it does! And that’s also the goal of our township’s stewardship program – to restore our parks and natural areas by  “weeding out” plants that don’t provide rich, healthy habitat while protecting, nourishing and restoring the plants that feed and house the creatures that called this land home eons before we did.

Case of the Missing Species: Bear Creek’s Fields and Forests from 1976 to Today

Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide recently surprised me with an intriguing document – a thorough natural history survey of what became Bear Creek Nature Park compiled in 1976 by a 14 year-old boy! Clearly, this boy was a remarkable naturalist. It turns out that’s not terribly surprising, since he is Mark Tomboulian, the son of former long-serving Parks commissioner, Alice Tomboulian, a remarkable naturalist in her own right. In 1976, the absentee landowner, Mr. Deveraux, rented out areas of his land to local farmers. The Tomboulians lived right across the road and Mr. Deveraux granted permission for exploration by the young naturalist and his family. The photo above left shows Alice and her children conducting nature study at the Deveraux property in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Mark is the center child. The right photo from 2016 shows two volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in what is now Bear Creek Nature Park. Bear Creek is still a great place to learn and explore!

Blog by Cam Mannino

As I browsed Mark’s hand-drawn maps and long lists of wildlife, I noticed birds and especially plants that no longer live in Bear Creek Nature Park, or are rarely seen. Since restoring our natural heritage is at the heart of the Parks Commission’s stewardship work, I thought I’d share with you what Mark saw in 1976 that is either missing or at best, more rare in Bear Creek Park today.

[Note:  Because the birds and plants in this blog are rare or missing in Bear Creek today,  I have no photos of them. So I’m using many photos by generous photographers at iNaturalist.org who permit others to share their work. Each photo is credited in the captions or text. My thanks to all these fine photographers.]

What Changed in Bear Creek’s Meadows?

1969 – Children on a field trip on the eastern path at Bear Creek, an agricultural field at the time.

The photo above was taken in 1969 as a school group went down through an agricultural field on what became the Eastern Path at Bear Creek. Mark must have traversed such a path in his childhood, too.  Mark’s maps show small areas of  “fallow fields” throughout the park where the native and non-native plants we see today survived in isolated patches.

2017 – Boneset and Joe Pye flourish along the same eastern path, which now traverses a meadow which hosts both native and non-native wildflowers.

Over the years since the land was purchased by the Parks and Recreation Commission, large areas of the park have steadily been restored. Controlled burns and protection from development have allowed native grasses and wildflowers to spread and flourish. The photo above of native Joe Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) just off of the edge of the eastern path last summer is evidence that beautiful, natural meadows are thriving at Bear Creek.

It will take time to bring back the meadow and marsh birds that Mark was able to see during his childhood. When he was a little boy, the Northern Bob-white Quail (Colinus virginianus) whistled its rising two-note call, “Bob-white!” in the background of every summer day as small flocks foraged across the fields. Their numbers have declined by “roughly 85% between 1966 and 2014,” according to Wikipedia, due largely to habitat loss. Luckily, Bob-whites persist in states to the south and west in habitat where the land is disturbed by fire. These birds do well in newly grown grass that produces the seeds, cover and nesting materials they prefer. So if we’re lucky and continue restoration, perhaps we will hear their calls again on warm, sunny afternoons.

Northern Bob-white, a common bird at Bear Creek in 1976, is missing these days. (Photo by Greg Lasley CC BY-NC)

During the spring and summer 40 years ago, male Eastern Meadowlarks perched and sang on fenceposts, logs or treetops in Bear Creek’s meadows. Their descending, flute-like call with its many variations, complemented the rising call of the Bob-white. Meadowlarks usually have two, sometimes three mates at a time, so they have lots of singing to do! Today meadowlarks are quite scarce in our parks, but since they need at least 6 acres of grassland for each territory, perhaps the continued meadow restoration  will provide them with more nesting opportunities.

Eastern Meadowlark singing by Greg Lasly (CC BY-NC)

The glamorous Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), a popular non-native gamebird, used to stride through the fields and woods at Bear Creek Nature Park. These pheasants can rise almost vertically from the grass at a speed of up to 40 miles per hour! Their cackling call was a common occurrence in 1976, but is seldom heard in our parks these days. Female pheasants prefer to scrape out their shallow nests in tall grass where overhead predators can’t get at them. So as our native grasses take hold and fill the fields, these colorful birds may spring up again from Bear Creek’s meadows .

Ring-necked Pheasant by Dale Hameister CC BY-NC (1)

Ring-necked Pheasant, photo by Dale Hameister (CC BY-NC).

Mark Tomboulian saw four nests of the Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) in the Bear Creek marsh in the spring of 1976. I’ve only seen a solitary bird that cruised the Center Pond more than 10 years ago. The Gallinule likes complex marshes and wetlands where it can walk on vegetation with its very long toes or dabble underwater like the Mallards. The Parks Commission efforts to return the marsh to its original habitat may mean that Gallinules raise their young there again in the future.

Common Gallinule by kakalotli (CC-BY-NC) (1)

Common Gallinule with its colorful beak and legs. Photo by kaklotli (CC BY-NC)

What Changed in Bear Creek’s Oak-Hickory Forest?

1979- Trillium and May Apple carpet the forest floor across Gunn Road from Bear Creek

In his book, Incredible Yesterdays, George Comps, who lived on the land that is now Bear Creek Park in the 1940’s, reported,  “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium).” The photo above , taken in 1979 by the Tamboulians, shows  Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) carpeting the forest floor 500 feet north of Bear Creek, across the road.

2012 – Bear Creek’s forest floor today with large bare areas.

The photo above  shows the largely bare forest floor of Bear Creek in May of 2012. Many forest wildflowers that Mark saw on the forest floor simply are no longer there.  Trilliums, for example, exist only in a few small patches  and in some years they don’t show up at all. What happened?

I’m afraid that a large part of the answer is deer. When Mark Tomboulian compiled his survey in 1976, deer were a rare and exciting sight in Oakland Township. But because of development and less deer hunting in the township, the deer population exploded. In the spring, hungry deer devour trillium and many other forest wildflowers before they can bloom. During the winter, they feed on the tiny, slow-growing oak saplings, a behavior that threatens the very future of our oak-hickory forest.  

Mark’s survey mentions a couple of woodland birds that we don’t see anymore in the oak-hickory forest. The Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) is known for attracting its mate by drumming the air with its cupped wings. The drumming sound is often compared to a sputtering motor, and can carry up to 1/4 mile!  (Turn up your volume and check out “male drumming” at this link.)  According to Cornell Ornithology Lab, in the far north part of its range, this interesting bird dives into deep snow to roost for the night! Quite interesting bird behavior!

The Ruffed Grouse needs young trees for cover and forage. As deer feed on young saplings, our aging forest is less appealing to them. Photo by Susan Elliott (CC BY NC)

Ruffed Grouse need young forests for both cover and food, so the aging of Bear Creek’s forest, exacerbated by the lack of young oaks and other saplings caused by deer browsing, works against the reappearance of Ruffed Grouse at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Alice Tomboulian recently told me that Red-headed Woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) used to nest on their property across from Bear Creek Nature Park, and Mark recorded seeing them on the park property in 1976. Alas, they are rarely seen at the park these days, though they are occasionally seen other places in Oakland County. These striking woodpeckers have developed some specialized skills. They can pluck insects out of the air in flight and they store nuts, seeds and the occasional grasshopper in cracks of bark for later use. Red-headed woodpeckers were plentiful in the 19th century; Audubon reported  100 shot from a cherry tree in 1840! But now their numbers are in decline and they are listed as “near threatened.” Scientific studies are needed to discover the cause and measures to increase their numbers. We can only hope that they return to Bear Creek which provides the snags (standing dead trees) they need for nesting and plenty of the acorns that they love to eat.

The Red-headed Woodpecker no longer nests in the forests of Bear Creek. Photo by Greg Lasley (CC BY NC)

What’s changed most in the forests of Bear Creek since 1976, though, is that many wildflowers are simply missing. Imagine how colorful and interesting the floor of the oak-hickory forest would be if these forest flowers that Mark recorded could return to the uplands and wetlands under the forest canopy! (Click on pause button for captions.)

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The Challenge of Restoring Our Natural Heritage

Western slope from the south

Western meadow in early September 2015

The meadows and marsh in Bear Creek are already well on their way to reclaiming their original diversity of native plants. Controlled burns and some invasive shrub control have already allowed many prairie and wetland plants to become more abundant. Ben and his volunteers monitor the health of the vernal pools each summer, keeping an eye on the amphibian and reptile communities. At some point, the invasive shrubs that crowd the big loop north of the Center Pond will need to be removed so that the original open meadow there can be restored. And yearly removal of invasive plants like Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) will need to continue throughout the park. But already we are enjoying the benefit of years of stewardship in these areas.

Oak-hickory forest in October

Restoring the ground cover and bird diversity in the oak-hickory forest presents a greater challenge. As long as large numbers of deer consume the wildflowers and small trees on the forest floor, the woods will age without renewal. Solutions aren’t obvious. Planting missing wildflowers or small trees is pointless if the deer population stays at its current level. Fertility control for deer is labor intensive, costly, requires continual repetition, and according to some biologists, has yet to be conclusively proven effective except in enclosures or on islands. (See the second footnote below for “pro” and “con” opinions.) Fences would have to be very high,  prevent the movement of other animals and alter a park’s natural appearance, while being costly to install and maintain over such large areas. And culling and/or hunting is resisted by many people, despite negative effects of high deer density on both human well-being and deer population health. Unless effective solutions are found and proven, it seems we will eventually have to choose. We can have either an uncontrolled deer population with all of its risks, or a lower density, balanced herd that allows us to enjoy both beautiful deer and striking woodland vistas with carpets of wildflowers. Tough decisions!

Meanwhile, we continue our stewardship work, doing the best we can to steadily restore the beauty and diversity that we’ve inherited from the past, passing it forward to future generations.

1.Footnote:   My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Managr Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner; inaturalist.org;Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net.
2.For pros and cons of controlling deer fertility, I found these three websites useful. The first is a presentation made to the Ann Arbor government by the Humane Society supporting the idea.

Click to access HumaneSocietyUSCouncilPresentation07132015.pdf

The second is the opposing view from a Professor CW Dick, a U-M biologist and director of the U-M Herbarium, though he stresses that in this article, he does necessarily represent the U-M's views on the subject, but his own.
The pseudoscience of non-lethal deer management
The third is from Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, a group that formed to explore solutions for overabundant deer in Washtenaw County. https://www.wc4eb.org/what/herd-reduction/sterilization/