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.
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.]
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.]
Hepatica seeds require more than one season in the soil before blooming.
A Common Trillium also germinates after multiple seasons in the soil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Ben and Grant fell a few trees that shade out rare plants on the Wet Prairie.
Glossy Buckthorn is a very aggressive invasive shrub that can take over large areas if left “unweeded!”
A pile of invasive Buckthorn near the Bear Creek marsh which will eventually be burned.
Big Rewards for Year ‘Round Work
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.
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.
The Tomboulian family explores the area that is now Bear Creek Nature Park in the late 1960’s. (Photo from the Pontiac Press, now the Oakland Press)
Volunteers Catherine Hu and Antonio Xeira monitor a vernal pool in the northern forest at Bear Creek Nature Park in 2016.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
What Changed in Bear Creek’s Oak-Hickory Forest?
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.
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!
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 (Melanerpeserythrocephalus) 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.
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.)
The Challenge of Restoring Our Natural Heritage
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.
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.
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 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/
The farm house at what is now Bear Creek Nature Park as it appeared in 1939.
Long before 107 acre Bear Creek Nature Park had official trails or a play area or decks at the marsh, it was a farm with chickens, ducks, cows, orchards and a garden. The Comps family rented the house on that farm from 1939 until they moved to their own home on Silver Bell Road in 1959. George Comps, a boy when the family moved there, wrote a long book called Incredible Yesterdays (published by Ravenswood Press, 1997) about his years on that piece of land. The book is available at the Rochester Hills Library in their local history room, the Oakland Township Historical Society and the Rochester Hills Historical Museum. All the quotes and black-and-white photos below are from Mr. Comps’ book, whose long-time friend and copyright heir Janet Potton gave me permission to use photos and quotes.
What an intriguing look Incredible Yesterdays provides of Oakland Township’s oldest publicly protected park as it existed 75 years ago! Bear Creek’s land was a source of sustenance, heat, income, play, beauty and peace for the Comps family during difficult times. So join me for a short visit to Bear Creek as it looked during the Great Depression and through the Second World War (current map of Bear Creek here). It was a very different world, but oddly familiar.
What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Warmth and Food!
In 1939, during the Great Depression, the elder Mr. Comps lost his job and the family moved from Rochester to the home you see in the photo at the top of today’s blog. The Great Depression made life challenging for the Comps family. Unlike their house in town, this house had no electricity, no running water and no central heat at that point! But the owner, Mr. Devereaux, agreed to let them stay rent free for a year if they fixed the place up. So the maple syrup buckets on the trees in the photo no doubt provided a sweet treat much appreciated by the family!
The house was heated with a wood-burning cook stove in the kitchen and another in the dining room. “We burned wood that we cut back in the woods. When we first started cutting it was fun because it was something different, but later it got to be a real chore, hard work … Most of the wood we cut was oak and it was so hard it dulled the saw in a hurry.”
The many trees on the farm provided food as well as heat. And many of those tree species survive on the farm today. “Being we had an abundance of nut trees and bushes on the farm, we kids decided to gather as many as we could. There were hickory, walnut and butternut trees and many hazel nut bushes. We gathered nuts every year and spent a lot of time shucking them so we could dry them and have nuts to crack and eat in the winter.”
Sweets are always in big demand for a family so Dad and the boys went one winter night to chop down a huge oak to get at the bees’ nest inside. “When we got to the tree, there weren’t any bees to be found on the outside. Dad rapped the tree a few times and some did crawl out but it was too cold for them to fly … He said we’d have to cut the tree down to get to the honey. We could use the wood for heat. This tree was a huge oak about six feet in diameter at the base and extremely tall … Dad carefully took out the combs of honey and put them into the washtub we had brought along for just that purpose.”
Two Italian men came to the house shortly after the family moved in asking for permission to hunt for mushrooms. Permission granted, “They did come, several days in a row, and they always had a big basket of mushrooms.” Mrs. Comps’ didn’t charge the gentlemen for their mushrooms and when they offered her some for the family, she graciously accepted them, but then decided she wasn’t quite sure they were edible and threw them away – a wise thing to do if you don’t know much about mushrooms.
Hunters also came to hunt pheasants because at that time open fields and remnants stands of native grasses, like the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) in the photo below, would have provided lots of ideal cover for them.
And of course the family had a garden as well. So the land that later became Bear Creek served the family well in terms of warmth and nourishment.
What Bear Creek Provided in the 1940s: Beauty!
Despite the hardships of the Depression, the Comps family made time for simple pleasures. When the skies were darker at night in Oakland Township than they are now, the family enjoyed the startling beauty of the Northern Lights. “It was an astounding sight when the sky would light up with all the colors from all around. The streaks of light would shoot up so strong and even from the south and make it look like you were standing under an umbrella of light. Directly overhead the shafts of light would meet but wouldn’t come together, creating a hole in the display … Just awe inspiring.” The skies in Bear Creek are still beautiful, but brighter night skies from nearby development makes seeing the northern lights a rare occurrence these days.
Mr. Comps remembered the steep hill sloping down to Gunn Road in the northern part of the Oak-Hickory forest. There he and his sister came across “hundreds” of garter snakes “curled up,” basking in the spring sunlight and named it “Snake Hill.” He said, “In the spring, the ground would be covered with wood lilies (trillium)” and the children picked some on Snake Hill to add to their Mother’s Day gift bouquet. Alas, deer eat trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) and other native woodland plants – and now trillium are found only in a few spots in the park. And in 20 years, I’ve never seen that many garter snakes! On a high hill on the east of the farm, probably where houses stand today, George found “wild columbine on a big hill” and transplanted some to his mother’s garden. (Hover cursor over photos for captions. Click on photos to enlarge.)
What Nature Provided in the 1940s: Pocket Money
Lots of animals that we’ve come to appreciate now were just considered “varmints” by farmers when the Comps children lived on the farm. Ridding the neighborhood of these “pests” was a way to earn a bit of pocket money. Crows were disliked by farmers because as Mr. Comps put it, they “would follow behind the farmer’s corn planter and dig up the kernels, eating them as fast as he planted them.” So in those days, Oakland Township paid a bounty that could be collected at the little store in Goodison. “They paid a dime for a rat tail, a dime for baby rats, a dime for a crow’s head and a quarter for a pair of groundhog ears.”
Muskrats pelts had value too. George’s older brother, Bud, trapped muskrats in the pond and the swamps. At first, he didn’t have the knack. But “After talking to the Old Timers at the Goodison store, he gained valuable information about where to put the traps and how to secure them … On his second trip to gather his loot he did very well.” Skinning and preparing the pelts for drying was “more than he bargained for” but he did it for two winters and “gave the money to mom to help alleviate the strain on the budget.” So nature provided a little assistance in a hard time for many families – but I’m glad now these creatures can live peacefully in their native homes.
What Nature Provided in the 1940s: Fun! Excitement!
Some of the fun in those days was a bit tough on nature. George Comps remembered “… frog hunting late at night and using barrel staves for hitting the frogs.”
But those barrel staves also made skis for sailing down the western slope on a snowy day. “The big hill was too steep to cultivate and the grass was short from the cattle grazing, thus making it a good place to go skiing and with deep snow, it could be excellent.” The western slope also provided a great place for constructing snowmen. “… this was the spot we started the snowball and by the time we got to the bottom the ball was so big we couldn’t move it … It kept on rolling, getting larger as it went down hill.” The children sensibly started the second snowball only halfway down the hill to make the snowman’s head! Nowadays I see evidence of kids sledding on that hill and still see the occasional remains of much smaller snowmen.
Kids weren’t quite as squeamish about nature adventures in the 1940s. One day the children went swimming in the Center Pond (which they called “Our Little Lake”) and came out with leeches on their legs (turtles show up with them these days!). After that they just brought a salt shaker with them because salting the “bloodsuckers” made them fall off! They actually built an earthen dam to make the pond a bit deeper. It became their place “to go ice skating in the winter and in summer we played on a homemade raft.”
When summer dried Bear Creek marsh (which they called Bear/Bare Swamp), “we could walk all over the swamp. The grass was so tall we couldn’t see out.” They came across various snakes, “mostly blue racers. We were never afraid of them because they were so fast and afraid of humans so they always went slithering on ahead of us.” The marsh no longer dries completely in the summer but the grasses and reed do get tall!
They’d “go to the stone pile by the swamp [Bear Creek Marsh] and find a soft rock that we used for chalk…we’d take it to the house and break it up so we could handle it.”
Nearer to the house, was “Whistle Swamp” so named because “… Dad took us there and showed us how to make whistles from the willow branches. This could be done only in the early spring when the bark…was loose and we could slip it off very easily.” “Whistle Swamp” seems to be the wetland west of the Walnut Lane, about halfway down.
Grass fires – which children find very exciting and terrify adults – have always been a part of Oakland Township’s “Oak Savanna” landscape – some natural, some used by Native Americans to clear and fertilize land. Later, after European settlers arrived and began to develop the area, the Comps family experienced fires in the prairies along that railroad, sparked by trains that passed through Goodison. “Spring was always a time when there were lots of grass fires, especially along the railroad tracks in the valley.”
Current Parks Commissioner Barkham also remembers seeing smoke repeatedly during the summers when she was a girl years later, as sparks from the trains made tall grass along the tracks catch fire. And imagine, no township fire department, just locals with brooms and shovels! That’s one reason we still have so many beautiful native plants growing along the Paint Creek Trail now! Many of our native plant communities depend on fire, whereas some invasive plants do not. The Parks and Recreation Commission now depends on safe, controlled prescribed burns instead of wildfires to hold onto our natural heritage, the amazing diversity of native plant and animals in Oakland Township.
What Nature Provided in 1940s : The Under-appreciated “Swamp”
In the 1940s wetlands were often seen as a problem and drained. Now we know they are crucial and beneficial for erosion control, fisheries, wildlife habitat, flood control, ground water filtering, native and rare species habitat and much more. The Comps affectionately named lots of “swamps” on the farm. True swamps are forested wetlands with standing water at least part of the year, while wet meadow and marsh more accurately describe other wetlands that Mr. Comps explored at Bear Creek. I can’t be sure I’ve located all these correctly, but what follows are a few of George Comps’ “swamps” today.
West of the house was the hay barn, where the cows that grazed the western slope presumably were kept. That area now is the playground field near Snell Road; the road is much wider now than it was in the 1940s. Behind the barn in the center photo below you can see the tops of two giant oaks that are still there. Those giants stand over the marsh that the Comps’ children called “the barn swamp.” Mr. Comps mentions that Michigan Holly, a native bush, grew in the middle of that area, so I’ll look for it in the spring!
“On the east side of the swamp…were two big oak trees. They grew about half way down the bank and their branches hung just a few feet above the ground at the top of the hill. We used to hang on the branches and bounce up and down.” Seventy-five more years have taken a toll as you’ll see at left below. I’m guessing that what Mr. Comps refers to as “the lane” was somewhere near the path that starts north of the playground and goes all the way to Center Pond. Our Playground Pond on the right is likely what he refers to as the “Lane Swamp.”
“Across from it was The Duck Swamp where all Mike’s ducks would go when they wanted to take to water.” Since this one’s so close to the house location, I’m thinking that his younger brother’s domestic ducks took off to the wetland just west of the Snell path into the park where Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) were singing lustily this week.
Or perhaps he meant the wetland, just north of there, where today woodpeckers are constantly drilling in the trees. Not much open water for ducks now, though. It’s filled in with native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).
One thing we do know is that the “Walnut Lane” I refer to was “the lane” when the Comps children played on the farm. Mr. Comps describes going out on a moonlight walk with his sister when they were young. “We started out and went down the lane because it was easier walking. When we got to the lake, we heard an owl hoot and it sounded very close. At the end of the lane was a big huge oak tree and we stopped and listened. It hooted again and we spotted it sitting on the edge of a low branch.”
The “Little Lake,” our Center Pond now, shows how different the landscape looked when Bear Creek was farmed 75 years ago. Here’s another view of “The Little Lake” in 1940 and a closer shot of it today. Now the pond is surrounded by trees and thickets of dense bushes, some native ones and many invasive shrubs. The cultivated fields, once grazed by cattle or mowed for hay, are now full of wildflowers, again some native, many non-native, and some invasive.
When the Comps children took the moonlit walk to the Little Lake, George Comps waited on the south side of the lake while his sister found her favorite place on “the Big Rock” on the north side of the pond. Today, that rock, I’m quite sure, is still here, a short distance up the northern loop and surrounded by invasive bushes. George’s sister sat there to watch the water. Today, it can’t be sat upon and the view is obscured by woody shrubs. Eventually, stewardship will bring back some of openness that the Comps children enjoyed, though rather than simply grazed fields, we hope for widely spaced trees and native wildflowers with their faces to the sun.
What Bear Creek Provides Today: Peaceful Beauty
We, of course, don’t rely on Bear Creek Nature Park in the same way the Comps family had to, for food, warmth and pocket money. But it still provides its bounty for us by filtering and slowing stormwater, housing bees and other native pollinators to tend our crops, providing us with a healthy respite from our busy lives and many other ways. We leave the flowers and nuts to seed again and the bees, muskrats, crows and ground hogs live undisturbed within its boundaries. But they and all of the nature at Bear Creek still share the same beauty and peace that the Comps family treasured 75 years ago. “Mom liked to go wandering down to the woods. She was a decidedly observant person and never missed a thing when it came to nature. This was her way to relax and get away from the trials and tribulations of the day to day problems…” All of us who enjoy Bear Creek benefit in just the same way today.
My thanks to Mr. Comps for writing down such a lively and frank account of life on a plot of land much beloved by our citizens – and to his long-time friend, Janet Potton, who gave me permission to use photos and quotes from the book.
Well, the best-laid plans, as they say…April 28, I fell and fractured my sacrum. After spending a few very painful days in hospital, I learned that there’s no repairing such a break; I just have to wait 3 months or so for it to heal.
I’ve missed a week of this blog and thought this accident meant a very long hiatus in “This Week at Bear Creek” since I won’t be walking in the park until sometime late this summer. But I’ve come up with a plan which I hope meets with your approval. Since I’ve walked in Bear Creek and taken photos there for so many years, I have a huge library of photos. And since the photos are dated, I know when various creatures have appeared there in the past.
So my plan is to provide you with a photo guide to what to look for every week (or two, as able), based on past Bear Creek springs and summers. And perhaps some of you, along with Dr. Ben and my husband Reg, will tell me what you saw and I can pass along that info as well. So, here we go:
MAY 10- 16, 2015
Two glamorous birds arrived in our area this week. Both the male and female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) alighted in the park this week – and both are stunning. Since they sing from high in the treetops when leaves are just bursting forth , they’re not easy to spot. Listen for a melodious mixture of high and low notes that’s been described as “a Robin who’s had voice lessons.” Here’s one I saw at home on May 8 a few years ago.
Like the Seven Dwarves, the female grosbeak whistles while she works, building her nest, which isn’t common for female birds. With her heavily-streaked breast and the bright white line above her eye and necklacing her throat, the female grosbeak can be mistaken for a female Red-wing Blackbird. But “grosbeak” is an appropriate name; these birds have short, heavy beaks. I’ve spotted them over several years in the eastern side of the woods, near the marsh. Here’s a link to the female’s appearance:
The other glamorpuss that’s just arrived is the Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula). The male’s eye-popping orange, black and white plumage is unmistakable. The females usually are more yellow than the male’s brilliant orange but they become more orange each time they molt. When they arrive from Central America, they are looking for quick energy and love fruit – but only dark red, orange or purple fruit. (Very particular birds!) That’s when they come to backyard feeders filled with grape jelly or half an orange. When raising young, they hunt insects for the protein they need for themselves and their nestlings and are less visible. So here’s one singing its melodious whistle high in the trees near the center pond and then a closeup as one horns in on our hummingbird feeder.
Maybe with luck, you’ll see them building their sack-like nest right at the tip of a branch very high off the ground, literally rockaby-ing their babies in the treetops.
Dr. Ben saw an amazing 35 separate species on a Bear Creek bird walk last week! And what a group! 8 different warblers and many of them were seen by sitting quietly on the boardwalk just off the playground early in the morning. Here’s one of them who graces the wet areas of the park all summer.
It’s the Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), a small masked bird who usually hangs out near the center pond or marsh. If you can’t see it, you can hear its distinctive “Witchedy-witchedy-witchedy” call. Have a listen:
One of my favorite fisher birds arrived this week too, the Green Heron (Butorides verescens). Ben saw a pair posing quite calmly in a tree at the center pond. Like other herons, it’s a very patient fisher. It stares intently down into the water until it spots its prey – a small fish or frog. And then dives headfirst into the water – Gulp! – And it’s gone. I saw this one at the center pond last fall :
You may notice groups of young Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) hanging around in the bushes on the north side of the park, giving each other a hard time, jumping from limb to limb, darting through the trees, and generally acting like teenagers. I’ve just learned young blue jays don’t breed their first year but form groups and practice courtship behavior. Here’s an adult blue jay who seems to be looking a bit askance at all their silliness.
The strange and wonderful buds of the Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) are pushing their way through the branches. Keep an eye out for them on a tree whose distinctive bark makes it a special feature of Bear Creek.
The May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum ) have unfurled their umbrellas and can be found in groups underneath tall trees in wooded areas all over the park.
Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) sits proudly inside his green lectern all over the woods. Being a native plant, these little preachers should thrive after this spring’s prescribed burn.
A tiny, early butterfly is fluttering through the grass right now. Spring Azures (Celastrina ladon) are easy to spot with their lavender blue wings and whimsical black and white striped antennae. When feeding, they fold their wings upward so that the drab gray undersides will make them more inconspicuous to predators.
A native beauty, the Large-Flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), has pushed its trio of leaf-like bracts through the soil and have unfolded their showy white petals. Look for them to the west side of the boardwalk on the eastern side of the center pond and to the west side of the Eagle Scout bridge as you enter the western woods. They usually bloom in Bear Creek a bit later than elsewhere.
Watch this coming week for the lavender carpet of Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). Ben tells me that with this warm spell, they should start blooming quickly. Here’s how they looked last year in the second week of May but there may be more this year after the prescribed burn.
So I may be housebound, but we still can share the beauty of Bear Creek Park. I value your input, so please, fellow nature lovers, lend me your ears – and your eyes!
The spring ephemeral wildflowers won’t last long with the heat! Come out the Lost Lake Nature Park tomorrow morning from 9 am – 12 pm to help remove glossy buckthorn seedlings and garlic mustard to make sure our native plants have space to grow. Check out detailed information below. The workday will be cancelled if we have heavy rain or lightning. Here are a few teaser pictures… don’t miss it!
Where: We’ll meet in the parking lot near the sled hill. Look for the Parks pickup truck.
When: Saturday, May 9, 2015, 9 am to 12 pm. In the event of inclement weather, the event will be cancelled.
Who: Anyone! This event is free, with no experience necessary. We’ll train you to do the work.
Why: Help keep the park beautiful! We will be pulling glossy buckthorn and garlic mustard. We will be competing in the Garlic Mustard Challenge (https://garlicmustardchallenge.wordpress.com/), so help us get a big haul! Come out on Saturday to enjoy beautiful areas and hang out with great people! The weather looks great too!
What: Bring water and gloves, and wear closed-toed shoes and long pants. We’ll have extra gloves if you can’t bring your own.
You will need to sign a release form before we begin working. Families are encouraged to attend! All minors will need permission from a parent or guardian to participate, and minors under 14 will need to have a parent or guardian present. We will have lots of fun, so plan to come and share this opportunity with others! The schedule of upcoming workdays can be found at the Volunteer Calendar.