A Wet Prairie Restoration Mystery: The Case of the Missing Creek…

The Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail surrounded by a tree-covered rim of soil, spoils of historical sand and gravel mining.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Yes, I’m returning to the Wet Prairie again even though we visited that special habitat in October. The reason is that another amazing restoration effort has been going on there since late November. It’s revealed something I’d heard about but never actually seen – the original, winding bed of Paint Creek that disappeared about 100 years ago.

A Quick Trip Back to the 1870’s

In 1871, the Detroit and Bay City Railroad Company (which later became Michigan Central Railroad) began work on a railroad line between these two cities with a flag station in the village of Goodison. This line carried both passengers and freight, including farm produce and other products back and forth from Detroit. According to former Parks Commissioner, Colleen Barkham, some time around 1920, a local entrepreneur, Mr. Frier, bought the land that is now the Wet Prairie and other areas along the tracks and began mining sand to ship to industries in the big city.

1963 aerial image with the old route of Paint Creek (blue) and one of the rail spurs for sand and gravel mining (yellow) highlighted. The current restoration area is outlined in red. The core wet prairie habitat is labeled in green text. Image a screenshot from the Oakland County Property Gateway (https://gis.oakgov.com/PropertyGateway/Home.mvc).

He called his company Goodison Sand and Gravel, and what made shipping sand feasible then was the handy availability of the train. Colleen, co-chair of the Oakland Township Historical Society, generously shared a photo of the operation from the Society’s archives.

The Goodison Sand and Gravel company loading a freight car with sand somewhere along what is now the Paint Creek Trail, c. 1920. Photo provided from the Oakland Township Historical Society archives

You can see how it worked – the sand coming down the chute from the land above right onto a freight car on the railroad line! Now I had an answer to the first part of the Wet Prairie mystery: Why is the Wet Prairie encircled by a rim of treed hummocks? (See the top photo in the blog.) Apparently, the land in the center of the current Wet Prairie was skimmed off to get at the sand, leaving a bulging rim of soil around the site. Wow. Quite a dramatic change of habitat, eh? Perhaps that explains why the mineral-rich water table that feeds the Wet Prairie’s unusual autumn flowers is so near the surface. The soil above the water table was removed about a hundred years ago!

An Earlier Dramatic Change in the 1870’s

Paint Creek’s current stream bed along the Paint Creek Trail

But there’s more! Back in the late 1800’s, when the railroad track was being laid, a problem arose with Paint Creek which looped and switch-backed across this section of the railroad’s property. No problem, said the engineers of the time; we’ll just move the creek! And that’s exactly what they did. That’s why today Paint Creek runs in a such a neat straight line along big sections of the trail. The narrow bed created for the creek has probably deepened over the years, since the creek now has only a small flood plain to stretch out in after heavy rains or snow melt. So 50 years or so after the railroad’s decision to move Paint Creek, Goodison Sand and Gravel reaped the benefit from an easy means of transporting their sand by rail.

So, where did Paint Creek run before it was moved?

When I learned of the changed path of Paint Creek several years ago, it occurred to me to wonder what happened to the old bed of Paint Creek. Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, knew the answer but couldn’t show me; the original stream bed was buried in a monumental tangle of invasive shrubs and vines. But no longer. Ben and his stewardship crew has taken on the task this fall and winter of removing the invasive undergrowth that covered the forest floor where Paint Creek once meandered across a moist forest of Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa). Let me show you the miracle that the crew is performing just north of the Wet Prairie.

Some members of the stewardship crew taking a break from clearing the forest floor west of the trail. From L-R: Grant VanderLaan, Dean Johnson , Jon Reed, Tylor Roberts, and Ben VanderWeide.

Since the 1920’s when the sand was hauled away, the native wildflowers that bloomed on the Wet Prairie had been bathed in sunlight. But over the years, trees began to spread from the forest, providing too much shade for sun-loving species. So restoration required removing some trees that encroached on the Wet Prairie’s sunny expanse. This fall, the stewardship team began an ambitious and arduous effort to clear away that thick layer of aggressive and invasive shrubs beneath the canopy in the woods north of the Wet Prairie. Here’s the type of wild tangles that confronted them – a jungle of privet, common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, autumn olive, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet.

The dense tangle of shrubs and vines that covered the area north of the Wet Prairie and along the Paint Creek Trail

And look what they accomplished just along the edge of the trail!

The area north of the Wet Prairie near the Paint Creek trail cleared of invasive underbrush after restoration began.

What follows that effort is now weeks of hard slogging to remove invasive shrubs deeper into the woods. Because of the moist soil in the woods, small trees, shrubs and vines must be removed without large machinery and then piled carefully into high stacks in clear areas where they can be burned late this winter when the woody material has dried.

A pile of invasive shrubs and vines cut and stacked in preparation for burning .

That work has already begun to unveil the original wandering path of Paint Creek. In December, I finally got a chance to see where the creek once ran. The crew has spent weeks clearing the banks of the former stream bed. Water fills its ancient path through the woods, but not running water. Rising ground water, snow melt and rainfall settle in the old bed, so it’s clear where the creek used to flow.

A section of the original path of Paint Creek winding through the forest

What an amazing sight! I was looking at the remains of the path nature chose for Paint Creek until about 150 years ago! Since the photo above was taken on December 23, a huge amount of work before and after the holiday break made impressive progress. Look below at the piles of vines and shrubs removed and stacked as of Friday, January 8.

Piles of invasive plants will be burned once the woody material dries

A lot of work remains to be done to restore this special, fragile space – more cutting and removal. As shrubs are removed, the crew carefully dabs each trunk with a stained herbicide to prevent it from re-sprouting.

Stumps of invasive shrubs are dabbed with a sponge containing a stained treatment which will keep them from re-sprouting.

Then Ben will wait to see which native plants emerge after the removal of the invasive shrubs that have smothered them for all these years, benefiting now from more sun, more rain or simply more space to grow and propagate. Ben tells me that while pulling garlic mustard in the spring, he saw a large patch of delicate Starry False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) beyond the area currently cleared, some Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum) and huge spreads of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in the wet areas. I hope I’ll be able to visit here with him in the spring or summer to see what else bursts forth after the restoration!

Ben showed me an old tip-up where a huge two-trunked Bur Oak had fallen in two directions – one into the forest and the other across the old creek bed, making a bridge of sorts to an island once surrounded by flowing water in the original Paint Creek channel. The tip-up left a deep hole where the roots were ripped out. Ben tells me that tip-ups can create two habitats – a watery one in the hole below, and a green one above with mosses, ferns, grasses or shrubs eventually growing over the root ball. He’s seen forested wetlands in which tree trunks had decomposed completely, leaving only a hollow in the earth beneath a mossy hillock to indicate the presence of an ancient tip-up.

In early winter the only green I could spot in this woods were stretches of Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale), a kind of horsetail with enough silica in it to make it useful long ago as a scrubbing tool. The bright orange disk of a crustose lichen (a composite organism of algae and fungi) caught my eye in winter’s gray light as well as a log sporting a nice collection of Turkey Tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). Ben pointed out the fertile fronds of Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) which carry the spores which may germinate to grow new ostrich ferns.

Ben also introduced me to the largest Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that I’ve ever seen. Cottonwoods can be aggressive trees, spreading like crazy with multiple seeds attached to cottony strands. So they’re not always welcome in areas where Ben is trying to restore an area’s natural diversity. This tree though was impressive. According to Wikipedia, cottonwoods grow quickly to 65 -195 feet, but in most habitats live only 70-100 years, not long in the world of trees. Ben can’t help admiring this one, so it will be left to prosper. Here’s my husband Reg standing next to it to give you a sense of its girth and height.

My husband Reg testing out the girth of a large Cottonwood with one of its sizable offspring in the distance on the right.

A Janus Moment: Imagining the Past and the Future at the Same Time

A section of Paint Creek’s former stream bed

Janus is the Roman god after which January is thought to have been named. He is usually depicted with a double face looking back to the past and forward to the future. How appropriate, then, that this January, during a transitional time at the Wet Prairie, I was lucky enough to imitate him. Standing at the edge of Paint Creek’s original stream bed, camera in hand, I happily immersed myself in imagining the past: the glint of the water wending its way through some large, widely dispersed Bur Oaks with wetland flowers and ancient sedges painting the dappled shade with color. I could picture native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), their stippled scales flashing, as they navigated their slender bodies around the island in the creek. Iridescent Ebony Jewelwing damsel flies (Calopteryx maculata) may have darted above the surface, delicately landing like dancers on surrounding greenery. I wondered about the indigenous people who may have picked their muddy way among these trees and what they might have noticed and enjoyed along the creek.

Today as the stewardship crew gradually clears away the smothering snarl of invasive shrubs, it feels to me as if the oaks and the huge cottonwood can breathe more easily, bathed in more sun and rain. I let my thoughts turn to the spring, when the Lady Slippers and that patch of Starry Solomon Seal bloom again unhindered by overhanging vines and shrubs. And I can’t help hoping that seeds that have waited for decades will wake in the warming earth once more and begin their cycle of growth. Today Paint Creek may be bustling its way beyond the busy trail to the east, but its ancient bed will still gather water from the sky and earth when it can. Moistening its surroundings, it will now have a chance to once again nurture the diverse community of native plants that shared its habitat for centuries. What a gift that will be to all the native grasses, sedges, wildflowers and wildlife – and us as well! And what a pleasure to have the “Mystery of the Missing Creek” solved during this ambitious restoration project.

Lost Lake Nature Park: In Autumn, It’s the Little Things

Autumn color edges Lost Lake on a crisp fall day

Autumn begins to pare nature down to a few essentials. Earlier, cold nights and warm days provided a riot of color which has now begun to mellow into golds and russets.  Glamorous flowers subside in the chill, and butterflies have either departed or completed their brief lives. Bird song is replaced by chitters and calls, except for the call-and-response bugling of  geese and sandhill cranes as they wheel and soar high above us, heeding the siren call of the south.

So I always imagine that making discoveries to share with you will be more difficult in fall and winter. And to some extent that’s true. But what’s really required is that I pay more attention to the little surprises that nature always has in store. What’s moving in the leaves beneath that tree? What’s that peeping I hear in the reeds? What tiny saplings emerged this summer that I’d missed in the hubbub of a summer day?

So please join me for a relatively short, virtual hike around this fifty-eight acre park. Maybe you’ll be as intrigued as I was by the variety of its habitats and by the “little things” that went unnoticed until autumn began its work.

llnp_20190205_virtualhikemap

It’s Called Lost Lake, so Let’s Begin at the Dock

A Great Blue Heron winging its way across Lost Lake

As I approached the lake on my first visit, I looked up between the autumn treetops to see the graceful silhouette of a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias). Between the slow, powerful beats of its magnificent wings, it glided swiftly through the thin, blue air. These stately birds will travel just far enough in the fall to find open water where they can feed. I just learned that they have special photoreceptors in their eyes that allow them to feed at night as well as in daylight. Wouldn’t it be magical to see one fishing in the moonlight?

But down on the surface of the lake, only one calm, female duck cruised the chilly water. I wondered why she was alone – no mate yet? But she seemed quite serene as she silently surveyed her surroundings.  

A solitary female Mallard seemed to enjoy being the only bird on the lake.

She wasn’t alone for long though. Behind me the raucous honking of a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) broke the silence that she and I enjoyed. About thirty of them appeared from behind me and circled the pond, constantly announcing their arrival. At one point, they flew right above me so that I could hear the snap of the joints in those powerful wings and the air pouring through them. They descended to the surface and formed a long, single-file line on the far edge of the pond and went completely silent. Peace descended again around the pond.

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At the east edge of the lake, a solitary goose kept company with two small companions – a pair of Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus). You may have to look carefully for the second one; it’s near the goose’s tail feathers with its back turned away from the camera.  

A Canada Goose rests while two little Killdeer forage in the mud nearby.

I say “kept company,” because though the killdeer lifted their angled wings to fly off to other muddy edges, for some reason, they kept returning to their very calm, large companion. I imagine some particularly yummy food source lay buried in the mud there  – maybe snails, aquatic insect larvae, or even the odd crayfish. But the harmony between the species was a peaceful sight.

Later I saw the Killdeer foraging on a mud flat on the north side of the lake with a small, brown and white bird with yellow legs. When I researched at home and then consulted expert birder, Ruth Glass, she confirmed that I’d seen a Least Sandpiper (Calidris minutilla) and she added that seeing them at this time of year was “a rarity.” How exciting! This sandpiper searches out much the same food as the Killdeer, though with its sloping beak, it can probe a bit deeper in the mud. Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website informs me that they “probe damp mud for buried prey, using the surface tension of the water to transport the item quickly from their bill tips to their mouths.” Neat trick! Here’s my somewhat blurry photo of the two smaller birds; my lens didn’t quite reach two small birds on the north shore of the pond. So I hunted up a better photo of the Least Sandpiper taken by jmaley at inaturalist.org.[Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another little Sandpiper – perhaps the same one –  also showed up near two huge Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis), but I didn’t get a decent photo before it flew. The two big cranes preened and foraged on the east edge of the lake. Both the little Sandpiper and the Cranes will soon migrate south, the Sandhills to Florida or the Southwest and the Sandpipers to the gulf states. I’m glad I got to enjoy a rare sighting of the sandpiper and to bid farewell to all of these water birds before they started their long journeys. 

Two Sandhill Cranes at the lake edge

On an almost spring-like morning a week or so ago, as the sun glittered on the water, I watched a Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) make a bee-line across the lake. The wake it created with its head made it seem that it was pushing a splash of sunlight. This furry little rug of a creature was using its webbed feet and side-swishing tail to propel itself speedily across the lake!

A muskrat creating a wake as it quickly crossed Lost Lake

I followed it until it dove with a small splash and finally discerned on the west side of the lake, a large, well-camouflaged lodge at the water’s edge piled with the stems and leaves of Fragrant Water Lily ( Nymphea odorataand other aquatic plant material. The entrance to its spacious home is underwater with an entrance way that slopes upward to keep the living quarters dry.  When I looked around to see if I could tell the direction from which it had come, I noticed the beginnings of a small feeding platform. During the long winter months, the muskrat, breathing slowly, will periodically cruise under the ice, taking the food it can find – mostly plant material – up into the fresh air for a meal and a bit more oxygen. It had deposited a freshly harvested lily pad on it when I arrived the next morning.

But it was the tiny creatures around the pond that surprised and delighted me most.  On one warmish fall day, I kept hearing an odd twittering croaking coming from the reeds on the east side of the pond. What was that? Small birds? No sign of a flock. Crickets? Maybe, but it seemed very fast for crickets. It sounded a bit like frogs, but it had been so cold at night. Why would frogs be singing in the autumn?  

The next day, I made it a point to explore the east edge of the lake, edging as close as I could to it from Lost Lake Trail, where I hoped to find a clue to the mystery chorus.    

The southeast end of Lost Lake from the dock.

The scarlet berries of Michigan Holly/Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), a wetland shrub, would no doubt be feeding birds and perhaps other animals during the winter months, while propagating itself around Lost Lake. This cheerful, native holly loses its leaves but keeps its bright red drupes (a fruit with one seed or pit) well into the snowy winter months. If you have a wet spot on your property, you might think about this native ornamental beauty!

Michigan Holly is a native bush that is reportedly easy to grow with few diseases or pests.

Walking through dry leaves near the lake, something tiny jumped near my feet. I stopped and took a long look and finally tracked down a very tiny (maybe 1-2 inch?), very pale frog clinging to a stick at the foot of a tree. I was totally mystified – a tiny frog in the autumn? And when I got home and looked at the photo more closely, I was astonished to seed the “x” markings on its back –  a Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)???!

A Spring Peeper appeared in the woods at Lost Lake, an odd sight in the autumn.

After a bit of online research, I found the website of the Orianne Society in Vermont whose mission is to help preserve habitat for amphibians and reptiles. Generally, Peepers quiet down once their mating season concludes in late spring. But evidently on cool, wet fall days, spring peepers are known to call and the reason isn’t entirely clear. But one hypothesis is that by late August, peepers are almost fully mature. But they will soon begin to shut down their metabolism to survive the winter, freezing almost solid, protected by internal anti-freeze. So the theory is that on warmish days, they may try out their spring songs out of an abundance of hormones. What a surprise!

However, the chorus by the lake didn’t sound a bit like a chorus of spring peepers; it was much too fast and not melodius. My best guess now is an unseen twittering flock of crickets or small birds that just stayed down in the tall aquatic vegetation at the lake’s edge. I never saw a flock of birds emerge and eventually the chorus went silent. So the mystery continues.

I went back to the dock, curious if there were any other frogs that I’d missed there. As I scanned with the binoculars, I suddenly noticed a small upright form near the edge of the dock. Another frog – but not a peeper! I approached stealthily with my camera, pausing periodically, moving very slowly. Eventually I got close enough to see a distinguishing field mark – a thin ridge of skin running from the back of the eye and curving around the tympanum, the frog’s round eardrum. My best guess is that this little frog was an immature female because her throat was white rather than yellow and she was very small. It can take up to three years for a bullfrog to mature. I hope this silent little one found her way back onto the muddy bottom of the lake before the night temperatures dropped again.

An immature female Bullfrog sitting quietly near the lake edge on a warmish fall day

A mowed area surrounded by trees and wetland just west of the lake hosts a shining stand of Yellow Birch trees (Betula alleghaniensis). I love to see them on a sunny afternoon because their bronze bark shines silver in the sunlight and forms lovely curls and frills like other birches. Yellow birches are one of the tallest of their kind.This particular one had a definite list to the east, probably caused by wind and the moist soil it prefers. If you love birches and have moist soil, this glamorous bark adds some serious pizzazz to the landscape!

Into the Forest With a Different Pair of Eyes

A wise pair of “eyes” peered out from a fallen log among the leaves.

A huge smile and a little “Oh!” accompanied my discovery of this log in the forest at Lost Lake.  I’d been thinking about my need to pay attention, to look closely at this moist, wooded habitat because I remembered that small, special moments can occur in nature once autumn arrives.  And suddenly, these seemingly ancient, Yoda-like eyes were staring at me from a fallen log! I love that it also appears to be winking!

Leaving the lake behind and starting down the woodland trail beyond the caretaker’s house at Lost Lake always feels like I’m moving into another world. On the left the forest sweeps upward into a rolling landscape.

The forest at Lost Lake stands on rolling slopes that rise to the sledding hill.

On the right as you walk farther in, the land continues downward to a moist wetland area full of mosses and mystery.

The forest trail slopes down toward a moist wetland area.

The trees within the moist lower area of the forest grip the wet soil with roots that grow above the ground. Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, told me that these “buttressed roots” probably provide extra support in the soft soil. I also read that in poor soils, they can provide a wider area for seeking nutrients, though that may not be an issue in this forest at Lost Lake Nature Park.  

Buttressed roots provide the trees in the wetland area with more support and more nutrients.

What’s especially enchanting in this forest are the mossy gardens that form over the tops of these buttressed roots. Moss, ferns, leaves and some small plants have created a plush cushion surrounding this maple tree.  

Moss forms a plump cushion over the buttressed roots of this tree.

Intermediate Wood Ferns (Dryopteris intermedia) are tucked close to the trunks of several trees in this part of the woods. This fern glows emerald green for most of the winter in the moist shade of this part of the forest. It spreads by spores like other ferns, but doesn’t spread easily, so it could be successful in a continually moist shade garden, I imagine.  

Intermediate Wood Fern loves the moist shade of the wetland area and will stay green throughout the winter.

By looking carefully downward as I walked, I spotted several tiny saplings emerging from the fallen leaves. In the lowland area, the moist soil suited a tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor), whose four leaves had gathered all the sun available in the forest shade. It’s got a long way to go before reaching the 40-60 feet possible for this species of oak.  

A Swamp White Oak sprouting in the moist shade of the lowland forest area

The steep slopes of the Lost Lake forest create a lot of fallen logs. Without the distractions of flowers, insects and birds calls, I focus on them more in the autumn. Besides the peering knothole eyes above, I noticed an aging log with the bark peeled back to reveal its reddish brown sapwood which carried water and nutrients up to the treetops or down to the roots when the tree was alive.   

Under the bark of a log, the sapwood of the tree glows rich red-brown in the forest shade.

And of course, mushrooms are at work recycling the nutrients of  fallen trees back into the soil. The cold nights have done in most of them, but I appreciated the ruffly edges and autumn tones  of these aging Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor).

Turkey Tail mushrooms decorate a fallen log in the moist areas of the Lost Lake forest.

A Quick Trip to a Possible Future

Oakland Township Parks and Recreation also has a small piece of property across Turtle Creek Lane, a private road on the west edge of the park.  I walked north up the lane a  short distance and found the “Park Property” sign to be sure I wasn’t on private land.  Native Huckleberry colonies (Gaylussacia baccata) flourish in the dappled shade of this more open woods. As a shrub, Huckleberry produces black berries and its leaves turn lovely shades of red in the fall.

A native Huckleberry colony on park property across the road.

I walked up into that lovely wood and headed north a short distance to the edge of the marsh.  In the distance, a stand of yellowing trees interspersed with green conifers towered over the spongy soft earth of a huge, circular bog. 

A marsh west of Lost Lake Park with a bog in the distance.

The Michigan Natural Features Inventory defines a bog as a”a nutrient-poor peatland characterized by acidic, saturated peat and the prevalence of sphagnum mosses and ericaceous [acid-loving] shrubs.” Often bogs are the remains of glacial lakes that formed and then drained away as the 2 mile thick ice sheet withdrew from Michigan about 10,000 years ago. In fact, Lost Lake itself is a “kettle lake” that formed from a melting block of glacial ice. This marsh and bog are part of a spectacular piece of land that the Parks Commission hopes to purchase in the future if we are fortunate enough to receive a matching grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund. Keep your fingers crossed, please!

Standing at south edge of the marsh, I could see the yellowing needles of Tamarack trees (Larix laricina) and their bog-loving companions, Black Spruce (Picea mariana). Here’s a closer look:

The Tamaracks’ needles turn yellow and drop in the fall. The spruces stay green.

Despite being conifers, the Tamarack’s needles turn yellow and drop in the autumn leaving them bare during the winter like other deciduous trees. The spruces earn the name “evergreen,” by regularly shedding only their older needles as newer needles take their place. Both of these species thrive in very cold temperatures with soil that is acidic and continually wet.  According to Wikipedia, Tamaracks, for example, tolerate temperatures as low as -85 degrees Fahrenheit! Black Spruces prosper in the snowy boreal forests of Canada and the Arctic. But here they are in Oakland Township, remnants of the Ice Age!

Back to the Park, a Climb Up the Hill and Down

Looking down the sledding hill at Lost Lake Nature Park

Returning to Lost Lake Nature Park, I started up the forest trail that leads to the top of the sledding hill. On the way up, I passed small patches of Blue Wood/Heart-leaved Aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium), one of the late season asters that appears in August and lasts into October and can fit itself into a wide variety of habitats. It was accompanied by one of my favorite grasses, Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) whose seeds are carried on the wind by arrow-shaped “awns.” Nearby, lichen and mosses made a mosaic of green on a large rock. I begin to crave color as autumn and winter move on.   

Near the hilltop, I met up with a tiny cricket pausing on a fallen Sassafras leaf. I thought perhaps it was a Tinkling Ground Cricket (Allonemobius tinnulus) because they live in wooded areas and sing in the fall – and don’t you love the name? But when I contacted Dr. Parsons of the Michigan State University Entomology  Department, he informed me that five crickets in the genus Allonemobius live in our county and sing in the fall, but, as is often the case with insects, he couldn’t really make a firm identification from the photo. He could assure me, though, after listening to a short recording I made by the lake, that neither of these crickets were in the unseen chorus. So that mystery remains a mystery. But I was pleased to meet this little creature and watch it slip under a leaf as I walked on.

A cricket on the forest trail, sitting on a sassafras leaf.

Just over the east edge of the sledding hill, a group of young Sassafras saplings (Sassafras albidum) wobbled in the wind, their tiny trunks supporting large leaves. I always admire nature’s strategy of equipping saplings with huge leaves for gathering in the sun. The roots of Sassafras were once used to make root beer, though now the root bark is considered a carcinogen. But you can still get a whiff of root beer from the stem of a freshly cut leaf or twig. Sassafras trees are often identified by their three-lobed, “mitten-shaped” leaves, but actually unlobed, two-lobed and three-lobed leaves often appear on the same tree. Here are the trembling Sassafras saplings and an unlobed Sassafras leaf bejeweled after a rain.

I decided to skirt around the rim of trees that surrounds the sledding hill rather than plunging straight down. And I was happy I did when I came across this tiny Eastern White Pine sapling (Pinus strobus) thrusting its way through the leaf litter. This little native pine is another fine example of how autumn causes me to look more carefully and be delightfully surprised. I have a soft spot for White Pines, the tallest conifers in Michigan,  with their blue-green, silky needles  and I doubt I would have noticed this tiny tree in the color and bustle of the spring and summer. 

A tiny Eastern White Pine sapling emerging from the leaf litter

When I reached my car to return home, there in a White Oak (Quercus alba) by the parking lot hung a giant abandoned residence, the nest of  some sort of  Yellow Jacket Wasp (genus Dolichovespula or Vespula), possibly the Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), which is actually a species of Yellow Jacket, not a true hornet (genus Vespa). These social insects make nests above and below ground out of chewed wood pulp. The colony dies in the fall, except for the fertile queens that overwinter in tree bark or leaf litter and start a new nest each spring. The gratuitous beauty of these nests constructed by small insects never fails to inspire awe in me. How do they sculpt it using only tiny legs and mouths? I headed home happy to have seen one more small miracle.

A wasp or bald-faced hornet’s nest in a Bur Oak tree at Lost Lake.

In Autumn, Little Things Mean A Lot

Lily Pads floating over fall reflections in Lost Lake

See what I mean about autumn giving emphasis to the small, the unnoticed? Because this more austere season gets down to essentials, I’m pushed to pay closer attention. And when I do, wow, there’s a rare sighting of small brown bird with yellow legs, a miniature pine, a pair of ancient eyes peering from a log or a pale spring peeper scrambling among the fallen leaves. In the warm seasons, I might have missed these little surprises and I’m very thankful that I didn’t.  And I’m especially grateful that I get to share them with you, too. Thanks for joining me.

The road home from Lost Lake in mid October.

Gallagher Creek Park: Young Birds and Young Humans Play as Autumn Carries On

Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park

Surprised a bit by seeing the photo above in a nature blog? Well, on my four October visits to Gallagher Creek Park, I noticed an abundance of a new species there – young humans and their watchful adults!

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Late on autumn afternoons, this modest 15 acre park is now filled with the voices of excited little humans rocking, swinging, spinning , climbing, and sliding on the colorful new playground equipment installed in July by volunteers and staff of the Parks and Recreation Commission. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The park’s already becoming a place for families to cross paths and get to know their neighbors in the most densely populated part of our township. And meanwhile, in the background…

Nature Goes About Its Autumnal Business

Autumn at Gallagher Creek Park

The natural areas of Gallagher Creek look a bit scruffy right now from all the construction that went on this summer to build a picnic pavilion, a restroom enclosure, expanded parking area, the playground and a paved pathway. But despite all that to-ing and fro-ing, nature survives and offers beauty and bounty when you take time to venture into the fields.

Birds in the Distance as Children Play

Birds may keep their distance when the children are playing, but as I approached the tall grass at the edge of the creek east of the busy playground, a familiar head appeared above the tall grass.

A young Blue Heron peeks above the grass at the edge of the creek.

From the absence of a white crown on its head, it seemed to be a juvenile Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) stalking along the far side of the creek. Young Blue Herons take 3 years to develop full adult plumage, according to the Stokes Guides to Bird Behavior (Vol. 3). This youngster flew off, as I crackled through the browning stalks of goldenrod and yarrow.

But just as I arrived the next morning, when the playground was empty,  a juvenile – perhaps the same one? – flew over the treetops and swooped into a tree covered in vines. I snuck slowly forward and got one shot of it standing tall before it bent its knobby knees backward, spread those magnificent wings, and took to the air once more.

The young heron stood quietly in the tree as I approached.

The young Great Blue Heron bent its knees backward to begin its flight.

While the children shouted and laughed in the afternoon sun on a different afternoon, I watched a lone European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) high in a snag staring out over the playground nearby. It paid no attention to the happy noises below. I imagined that it was waiting for its highly social companions, since starlings gather in huge flocks at this time of year. This one had completed its fall molt complete with fresh feathers tipped in white, giving it the spotted plumage that starlings wear in fall and winter. By spring, the white tips will be worn off, returning these birds to their iridescent blue/black mating colors, and its beak will lighten and even change to bright yellow if it’s a male.

A European Starling that had finished its complete fall molt leaving its iridescent feathers tipped in white.

Unnoticed by the playground youngsters, a large, rippling flock (or “murmuration”) of about 75 starlings suddenly descended on the trees east of the creek. But the lone starling just kept staring into the distance. Perhaps it just needed a break from all the cackling and whistling that goes on in a starling gathering.

Part of a large “murmuration” of swooping starlings near Gallagher Creek.

Over in a quiet corner of the park, near the cat-tail marsh along the road, three little migrating Palm Warblers (Setophaga palmarum) in their duller fall colors chirped contact calls at each other before heading further south. The most notable field mark for these little birds is the bright yellow feathers under their tails and a pale “eyebrow” which they have year ’round.

Seeds Flying, Rattling, Dropping and Providing Food for Wildlife

Autumn, of course,  is the time when plants ripen and disperse seeds for next spring’s blooming. In doing so, they also provide important nourishment for all kinds of creatures. So while the children played, I went out to see what kinds of food nature was preparing in the background.

Seemingly unaware of the hubbub on the playground, a struggling American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) fumbled about trying to extract seed from a Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) while it swayed wildly in a stiff breeze.  I wondered if it was a juvenile who hadn’t quite mastered the skills necessary to extract seeds on a windy day.

It wasn’t easy for this Goldfinch to get the seed it wanted as the stalk it was on tossed back and forth in a stiff wind.

American Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) would delight any child at this time of year with its hot pink stem and blackish purple berries. The trick would be to keep them from trying to eat the berries,  since the seeds inside are slightly toxic to humans. According to one of my favorite wildflower sites, many of our favorite song birds (Bluebirds, Cedar Waxwings and more), as well as raccoons, opposums and the gray fox, feed on pokeweed berries with no problem.  Pokeweed prefers disturbed soil, which makes Gallagher Creek Park just the right spot this year! After I took this shot, I came back a few days later to find the stem broken and picked clean.  Mission accomplished – food eaten and seeds dispersed.

American Pokeweed berries are glamorous but the seeds inside are slightly toxic.

Some seed pods are rarely seen in our township except in this park. The wispy Bladdernut shrubs (Staphylea trifolia) produce elegant lantern-like pods. The shiny brown seeds inside shake in the wind, making a sound like a baby’s rattle. Though insects feed on the blossoms, there’s little evidence I could find that the seeds provide forage for wildlife. But the trees are doing a fine job of producing more Bladdernut shrubs as the number of them along the eastern tree line seems to be increasing nicely.

The Bladdernut shrub produces these elegant pods full of shiny brown seeds that rattle in the wind.

The common Cat-tails (genus Typha) are seeding as well, making a nice repast for a hungry Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

The pods of Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) are splitting open to release their silky little parachutes, each containing a seed that can sail away on the wind.  Milkweed has done its job by feeding Monarch caterpillars as well as many other butterflies and insects over the summer. So its current task is to get those seeds out into the world. If the seeds succeed in sprouting, they will feed more insects next year.

Seeds and their silky parachutes spill from Swamp Milkweed pods

More Edibles for Wildlife Wait in the Grass

Mushrooms, of course, can be edible by humans, but they are frequently a meal for squirrels and deer as well. I saw two varieties while the children romped at Gallagher Creek. A giant Puffball (genus Calvatia) had been broken in half, probably by a curious human, since it seemed to have no teeth marks in it. One appeared in the same area last year. And a stump hosted some pretty Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor), whose tough, rubbery surface might not please us, but probably could please a squirrel (particularly a Red Squirrel).  I see them now and again with a mushroom between their paws.

As I stepped into the deep grass, I wished I had one of those busy children in tow to enjoy the sprays of Red-legged Grasshoppers (Melanoplus femurrubrum) leaping away from my feet. It would have made them laugh as it did me. These small grasshoppers lay their eggs less than inch under the earth in the autumn, and those eggs are a food source for birds, skunks, snakes and raccoons. Nymphs and adults can also be a food source for toads, snakes and some birds, but mostly during the summer months.

A Reg-legged Grasshopper finding a niche on a log, just in case.

Beauty Underfoot Before the Frost

Even though much of Gallagher Creek is covered in brown stalks and shriveled blossoms, a few autumn wildflowers survived right up until the first frost. East of the observation deck, near the creek, the ground is covered with unusual and fragile Bottle Gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), a native wildflower that grows in only a few places in our township. Its closed blossoms never open so they are most often fertilized by bumblebees who are big enough to force their way inside and back out again. The gentians were so plentiful this year that I had to step carefully to avoid treading on one as I explored the area.

Bottle Gentian blossoms never open, so bumblebees have to push their large bodies inside to get at the pollen and then push their way out!

Nearby, a late-migrating Monarch butterfly ((Danaus plexippus) paused to sip on the last purple blossoms of New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), a classic autumn wildflower.

A Monarch sipping at New England Aster as it begin its long migration to Mexico.

Birds Everywhere on a Cold, Quiet Morning – and a Playful Young Female

On the cold morning when I saw the heron that I mentioned above, the playground was empty and quiet. The bushes and trees, though, were alive with birds busily flitting from branch to branch, or shrub to soil, in search of anything they could find to eat.

What delighted me most was a large flock of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). They were probably gathering to move a little farther south in Michigan or to Ohio in order to reach warmer weather, though Bluebirds often return here on warm winter days and some stay all year. The males are always the flashiest and were more plentiful in this flock.

But my favorite Bluebird on that chilly morning was what I’m guessing was a juvenile female. Young Bluebirds fledge wearing spotted breasts. But according to the Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior (Vol.2), they molt into adult plumage in August and September. I began to wonder if this gray-headed female was a youngster because she seemed to be practicing the grass-handling skills that she would need next spring in building her carefully woven nest. When I first spotted her, she had the head of a grass stem in her beak with the dry stalk trailing down her back.

A female Bluebird holding the head of a grass stem in her beak.

She made a couple of tries at moving the grass into a more suitable position.

Seemingly frustrated, she dropped the stem between her feet and stared intently at it for a minute.

Frustrated, she finally dropped the grass between her feet and studied it.

At last it seemed she had figured it out.  She picked it up carefully in the middle of the stalk, a much easier way to handle it.

Ah, it works better to grasp the stem in the middle!

Satisfied, she carefully set it down on the railing on which she was perched.  And then left the grass stem there and flew to nearby tree.

I loved seeing this young bird fiddle with what may have been her first attempt at handling the building material she would need in the spring to create her nest.

Besides the Bluebirds, a whole assortment of other birds made the most of the quiet park that cold morning.  I’m fairly sure that a tiny migrating Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) was among them, but it insisted on keeping only its rear in view! So I’ve added a photo of another one I saw in a previous year so you can have a better look at it. (Use the pause button if more time is needed for captions.)

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A Park Where the Young Can Learn and Play

A Milkweed seed on a windy morning at Gallagher Creek

I believe that young humans, like the young of all species, need play as a way to learn about the world.  So I loved watching children on the new playground at Gallagher Creek Park. So much is being learned as youngsters cope with siblings and strangers on the slide or the rocking “dragonfly” seesaw. Muscles grow stronger. Some learn the consequences of risk-taking and others overcome their fears.  It’s great.

What I’m hoping is that once the trails are mowed again next spring, parents will take their children by the hand and explore this little park that offers so much – baby muskrats in the spring, a swollen creek after rain, tree swallows diving for insects in the summer, and native wildflowers in three seasons. And yes, even little birds, that like all children, are learning how to be skillful grown-ups.

Footnote: My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net;Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, A Guide to Bird Behavior Vols.1-3 by Donald W and Lillian Q.Stokes, entomology.ca/uky.edu on Red-legged Grasshoppers, illinoiswildflowers.info and others as cited in the text.

 

 

THIS WEEK AT BEAR CREEK: Irrepressible Nature Celebrates the Season

Center Pond striped w shadows and snow 2 BC

Center Pond striped with shadows on Christmas Eve morning

For the last few weeks, our faithful winter birds have had a lot to contend with – deep snow, rain and biting wind. So like us, many of them gathered to eat together, to socialize and to seek the protection of being with their kind in the depths of winter. Flocks moved restlessly all over the park – bluebirds, crows, geese, starlings, robins, mixed flocks of tree sparrows and juncos.

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

The woods and wetlands were festooned with the red limbs of dogwood, mushrooms, snow and shadow designs. Some pods harbored their seeds ’til spring while others stood empty, silhouetted against the snow. A delicate insect flew past and settled on the snow crust. Despite the forbidding cold and snow,  life remains undaunted – even in the harshness of winter.

Hardy Birds Brave the Cold

Log w snow Center Pond BC'

The Playground Pond on Christmas Eve morning

The Playground Pond was evidently the “place to be” for birds on Christmas Eve.  At the edge of the pond, a solitary Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) mined a snag for some protein to start the day – maybe frozen insect larvae or eggs. This one was a male since it wore its red cap all the way down to its beak.

Redbelly BC

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker searches for insect larvae or eggs near the Playground Pond.

Two Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis)  – always a welcome splash of color on winter days –  paused on the railings of the Playground Pond.

Male Bluebird Dec. 24 BC

A male Bluebird on the railing at the Playground Pond

Female Bluebird Dec 24 BC

The more modestly dressed female Bluebird across the way from her bright blue mate

Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) whisked in and out of the bushes, as if playing tag. This male assumed an alarm pose, with his crest high and his tail flicking up and down.

Cardinal male tail up

This male Northern Cardinal takes an alarm pose – crest raised and tail flicking up and down.

This female found a good-sized seed for breakfast, but she’s on alert as well.

Cardinal female 3

A female Cardinal breakfasts on a good-sized seed.

The White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) twisted its stout body this way and that, probing the fallen log in the pond. Nuthatches know that loose bark is a good place to find frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

Nuthatch on log Playgr Pond Bc Dec 24

A White-breasted Nuthatch carefully probed the dead log in the Playground Pond for a morning meal.

Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea ), migratory visitors, frequently winter in the same area each year. That morning they gathered at the Playground Pond to feed and “chat,” chirping contact calls to stay connected with other members. Small birds like these have to eat about 30% of their body weight each day in winter just to survive. No wonder they flock at your feeder! (Hover cursor for captions; click on photos to enlarge.)

High in a tree along Bear Creek, an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), dressed in its muted winter plumage, delicately pecked at winter leaf buds.

Goldfinch eating winter bud

An American Goldfinch pecks delicately at the leaf buds of a tall tree.

A flock of gregarious House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) fluttered from branch to branch at the edge of a wetland. The males’ rosy red heads and breasts vary in intensity by what they find to eat. This one’s hue seemed a bit dimmed on a winter afternoon.

house-finch

The rosy red of the male House Finch varies in intensity by what it finds to eat.

Nature Decorates with Snow and Mushrooms

The French pastry, Buche de Noel, was fashionable this Christmas – an elaborately decorated Yule Log cake.  Not to be outdone, nature created its own  Buche de Noel, using a real log, a ribbon of snow and ruffles of golden and white Polypore (or shelf) mushrooms!

Log decorated with polypore mushrooms2

Nature’s Yule Log decorated with polypore mushrooms and snow

Some Turkey-tail mushrooms (Polypore versicolor), tinted green by algae growing on the them, fancied up a nearby log.

Polyphore versicolor mushrooms BC

Green “Turkey-tail” mushrooms decorated a nearby log.

Under the trees, snow melted around heaps of oak leaves, making little mandalas across the forest floor.

Leaf mandala in snow BC

Melting snow on oak leaves created little mandalas on the forest floor.

And look at the elegant script of this letter “E” left by the snow near the marsh. I’m not sure of the font…

Letter E made of snow BC

A snowy letter “E” left in the oak leaves near the marsh

Dried grasses along the Walnut Lane wrote calligraphy on the snow with shadows.

Shadow and snow calligraphy BC

Grasses create calligraphy from shadows at the edge of the Walnut Lane.

Altogether quite a festive look to the park, despite the absence of bright color or birdsong!

Seeds and Seed Pods Carry the Promise of Spring

In a small tree, the trailing stem of a long vine had produced a pale cloud of seed. Ben identified it as a native clematis plant with the surprisingly romantic name, Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana).  Here’s a link to its streamer of white flowers in the spring and below is the mini-cloud of seed and fluff as it finished fruiting.

Mystery vine BC

The fruiting of a native vine, Virgin’s Bower, produces these mini-clouds in a small tree.

A prairie native, Round-headed Bush-Clover (Lespedeza capitata) blooms on tall stalks with tiny white flowers in the late summer and early fall. Its seeds, packed with protein, provide winter food for Turkeys, Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos.

Mystery plant BC Dec 24

The russet seed heads of Round-headed Bush-clover feed lots of birds in the winter.

Wild Senna seed pods (Senna hebecarpa) droop in multiple arcs from tall stems in the native beds. In the spring, flowers fill the stems like yellow popcorn. Now each flat, brown seed pod has 10-18 cells with a single seed in each one waiting to be released in the spring.

Of course, before winter arrived, some plants released their seeds to drop, fly or float away. A Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the native bed hosted a Meadow Fritillary butterfly (Boloria bellona) in late June.  Now, having dispersed its seed to the wind, the seed pods of the same plant stands empty in the winter wind.

 

 Now About that Winter Bug…

One cold day, a winged insect with long, fragile wings flew slowly across the path and landed delicately on the snow. What in the world? A winter insect? Yes, this little creature’s life cycle is exactly the opposite of most insects.

Insect in the snow BC

This stonefly settled on the snow at Bear Creek after probably hatching nearby in Paint Creek’s rushing waters.

According to Donald Stokes’ Nature in Winter,  some Stoneflies (order Plecoptera) hatch from their eggs in fall or early winter. The larvae feed under rocks at the edge of a clean, rushing stream – probably nearby Paint Creek for our bug. In mid-winter, they complete their many molts, emerge as adults and fly. They live only a few weeks, mating and dropping their eggs back into the water. Quite a surprise, this contrarian insect!

Nature Awaits Your Winter Walks

Gunn wetland BC winter colors

Ice in the Gunn Road wetland turns golden-beige as it begins to melt.

If a tiny sparrow and an intrepid stonefly can brave the cold, we can too, right? We feather-less, fur-less creatures can layer up our woollies, don our hiking boots, swath ourselves in scarves, monster mittens and maybe a pair of Yax Trax, pull our hats down over our ears and venture out! To lure us forth, nature provides so much to enjoy even in the “dead” of winter – which is actually very much alive! Sally forth with rosy noses and wind-bussed cheeks to explore, even for a short walk. And then return home for cocoa or whatever warms you best from the inside.  Nothing like a winter walk to make you feel ALIVE!

Footnote:  My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Nature and Park Stewardship Working in Harmony All Over the Township

Blog and photos by Cam Mannino

Blog and photos by
Cam Mannino

From early autumn until the first really cold weather,  nature is busy preparing for winter – and so is the Parks Commission. While plants disperse seed and mushrooms release spores for next spring’s growth,  our stewardship manager, Ben VanderWeide, is sowing native seed as well. As the trees drop leaves to prepare for spring growth, Ben and his contractors clear away invasive shrubs to provide spring sunlight  for native  grasses, bushes and wildflowers. So this week, please join me for some short visits to several parks to see how nature and the Parks Commission work together to prepare for winter snow and the spring to come.

 

Bear Creek Nature Park: Seeding, Feeding and Choosing a Mate

Bear Creek made a glorious exit from autumn. In late October, it burned with autumn gold and red.

Fall at Bear Creek

Late October at Bear Creek Nature Park

As usual, the Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra) “fell asleep” before the other trees; they “wake up” late in the spring, too. I like to think they need more rest than other trees!

Walnuts sunset BC

Bare trees on the Walnut Lane at sunset in Bear Creek

The Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were busy with two kinds of preparation: finding a mate for the spring  and eating to store up fat for the winter. Happily, both could be accomplished at once. Males, now in courting colors, cruised the Center Pond with females, going “up tails all” while feeding below the surface.

Mallards Up Tails All BC

A small flock of upside down ducks foraging underwater at Bear Creek’s Center Pond.

Mallards choose partners in the fall and then mate in the spring. So eventually they begin to pair off like these two did as the setting sun gilded the pond.

Mallard Silhouette Sunset BC

A mated pair of Mallards float through the golden light of sunset on the Center Pond

Plants, of course, are dropping seeds and fruits. The white fruits of Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina) have either been eaten by birds or dropped to the ground to produce a dense thicket of more dogwood next year. On the right are the bare red pedicels in November. (Click to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

At the edge of the wood, I spotted a Gilled Mushroom (order Agaricales) within a dead stump. It will drop its spores from the gills beneath the cap to produce more mushrooms next year.

Mushrooms piled in stump BC

Gilled mushrooms will drop spores from the gills beneath their caps

Lost Lake Nature Park:  Shedding Leaves and Seeds

Forest on LL 1

The forest behind the sledding hill in late autumn

Fall is a time when trees shed their summer leaves. The apparent path of the sun lowers toward the horizon from September to Winter Solstice (December 21). So,  the days grow shorter. Less daylight means that leaves lose the chlorophyll that makes them green and allows them to photosynthesize. This process of photosynthesis stores energy from sunlight in the chemical bonds of sugars. Trees use these sugars to grow during spring and summer, and many times sugars are stored for the future as starch. In the fall leaves change color as the chlorophyll recedes, their job completed for the season. Eventually lower light signals the trees to create “abscission cells” which grow between the stem and the branch, separating them.  Down come the leaves. (“Abscission,” by the way, has the same root as the word “scissors!”)

Leaf carpets are useful as well as beautiful.  As they decompose, leaves release nutrients back into the soil and provide the spongy humus that helps the soil hold water. And of course, they can act as protective mulch for the roots of forest plants and trees.   Here’s a colorful carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake.

Bur Oak Leaf collage

A carpet of White Oak and Red Maple leaves near Lost Lake

Out in Lost Lake, the big flat leaves of Fragrant Water Lilies are fading for all the same reasons as other leaves. Their graceful simplicity against the dark water was eye-catching.

In the forest, near the top of the sledding hill, some native plants were still preparing to drop their seeds. Showy Goldenrod’s (Solidago speciosa) seeding plumes still stood tall in the forest light under the trees. And a stem of Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) had yet to let go of  its awn-tipped seeds. The grass fruit flies through the air and lands on the ground like tiny arrows, carrying their cargo of next year’s seed.

A flock of restless American Tree Sparrows (Spizelloides arborea) swooped and dove near the western edge of the lake and foraged over the grassy area near the former stable. Tree Sparrows, summer residents of the Arctic, are experienced foragers. They spend the winter here finding edible seeds, fruits, insect larvae –  whatever they can find in a snowy Michigan winter.

Tree Sparrow LL

A Tree Sparrow makes a good winter meal from the seeds of sedges, grasses, insect larvae and whatever else it can find.

At the end of the walk, human prep for winter becomes apparent. Jeff Johnson, the Parks Commission’s Maintenance Tech, spent about a day and a half preparing the sledding hills for winter use. He marked off the big hill, the kiddie’s hill and the boundaries of the upward trek. Just in time for the big snowfall!

Sledding hill prep LL

The sledding hill was prepared for winter. And the snow arrived a few days later.

Cranberry Lake Park:  Pond Ice and Puffballs

In the center of Cranberry Lake Park is a large pond where I’d seen herons and mallards feeding together one early fall afternoon. When I went back to explore in late fall, the pond was beautifully still and silent.  A light skim of ice had formed on one end.

Pond CL south end w ice skim

A skim of ice formed on the pond at the center of Cranberry Lake Park

Near the pond, a large colony of tiny Puffball Mushrooms (genus Bovista) had finished releasing their spores. These tiny puffballs tend to grow in groups like this.

Puffballs on long b. Bov.ista

Tiny puffball mushrooms cover a log near the pond in the center of Cranberry Lake Park

A few years ago, I saw these little mushrooms covering a stump at Bear Creek.  They were plump in early autumn, filled with spores. When the spores are mature and are tapped by falling raindrops, small creatures or the occasional curious human – poof! – the spores pop out of the open center to be carried on the air so more mushrooms appear the following year.

Puffballs when the spores are developing are plump and sensuous.

Puffballs when the spores are developing are plump and sensuous.

The little mushrooms at Cranberry Lake  were spent; their center holes had opened, releasing the spores.  Quite a come-down in appearance, I’m afraid.

Once the center opens and releases the spores they look quite different!

Once the center opens and releases the spores,  these tiny Puffballs look quite different!

Stewardship: Lending a Helping Hand to Nature’s Winter Prep

The Wet Prarie on the Paint Creek Trail: Birds Gather Seeds and So Do We

The Tree Sparrow at Lost Lake is not the only creature foraging for wild seed this autumn. Ben and a crew of volunteers spent a peaceful morning at the Wet Prairie off the Paint Creek Trail gathering native grass and wildflower seeds for planting in other areas of the township.

Gallagher Creek and Charles Ilsley Parks: Seeds Sown by Plants and People

While the native plants are dropping seeds to prepare for spring abundance, so our Township Stewardship Manager, Ben VanderWeide is busy sowing native seed around the township. During the first week of December, parts of two parks, Gallagher Creek  and Charles Ilsley Parks,  were planted with native seed that Ben had gotten through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. The land had earlier been prepared in Gallagher Creek’s west section by clearing invasive shrubs and plants through selective treatment, mowing, and prescribed burns. Now a no-till native seed drill, designed to handle the varying sizes of native seeds,  went to work. Discs cut a thin furrow in the ground to a pre-determined depth and simultaneously, seeds were dropped into the thin furrows.

Seeding Gallagher Creek

Planting native seed at Gallagher Creek Park

At Charles Ilsey Park, the machine sowed more native seed after last year’s more extensive prairie planting.  Here’s a YouTube video of the native seed drill at work.

Watershed Ridge Park, the Wet Prairie and Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park:  Trees and Humans Prepare for New Growth

Just as trees prepare for spring by discarding their old leaves in the autumn, Ben and his contractors are working on ridding our parks of shrubs and underbrush to encourage new native growth. After cutting invasive woody shrub sprouts on the Wet Prairie, Ben carefully treated stumps to prevent them from re-sprouting next year. Invasives are persistent,  so Ben has to be too!

At Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, Ben brought in a contractor with a forestry mower to clear invasive shrubs from  the current entrance. What a difference! Though not taken at exactly the same place, the photo just below will give you an idea of the density of the invasive shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine before removal – and below that is the wonderfully open look it has now.  A lovely view from the beautiful stone bench in the distance.

My husband in the dense invasive shrubbery at Stony Creek Ravine

My husband in the dense invasive shrubbery at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park

The park entrance as it look after removing invasive shrubs

The park entrance as it looks after removing invasive shrubs. The Kezlarian stone bench is in the distance.

But the biggest, most impressive “clearing the decks” project this fall was the beginning of habitat restoration process at Watershed Ridge Park. Just a month ago, the rolling slopes of this park were tangled with invasive shrubs that in many places were impenetrable. However, Ben noticed sun-loving native grasses and wildflowers struggling to survive under the heavy cover of overhanging limbs and vines – plants like the delicate orchid Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes species), Large-leaved Aster (Eurybia macrophylla) and three kinds of native Goldenrod.

So the first week in December, restoration began. A contractor’s forestry mower cleared 10.5 acres of invasive shrubs from among the trees. Now the contours of the land can be seen, dotted with oak, ash, elm and cherry trees.

The land slopes down from east to west to a marsh and a pond, both fed by a stream running from the large marsh that’s to the north of the park.

Stream at Watershed Ben's photo

This un-named stream runs from a larger marsh on the north through the woods to a marsh and pond on park property.

Cleared Hillside Watershed Ridge

Looking south toward Buell Road across a newly cleared hill that slopes down to the pond.

Now the stream, the marsh and the pond, which extends as far as Lake George Road, can be approached easily without fighting through dense, invasive shrubbery and vines. Once trails are created, this will be a lovely spot to watch for water wildlife!

Pond at Watershed Ridge

The west end of the park’s pond that extends off  Lake George Road.

In the forest at the edges of the cleared area are Red, Black and White Oaks. Here’s an old White Oak (Quercus alba) within the cleared area. Probably because of the crowding from shrubs and small trees, it never had the chance to spread its limbs wide in the sunlight, like the White Oak we all enjoy near Bear Creek’s Center Pond.  But it’s still pretty impressive!

White Oak at Watershed Ridge

A large White Oak within the newly cleared area.

I couldn’t  resist taking a photo of the orange Turkey-tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor) Ben spotted sprouting from a fallen long nearby. Turkey-tails come in a wide variety of colors!

turkey-tail-mushrooms-watershed

Turkey-tail mushrooms on a fallen log

In case you’re interested, this is the contractor’s forestry mower that cleared the shrubs at Stony Creek Ravine and also at  Watershed Ridge.

Shrug-chewing machine WR

Forestry mower used at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park and Watershed Ridge Park. Thanks to the Ruffed Grouse Society for your great work!

What an exciting beginning to restoring this piece of land and creating a park that the community can enjoy! It will take time to develop trails and any other amenities that are appropriate to this beautiful land with its woods, slopes and wetlands. We’ll try to keep you posted on developments.

Nature and Parks Stewardship: Partners in Fostering Our Natural Heritage

Stony Creek Ravine late autumn SCR

Stony Creek Ravine Park in late autumn

I’ve come to see that stewardship supports nature by mimicking it in so many ways. Seeds that create new growth each year drop to the ground or sail away on the wind to take root and grow into more life. And we gather native seed and carefully sow it in narrow furrows to do the same. Trees drop their leaves to make way for new ones next spring. We too clear away invasive plants and shrubs to make way for new life. Native seed, lying dormant in the underground seed bank for years, will now sense exposure to sunlight and moisture on the earth above, crack open and begin to sprout. And with those plants, eventually will come butterflies, other insects, and birds that eat or nest in those native plants, restoring the diverse habitat that is part of our area’s natural history.  So much life from simply giving nature a helping hand!

 

Footnote:  My sources for information,besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: Ritland, D. B., & Brower, L. P. (1991); Stokes Nature Guides: A Guide to Bird Behavior Volumes 1-3, Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; various Michigan Field Guides by Stan Tekiela; Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels; University of Wisconsin's Bug Lady at www4.uwm.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/ for insect info; http://www.migrationresearch.org/mbo/id/rbgr.html for migration info; invaluable wildflower identification from local expert, Maryann Whitman and the website www.illinoiswildflowers.info; experienced birder Ruth Glass, bird walk leader at Stoney Creek Metro Park for bird identification; Birds of North America Online; Audubon.org; Nature in Winter by Donald Stokes, Trees in My Forest by Bernd Heinrich, Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, Savannah River Ecology Lab (Univ of Georgia); Tortoise Trust website www.tortoisetrust.org;  An Orchard Invisible: A Natural History of Seeds by Jonathan Silvertown; The Ecology of Plants by Gurevitch, Scheiner and Fox; other sites as cited in the text.