Cranberry Lake Park: Traveling Through Time in the “Outer Space” of Nature

The Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park on a winter day

Will you forgive me if I take you back to February for a few minutes? Today it’s 60 degrees, the snow is melting even in the shadows and longer days remind us that the spring equinox is less than a week away. But I’d like to take you back for a few minutes to those days when, for me, walking the trails meant staring downward at icy ground to keep my footing. Calf-deep in February snow, I found myself prompted to recall a summer visitor. I took a turn toward a woodland pond and discovered a hidden world. And I saw and heard the harbingers of spring. Three snowy walks at Cranberry Lake Park lured me out into another realm for a few hours, where I mentally traveled to the past, through the present, and into the near future. So I hope you’ll strap on your mental snowshoes and join me for one last winter outing.

A cross-country skier on the Hickory Lane at Cranberry Lake Park

A Warm Memory on a Snowy Day

The trail into the park in February was a bit of a trudge one afternoon, negotiating my way among the icy footprints of visitors who’d come before me. But luckily near the first trail intersection, I looked up long enough to notice an exquisite little piece of architecture. A small, sturdy nest had been securely anchored in the upright fork of several branches of a small shrub. Though the nest was about four inches long, it was only about an inch and a half deep and about two and a half inches wide inside – a nest for a very small bird! [Click photo to enlarge.]

I know that Black-capped Chickadees nest in cavities rather than in cup nests out in the open. So my mind wandered back over the small cup-nesting birds I’d seen there last summer. Consulting both Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website and my Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds’ Nests, I discovered that the depth of the cup was too shallow for either the Song Sparrow or Field Sparrow, which were my first guesses. But then I remembered a small spark of sunshine that frequents that corner of the park each summer, a lemon yellow visitor who arrives from the Caribbean. This nest met all the measurements my sources listed for the nest of one of my favorite warblers. The female Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia) is my candidate for architect of this little marvel. She needs only four days to gather materials and weave her nest of plant fibers and spider webs, lining it with plant down. If this nest is hers, it’s survived a tough winter remarkably well! It probably won’t be reused, though; most birds build a fresh nest each year. But what a warming memory of last summer! Since I’m no expert at nests, I’m open to input if any of you have a different candidate for the creator of this little nest.

A female Yellow Warbler who may have built the nest I saw this winter.

Nearby on the Hickory Lane on another afternoon, my husband and I stood admiring a very shaggy Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata) with long shards of bark angling off its trunk. These wonderful trees can grow as high as 100 feet and can live as long as 350 years, according to Wikipedia. Shagbark Hickories reach maturity and start producing nuts at age 10. They don’t produce large numbers of them until they are 40 years old, but can continue until the ripe old age of 100. I remembered walking the lane last autumn with the crunch of hickory shells underfoot. Getting a wild hickory nut isn’t easy for us humans. They are too favored by squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, rabbits and birds, including wild turkeys, wood ducks and mallards.

A candidate for the shaggiest Shagbark Hickory on the lane at Cranberry Lake Park

In late winter for the last few years, I’ve ventured out to Cranberry Lake on the east side of the park to see whether the Beavers (Castor canadensis) have been restocking their food stores. Some years if they have not stockpiled quite enough leafy branches thrust down inside their lodge or in ice nearby, they come out on warm winter days to add a bit more. Beavers consume the leaves and the outer layers of bark from trees, along with some rhizomes (underground stems) and other plant material stored inside the lodge when the weather was warmer. This year I remembered those pointed stumps that I noticed a few years ago and headed out to check near the lodge. But I didn’t find any newly gnawed tree stumps near the edge of the lake. So this year, the beavers’ larder must have been stocked enough to get them through this snowy season..

A beaver lodge at the edge of Cranberry Lake with branches and tree trunks for food protruding from the lodge and on or in the ice nearby.

Wintry Adventures in the Present

The trail near three connected ponds at Cranberry Lake Park

Readers may remember my fondness for imagining how tracks get left in the snow. Noticing some at the edge of the Hickory Lane conjured a possible small drama. My husband and I came across a set of mouse prints leading to a small nook created by overhanging bark at the base of a tree. The tracks were blurry and seemed to be going in two directions. I wondered if perhaps a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) had scooted across the trail, turned back for a moment, spotted a potential threat and dashed toward this hiding place again. In any case, its tracks back out of the nook looked to be at a more normal pace, leaving tiny leaping footprints and tail marks in the snow. Of course this is all guesswork on my part. If you have another interpretation, please share it in the comments!

During the January walk with the birding group, a few of us ventured out onto the ice of a small pond along a trail that we take back toward the parking lot. I keep an eye on this pond in the summer because it’s frequented by Wood Ducks regularly and sometimes by Great Blue Herons as well. But on this trip, the ice was plenty thick enough to permit me to explore a bit further afield.

The northern section of the hidden pond where I look for Wood Ducks during the spring and summer

Doing what a friend calls “boot skating,” I slipped across the ice to find a vantage point from the middle of the northern part of the pond. Instead of the narrowed strip of water I’d peeked at from the forest in the summer, a second large section of the pond expanded out before me!

The second section of the hidden pond with a small outlet far at the left.

Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township stewardship manager, brought up a map of this area on his cellphone to show me that this pond actually had three sections, the farthest south connected to the others by a narrow stretch of water. I was instantly intrigued! After six years of hiking here, I was seeing something that I hadn’t know existed!

The ponds within the trail loop at Cranberry Lake Park

I couldn’t investigate that morning but my husband Reg and I returned several days later to begin exploring these unseen sections of the pond. What fun to shuffle and slip across the icy surface! Near the eastern edge of the pond, a giant tip-up loomed at the water’s edge. It turned out to be the combined roots of 3 tall trees that had been uprooted by a strong wind at some point in the past. I’d never seen a tip-up this big before!

My husband Reg near the three tree tip-up at the edge of the hidden pond’s second section.

Nearby, an old Black Willow (Salix nigra) slanted up out of the soil at a precarious angle. The roots appear to have been alive last year since a whole series of suckers protruded from the tree’s surface. But it was the amazing pattern of the aging bark that fascinated me, like the wrinkled skin of an ancient face.

An elderly Black Willow with wonderfully wrinkled bark

Moving south, we arrived at the narrow outlet that led to the third part of the pond.

The narrow outlet between the second and third sections of the pond

Stepping out of the narrow, tree-lined passageway, I felt a little thrill, as if I were entering a small, hidden world all its own. There was nothing spectacular about this shallower third pond really, except that it seemed more isolated , fringed with forest and farther from the trails that I normally take in and out of the park – a secret place ripe for discovery.

The third section of the hidden pond, surrounded by wetland and woods

We walked tentatively around the ice because it looked softer, perhaps shallower, and the edges gave way to water underfoot. I wondered if the pond would disappear in summer heat, sinking back into the wetland that lay around and beyond it. In warmer weather, it will be more challenging to reach this pond through dense trees, shrubs, tall grass and the mud that will surround it – but I hope to try.

We left by gingerly stepping from clump to clump of Tussock Sedges (Carex stricta) at the western edge of the pond. Sedges can look like grasses, but their triangular stems are different from the hollow, round stems of grasses. During the summer, the two-foot stems of Tussock Sedge produce seeds which, when carried by the wind, end up feeding Northern Cardinals, Wild Turkeys, Mallards and those Wood Ducks that I see in the spring.

Tussock Sedge produces wind-carried seeds that feed many species of birds. Photo by Frank Mayfield at inaturalist.org (CC BY-NC)

They also spread vegetatively into colonies through rhizomes. As the leaves wither, they drop onto the live plant below forming what look like plump, brown cushions during the winter.

The tall stems of Tussock Sedge fall onto the living plant below when they die, adding to the clumps that spread into colonies through underground rhizomes.

Looking Forward to Spring and Beyond

Two harbingers of spring greeted me on the way back to the parking lot last month. Despite the snow, the buds on a Silver Maple tree (Acer saccharinum) along the path were already swelling.

Silver Maple buds swelling as spring approaches

And nearby two male Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) participated in a singing competition, probably establishing their territories. One was perched off in the distance in a marsh, but the one near the trail paused his singing and posed for a moment.

One of the two cardinals announcing their territories by countersinging at Cranberry Lake Nature Park

Here’s an older recording I took of two cardinals doing the same thing.

The Tussock Sedges near the third hidden pond are host plants for the caterpillars of three butterflies: the Eyed Brown (Satyrodes eurydice), the Black Dash (Euphyes conspicua), and the Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris). I’ll be looking for them next summer nectaring on native wetland wildflowers and shrubs like Swamp Milkweed, Button Bush or Joe Pye, though some also get nutrition from bird droppings or tree sap. Knowing who might be there makes going next summer even more inviting!

The Thrill of Discovery in Another Realm

A massive “mackerel” cloud above the Eastern Meadow at Cranberry Lake Park

My friends will tell you that I’m fascinated by the new rover that landed on Mars recently. Watching the NASA video of the Perseverance robot being lowered to the surface or listening to the recording of the wind blowing on Mars completely delights and fascinates me. But really, we have a largely unknown world available to us right outside our doors. When I step into a new environment like the hidden pond at Cranberry Lake Park, I’m in another realm, too – a wild one very different from my human habitat. And that immediately delights and engages me. I wonder “What grows here and what part does it play in this habitat? Which creatures make their homes here in the summer months? Which birds will nest in this secret wetland out of sight from the trails? Could I find an active Yellow Warbler nest near the pond next summer now that I’ve learned to recognize one? What can I discover that I’ve never before seen, or if seen, not noticed?”

Maybe the impulse that drives NASA researchers to Mars is, in some small way, the same impulse that pushes me out the door on a snowy day to see what I can discover. For a few hours, I leave behind the warm, safe, enclosed human realm to experience the wildness of the other realm that surrounds me. In this nearby “outer space,” trees, wildflowers and grasses thrust themselves out of the ground, using sun, water and earth to grow and reproduce. In the cold, heat, rain and wind, wild creatures scurry, soar, leap, run, crawl and swim day and night year ’round. And when I leave their world behind and arrive back in my human one, I feel awake and alive. Thanks for traveling to nature’s “outer space” with me. I love having you along to share what I’m learning.

Cranberry Lake Park: Evidence of Things Unseen – Tracks of Night Visitors and Overnight Ice Sculptures

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Meadow at the center of Cranberry Lake Park in winter

Tracks, tracks, tracks – they’re everywhere in the parks after a good snowfall. Mostly they’re left by us humans and our dogs, of course, as they are in this photo of the meadow. But sometimes, tracks, distant bird calls, empty nests reveal hints of who’s exploring the park when we’re not there. Or, in the case of gorgeous ice crystals on a puddle, or a huge beaver lodge, we discover what’s occurred when we weren’t looking.

Who’s Been Here While We Weren’t?

Heading into Cranberry Lake Park with the birders one morning, we stopped at Ben’s urging to listen to the distant call and tapping of a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus.) (Listen at this highlighted Cornell link under “typical voice.”)  These very large woodpeckers make huge rectangular holes as they create nest holes or search for carpenter ants in trees. According to Cornell Lab, the holes offer shelter later to swifts, owls, wood ducks and other birds. We never got to see this huge member of the woodpecker family that morning, but even hearing it, you sense real wildness close by. Joan Bonin, a township birder, took this excellent picture of  a Pileated Woodpecker on a cherry tree in her back yard. Thanks for sharing, Joan!

pileated-woodpecker-by-joan-bonin

Photo of a Pileated Woodpecker by local photographer and birder, Joan Bonin.

Winter nights at the park must be full of scurrying animals.  An Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) went bounding across a wooden platform at the edge of a trail (left below). To hop, rabbits push off with their front paws (center photo) and swing their powerful back legs forward –  hence the shape of their tracks (right). Wonder if this cottontail was fleeing something or just full of exuberance on a snowy night? (Hover for captions; click on photo to enlarge.)

Meanwhile, out in the meadow, a White-footed Mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) must have stopped to explore  a clump of exposed grass, and then another. Mice don’t hibernate in winter; that’s why they sometimes seek warmth and food in our houses! After a rain, you can sometimes spot tunnels mice dig under the snow to keep out of sight. Thanks to Creative Commons Photographer Greg Lasley for his photo of this little nighttime adventurer.

According to a delightful article in the New York Times, occasionally mice use their prehensile tails to climb small trees; line an abandoned nest with grass, milkweed fluff and feathers; tuck a snack under the lining and spend the night! So I probably should have looked more closely at this nest which may have been made by an American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis), since it’s cup-shaped and wedged between several branches in a small tree.

Goldfinch nest? CL

A White-footed Mouse might have found this nest a cozy place on a winter night.

Perhaps a mouse at Cranberry Lake could tuck some of these Highbush Cranberries (Viburnum trilobum) into an abandoned nest for a midnight snack.

High-bush cranberries might make a delicious snack.

While not actually a cranberry, highbush cranberries might make a delicious snack for wildlife.

Heading north from the meadow, a straight line of round prints led from the path to a pond. Two Canid prints, one on the top of the other,  appeared inside each of these tracks in  fluffy snow.  I’m guessing it was a fox.  Foxes travel in a straight line to save as much energy as they can while foraging. They also place their back foot inside the track of front one, probably for the same reason.  (Dogs get fed, so their tracks wander all over the place!)  The fox (if that’s what it was!) that left the tracks to the pond seemed to be headed out onto the icy pond – perhaps an easier path for a light animal than going through the brush. The fox on the right is a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) I saw trotting at dusk near our home.

On the path to Cranberry Lake,  night wanderers left their marks. The birders noticed tracks (left below) of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) heading, like the fox,  toward a frozen forest pool.  We surmised that a Raccoon (Procyon lotor) left the five-toed tracks (center photo) which spread as the snow melted and then got covered in ice after a freezing rain. A possum waddled along under the shrubbery leaving its tiny pairs of  five-pointed tracks (right) as it nosed in the snow.

 What Occurred When We Weren’t Looking?

One morning, a shallow puddle on the path had turned to ice but, wow!  The surface was covered with 3 dimensional ice crystals, like tiny, leafy ice sculptures all over the puddle.

multiple-ice-crystals-cl

A frozen puddle covered with 3-D ice dendrites, a type of  ice crystal.

According to a website called SnowCrystals.com, these crystals are called Ice Dendrites. They form at low temperatures and high humidity, a condition which had occurred the previous night. The word “dendritic” means “tree-like,” and indeed these do branch. I don’t remember seeing these free-standing ice crystals before, so I sat down in the snow and took a closer look. Amazing!

Ice crystal closeup CL

A free-standing ice dendrite, a kind of ice crystal, growing on the surface of a puddle at Cranberry Lake.

Ice crystals CL

Ice dendrites, branching ice crystals, on the surface of a puddle at Cranberry Lake

Near the large pond in the center of the park, the dark fertile leaves (or fronds) of the Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis) poked out of the snow. The underground stem of this plant (called a rhizome) is fed through photosynthesis by its large bright green leaves of summer. But the rhizome also produces separate, specialized dark fronds which are fertile and small enough to go unnoticed (at least by me!) in the summer. They support clusters of sporangia, little brown beads which contain the spores that will sail off in the wind next summer to start new plants. They give this interesting plant its other name, Bead Fern. Fascinating that these two photos are different leaves/fronds of the same plant.

Sensitive Fern infertile fronds in summer.

Sensitive Fern infertile fronds feed the rhizome, or underground stem of the plant in the summer.

The fertile fronds that support the "beads" that contain the spores of Sensitive Fern.

The fertile fronds that support the “beads” that contain the spores of Sensitive Fern.

One icy morning I  took a walk out onto Cranberry Lake. People were skating and ice fishing on the opposite side of the lake.  As I looked to my left, I caught sight of the very large lodge of a North American Beaver (Castor canadensis).  

Beaver Lodge CL

A Beaver lodge on the west edge of Cranberry Lake

According to Northern Woodlands.org, beavers build lodges with branches, debris and grass, coating the surface with mud but leaving ventilation at the top. The entrance is safely under the water. Then they cut fresh branches and anchor them to mud on the lake bottom nearby so they can feed on the bark in the winter. You can see some protruding from the ice in front of of the lodge.

Young branches stuck in the mud near the beaver lodge provide winter food under the ice.

Young branches stuck in the mud near the beaver lodge provide winter food under the ice.

Inside, the lodges have a feeding platform just above the water and a higher, drier sleeping platform covered with shredded wood fibers and grass. Beavers store fat in their tails, which shrink over the winter as the fat is used up. With a family of beavers inside plus snow and mud insulation, it’s a relatively snug place to spend the winter. So glad I could get out on the ice to see it!

Winter Requires Eyes, Ears and Imagination

Trackless path CL

An unmarked path to Cranberry Lake one winter morning

Winter walks are more challenging, but they have their compensations. It’s fun to be the first to step onto a pure white path on a snowy morning. Blue forest shadows make patterns on the untrod snowy trail.

Forest shadows on snow

Forest shadows on the path to Cranberry Lake

Birds are fewer, more furtive and some are less colorful in the winter months, but hearing their group singing in a thicket or a distant call or tap is a companionable sound on a cold morning.

Female Downy Woodpecker CL

A female Downy Woodpecker taps along the branch of a tree

Tracks leading hither and yon help us imagine a moonlit night with a fox trotting across an icy pond or deer running with their white tails flashing in the darkness. Following tracks like an amateur detective makes winter walking a bit of an adventure as we imagine the unseen world of Cranberry Lake on a winter night.

 

 

Footnote:  My sources for information, besides Oakland Township's Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide, are as follows: 
Allaboutbirds.org, the website of the Cornell Ornithology Lab at Cornell University; Wikipedia; Herbarium of the University of Michigan at michiganflora.net; 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)and websites linked in the text.