Oakland Township Stewardship Manager Ben VanderWeide and I both got inspired by the idea of a year-end reflection on some of the remarkable sights in our parks and natural areas over the last year. Nature excels in surprising and delighting any curious observer with its ability to come back from adversity, in some cases to even thrive in difficult circumstances. That ability to keep on growing and creating in the face of any obstacle can be a great inspiration in challenging times.
So as the snow falls, please sit back in a comfortable chair with a warm drink and savor some highlights from the four seasons of 2017 here in Oakland Township.
Winter 2017: Serenity Rises as the Snow Falls
Sometimes we just need a little less hubbub after the holidays and the parks provide a peaceful escape. In general, the only sounds are the wind in bare branches, the occasional calls of the year ’round birds and the tapping of energetic woodpeckers foraging in the tree bark. And other times, when we feel a bit house-bound and crave crisp air on red cheeks, a winter walk provides little discoveries unavailable in other seasons. During one deep freeze last winter, the weekly birding group stepped out on the ice at Cranberry Lake to inspect a beaver lodge. And a few weeks later, I plopped down in the snow for a closer look at 3-D ice dendrites standing upright on a frozen puddle! Folks enjoyed the fine skating rink at Marsh View Park, but some who fancied wild surroundings skated on Twin Lake. On sunny winter days, shadows are always sharp and any spot of color, like the brilliant red of a male cardinal, catches my eye in winter’s clear, white light. Hiking in winter can be wonderful; just be sure you’re bundled up for it! (Click on pause button for longer captions.)
Spring 2017: Buds, First Blooms, Migrators Flying in by Night and the Ebullient Symphony of Courting Birds and Frogs
Ah, mud-luscious spring! The tiny Chorus and Wood Frogs thawed out after their winter freeze and sang lustily from vernal ponds. In early spring, the birders spotted a crayfish at Bear Creek who’d climbed out of her chimney with eggs under her tail and was lumbering toward the pond. Some spring avian migrators quickly passed through, and we bird watchers were lucky to spot a few special visitors. An unusual American Pipit appeared before my camera lens one afternoon at Gallagher Creek Park on its way to its breeding grounds in the far north. While others, like the Tree Swallow or the Eastern Meadowlark, settled in for the summer to raise their young. After last year’s controlled burn, native Lupines appeared along the Paint Creek Trail. And in May, Ben spotted a rare sight, a frilly spread of rare Bogbean flowers in a kettle wetland at Bald Mountain State Recreation Area off Kern Road. Snow melt and bright green buds always offer an irresistible invitation to come out and join the bustle and music of spring!
Summer 2017: Butterflies Galore as Restored Prairies Began to Bloom
Summer! The very word conjures up a coloring box assortment of butterflies hovering over prairie wildflowers. Birds constructed their nests and later wore themselves out feeding noisy, demanding fledglings. We birders particularly enjoyed close looks at a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak sharing egg-warming duties near a Bear Creek path. The birders laughed in surprise watching a passive/aggressive pair of Canada Geese successfully discourage the presence of a Green Heron by simply swimming uncomfortably close to it. A family ambled along a path at Draper Twin Lake Park, headed for a morning fishing expedition. The birding group, binoculars in hand, spotted an Indigo Bunting while walking the new paths through the prairies at Charles Ilsley Park, increasingly spangled with colorful native wildflowers as restoration proceeds. A Great Horned Owl stared at the delighted birding group through a scrim of leaves near Bear Creek marsh. Every path in the township hummed with life during the summer months. But that’s what we all expect of summer, right?
Autumn 2017: Birds Departed South, and Fall Wildflowers Bloomed
Tundra Swans flew in formation overhead, as migrators of all kinds, like the Hermit Thrush, rode the north wind down to southern climes. But as they departed, nature offered a consolation. Many native wildflowers bloomed in the cool weather as they faithfully do each year. Asters formed carpets of color everywhere, from meadow to marsh! At the Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail, tiny Ladies Tresses orchids, Grass of Parnassus with its delicately striped petals, and vivid purple Fringed Gentian intrigued me again by emerging in the chill of early autumn. Native bumblebees pushed their way into Bottle Gentian flowers at Gallagher Creek Park and the Wet Prairie. Butterflies still sipped nectar from late fall blooms. The birders identified ducks of all kinds assembled in rafts on Cranberry Lake. Rattling cries alerted me to the presence of Belted Kingfishers who scouted for prey at both Bear Creek’s pond and Cranberry Lake. Ben dipped his net into a marsh at Charles Ilsley Park to show us tadpoles that overwinter on the muddy surface beneath the water. So much life as the year 2017 began to ebb!
Parks Full of Life All Year ‘Round. Aren’t We Lucky?
As a direct result of the foresight of township residents who have supported the Parks Commission and land preservation, native plants, wildlife, birds, and a beautifully diverse combination of habitats are being restored and preserved in Oakland Township. I want to share my appreciation for that foresight and for the hard work and knowledge of Ben VanderWeide (my kind and able supervisor and editor), other parks volunteers, my fellow birders and park staff. And at the end of the year, I thank all of you who read, comment on and/or follow Natural Areas Notebook. It’s wonderful to be learning more all the time about the natural world – and then to have this opportunity to share what I’m learning with all of you. On to 2018!
Curiously, many native wildflowers like a little disturbance now and then. So township natural areas manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, sees that they get just what they need! By eliminating invasive shrubs, native plants grow stronger as sunlight reaches their previously shade-suppressed leaves. Regular prescribed burns help many fire-adapted native species emerge from the seed bank and thrive. The Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) along the Paint Creek Trail (seen above) are loving all the upheaval from invasive shrub removal three years ago. Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum), and Swamp Buttercups (Ranunculus hispidus) are flourishing for the same reason at Gallagher Creek Park. Native wildflowers are emerging in greater numbers all over Cranberry Lake Park after a recent burn. Below is a small sampling of local native wildflowers which benefit from the Parks Commission’s efforts to restore our natural heritage.
Well, what a change! Two weeks ago, we had spring flowers, leaf buds and spring courtship as birds sang and showed off in the treetops. And then came the heat and sun, and suddenly, it was early summer with leaves seeming to enlarge by the hour, spring flowers disappearing to be replaced by early summer blooms, more baby birds and the first dragonflies swooping along the paths in front of us.
So let’s explore just a few of the wildflowers and creatures that shared this change with us. (Plus some lovely post-prescribed burn surprises along the Paint Creek Trail.)
When it was still spring…
Late Spring Birds and a Fun Insect
The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s (Pheucticus ludovicianus) long, tuneful song was everywhere in Bear Creek in the last weeks of spring. Now their nests are finished and singing has to accompany the task of raising young. Both the male and female build that nest and care for the young – a very modern couple! (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)
Nearby, hopping from limb to limb, two male Yellow Warblers (Setophaga petechia) sang their seductive “Sweet, sweet, I’m a little sweet” song as they chased each other through the small trees at the edge of the woods. I never spotted the female, though she must have been nearby. She lacks the rusty striping of the male and has a more olive back.
In the fields behind the Playground Pond, a pair of Eastern Towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) were getting acquainted. The male was not singing his “Drink your Tea-a-a-a-” call, so I think the two may have been looking for a nesting sight. I’d never seen the female Towhee before and she’s quite different from the male’s coloring.
Speaking of nesting, I found this large egg under one of the walnut trees near the lane. If one end hadn’t been missing, it would have been about 2 1/2 inches long. And there was nothing inside. I’m wondering if it could be the shell from the egg of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that I’ve seen off and on near the Center Pond. Cornell Lab describes the Red-tail’s eggs as 2.2 to 2.7 inches long and “white or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.” What do you think? Any bird egg experts out there?
A flash of iridescent green at my feet signaled the hyper presence of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata)who frequents the forest edge. I imagine it got its name because its larva, developing in a burrow during the summer, springs up out of its hole to catch prey! A tiny, green, stalking tiger! Cool how their antennae and legs are as green as their bodies.
Late Spring Wildflowers and Leaves
Two weeks ago, the Oak-Hickory forest was filled with big, beautiful Wild Geraniums (Geranium maculatum). These lovely lavender flowers carpet the area near the marsh every year, but this year they were all over the park – taller, more plentiful and with larger blooms than I’ve ever seen! Perhaps this year’s and last year’s prescribed burns helped.
Each year I wait for the blossoming of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) that stands east of the Northern Loop. I was intrigued to learn that the actual flowers are only the center of these blossoms. The “petals” are actually bracts, specialized leaves that attract pollinators by glamorizing the cluster of tiny center flowers. Here are three pictures of the buds, encased in their bracts, opening as May progresses.
While the Flowering Dogwood buds were opening, the leaves of the Shagbark Hickory(Carya ovata)were just emerging from their amazing buds.
The huge White Oaks (Quercus alba)near Snell Road were producing miniature red leaves that, two weeks later, were green and stretching out to catch the sunlight.
Of course, the May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) were producing their modest white flowers that hang hidden beneath an umbrella of leaves.
Another spring favorite of mine are the little hands of Early Meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) that find spots of sun in the mottled spring light of the woods.
Down at the pond, tiny aquatic buttercups, called White Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus longirostris)floated in large swirls across the pond. Once the heat arrived, the flowers disappeared and the brown stems are now making a not-so-lovely brown mat until they sink below the surface.
Heat! And Summer Rushes Forward
Summer Birds and other Creatures
A Green Heron (Butorides virescens), one of our summer residents, perched in a snag (standing dead tree) at the Center Pond. I usually see them fishing at the water’s edge. According to Cornell Lab, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” I will be watching now to see if I can catch one doing that!
Out in Bear Creek Marsh, Ben and an experienced birder, Antonio Xeira, heard the call of a seldom-seen denizen of wetlands, the Sora (Porzana carolina). This waterbird, a member of the Rail family, with a heavy yellow beak and stock body, stalks quietly among the cattails, looking for seeds, insects and snails. Its whinnying call is particularly dramatic. Ben and Antonio recognized its other two tone “ker-wee” call at the marsh. Click on its picture here and go halfway down this page for its song and call. I’d never even heard of Sora before!
A delightful sight greeted the Wednesday birders at the Playground Pond last week. A mother Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) was escorting her six ducklings around the pond, as well as what appeared to be two Hooded Merganser chicks (Lophodytes cucullatus)! Ben surmised that perhaps a Merganser had laid its eggs in the nest hole of the Wood Duck and she ended up hatching them along with her own. Here’s a photo of the adult female with her own chicks and a photo of a Hooded Merganser baby that swam with them. This Merganser duckling jumps from a tree hole when one day old and swims on its own. It takes 3 days for the Wood Duck’s ducklings to do the same.
Down at the Center Pond, the “boing-boing” banjo sound of the Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans) creates part of the summer music at Bear Creek. You can tell this one’s a male because its tympanum, a kind of external ear drum, is larger than its eye. I like this one’s tentative expression.
And the Common White-tail Dragonfly (Plathemis lydia)makes a soft whir-r-r as it soars by, looking for prey. This one’s a female, because the male’s abdomen is white, which accounts for its common name.
As the heat began, wildflowers started to bloom in the native beds near the parking lot. One of the loveliest is native Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis) glowing lavender and white in the warm sunlight.
Nearby was a plant I’d never seen until Ben VanderWeide, our stewardship manager, made me aware of it. It has the lovely name of Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium). To me each tiny blossom resembles a tiny Iris. It’s called “grass” because it has grass-like leaves and stems with parallel veins that are hard to distinguish from a grass when there aren’t any flowers. The flowers only open fully in full sunlight, so it can be easy to miss early in the morning or on a cloudy day. But isn’t it pretty in the late spring/early summer?
And another early summer favorite is spreading abundantly in the native bed north of the shed. Canada Anemone’s (Anemone canadensis) lovely white flowers stand gracefully above its deep green foliage .
Sunny Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) accompany these other native plants in the wild garden in the driveway center, one of the native beds and across from the Playground Pond. This one’s hosting a Spittle Bug or Frog Hopper, common names for the super-family of insects called Cercopoidea. The adult insects can hop 100 times their length! The foam is used for protection for the nymph stage of development. Though the nymph sucks on the plant, it generally doesn’t hurt the plant much. Most of the liquid is used to create that evidently nasty-tasting froth that deters predators.
Ben and his crew planted some native Prairie Phlox across from the Playground Pond, another area of Bear Creek to be slowly stocked with native plants.
Warm weather brought out the exotic-looking blooms of native Wild Columbine in the bed just north of the shed. These lovely native wildflowers grew down the side of a hill east of the park when it was a farm back in the 1930s and 40s.
And out in the eastern Old Field, lots of native Common Milkweed appeared once the grasses were knocked back by the prescribed burn in March. No doubt all the nutrients that were released into the soil then, plus the longer growing season caused by the darkened earth, will give it a little boost. Hope the Monarch Butterflies take note!
And now the Paint Creek Trail surprise…
This spring, Ben VanderWeide, the Township Stewardship Manager, and volunteers did a prescribed burn along the Paint Creek Trail near the parking lot at Gallagher Road. The purpose, as always, was to stimulate native plants and discourage non-native invasive ones. Also prescribed fire releases nutrients from last year’s plants back into the soil.
Partly as result of this process, some lovely native plants emerged this year in greater numbers than before the burn. Look at this lovely photo Ben took of a native Yellow Ladyslipper orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum) – and there were lots of them hidden within the burgeoning grass. You can certainly see where this lovely wildflower got its name – a graceful slipper with ribbons attached!
The grass was also shining with Star-grass (Hypoxis hirsuta), a small yellow native that hosts small bees and other pollinators. It’s lucky there were lots of these shining stars this year because they need other plants to cross pollinate, which of course is assisted by the bees. Here’s Ben’s photo.
Along the tree line near the parking lot at Gallagher, a yellow cloud of Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) nodded in the wind. Ben caught this one up close.
And Ben also noted a Sedge plant (family Cyperaceae) with its interesting bloom. As I mentioned two weeks ago, sedges are ancient plants that look something like grasses but are constructed differently. Ancient Egyptians used sedges to make papyrus.
Ben tells me that beautiful native wildflowers like Culver’s Root(Veronicastrum virginicum), Showy Tick-trefoil(Desmodium canadense) and other prairie plants are “sprouting vigorously” along the trail north Gallagher Road – so click on the links to see them and then keep an eye out for them!
So treat yourself. Hang some binoculars around your neck and look at birds up close – both the year ’round residents and the summer visitors. Take your time. Stand near a patch of summer flowers and watch quietly. See what surprises you. Maybe a bee that turns out to be a harmless hover fly. Or the shiny glamour of the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle. Try using your cell phone to take a shot of a single flower you’ve never noticed before and then identify it when you get home. I promise you’ll relax. Your breath will slow, you’ll smile a bit more, life will just get more interesting. Nature comes alive in ways you’d never expect when you give it your undivided attention. Let us know what you find!
Footnote: My sources for information 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; 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.
Before European settlement, our special area of Michigan was actually an Oak Savannah with large expanses of tall waving grasses,
widely scattered, spreading oaks
and other native trees, shrubs and prairie wildflowers. During the spring and summer, ground-nesting birds like the Northern Bobwhite Quail (Colinus virginianus) settled among tall grass stems, producing young. Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) sang their burbling song while swaying on grass stems. The Eastern Meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) whistled their slow song from perches in low shrubs. Later, in the 1800’s, non-native game birds like Ring-necked Pheasants(Phasianus colchicus) were introduced and took advantage of the tall grass for cover.
On November 14 and 15, Oakland Township’s Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, took a huge step forward in prairie restoration on 20 acres of Draper Twin Lake Park and another 18 acres in Charles Ilsley Park. The hope is that residents will be able to experience the land as it may have looked before and that native residents – birds, animals, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees of the prairie – can return, adding more rich diversity to the plants and wildlife of Oakland Township.
The process began in the summer of 2014 as crews working with Dr. Ben began removing the non-native and invasive species that had taken over the land after farming had ceased. This meant long hours of cutting woody invasive trees and shrubs like Autumn Olive, Multiflora Rose and Glossy Buckthorn which had quickly colonized the open land, and then treating the stumps to prevent re-growth. The process continued this summer until one beautifully rolling 20 acre field was finally prepared for planting in Draper Twin Lake Park.
Two other rolling fields of 5 and 13 acres at Charles Ilsley Park were also cleared and prepared.(Click on double photos for larger view. Rest cursor on photos for captions.) Two more 15 acre fields are being prepared for planting in 2016 and 2017.
Dr. Ben sought out a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant to purchase wild seed for these areas and then carefully selected a list of plants suitable for our specific sites. Township residents will need to be patient, since prairie flowers spend their first two to three years putting down deep roots. These deep roots help prairie plants survive drought conditions or fire to which they became adapted over thousands of years of fluctuations in climate and periodic fire. In fact, carefully controlled prescribed burns will be used periodically on these prairies in the future because regular burning helps native plants thrive and thwarts non- natives who are not adapted to it. Some native plants even require fire in order to bloom!
A few flowers will begin to appear next spring, but the prairies should really start blooming vigorously by the spring and summer of 2018. Here are just a few of the prairie grasses and wildflowers that will be gracing our prairies then. (Click on photos to enlarge them and hover your cursor over the photo for plant names.)
Along with these more familiar native plants, Dr. Ben also included grasses and flowers that used to bloom here but that we see less often now. Click on these links to see Foxglove Beardtongue(Penstemon digitalis), Wild Lupine(Lupinus perennis), andSky-blue Asters(Symphyotrichum oolentangiense). And that’s only a sample of the 36 species of plants Dr. Ben ordered!
With those plants up and growing, our parks can attract more butterflies and native prairie birds like those mentioned above or maybe other special species, such as the Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus), or Henslow’s Sparrow.
So that November weekend, Jerry Stewart from Native Connections brought equipment designed for planting native seed. Jerry first carefully calibrated the seed drill for the seed type, planting rate, and depth. He then loaded seed in the hoppers and was ready to go.
Four of our former OT stewardship technicians, who had worked hard to clear land for this project, joined Dr. Ben and Parks Commissioner Colleen Barkham (not pictured) to see the moment when the seed finally went into the ground. The former technicians are now finishing up school or pursuing careers in various environmental fields.
Now the native seed is in and next spring, sturdy native wildflowers and grasses will begin sinking their roots deep into the soil, a survival strategy that will take them 2 or 3 summers. And then in year three or four, we will be able to watch prairies in full bloom again in Oakland Township. As time passes we hope the wildlife return – butterflies floating above swaying grass and native wildflowers, while the Bobolinks sing and the “Bob-White!” whistle returns to grace the summer months. Dr. Ben shared some photos taken on the Flint Hills prairie in Kansas (where he completed his doctorate) in order to help us dream until then.
The purple spikes of wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) and yellow splashes of hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) are fading in the oak barren remnants along the Paint Creek Trail. Both species flower in May and early June each year, and are toward the end of their flowering periods this year. These plants give us small reminders of the special plants that used to be more widespread in the oak barrens of southern Michigan, but have mostly disappeared. As these plants have disappeared, many of the pollinators (think bees, moths, butterflies, and wasps) that rely on these native plants have declined or disappeared too.
Oak barrens, which used to cover about 2% of Michigan and 28% of Oakland County, are a type of savanna that typically has low tree cover. The ground cover in oak barrens contains prairie species in open areas and forest species in the shaded areas under widely spaced black and white oaks. Oak barrens are fire-dependent, which means that they need fire to keep them from becoming closed forest. Plants like wild lupine and hoary puccoon depend on fire to maintain their open habitat. Before European settlement, lightning strikes and fire intentionally set by Native Americans maintained oak barrens in this open state. As European settlers moved in, the open oak barrens changed quickly. Farmers plowed many savannas in the Midwest because they had few trees. Settlers also extinguished the frequent, low-intensity fires that the oak barrens needed to survive. Within a few years, trees quickly grew, the canopy closed, and the open oak barrens became forests.
As we work to restore oak barrens in Oakland Township, we collect seeds from the native plants in our prairie and oak savanna, including wild lupine and hoary puccoon. We hope that by restoring oak barrens, both native plants and animals will benefit. If you’d like to help collect seeds, or learn more about prairie and oak barrens restoration, please check out our volunteer opportunities!