Stewardship Volunteering: An Invitation to Befriend Our Native Landscape

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

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

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

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

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

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

Why Not Literally Be “For the Birds?”

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

Ramble the Parks with the Wednesday Morning Bird Group

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

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

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

A female Bluebird bringing nesting material to her box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two volunteers gathering native wildflower seed at Charles Ilsley Park.

Gathering the Seed

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

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

Preparing the Seed for Sowing

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

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

Sowing the Seed

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

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

The stewardship crew planting in early spring, 2021

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

Volunteers monitoring a vernal pool in the early spring

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

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

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

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

Lend a Hand at Cutting and Burning Invasive Shrubs and Vines

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

Attend Garlic Pulls on a Spring Morning

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

Who Benefits More? Me or the Natural Areas?

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

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

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

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

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

Watershed Ridge: Water Works Its Miracles in a Small Restored Wetland

I’m a convert; I’ve come to love wetlands. I grew up avoiding them, icky mud underfoot and the ever present annoyance of so many bugs, for heaven’s sake! But these days, camera swinging at my hip, binoculars bouncing on my chest, I often head straight for the muddy edge of a wetland.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Shady swamps and vernal pools, sunny marshes and ponds, streams winding through a woodland, water seeping up from beneath the soil or trickling down a slope – that’s where life is swooping, singing, croaking, mating, predating, fluttering and buzzing in every park I visit. Oh, I relish a shady woods on a hot summer day, and I delight in the color and sway of a dancing prairie. But often a wetland is where the action is.

A berm constructed last fall has created open water between two wetlands at the bottom of a slope at Watershed Ridge Park – and creatures are making the most of it!

Last autumn, our Oakland Township Stewardship Manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, worked with local US Fish and Wildlife colleagues to restore several wetlands at Watershed Ridge Park that had been drained for agriculture years ago. One of these wetlands extends between two existing wetlands, and with a berm now holding some of the existing water and this summers downpours, a small area of open water now stands at the bottom of a former agricultural field. It may not look beautiful to you, but it certainly looked inviting to a remarkable number of interesting creatures.

On the Way to the Wetland

One recent Sunday, my husband Reg spotted a Leopard Frog (Rana pipiens), its bright green spotted skin and light stripes (technically “dorsolateral folds”) shining up out of dry grass around the parking lot. I’d been hoping to see these frogs, having noticed them at this park in previous years. Their colors vary from brown to green, but the bright green ones are my favorites. Leopard Frogs use their speed and great leaping ability to escape predators so we were lucky to get this close to one.

A Leopard Frog paused for a portrait in dry stalks at the edge of the parking lot at Watershed Ridge Park.
Horseweed

We followed the path to the west of the parking lot out into a the field that runs along Buell Road. Though the land looks dry and barren now, dotted with Horseweed (Conyza canadensis), Ben thinks that the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which designed and constructed the wetland restoration to Ben’s concept, will be planting native prairie seed in these fields late this fall. Native grass and wildflower seed generally requires a period of cold weather in order to germinate in the spring.

Passing through the hedgerow to the second field, we came upon an Orange Sulphur Butterfly (Colias eurytheme) darting restlessly from stem to stem, back and forth across the path. I despaired of getting a shot of its fully opened wings; it scurries about very quickly and folds its wings at rest. But eventually I caught it in flight further away. Look at the dramatic difference! The yellow spots in the black wing borders indicate that this is a female Orange Sulphur. (Click on photos to enlarge)

As we reached the crest of the slope above the wetland, a Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) lifted from the edge of the little wetland, rose on its powerful wings, and disappeared to the north. What a hopeful sign that life had found its way to this tiny pond! We’ll discover what brought it to the pond a bit further on. Since I missed this glorious visitor, here’s a photo of a flying heron that I took at Lost Lake Park in 2018.

A Great Blue Heron on the wing

And Then the Dragonflies Began…

Moving toward the pond, I whirled around to catch a shot of something yellow whizzing by me. The creature never stopped moving, sailing far away and circling back time after time. My photo is a bit blurred because of its speed. But luckily, it was clear enough for dragonfly aficionados of the Facebook group “Odonata of the Eastern United States” to identify it for me as a Wandering Glider (Pantala Flavescens) – a dragonfly that was completely new to me!

A Wandering Glider dragonfly on the wing above the restored wetland

This golden dragonfly, it turns out, can fly a bit over five feet per second and according to Wikipedia, keeps moving “tirelessly with typical wandering flight for hours without making any perch.” All of that made me feel better about my photo! These Gliders are world travelers that migrate to our area each summer. Some of them make an annual multigenerational migration (like the Monarch butterfly) of about 11,200 miles, with each individual flying more than 3,700 miles! They are found on every continent except Antarctica. They’ve been recorded flying over 20,000 feet high in the Himalayas! A true super-hero insect – and I’m so pleased that it found our little wetland to its liking! Here’s a much more glamorous photo of this insect athlete taken and generously shared by drketaki, a photographer at iNaturalist.org.

A female Wandering Glider in its infrequent state of rest! Photo by drketaki (CC BY-NC at inaturalist.org

As we approached the pond, Reg and I realized that we had come upon a dragonfly hotspot. Dragonflies hovered, swooped, and whizzed in the air above the pond. Occasionally one would pause to cling to the stem of some aquatic plant and then whooosh! – off it went for another round of the pond or to make a brief foray into the surrounding field.

At the pond edge, another new acquaintance presented itself. A dark blue-black dragonfly with a sharply pointed abdomen clasped a dead stalk. Seeing those ragged black patches along the edges of the hindwing next to its abdomen, I remembered finding a photo of a Black Saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) after seeing this wing pattern on a dragonfly years ago. Such an appropriate name!

A male Black Saddlebags dragonfly who may be finished mating and is now aging.

I was puzzled, though, because my dragonfly guide says that these dragonflies should have yellow spots on section 7 of the abdomen and this one at Watershed Ridge had only a faint orange/red mark. A helpful aficionado at the dragonfly Facebook group, though, verified that indeed, it was a Black Saddlebags but added that the color change was probably due to age. It’s believed that these insects migrate from points south (perhaps as far as Cuba) to breed here; their offspring then return to the south. This Saddlebags probably mated many times during his journey to our little wetland, and may be nearing the end of his life now. Isn’t he a lovely midnight blue? And I admire the color-coordinated blue stigma (tiny colored cells) at the tip of each wing.

Farther down the pond, I saw two mated, dark dragonflies flying about in tandem, the male gripping the female as they dashed around the pond. I snapped another blurry shot as they zoomed about. When I sharpened the photo in the computer for a closer look, the light glinting off their bodies made them appear spotted. So I’m still not sure of their identification. But the position of the male’s grasping and their overall dark color makes me think that maybe they were a mated pair of Black Saddlebags. After mating, the Saddlebags male grasps the female as they patrol the still water. Then she periodically drops to the surface to deposit eggs, then returns to the embrace of her mate to repeat the process many times. I’d like to think that the life cycle of the Black Saddlebags – or perhaps some other dark dragonfly – repeated itself at this restored wetland – one male almost finished with his life and another pair creating more of their kind.

A mated pair of dark dragonflies, perhaps Black Saddlebags, flying in tandem as the female periodically drops down to lay her eggs.

I spotted familiar dragonflies, too, of course. The black-and-white striped wings of a Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) flashed like Morse code as it flew by. Eventually I found it, resting for few minutes on a stem near the pond’s edge. These skimmers are quite accommodating for photographers; they choose a perch and return to it repeatedly, even if disturbed.

A Twelve-spotted Skimmer is named for its 12 black spots, though the males have an extra 8 white ones.

The bronze shimmer on the wings of a female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) caught the sunlight as she perched peacefully on a dry plant stem. According to Kurt Mead in Dragonflies of the North Woods, these skimmers “hang beneath overarching leaves” during the night. I’d love to see that.

The black patches next to the abdomen of this female Widow Skimmer are smaller than the male’s who also has white bands beyond the black ones.

Common Whitetail dragonflies (Plathemis lydia) tend to perch on a flat surface, wings outstretched rather than clinging to stems like many dragonflies. A mature male joined the throng at Watershed Ridge Park but uncharacteristically chose to settle on a bent stem thrusting out of the decaying plant material that covers much of the water surface at the new wetland. Perhaps the more colorful competition at the pond edge was too intense for him. The broad black patch near the end of his wings, the smaller patch near the thorax and the powdery (pruinose) white abdomen are field marks for Whitetail males.

A Common Whitetail male chooses a decaying stem for a perch.

A male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) protected his feeding perch and his mate will do the same once she returns. These dragonflies consume lots of mosquito larva (hooray!) and other small moths or flies – up to 10% of their body weight each day! According to Wikipedia, their hunting technique is just to stay very still and dart out to snatch any prey that ventures close to them, an activity in birds and insects called “hawking.” The striped thorax, blue abdomen, huge, iridescent green eyes and white face are male field marks of these Dashers.

A Blue Dasher male can be identified at a distance by his blue abdomen, striped thorax and large green eyes.

Damselflies, the other member of the order Odonata, had found their way to the wetland, too. This emerald green beauty is an Eastern Forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), a plentiful species in our area.

A male Eastern Forktail dragonfly. These fellows fly from late June to October so keep your eyes open near water!

The one in my photo is a male, but I believe I saw a mature blue female Eastern Forktail ovipositing her eggs in plant material – but she was very tiny and at a great distance. So here’s a wonderful photo of just what I saw by another photographer, Mark Nenadov, who generously shared his work on Wikipedia (CC BY).

Other Signs of Renewed Life at the Wetland

Reg noticed a tiny orange butterfly bouncing along in its weak flight near the base of moist plant stems. I tracked it later in the afternoon and finally saw it land. It was the Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor), an appropriate name for this tiny butterfly (.66 to one inch!) only slightly bigger than my smallest fingernail! Because the ventral (lower) side of its wings are unmarked with brown, it can look solid orange in flight.

The Least Skipper is just that – the smallest of the skippers, usually less than an inch long.

My entomologist mentor, Dr. Gary Parsons, director of the Michigan State University Bug House, identified this colorful character for me. It looks somewhat like a large ladybug, doesn’t it? And it is a larger version of the same family, the Coccinellidae – but this one is the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle (Coleomegilla maculata). (They come both orange and pink.) Like our old fave, the red Ladybug, these insects are the “good guys.” If you’re enjoying sweet corn right now like I am, thank these beetles! They thrive on the eggs of corn earworm, European corn borer and aphids among others. Farmers, I’ve read, have traditionally considered them allies.

The orange morph of the Pink Spotted Lady Beetle rids farm fields of several destructive larvae and aphids.

Now, About What Interested That Great Blue Heron…

With nearly every step that Reg and I took around the wet edge of this pond, we heard “plop, plop, plop,” as frogs leapt beneath the surface at our approach. Reg did spot a little Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica) sitting tentatively near the water’s edge.

The little Wood Frog with its black mask lined in white sat quietly at the edge of the pond.

The heron may have been preying on Wood Frogs, but I’m more inclined to think that the hidden jumpers were small Leopard Frogs. Wood Frogs tend to spend more of their time on uplands at this time of year, though Reg’s discovery was sitting near the water’s edge. According to a US Fish and Wildlife website, Leopard Frogs like to forage near the water’s edge in wet grassy areas; I’ve read they usually face the water ready for a quick escape jump. I’m not sure which frogs were “plopping,” because they were always two steps ahead of us, diving under the surface. Frogs can respire oxygen through their skin for hours while under water, so these guys never surfaced again during my visit. Drat! Ah well, I’m glad so many frogs of whatever species inhabit this little wetland, foraging for insects and potentially serving as forage themselves for a hungry Great Blue Heron.

Aquatic Plants Flourish at the Pond as Well

After the berm was created to restore this wetland, Ben planted Water Plantain (Alisma subcordatum) and now it forms a delicate plume of white and green around one edge of the pond. The tiny flowers must produce wonderful nectar, because European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) had found their way to the wetland and were buzzing everywhere within these tiny blossoms.

One of many non-native European Honey Bees foraging on tiny blossoms of Water Plantain at the edge of the wetland.

A native Bumblebee (genus Bombus) found its way to a graceful stalk of Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) blooming in shallow water on the south edge of the new wetland.

Bumblebee finding what it needs in the purple blossoms of Blue Vervain

Some aquatic plants found their way to the wetland without Ben’s assistance. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the native Bulrush on the left provides sustenance for many creatures. Lots of insects, including caterpillars, two species of Katydids and the Two-striped Grasshopper nibble the leaves. Birds like Canada Geese and swans will happily consume the seeds. Among mammals, muskrats munch on the rootstocks and Meadow Voles will clean up any fallen seed. So it’s a very useful plant for its habitat! The tubers of Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) on the right provide food for a wide range of dabbling ducks, including Pintails, Teals and Mallards. Every native plant has a role to play in keeping life humming in our parks and wild areas.

Even a Little Water Supports So Much Life!

Surprise! An abundant flourishing of life in a most unlikely place.

Please take another look at this restoration project. It’s just a modest little wetland tucked into the bottom of sloping hills in the corner of a former farm field. But thanks to Ben’s creative thinking and planning, the careful design and construction by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and repeated summer downpours, it became a lively oasis for all kinds of wildlife. Instead of remaining a soggy, unproductive area in an agricultural field, it burgeoned into a gathering spot for dragonflies, local ones and ones who travel thousands of miles to mate, feed and age here. New native plants have taken root and begun to colonize the pond. Frogs now huddle in the grass snatching bugs from the air and then slip beneath the pond’s surface to live another day. High in the sky, a huge bird spotted a new blue shape below and descended for a quick lunch. This kind of diversity and richness exemplifies what ecologists call a “productive” habitat, one that provides sustenance, nesting areas, cover and water to many species. Imagine how much more life might visit here when the slope above it is seeded with native plants!

That’s why for me this muddy little pond is a miracle. Just a little water gathered in a low spot provides all those ecosystems services while also providing beauty for us humans. The delicate white plumes of water plantain, the iridescent glow of a damselfly, the “plop” of frogs and the sight of a huge blue bird rising out of the rushes are nature’s gratuitous gifts. Our role is first to stop long enough to simply behold what’s in front of us. We need time to let nature work its magic. And then we can get back to work protecting and restoring our natural inheritance.

Bear Creek Nature Park: Spring Arrives on a Wing and a Song

I dropped in on Bear Creek Nature Park multiple times in April and early May, watching nature’s slow-but-steady journey into spring. After a difficult year, seeing nature renew itself felt especially reassuring – a useful antidote to the leftover doldrums of 2020.

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

This week along with my own photos, I’ll be including many by other residents who generously agreed to share their amazing photography. Regular blog readers will remember Bob and Joan Bonin who have previously lent me their amazing photos. And recently, I made a new photographer acquaintance, Paul Birtwhistle, who explores our parks with his camera and his peaceful dog Stanley. All three of these local photographers are blessed with eagle eyes and exceptional photographic skills as you’ll see below. I thank them all for their willingness to let me share their finds with all of you. Believe me, you’re in for a treat!

Nature Begins to Stir in the Cool Gray of Early April

The bare-bones beauty of Bear Creek’s Center Pond in early April

It seems that each year as I enter the park in early spring, the first song that falls from the canopy is that of the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia.) Their song, which can vary a bit geographically, most often starts with a few short notes, followed by a melodious trill and finishes off with a buzz. A streaky, little brown male with the typical spot on his breast perched at the top of a tree, threw back his head and belted out his song to woo any willing female within range. This year’s vocalist was much too far away for a decent photo, but here’s one from an earlier spring at Bear Creek Nature Park.

Song Sparrows learn their songs from males in the area in which they’re born, so their song versions vary in different locations.

During the bird walk in the first week of April, Ben spotted a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) posing right at the tip of a snag near the park entrance. It was so high that it only made a silhouette against a gray spring sky, but I tried to take a photo anyway. I love that big red crest! These woodpeckers make their rectangular nest holes high in either snags or live trees in the spring and then make lower ones in the fall as shelter from winter winds. I’m going to keep an eye on that snag!

A Pileated Woodpecker poses against the gray of a cold, early April morning.

This Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) looked a bit chilly as it huddled against a bare branch while searching for frozen caterpillars or insect eggs.

A Downy Woodpecker felt as chilly as I did on a cold April morning.

On the way down the Walnut Lane toward the Center Pond, I spotted a Hazelnut Bush (Corylus americana) in bloom. The golden catkins are male flowers. The slightest breeze sends their pollen wafting over the tiny, pink female flowers that barely peek out from the end of the twigs. I’ll be curious to see if it produces any hazelnuts on its thin branches. [Click on photos to enlarge.]

The chuckling of Wood Frogs (Lithobates sylvaticus) in a vernal pool invariably greets me as I step into the woods in early April. These little frogs float on the surface, occasionally kicking their legs to move about as they call for a mate. Consequently, they’re much easier to spot than the tinier chorus frogs who lurk under the edges of logs or aquatic plants. After having frozen and thawed unharmed throughout the winter, these masked frogs move toward the pools in early spring. Vernal pools dry up in the summer, which means Wood Frogs can lay their eggs without fish making a meal of them. This time, a log seemed to provide a handy place for the frogs to rest between unsuccessful bouts of floating and chirping; I sympathized as a former wallflower myself!

A pair of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) cruised the far end of the vernal pool. At one point, the slightly larger male performed some amazing preening moves. Or maybe he was posing in an attempt to flirt. If so, his partner doesn’t seem too impressed.

It’s hard to tell whether the male Canada Goose is preening or flirting. The female doesn’t seem interested in either case.

On the way back from the Wednesday bird walk at Bear Creek in early May, my photographer friend, Bob Bonin, got a wonderful shot of a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) excavating a promising nest hole. Look at that beak full of wood! Chickadees are cavity nesters and will create a nest in soft wood if they can’t find an existing hole that suits them.

A Black-capped Chickadee can create its own nest hole in soft wood if it can’t find a suitable exisiting cavity. Photo by Bob Bonin

Birds and Blossoms as the Woods Turn Green in Late April

Spring turned from brown to green in the second half of April. Unseen in the night sky, millions of birds rode the wind north and some eventually drifted down into Bear Creek Nature Park. Many came here planning to raise young in the park. For others, it was simply a rest stop on their journey farther north.

The Avian Summer Residents

My new photographer friend, Paul Birtwhistle, got an amazing shot of a rarely seen visitor, the American Bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus). While Paul and his dog sat quietly on the far north dock of Bear Creek marsh, the Bittern stepped quietly out of the reeds near the shore. Bitterns can breed in Michigan so we can hope this one chooses our marsh. If so, perhaps one day we will hear their booming call that sounds like a low “gulp” coming through the cattails and reeds. Cornell Ornithology’s All About Birds website says that when this birds sees a possible threat, it may choose to assume its concealment pose, its neck elongated and its bill tilted toward the sky. Sometimes it even sways, trying to blend its striped body into the moving reeds. Cornell says the posture is so ingrained that they sometimes do it even when in the open as it was in our marsh. I’m glad Paul had this exciting moment and shared it with us.

Paul also saw a Sandhill Crane (Antigone canadensis) at the marsh and a male Wood Duck (Aix sponsa) cruising in a woodland marsh on the southwestern side of the forest. These birds both tend to spend the summer here to mate and raise their young. The Sandhills toss plant material into a mound, then form a neat cup in the center lined with twigs. Wood Ducks look for cavities high in the trees near water, using the hooks at the back of their feet to navigate on the tree bark. What great guests to host for the summer!

Every year we also act as hosts for the Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) in the nest boxes built by birder Tom Korb and installed by the Stewardship Crew. These iridescent avian acrobats will soar above our fields all summer, gathering insects in their open beaks. But in late April, they are busy within our boxes creating nests out of dry grass and lining them with white feathers. Paul caught a pair claiming a nest box on April 27.

A pair of Tree Swallows on a township bird box at Bear Creek Nature Park. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

In a tree near the nest boxes, a male Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) surveyed the territory. He appeared to be keeping an eye on his mate as she gathered grass for her nest. Bluebirds will nest in boxes near our Tree Swallows from time to time, but they won’t tolerate another bluebird pair close by. Their sky blue eggs take twelve to fourteen days to hatch. A team of trained volunteers coordinated by our township Stewardship Specialist, Grant VanderLaan, monitor the nest boxes in several parks from first egg laid until the young fledge. The data are provided to Cornell University’s NestWatch program, a citizen science project. Some bluebirds stay with us all year ’round and others seek us out as the weather warms.

A male Bluebird surveys the area near the nest boxes at Bear Creek Nature Park.

On April 24, Paul Birtwhistle spent a long time at the Center Pond listening to the kwirr call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) before being able to spot it. At last, he caught sight of the red crown and nape of a male’s head peeking out from a hole on the underside of a branch on the huge White Oak at the pond’s edge. Years ago near the Bear Creek marsh, I’d seen one of these woodpeckers sticking its head out of a horizontal, upside-down nest hole in an oak branch. It seems that these male woodpeckers excavate several nest holes in hope of giving their mate a choice.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker excavating a possible nest hole to please its mate. Note the wood chips on his red crown. Photo by Paul Birtwhistle

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s All About Birds website, one of the Red-belly’s options for nest hole placement is dead limbs in a live tree, which is exactly where this bird ended up. The holes are about 9-13 inches deep (or maybe horizontal in this case?) and the circular living space is roughly 3.5 by 5.5 inches. Pretty snug fit, I would think! Once the female has chosen her preferred hole, she lays her eggs on a bed of wood chips left from the excavation accomplished by both mates. Sometimes, the pair drill holes along the branch outside the nest hole to warn off other birds, a kind of “We claim this spot!” message. I hope this hole by the pond was chosen by the female.

Katri Studtmann, one of the stewardship summer technicians, gave me a heads-up to look for a Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) that she’d seen at the Center Pond. Of course, the Kingfisher saw me first as I came to the end of the Walnut Lane and took off. I saw her dive into the water at the far end of the pond, but she came up empty. Females, by the way, have one blue and one chestnut brown stripe on their breasts while the males have only the blue stripe.

A female Belted Kingfisher dipped into the Center Pond with a splash but missed her prey.

In a grassy spot, Paul watched two Northern Flickers (Colaptes auratus) do a ritualistic dance with their beaks. At first, I thought it was a mating dance – but these are two female Flickers! After reading a bit, I learned that flickers sometimes do this ritual to protect either their mate or their nesting territory. I’m guessing these two are having a quiet, non-violent disagreement about boundaries. Thanks to Paul for getting several shots so we can appreciate their dance moves!

Of course many more birds arrived at Bear Creek Nature Park last month than Paul, Bob, Joan or I happened to see, successfully record or share. But using the Cornell eBird lists created by participants on the April and early May bird walks, here’s another quick slide show of birds you might see or hear at our parks now if your binoculars can find them among the spring greenery! (The photos here are from previous years by me and others.)

All Eyes on the Warblers in May! Some Stay and Some are Just Passing Through

The big warbler migration began here in late-April with hearing or seeing the Blue-winged Warbler and the Palm Warbler. During the May bird walks at both Bear Creek Nature Park and Cranberry Lake Park, we saw many more of these tiny long-distance travelers. So keep your eyes open for small, colorful birds flitting about in trees or diving in and out of shrubs. You don’t want to miss these beauties who often arrive in the morning after riding a strong south wind during the previous night. Some choose to spend the summer here raising young. But others you’ll see below are only here for a few days as they rest up before heading north.

Under a Greening Canopy, Spring Blossoms Emerge in the Woods

As migrating birds arrive, the woodland plants seem to magically appear as the soil warms under the spare canopy of spring. Always the first to arrive are the spring ephemerals, like Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This spring ephemeral blooms very early to catch the sun while the trees are bare, then quickly subsides as the shade increases above it. Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) does the same, but uses its leaf cupped below the blossom to preserve some warmth on cool spring days. Bloodroot leaves remain for some time after the petals of the flower have fallen.

In late April and early May, May Apples (Podophyllum peltatum) begin to form colonies under large trees and produce their shy flowers beneath the leaves. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum) unfold in the woodland shade.

Delicate Wood Anemone blossoms (Anemone quinquefolia) nod above their frail stems in the moist shade near vernal pools. Nearby red sporophytes rise from green gametophyte moss. When mature, the sporophyte moss will release the spores which will disperse to start new gametophyte moss colonies.

And at the forest edge of the big loop, the white blossoms of American Dogwood (Cornus florida) turn their faces upward to the sun.

Each oval Dogwood bud faces upward during the winter, so the blossoms do the same as they emerge in the spring.

Resilience, Adaptation – and Song!

In April, I stood by a vernal pool listening to the chuckling song of Wood Frogs who had frozen and thawed repeatedly during a Michigan winter. This week I paused to enjoy the rippling melody of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak that rode the wind through the night to end up singing at the edge of a greening field. Life presents all of us mortal creatures with harrowing challenges. And still the wild ones sing, the leaves thrust through tough bark, and fragile flowers open their beauty to feed the world around them.

As part of the natural world, we too have faced repeated challenges to our survival, especially in the last fifteen months, haven’t we? Most of us have learned that we are more resilient than we knew. Like the little frogs, we have adapted to repeated and sudden changes. Like the birds, by moving on through the darkness we’ve reached the light of another spring. Like the plants, we struggled to bloom where we were planted, accepting limitations but still able to share what beauty we could muster with those around us who needed our nourishment. Despite the losses we’ve had and those we know will eventually come to all of us, let’s follow nature’s example and celebrate the fact that we’re here right now. Let’s belt out our own songs to a blue spring sky and relish being alive.

Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park: BUTTERFLIES! Oh, and Birds and Blossoms, too…

The Northern Wetland Meadow at Stony Creek Ravine Park has no shallow pools now, but is lush with plant life.

A kaleidoscope of dancing butterflies grabbed my attention time and again as I visited Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August.  Oh, yes, fledgling birds also whisked about in the dense greenery, accompanied by adult supervision, learning to feed or begging to be fed. And patches of glorious orange or blue flowers emerged among the tall grass.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

But it was the butterflies that stole the show for me as they hovered, floated, sailed and finally settled on blossoms or perched on a leaf along the trail. On glamorous wings – or sometimes tattered ones –  they danced summer to a glorious finale. Come see.

The “Corps de Butterflies,” Costumed in a Rainbow of Colors, Take the Stage

Bands of colorful vegetation in the moist, northern restoration meadow attract skimming swallows, darting dragonflies and floating butterflies

Every year now I wait for the late summer arrival of the Giant Swallowtails (Papilio cresphonte), the largest butterflies in North America (6-7 inch wingspan!). This prima ballerina of the butterfly corps  used to only breed in the south. Many researchers seem to think that most Giant Swallowtails still migrate south in the autumn. However, as the climate has warmed and prevented September frosts, they have expanded their range, establishing some small populations in lower Michigan. Whether they are breeding in our area or just nectaring before heading back south, I’m always glad to see them.

A Giant Swallowtail is the lead dancer in August.

Several butterflies showed up on summer’s stage with torn wings. I’ve wondered if that could be a result of being blown into harm’s way by the winds that accompany summer thunderstorms. Or perhaps the late bloom of goldenrods this year meant that butterflies fed more on prickly thistles. The ragged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) below seemed to be feeding and flying reasonably well, despite its ravaged wings. I hope it had already mated since shape is important in butterfly courtship!

A badly damaged Eastern Tiger Swallowtail seemed to be feeding naturally on thistle.

Most Eastern Tiger Swallowtails  took the stage in August dressed in their best. Notice the long hairs on the abdomen of the one below. I learned recently that the scales on a butterfly’s wings are actually flattened hairs.  According to a study by Judith H. Myers at the University of British Columbia, it’s possible that the long hairs, sometimes called “scent scales,”  are used to spread pheromones in flight during the breeding season. The pheromone receptors that pick up scent are located in both male and female antennae, though scent is less important than color, shape and movement when most butterflies are courting .

This Eastern Tiger Swallowtail has long hair on its abdomen which may help distribute pheromones when attracting a mate.

Another butterfly “long hair” comes in a tiny package, the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). My husband spotted this tiny male whose wingspan is only about .75 to 1.25 inches. We’ve probably missed it before because it’s so small and looks nondescript when fluttering erratically along the path. But when it stops, wow! Its thorax is dark blue-gray and the males are not only fuzzy like most skippers; they have long bluish “hairs.” A handsome little guy! Evidently the female’s thorax is a much less glamorous dark brown. According to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide by Jaret C. Daniels, this tiny butterfly is  most common in the central and southern states but regularly  expands its range and is seen in our region in late summer and fall.

This male Common Checkered-skipper has long scent scales that look like hair.

I was delighted to finally see a restless Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele) as it fluttered from sunlight to shade and back again along the entrance path. What a costume! The dorsal (upper) side of its wings is patterned in orange and black, but its ventral side flashes with silver spangles! The females lays eggs even into September. Their caterpillars overwinter and start eating violet leaves in the spring, according to the Butterflies of Michigan Field Guide.  

The Great Spangled Fritillary appears in July, but lays its eggs in September.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) added its dark beauty to the butterfly ballet. It’s very tricky to discern the differences between dark swallowtails. If you need help like I do, I recommend the website at this link which compares the female Black Swallowtail, the black morph of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, the Spicebush Swallowtail and the Pipevine Swallowtail. Whew! It always takes me a while to puzzle them out! I also get help from the good folks at the Michigan Lepidoptera Facebook group.

The Spicebush Swallowtail has a blush of blue on its hindwings.

The ventral (lower) side of the Spicebush’s wings have two rows of orange spots like the Black Swallowtail, except that one spot on the inner arc is replaced by another blush of blue.

I finally got a look at how the little Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) came by its name. If you look closely at the lower edge of the hindwing, there’s a tiny whitish crescent shape in one of the boxes there. In the photo below, I brightened the spot and created a small red marker so you could see it, too. It’s a subtle field mark, for sure!

The red marker shows the white crescent for which the Pearl Crescent is named.

And here’s how the Pearl Crescent appears from above. You’ll see these little butterflies on any walk you take in our parks from June to October. I like knowing its name; it makes a walk more companionable somehow.

The tiny Pearl Crescent skips along the paths in our parks all summer long.

Of course it’s the season for Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and though they seem less plentiful this year than last, a goodly number still stroke a few wingbeats and glide over the fields. Here’s a sampling of three at Stony Creek Ravine Park – a male settling along the path, one in flight toward a withering Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and what I think was a female on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). [Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.]

Another set of dancing wings joined the choreography.  With a zing, a dive and a pause in mid-air (à la Baryshnikov), a fierce and glorious dancer,  the Green-striped Darner (Aeshna verticalis) came on the scene. Darners are big, more than 2.5 inches long,  with bulky thoraxes and long abdomens. Add the helmet-like appearance of their giant eyes which meet at the top of their heads, plus their ability to hover,  and in flight they have a remarkable resemblance to a tiny helicopter! These skillful predators feed on all kinds of insects, even meadowhawk dragonflies and damselflies. The northern fields were a-buzz with them at the park last week!

A Green-striped Darner patrolled along the path as we walked north at the park.

Of course, many other insects – bees, small butterflies, and smaller dragonflies – fed and bred in Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park in August. Here are a few more modest members of the winged corps.

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While following the Spicebush Swallowtail, I glanced down at some movement in the grass and found a tiny grasshopper. A wary, or perhaps inquisitive, nymph of what may have been a Red-legged Grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) peered at me through two blades of grass! My expert resource person, Dr. Gary Parsons of the Michigan State University’s Entomology Department informed me that not only are the nymphs of this genus very similar,  but within each species the nymphs have many variations of color and pattern. Nymphs don’t have fully-formed wings,  so it will have to save its balletic leaps for a bit later in the summer finale.

This  nymph, possibly of a Red-legged Grasshopper, looked straight at me as if to say, “Verrrry interesting!”

Once it saw my camera, it twitched around the side of the grass stem and dangled there for a few minutes by its front legs. At first, the move made it difficult for me to find the nymph among the grass stems. I wondered if this was a camouflage technique; it did resemble a dangling wilted leaf as my eyes searched the ground. But eventually it must have decided I was not a threat and hopped back on the stem. A lovely few moments with a young creature.

A tiny Wood Frog (Rana sylvaticus), barely visible under a leaf, also missed the whole dance above as it made its way to high ground. As the nights cool, Wood Frogs look for leaf litter where they can produce inner anti-freeze and hibernate, frozen solid, until spring.

A tiny Wood Frog, perhaps an inch long, tried to blend into the brown grasses on the trail, keeping perfectly still.

Oh, Yes, Birds too!

My walks in our parks so often provide serendipitous moments for me. I’d been craning my neck to watch Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) swooping overhead, trailing their long, forked tails and wished aloud that one would perch for a photo. Just then, as my husband and I rounded a curve at the bottom of the Lookout Hill, we were gifted with this wonderful sight!

A selection of about 25-30 Barn Swallows perching on the fence around the southern restoration area below the Lookout Hill.

Dozens of Barn Swallows lined up on the fence with others perching on stalks in the tall plants within the fence line. What a surprise!  According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, older siblings from earlier Barn Swallow broods often assist their parents in feeding the later broods of nestlings. The parents sometimes even get help from unrelated juvenile barn swallows. On the other hand, unmated barn swallows occasionally attack the young of a mated pair in hope of mating with the female! Nature in all species, I expect, has its good instincts and its bad ones.

One morning when I arrived, a large Pokeweed plant along the entrance path near Snell Road was aflutter with juvenile Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). I could hear their high, piercing calls, but it took a while until one of the youngsters settled on a tree branch nearby for its portrait. Only the mask and the yellow tip of its tail identified it for me, because of its mottled breast and gray overall appearance.

A juvenile Cedar Waxwing can be identified from its mask and the yellow bar at the end of its tail.

A watchful older Waxwing perched in a nearby tree keeping an eye on the rowdy juveniles enjoying the Pokeweed berries and each other’s company. This one appears to be a first year waxwing because its upper wing is solid gray-brown and is missing its red dot; perhaps it has begun the annual molt because its mask and crest look incomplete. Its disgruntled look made me smile, thinking maybe babysitting juveniles was not its favorite assignment!

An older Cedar Waxwing keeps an eye on a troupe of rowdy youngsters.

An Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) sitting nearby looked over at the hubbub but generally ignored the Waxwings. Since Kingbirds are insectivores during the summers here, there was no need to compete for the Pokeweed berries. In the winter, however, when they fly all the way to the Amazon, they join a variety of flocks and eat only fruit.

An Eastern Kingbird watching the young Waxwings.

At the top of the Lookout Hill, a pair of House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus)- either females or juveniles which look just like their moms – were avidly scraping insects or insect eggs off the stems and leaves of a tree that clearly had already hosted a lot of caterpillars or other small bugs. The leaves were riddled with holes! I’m guessing that House Finches learn at a young age that leaves with holes mean FOOD!

These House Finches seemed to be making most of an insect-scavenged tree at the top of the Lookout Hill.

Nearby a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) looked a bit forlorn after it settled in a tree on the Lookout Hill. I didn’t identify this little bird as a Grosbeak until local birder extraordinaire Ruth Glass helped me out. Grosbeaks are now starting their migration to the Caribbean, so I hope this little male will soon be ready to take on his long flight across the country and the ocean beyond.

A juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak might mature a bit more before it begins its long migration to the Caribbean.

Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, mowed a path from the bottom of the Lookout Hill, going west, south, and then west again to connect to the older section of the park where the West Branch of Stony Creek runs through a beautiful ravine. As I approached the woods over the ravine, I kept hearing a plaintive Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) in the woods but never got to see it. But I did see this little flycatcher, the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) perching on a bare branch looking a bit rumpled. I wondered if it was a juvenile, though I can’t tell from its plumage.

An Eastern Phoebe looking a bit ruffled along the trail from the new section into the older ravine section of Stony Creek Ravine Park.

On a cool morning on my last trip to the park, a molting European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) appeared to be warming its breast high in a bare snag along the entrance trail. During the summer breeding season, these non-native birds are dressed in sleek black with iridescent blue-green overlays. Their beaks turn yellow then, too. But now, as fall arrives, they change into their winter garb. Their beaks turn dark and the feathers on their backs and breasts become covered with white spots. This one was already well along in the process.

This European Starling is in the process of molting to its spotted winter feathers and dark beak.

And Last But Certainly Not Least, the Trees and Plants that Make It All Possible!

Native Black-eyed Susans growing in a wet spot at Stony Creek Ravine Park.  Photo by Ben VanderWeide

Clearly, butterflies and birds grace our parks because these natural areas are rich in nutritious native food and abundant shelter for both adults and their young – the fledglings and the caterpillars. So let’s spend the last few minutes with perhaps an under-appreciated but vital element of any habitat – the native plants and trees that provide nesting space, nectar, pollen, seeds, nuts and most importantly, oxygen for all creatures – including us!

Wildflowers First

Begin by looking at that glorious patch of rare, native Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) pictured above. These are not the ordinary Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) which gardeners  sometimes choose as annuals, or the native, but short-lived Rudbeckia hirtas that thrive in so many habits, including dry prairies. These bright yellow flowers at Stony Creek Ravine Park are a separate species of wildflower that prefers wetlands and is a long-lived perennial. They’re also the species used to create many varieties of cultivars used in landscaping. I’m so glad Ben shared his photo and his enthusiasm on finding these special plants – and for the photo. I was unaware that a wetland “Susan” even existed!

Ben also discovered a lovely patch of Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) growing near the edge of the woods in the north area of the park.  It too is a lovely wetland plant and often hosts our native, long-tongued Bumblebees. Though I’ve seen small patches and single stems of these blue flowers in other parks, Ben’s discovery is the biggest patch I’ve seen.

Several fields in this new section of the park are under cultivation by a local farmer until the park restoration can begin more fully there. At the edge of one of them is a lovely stand of bright pink Swamp/Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). These wetland milkweeds host Monarch butterflies, of course, as well as swallowtails, some frittilaries, native bees and skippers. But, good news, deer don’t eat milkweeds!  So if you have a moist garden, give these some thought.

I love Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata) for its upright purple plumes, but it is also remarkably productive in the food web. Its nectar provides nutrition for a wide variety of native bees, small butterflies and moths. According to the Illinois Wildflowers website, the seeds also provide nutrition for many birds, including Cardinals, Swamp Sparrows, Field Sparrows, Song Sparrows and our winter visitor, the Dark-eyed Junco. Beauty for the eye and utility for the food web – a great combination!

Blue Vervain’s plume provides lots of sustenance to birds and pollinators.

Oh, and remember those young Cedar Waxwings jostling around in the greenery? What attracted them most were Pokeweed berries (Phytolacca americana). Lots of other birds love them as well, including Cardinals, the Gray Catbird and the Brown Thrasher. The fruits,  which are green now,  turn dark purple when mature. On those pink stalks, the plants look as though they should be somewhere in the tropics! Mammals however, like we humans and our pets,  should not partake of any part of this toxic plant. It looks luscious but it has evolved to be eaten by birds and not by any members of mammalia, our class of animals – which is frustrating because the fruits looks so tempting!

Here’s a quick tour of some of the other native wildflowers sprinkled throughout the meadows at Stony Creek Ravine providing sustenance to wildlife.

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And Now, A Few of the Mighty Trees at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park!

The Ravine and the West Branch of Stony Creek, for which the park is named

Though the fields of Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park are alive with pollinators, blossoms and birds, the lush woods that embrace them are equally impressive. In the park’s far western section, the West Branch of Stony Creek shines silver as it runs through the steep terrain of the heavily treed ravine for which the park is named. Along  its slopes and on the trail high above the creek, many species of trees  compete for sunlight while sharing nutrient resources through the fungal networks underground.

Some trees go to great lengths to reach the sunlight along the trail above the ravine.

One tree I look for every time I visit the ravine section of the park is a lovely American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) just over the edge of the slope near the end of the ravine trail.  Its satin-like bark makes me wish I could reach out and touch it.  According to the University of Michigan’s Michigan Flora website, a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) can leave wounds in its bark that make them vulnerable to a deadly fungus (Nectria coccinea) which causes Beech Bark Disease, only recently discovered in Michigan. We need to protect these glorious native trees which provide so much food for wildlife and so much beauty for us.

A large beech tree stands precariously over the edge of the Stony Creek Ravine.

On the day the Wednesday bird group visited the park, Ben pointed out a huge Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa) next to the trail. This huge tree has merged three very large trunks. Each on their own would constitute a mighty oak!

The empty “mossy cup acorn” of a Bur Oak.

Bur Oaks make what the Michigan Flora website calls “mossy cup” acorns. This tree may live for many years to come. Not terribly shade tolerant, it is exposed to sunlight on the edge of  the woods near the trail and the long wetland along the entrance trail probably provides the amount of moisture it prefers. Ah, the stories this old tree could tell!

An old Bur Oak south of the trail that leads to the Ravine.

On the tree line between the northern restoration section and the western meadows is an old White Oak (Quercus alba) that demonstrates how location effects the growth of trees. In the open sunlight, surrounded by little competition, the oak has basked in sunlight for many years and spread it branches out instead of up, into a lush, wide crown. What a sight!

An old White Oak spreads out in the uninterrupted sunlight next to the north restoration area.

In the forest to the north last fall, Ben and I visited a huge Wild Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) that used its energy to grow tall, reaching up into the sunlight. Maybe that’s why its lovely yellow flowers only bloom high in the crown. Here’s the photo of it that I posted previously in the blog – just another example of the trees waiting to be explored in the forests beyond the fields.

A Tulip Tree growing tall to reach the sun in the shady northern forest at Stony Creek Ravine Park.

The Legacy Within Us

My husband at dusk just being with nature

I recently enjoyed an On Being Podcast interview with naturalist and environmental journalist, Michael McCarthy. He shared an insight from evolutionary psychology, namely that for 50,000 generations we humans were simply part of nature. For all that time, before we settled down to farm, we experienced all the challenges other creatures face in trying to survive in nature. Or as he put it “we were wildlife, if you like.” As a result, McCarthy contends, even now what we experienced, what we learned during those millennia is still in us, still making us feel at home in the natural world.

Maybe that explains why so many of us experience peace when we’re in places like Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park. On some level, we’re at home in natural areas in a way that even our cozy firesides cannot quite duplicate. Standing on the Lookout Hill at Stony Creek Ravine Nature Park, I look out across moist wetlands and meadows to the encircling wood and just let go, become part of the scenery, embedded in its beauty. The swallows dip and rise, the butterflies float from stem to stem, the woods stands dark and mysterious, the creek at the western edge sings its songs over the rocks – and I’m just part of it all.

I imagine it’s that kinship with nature that motivates you and I to learn about and care for our badly damaged world. And it’s probably that kinship which pushes us out the door and into a park on a cold fall morning or just before dark on a summer night to once more savor our connection to the natural world. Michael McCarthy put it like this: “… there is a legacy deep within us, a legacy of instinct, a legacy of inherited feelings, which may lie very deep in the tissues…we might have left the natural world, most of us, but the natural world has not left us.”

And what a blessing that is! Our task, our calling now is to continue restoring and preserving the natural world for our children and grandchildren. By honoring that legacy within, we can hope to insure that future generations will also be able to breathe deep and feel the freedom and peace that nature so generously provides to us.

A Short Excursion into the Rich Diversity of Blue Heron Environmental Area

Blue Heron Environmental Area on Rochester Road is a place I’ve rarely visited. This special natural area was  purchased years ago by our Parks and Recreation Commission to protect a Great Blue Heron rookery that has since moved on.  The township has begun planning for the area’s future use, but for now it’s preserved as a beautiful green space with a large arc of wetland curving through a high-quality lowland forest. The fields outside the forest are planted by a local farmer which helps prevent the spread of invasive shrubs until future plans come to fruition.

Photos and text
by Cam Mannino

Until recently, I had only been in this forest to pull garlic mustard during spring volunteer workdays. But in early June, I was able to join our township Stewardship Manager Dr. Ben VanderWeide and his stewardship specialist, Grant VanderLaan, for a short exploration while they there were clearing invasive plants. What a great opportunity to share some of the special flowers, vivid dragonflies, and elder trees that inhabit this moist, shady world!

Escorted Along the Fields by a Fleet of Dragonflies!

While skirting the farm field near Rochester Road, I noticed a sunlit meadow to my right that was splashed with blossoms of native Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus).

The sturdy, daisy-like faces of native Daisy Fleabane dotted a restored field at Blue Heron.

All along the field edges, dragonflies were patrolling, and occasionally dueling over, their territories. Blue Heron Environmental Area is ideal for these aerial wizards. In the open areas, they can scoop up mosquitoes, flies, midges or even moths and damselflies out of the air, while attracting a mate with their speed and skill. And once they do mate, the forest wetlands provide an ideal spot for depositing their eggs. Since walking humans stir up a lot of insects, they were also happy to accompany me along the field edge to harvest whatever I stirred out of the grass.

The Widow Skimmer female below (Libellula luctuosa) looks very like the male, except that her abdomen is black and gold while his is gray-blue. The male also has white patches beyond the dark brown ones on each wing. Widow Skimmers find shelter at night by hanging underneath overhanging leaves.

Widow skimmer female or juvenile 2 BHEA

The offspring of this  female Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) will resemble her closely, but with male juveniles,  the gold stripe on its abdomen will gradually fade to gray-blue.

Eastern Pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) are fierce predators. They have long spines on their legs for grasping prey, which includes any insect their size or smaller – occasionally even other Eastern Pondhawks! These dragonflies are more likely than others to follow along as you walk in order to feast on swarms of insects. Eastern Pondhawks are “dimorphic,” meaning the male and female look very different as you can see below.

During maturation, this male Eastern Pondhawk’s abdomen slowly turned to blue-gray starting at the tip of his abdomen and ending at his thorax. This guy looks ready to take me on!

According to Dragonflies of the North Woods by Kurt Mead, female Eastern Pondhawks can mate multiple times in a day. Perhaps the female’s bright green color and striped abdomen, so different from the male’s, makes her more visible to possible suitors.

A female Eastern Pondhawk can lay up 2100 eggs per day. She releases them into the water by dipping her abdomen into the water in short intervals.

The Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) is a favorite of mine not only because of the alternating stripes on its wings, but because of the way it hunts. It sallies forth from a perch to snag its prey, and then frequently returns to the same perch repeatedly – giving amateurs like me multiple chances for a decent photo! All dragonflies are a challenge to photograph in flight, but particularly Twelve-spotteds since they fly in bursts of speed and can reverse direction in a flash.

The male Twelve-spotted Skimmer sometimes hovers over the female during egg-laying to prevent other males from harassing or mating with her.

The Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) below could be a female, but is more likely a juvenile, since they’re the ones that tend to head for fields and open areas, leaving the water behind once they emerge from their larval stage. Their appearance is not only identical to the adult female; it also closely resembles the female Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The only difference is that the yellowish-white stripes of the female/juvenile Whitetail form a jagged line down the sides of the abdomen (see below), while the side stripes of the female Twelve-spotted form a neat straight line. So needless to say, I always need a photo to decide which one I saw when a female of either species appears.

A juvenile Common Whitetail is more likely to be found at a field edge than the adult female, though both look exactly alike during early maturation.

I came across two other interesting insects at the edge of the fields. Noticing delicate movement at my feet, I finally spotted a strange creature that is completely harmless to us humans, but quite a predator! A Hangingfly (genus Bittacus) does just as its name implies; it dangles beneath leaves by its looong front legs which have claspers to grasp leaves or stems for support. It uses its other four legs to snag any unwary insect passersby. It looks a bit like a Crane Fly but isn’t related.

A Hangingfly hopes to snag unsuspecting insects as it dangles from under a leaf.

And a Six-spotted Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sexguttata) showed up right where they always are – in a bright spot at the edge of a field or forest, its stiff, iridescent green wings shining in the sunlight.

A Six-spotted Tiger Beetle paused in a sunlit spot on an old log at the edge of a field.

Something New:  Restoring a Forest

A field now cleared of invasive shrubs that will eventually be restored to the forest it once was.

Have a look at the photo of the cleared, green field above.  Until two years ago, it was choked with Autumn Olive and Glossy Buckthorn, invasive non-native shrubs that quickly take over abandoned farm fields. A forestry mower took them down in the winter and the area was soon sown with native grasses and wildflowers. The stewardship summer crew treated the invasive shrub regrowth the following summer.

Often stewardship work in our township begins with this clearing process as the first step in turning a field back into a native prairie or savanna- but not so at Blue Heron.  When I visited, Ben showed me that the cleared field in the photo had originally been part of an earlier forest.

As you enter the woods, you can see a demarcation where younger, smaller trees give way to taller, thicker, older ones.  It’s likely that decades ago, the older trees,  many of which lean eastward,  had been reaching for sun at the edge of a farmed field . The bigger trees to the right in the photo probably grew back after the forest was originally cleared for farming in the 19th century. The smaller trees to the left probably sprouted after part of the field was no longer farmed in the second half of the twentieth century.

Older, larger trees on. the right were once leaning into the sun at the edge of the field when it was farmed years ago. Smaller trees beyond started growing when part of the farm field was abandoned many years later.

Stewardship plans include eventually planting native oaks in the open, cleared meadow  in order to restore more of the native trees that thrived here before farming began. I’d love to be around to see the restoration of a forest!

The Rich Diversity of a Lowland Forest

Blue Heron Environmental Area is a high-quality lowland forest with a curving arc of wetlands.

I’ve only explored a small section of the current woods at Blue Heron Environmental Area, but I’m already wowed. In the sources I used to research the plants I saw here, I  came across phrases like, “found only in high-quality wetlands,” or “found in high quality woodlands.” Because much of the forest has been undisturbed for a long time, Blue Heron provides high-quality examples of both.

Moist Forest Flora – and Some Rare Beauties!

As I stepped with Ben into the older forest, the shade deepened. Ben kindly took me to see a unique orchid. It seems that at one time, this natural area hosted two kinds of Ladyslippers. The more common, and still lovely Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. makasin) peeks out of the greenery beneath the tall trees. I love how the dark sepals form the purplish ribbons of the lady’s slipper.

The sepals of the Small-flowered Yellow Ladyslipper that once enclosed its bud look like the ribbons that wound around a lady’s leg to secure her shoe in ages past.

But there was once another orchid here which Ben and Grant haven’t yet spotted, the  rarer White Ladyslipper (Cypripedium candidum)Here’s a photo of one from iNaturalist.org taken by photographer Erin Faulkner. Note that the sepal “ribbons” are green with faint flecks of purple rather than the dark purple and bright yellow sepals of the Yellow Ladyslipper above.

Ben thinks the rare White Ladyslipper must have cross-pollinated with the Yellow Ladyslipper to create a hybrid at Blue Heron. Photo by Erin Faulkner (CC BY-NC)

Ben presumes that White Ladyslippers once grew in this natural area because here and there today grows a hybrid between these two native orchids. The hybrid wildflower at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper but the purple, sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper. The two native Ladyslippers must have cross-pollinated and produced this special hybrid that Grant found. I’m so glad that I got to see several of them and am able to share one with you!

The hybrid Ladyslipper at Blue Heron has the white “slipper” of the White Ladyslipper and purple sepal “ribbons” of the Yellow Ladyslipper.

Also enjoying the beautiful forest floor, I noticed little yellow pom-poms on a stem growing in the mottled shade of a long, arcing marsh. Ben identified it as Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thrysiflora), a species of Loosestrife I’d never seen before. Its clusters of tiny blossoms, called “racemes,” emerge from the middle axils of the long, graceful leaves like tiny fireworks. It’s described by a useful wildflower website, Illinois Wildflowers, as “found in higher quality wetlands.”

The yellow racemes (clusters of separate flowers) of Tufted Loosestrife catch the light and shine in the shade at the marsh’s edge.

Large areas near the marsh were carpeted with a calf-high plant I’d never before noticed on my hikes –  Richweed (Collinsonia canadensis). This member of the mint family produces a plume or spike of tiny yellow flowers in mid-summer, adding a spark of color to the dense shade when little else is in flower. Since I saw only its leaves, here’s a photo of the plant blooming by inaturalist photographer Sirruba.

Richweed, a native wildflower that creates colonies through its underground stems, called rhizomes. Photo by Sirruba (CC BY-NC)

Ferns Waving from the Forest Floor

The feathery fronds of a glorious variety of ferns sway above the ground near the marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area. Ben  identified two for me and I spotted an old favorite as well. The Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) is described by Illinois Wildflowers as “found in higher quality woodlands where the original ground flora is largely intact.” I saw its fan-shaped fronds spiraling out of the ground quite near the center of the marsh’s arc. It carries its spores in narrow bands on the underside of the leaflets near the tip. Each leaflet on the frond folds down slightly to partially cover the sporangia, the structures that carry the spores. They will eventually break open and release the spores to the wind.

Maidenhair Fern enjoys the humid shade of Blue Heron.

The Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) produces a glorious, rising plume of infertile fronds that catch the sunlight and feed the plant through photosynthesis. The shorter, straight fertile fronds are thinner and produce yellow bead-like spores. The draining of wetlands around the world has had a big impact on Royal Ferns, so I’m happy to have seen so many here!

A Royal Fern near the marsh rises like a large, green bouquet rising from the moist forest floor.

All over the woodland grows an old friend, the Sensitive Fern, reportedly so-named because its fertile fronds wither at the first frost and arrive after the last frost. Its green, infertile fronds with their jagged edges feed the roots while the smaller fertile fronds eventually produce shiny, brown, bead-like sporangia that last through the winter before breaking open to release the spores. Sensitive ferns also reproduce by underground stems called rhizomes.

A Sensitive Fern unfurling its infertile, photosynthesizing fronds at Blue Heron. The infertile fronds produce brown beads  that carry the spores through the winter to be released the following spring.

Wet Woods Extras

High Bush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), an unusual native plant that I’ve only seen before at Cranberry Lake Park, huddled under the shade of a willow on a hummock in  the marsh. When I got closer with my camera, I could see fruit just beginning to form. Native mining bees and bumblebees or non-native honeybees must have found the little white nodding blossoms and pollinated them as they foraged. Some lucky bird or mammal has a treat coming!

The petals of Highbush Blueberry blossoms have dropped and the fruit is forming.

Near the Blueberry bush, in a wet crevice of a moss-covered hummock, I spotted a tiny Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus).  It must have hatched this spring from eggs quickly laid in a vernal pool back in March. Less than 2 inches long, it floated in the shallow water or rested on the moist mud as it explored its shady grotto.

A tiny Wood Frog in the moist mud within a hummock near the marsh

Healthy Little Saplings, a Majestic Beech and Some Colorful “Hangers On”

Among the mixture of maples and oaks, some trees that I see less often have also found a suitable habitat in the forest at Blue Heron. Ben told me of a large Tulip Tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) farther back in the woods that I’d missed. But I did see this little sapling of one springing up from the moist earth. I love how tiny saplings create such large leaves to capture as much sunlight as possible. Let’s hope it escapes the attention of foraging deer!

A tiny Tulip Tree will have to survive foraging deer to reach its adult size.

I did find an impressive American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) reaching up to the sunlight with its smooth, gray bark. Wildlife love the plentiful beechnuts that this tree will send rattling to the earth. And according to the Trees of Michigan Field Guide by Stan Tekiela, the seedlings and saplings that manage to take root can survive in the shade for years waiting for other trees to fall, giving them the sunlight and space they need. I’m hoping for a grove of Beeches – a new favorite of mine.

A huge American Beech made its way up into the sunlight in the forest at Blue Heron.

A tiny Swamp Oak (Quercus bicolor) must have begun its upward journey from the forest floor when the acorns dropped last fall. Swamp Oak acorns usually come in pairs and sprout shortly after falling, according to Stan Tekiela. If one survives hungry birds and animals, it grows more quickly than most oaks. And it could live for up to 300 years,  according to Wikipedia. Good luck, little oak!

Leaves of Swamp Oaks are dark green above and lighter below – hence its species name, “bicolor.”

What first appeared to be some sort of fungus had sprung up around a large fallen oak in the woods.  But it wasn’t a fungus; it was a parasitic plant commonly called Cancer Root or Bear Corn (Conopholis americana). It’s an underground plant that consequently can’t photosynthesize sunlight. Instead it feeds off the roots of woody plants, especially oaks and beeches. This interesting pinecone shape is the flowering stem of the underground plant which grows on the roots about four years before producing these flowers that can grow as high as 8 inches. I’m continually amazed by the variety of ways that nature has found to sustain life.

Cancer root or Bear corn draws its sustenance from the roots of trees since the plant is underground and can’t photosynthesize. These are its flowers.

Imagining Blue Heron’s Past, Protecting It Today and Restoring It For the Future

A section of the long crescent of marsh at Blue Heron Environmental Area.

The distant past of this striking lowland forest can only be imagined. Before farming began here in the 1800’s, an old growth forest probably stretched out from its present site across where Rochester Road is now and beyond. Gray wolves probably roamed the area, keeping a healthy deer population in check. Those White Ladyslippers may have bloomed in profusion in an open wet meadow pocket, since non-native plants had not yet been introduced to the ecosystem.

Today Blue Heron is a special natural area preserved by the Parks and Recreation Commission and the residents who support our parks. The old growth forest is gone, but large trees from the 19th century still stand tall among the wetlands shading a forest floor full of native plants. Thanks to our stewardship program, garlic mustard and other invasive trees, flowers and shrubs – some brought early on by European settlers, others unwittingly planted in our gardens or along our streets – are being removed from our parks and controlled in a variety of ways,  including prescribed burns. As a result, our heritage of native plants can begin to reassert itself, providing a healthier, more productive habitat for native wildlife.

And for those of us who want to pass that heritage on to future generations, we can dream of young children wandering among tall oaks and waving native grasses that were restored to Blue Heron Environmental Area by people in our time who valued the gifts of the natural world. What a legacy, eh?