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

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

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

A Quick Trip Back to the 1870’s

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

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

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

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

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

An Earlier Dramatic Change in the 1870’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A section of Paint Creek’s former stream bed

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

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

OUT AND ABOUT IN OAKLAND: Gallagher Creek Much More Visible as Restoration Begins

View looking east from parking GC

View looking east near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek

Cam walking into BC

Blog post and photos by Cam Mannino

Wow! When Ben told me that they’d been removing shrubby, invasive plants and preparing ground for seeding at Gallagher Creek Park, I didn’t picture such a great transformation. When I stepped from my car in the parking lot, I was at first shocked and then, as I explored, really thrilled!

The big changes are that the park is much more open, its gently rolling terrain revealed, and the creek is now visible almost all the way through the park! Where it once was hidden by both summer growth and impenetrable thickets, now  the little creek can be observed, meandering across the meadows toward Paint Creek. In this open landscape, a hardy wildflower defied the frost, as did a tiny butterfly and an unfamiliar grasshopper, while a woodpecker drilled away at his winter home. Let me show you.

New Open Spaces

Maybe these photos of Ben’s will begin to give you a feel for how much more open the park is now. The cleared areas in the foreground of these two photos (the upward slope to the west) will be seeded with wildflowers and native grasses or sedges this month. The rest of the area, recently cleared, is scheduled for seeding next year. The native plant seed is being provided through a US Fish and Wildlife grant. (Click on photos to enlarge; hover cursor for captions.)

The area beyond the tree line in the distance in the above photos has been cleared all the way to the edge of the marsh that borders Silverbell Road. Eventually, once everything is replanted and the terrain is more settled, there may be paths into this area.

Below on the left,  you can see some of the bushes that used to block our view of the creek edge – and on the right, is how it looks now that the shrubs have been removed.  Some of these were native shrubs, Gray Dogwood (Cornus foemina).  When it sprouts in the spring, Ben plans to let some of it grow again. But it needed to be cut back to prevent these aggressive shrubs from taking over the field along with Autumn Olive and other invasives!

Now you’d think with all that cut wood and dead grass, the park would feel quite abandoned by wildlife. But no. Despite the frost, my husband spotted Bottle Gentians still blooming on the west side of the park. These somewhat rare wildflowers  and others should bloom more profusely now that the shrubs are removed and the Gentian’s seeds can benefit from increased sunlight.

Bottle Gentian after first frost GC

Bottle Gentian after the first frost – still hanging in there!

Here are other rare native wildflowers that we hikers can hope to see  in greater abundance once the restoration is complete.

The multi-colored wings of a native Common Buckeye Butterfly (Junonia coenia) glowed in autumn light against the deadwood one sunny morning last week.  Isn’t the wing pattern beautiful on this small butterfly?

Common Buckeye Butterfly whole wings GC

A Common Buckeye butterfly on a warm autumn day.

Nearby, we spotted a grasshopper that I’d never noticed before. Its dark brown body and forked “cerci” (area just above the end of the abdomen) make me think it’s a Broad-necked Grasshopper (Melanoplus keeleri luridus). According to the Orthoptera of Michigan (a link sent to me by a kind reader), this grasshopper is around until early November which is another indicator.  Nice surprise!

broad-necked-grasshopper-gc-1-of-1-1

The Broad-necked Grasshopper sticks around until early November.

I admit to being a bit worried about the long term survival of  this long Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) weaving its way through the drying grass. It’s pretty vulnerable to hawks or owls until the plant life returns!

Garter snake closeup GC

A Garter Snake slipped through dry grass and dead wildflowers,  enjoying the sun on a fall day.

Up in a snag on the southwest side of the park, a slightly comical Downy Woodpecker  was making its repetitive “squeek” as it excavated a series of holes in a snag. Just above its head , you can see the wood chips flying as it tossed them out of the hole. It may have a couple left in its beak as well.  Busy bird, popping in and out of different holes.

Downy w chips flying GC

A Downy Woodpecker lets the chips fly where they may as it excavates a winter hole in a snag.

Of course a group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) stared curiously at me from the edge of the park. I don’t think I’ve ever come to this park without seeing deer on the eastern side. Watch out for them when driving in November and December as they get quite heedless during the rut!

Deer at GC

White-tailed Deer observed me before moving off in the eastern edge of the park.

A couple of oddities showed up, too.  Here’s a large Puffball Mushroom (phylum Basidiomycota) that was a bit beyond its expiration date, so to speak – though it appears some animal or bird may have sampled it.

A large puffball that's a bit beyond the pale.

A large puffball that’s a bit beyond the pale.

 

The hole of what was probably a Rusty Crayfish (Orconectes rusticus) appeared as well.  These aggressive crayfish used to live only in the West, but were transported to our area, it’s believed, as bait. This may be the same hole our birding friend Antonio saw in May, but it’s taller now with fresh, wet mud on it.

 Gallagher Creek Itself is Now Visible!

My husband and I had fun tracking along as much of the creek as we could once we realized its path could be followed through the  park. It enters through a culvert under Silverbell Road at the west and flows down past the viewing platform. In the summer, its current  is hidden among tall grasses. Autumn, however, reveals its meandering journey, making multiple pools that join up farther down.

It was impossible to get close to the river before. Both non-native and native grasses grew shoulder high and the thickets of shrubs were impenetrable. Now we can watch the creek find its way along the meadow.

In the “riparian corridor” formed by the stream meeting the meadow, we spotted what I think is an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), though the stick that was right in front of its eye made it hard to tell before it took off!

Tree Sparrow GC

A Tree Sparrow, a winter visitor to Michigan, rested in bushes near the creek.

Gallagher Creek joins up with two other small streams that cross Silverbell farther east and flow into and out of the marsh toward the creek. They create a more quickly flowing stream by the time the creek reaches the new Pinnacles development to the east where a lovely bridge crosses over it. (Thanks to our birding friend, Nancy Russell, for the tip on where to find it!)

Gallager Creek at the Pinnacles

A bridge crosses Gallagher Creek within the Pinnacles development on Silver Bell.

By the way, wasps evidently thought the bridge made a nice location and built across from the bridge. I guess all the houses, even the insect ones, are elegant and huge in this development!

Huge wasp nest at the Pinnacles

An elegant wasp nest near the Gallagher Creek bridge at the Pinnacles suits the elegant development!

From there, Gallagher Creek flows down behind private homes, until it appears again,  to flow from west to east through a culvert under Gallagher Road, just above the Paint Creek Trail.

Gallager Creek flowing to the road near bridge

Gallagher Creek flows downhill to where it crosses Gallagher Road above the Paint Creek Trail.

And once it’s crossed the road, it flows along Gallagher, eventually running through a culvert into Paint Creek near the cider mill.

Gallager Crk flows toward the mill

Gallagher Creek running along Gallagher Road to empty into Paint Creek near the cider mill.

According to the Southeast Michigan Department of Natural Resources newsletter in 2011, Gallagher Creek was “home to one of the few remaining self-sustaining Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) populations in southern Michigan.” At the time that newsletter appeared, development around the park had decreased this native fish’s population dramatically.  “The brook trout density found in this survey was about 50 per mile, down from 300 per mile in 1990 and 1998. This decline in abundance is likely due to siltation of the stream from the development along the creek.”  I wonder if brook trout are still spawning in Gallagher Creek, the young still making their way to Paint Creek.  Perhaps the DNR will do another survey that will let us know their fate.

Gallagher Creek to parking lot

View from the creek to the parking lot, now unobstructed by a thicket of shrubs.

Now we can look with anticipation to next year at Gallagher Creek Park.  The land should bloom with new flowers and grasses planted this fall and next spring.  Native seeds that have waited in the seed bank below the ground for years may now emerge as sun reaches the soil. With more flowers, come more butterflies and other insects, and then more birds and other wildlife. So keep your eye on this little gem of a park.  It’s on its way to being a great resource for  families in the south end of the township!

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.