Nature Blog

Ripples 6/10/21

Written by Jennifer Klein, Land Management Coordinator

Taking a break from the busyness of everyday life and spending time with nature is good for the soul.  On a recent outing with friends, I was able to observe nature up close and personal.  In order to achieve this, we were up way before the sun.  

We sneaked out to the edge of a woodlot, positioned our backs against tree trunks for support, and settled in.  As my eyes adjusted, a snipe could be seen flying back and forth in front of me, low over the adjacent field. The morning became louder as the sun slowly increased the brightness in the sky.  Chickadees, common yellow throats, ovenbirds, robins, and many other song birds became increasingly louder and louder until the field was fully lit, and then at the same pace became increasingly quieter and quieter with the full brightness of the morning sun.

A combination of complete stillness and being dressed in full camouflage made us seemingly invisible to the creatures around us.  I watched with content as a spider dropped down from a branch high up in the beech tree ahead of me and to my left.  Careful not to break its silk string, it gently landed on a leaf before climbing back up to the branch.  After doing this several times, it ventured to the right, and found another branch to connect to.  Soon it was making the careful almost circular shape between the main supports that we recognize as a spider web.  

A chickadee flitted around us.  Soon I heard a strange noise to my left.  I dared not move, as doing so may have frightened our visitor away.  Slowly it made a circle around us, staying about 10 feet away.  This curious little grouse, with its sharp eyesight, was checking us out.  It clearly did not view us as a threat, as it slowly and quietly moved on. 

 A short while later, something large crashed into the forest from the field.  As it streaked past my left, I turned in time to see a very impressive looking fisher.  I pondered for a moment if it somehow knew about the grouse.  As quickly as it had appeared, it was gone into the forest, still in pursuit.  

All of this excitement happened in the matter of just a couple of hours, while I would have normally still been sleeping.  After failing to call in any turkeys, we moved on and took a different approach.

From there we hiked miles of trails, known to my friends as potential turkey habitat. We saw turkey tracks, as well as some wolf tracks and scat.  Our adventures took as past 4-foot-tall ferns and many white trilliums in bloom. One random dandelion out in the middle of the forest left me perplexed as to its origin.  How did one dandelion seed get deposited way out there?  There was one sad note to our trek, we found a crushed turtle.  What would have stepped on the turtle way out there?  And what were those black beetles with yellow heads crawling all over it?  Although my education told me this was a carrion beetle, I snapped a photo to research later.  My research confirmed that they were American carrion beetles.

All in all, a day spent outdoors is good for the body, mind, and soul.

Photo: Fisher from Woodland Dunes trail cam

Ripples 6/3/21

Ripples from the Dunes, by Jennifer Klein, Land Management Coordinator

The circle of life and constant movement of energy from one being to another can be easily seen in the forest.   In the simplest form, trees take up nutrients and water from the soil. Insects eat the leaves, birds eat the insects and so on.  When the tree dies and falls to the ground, the nutrients are returned to the soil and the circle begins again.

I recently experienced a micro version of this on Conifer Trail.  While hiking the trail and planning for sign upgrades, Nancy and I stumbled across an “ecosystem in a tree”.  Our discovery was a cut off cedar tree stump, right along the trail edge.  Most likely this tree was storm damaged and was removed so it didn’t block the trail or cause a hazard. The stump was cut at a height of a few feet off the ground and was at the perfect level for observation.

The center of this stump is hollow, and inside a black cherry tree is growing. In fact, the tree is already a few feet tall with a main trunk and two main branches. Most likely the seed was carried there by a perching bird.  With the nutrients provided by the decaying stump and rain water collected in the hollow, the seed had an ideal environment to grow.  Other life is also being nourished here as well. Species of moss and lichen are flourishing on this cedar stump. In addition to being interesting to look at, lichens are a sign of good air quality. 

To some observers, downed trees may make the forest appear “messy”.  In reality this is a very important source of nutrients. According to the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research, one fifth of all animal and plant species, total approximately 6,000 of the species we know, depend on dead wood. Usually this relationship isn’t quite so obvious, except for the occasional mushrooms growing along a downed tree trunk. But the fact that it isn’t easily observed by the naked eye doesn’t make it any less important.

I am not sure that the cherry tree picked an ideal long term spot.  Only time will tell if its roots are firmly planted in solid ground or if it is completely dependent on the cedar stump taking a long time to break down. For now I will enjoy this mini ecosystem and observe how nature comes full circle.

Photos by Nancy Nabak

Ripples 5/27/21

Written by Frances Meyer, summer intern

From my first week of working here as an intern, I couldn’t help but notice the many frogs hopping along the trails. On Willow trail especially, many would blend in with the grass, occasionally surprising me while I was helping assemble a boardwalk. I have always been fascinated with frogs, and recall various memories of me catching them at my grandparents’ cottage as a kid, watching them hop around the lake until it was time to leave. One summer we even raised tadpoles and watched as they underwent a metamorphosis. The specific frog I saw on the trail had a greenish coloring with dark black spots down its back, sides, and legs; all traits that point to the Northern Leopard frog.

The Northern Leopard frog is found in a variety of wetland habitats and lives mostly in northern North America. These spotted amphibians also reside in grasslands, giving them their other common name; the meadow frog. 

You might recall that as a child, you were told that frogs eat flies, but in reality, their diets are varied. This frog is an opportunistic feeder, which means it can eat just about anything it can fit into its mouth! It eats a variety of insects such as beetles, ants, and slugs. They have even been known to eat small birds and snakes. As young tadpoles, they begin by only eating algae and rotting plants before growing and developing their varied diets.

Their breeding season runs from late April to early June. Males float on top of the water and call out with a low grunting sound to attract females. Females can lay as many as 5,000 eggs! The eggs laid will typically hatch in about 9 days, and tadpoles undergo a metamorphosis in late July where their tails recede and their arms and legs grow. A group of frogs is called an army, which I thought was a fun fact to think about. These frogs take two years to reach maturity and live an average of four years in the wild.

Since the 1970s, their numbers have slowly been declining, especially in Canada and the Western parts of the United States. Factors responsible for this decline are pollution, deforestation, and water acidity. Agriculture, the draining of swamps, and clear-cutting for land and lumber are destroying the frogs’ habitat. Contamination of their habitat from fertilizers,
pesticides, and urban runoff are other factors making it difficult for the survival of this species in some areas.

What can one do to help these spotted amphibians? Fellow frog lovers can start by using environmentally friendly alternatives to household chemicals, and making sure they dispose of chemicals properly versus dumping them down the drain. Using gardening products that are environmentally friendly can help as well, by replacing fertilizers with compost which serves as a more natural fertilizer. This will also help our landfills since 30 percent of household waste is made up of compostable scraps. Using natural pest control methods will cut back on urban runoff and provide families with a chemical-free yard to enjoy too!

(photo- northern leopard frog by Frances Meyer)

Ripples 5/20/21

Have you noticed the difference between this spring and last?  A year ago we were weighed down by the pandemic, still sorting  photo of native blue muffin shrub out how to live in the face of such an immense problem.  We were challenged creatively to find ways to go about our lives, dealing with illness or the threat of it, and learning every day.  Now we are slowly able to shed some of the precautions that burdened us, thanks to the hard work of medical and public health professionals and some amazing research.

How appropriate for these good things to happen in spring, when the whole world seems renewed and our thoughts turn outdoors to things like planting in anticipation of the coming growing season.  Garden centers spring up and are suddenly filled with beautiful flowers, shrubs, and trees just waiting to find their own forever homes in our yards.

At Woodland Dunes, we just received a shipment of 2,500 native trees and shrubs to be planted in a way that diversifies the flora of our forest.  Unfortunately the emerald ash borer is poised to kill many ash trees in our preserve, and we want to begin replacing them before they actually die with the hope that we can preserve the habitat we hold so dear.  Planting them will keep several summer interns busy for the next several months, aided by hearty and generous volunteers. It’s hard work, but worth the effort.

With a little thought, we can improve our yard for wildlife while maintaining an attractive landscape.  An important consideration is to include as many native plants as possible.  One huge problem right now is that so many insects and the birds which feed on them are declining at an alarming rate.  While we might consider insects as pests, most of them don’t harm us and have no interest in entering our homes- they are intent on feeding, growing, and reproducing in nature, providing a critical food source for other animals along the way.  If we plant flowers, trees, and shrubs from say Europe or Asia in our yards, our benign native insects like butterflies and bumblebees don’t know what to do with them- they don’t always provide what our natives need.

Fortunately, there are many native or nearly-native plants available in almost any garden center.  Some places specialize in strictly native plants, but often they are available in venues you wouldn’t expect.  According to researchers, perhaps the most beneficial trees to plant are oaks.  They are host to hundreds of species of caterpillars which chew on their leaves without killing the trees, and those caterpillars feed many species of birds including migrating and resident warblers, wrens, and chickadees.  Red oaks, white oaks, swamp white oaks, burr oaks- all are beneficial, and their acorns feed many other kinds of animals as well. Birches are also beneficial, as are crabapples and hawthorns.  White pine is a native evergreen which needs a lot of room but again provides food and shelter for insects and wildlife.  Other evergreens readily available are white spruce (or Black Hills spruce) and junipers of all sorts.

Native shrubs include southern arrowwood, which is referred to as Blue Muffin viburnum which sports blooms followed by small blue berries eaten by many birds, and red-osier dogwood which produces white berries, ninebark, and American highbush cranberry, another viburnum species.

And there are many flowers which are native or nearly native which attract butterflies and bees- butterflyweed has clusters of bright orange flowers and is a milkweed used by monarch butterflies.  Coneflowers are used by butterflies and later goldfinches which feed on their seeds, lance-leaved coreopsis has cheerful yellow blossoms, and bee balm is a bumblebee favorite which comes in different shades of lavender and has leaves which possess an aromatic scent and are very easy to grow.  Blazing stars are now popular, and fall asters are similar to some of our native species.

Many of us spend a lot of time purchasing, planting or re-planting trees, shrubs and flowers in the spring.  Including some easy-to-find native plants in your yard will not only make it more beautiful and interesting, but provide another little habitat to help wildlife.

(photo- Blue Muffin virburnum fruit in fall)

Ripples 5/13/21

What a joy to finally emerge from the cold, at least some days, and see nature’s green again.  Early morning’s in May, when not too cold and a calm wind are my favorite days of the year.  The haze of green new growth, reddish buds, and white flowers paint the forest canopy in gentle springtime hues, and the songs of returning birds are the perfect accompaniment.  

I had such an experience on Trillium Trail at Woodland Dunes the other day.  The sun shone brightly and there was no wind.  Skunk cabbages were still emerging from the mucky swales below the mature catkins of the pussy willows.  Speckled alders were budding out, and at least three northern waterthrushes sang from hidden perches.  A red-shouldered hawk soared and screeched above the swamp, and a pine warbler sang his feeble song from the top of a white pine on a ridge.  There were no photo of juneberries mosquitoes to be had, and a few spring peepers still called from the flooded areas.

The morning made me think about how this wooded swamp, disregarded as wasteland by some, is filled with life, and how restorative it can be to just be in such places.  Wetlands and their margins are some of the most favorable areas for wildlife, and are especially beneficial in the world of nature.  They are wonderful places to observe species and their interactions, and being immersed in such a setting is beneficial to our well-being.  

I could appreciate that as I walked along the trail, eventually coming to a short boardwalk over one of the larger swales in the preserve.  A wood duck jumped out of the water into flight, and spiky sedges emerged in clumps from the dark water.  On either side of the swale were ancient beach ridges covered with red maples, white pines, black cherries, and others.  Juneberries, one of the first flowering trees to bloom, whitewashed part of the forest with their blossoms.  In a while, dark blue berries will follow, but birds will consume them all before my feeble senses tell me that they are ready.  That’s fine- we should be content with some things being just “for the birds”.

On the boardwalk, seated on a bench, a visitor sat quietly reading amid the peaceful surroundings.  It was such a perfect setting- the last thing I wanted to do was intrude on her solitude.  So I turned around and went back the way I came, still enjoying the perfect morning.

Photo- juneberries in blossom in the forest along Trillium Trail at Woodland Dunes.