Ripples 6/24/2021

During our summer work in the preserve, surveying wildlife or restoring habitat, we try to be aware of the creatures and plants which reside here.  We don’t regard them as curiosities- they are living beings and we are in their home.  Even if we’ve heard a wood thrush or red-shouldered hawk a hundred times, we still remind ourselves how special they are, and how fortunate we are to have them as our neighbors.
One of those residents which people are often surprised to meet are the orchids.  Most of us think of orchids as exotic tropical plants grown in a greenhouse and on windowsills, but they are a large, varied, and successful family of plants with several wild members growing in forests in our region.  Worldwide there are about 28,000 species of orchids, making them one of the largest families of flowering plants in existence.  They are often colorful and fragrant making them popular subjects for domestication.  In the forest here we find a variety of orchid types- from lady’s tresses to purple fringed orchid to coralroot and a few pink ladyslippers.  In some cases it’s rare to find a flower, though, because deer like to graze on the blooms.
There is even an invasive orchid- the helleborine orchid (Epipactis helleborine), which has escaped from home gardens into the forest.  Its native range is from Portugal to northern Africa east to China.  It is a perennial plant which grows from 1-3 feet tall and has broad leaves and spikes of irregular flowers typical of the orchids.  Fortunately, it spreads rather slowly, and often doesn’t grow in dense colonies, rather appearing here and there in a forest, especially near footpaths- I suspect shoes help to spread it’s seeds.
Helleborine orchids are very attractive to pollinators- they secrete a sweet nectar enjoyed by wasps, flies, and bees.  They depend on these insects to pollinate their flowers, allowing them to produce large numbers of seeds, through which they colonize areas disturbed by people.  In order to germinate, those seeds require help from fungi in the soil- any of several different groups of symbiotic organisms.      Unlike some other invasive plants, helleborine orchids don’t seem to overwhelm forest areas- as I mentioned they seem to present a few plants in places where there has been disturbance, such as paths, around buildings, or roadsides.  Because they are perennial and not too dense in their growing habit, they can be controlled by simply pulling them out, rather than requiring herbicide or more extensive mechanical controls.
If you happen to come across the hellborine orchid, you are seeing a plant which is as much at home here as it is in parks in places like London, Moscow, or San Francisco.  It is an interesting addition to our local flora, and an example of how we humans affect the environment wherever we travel.  
photo- Helleborine orchid from Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center

Ripples 6/17/24

One of the highlights of the year for us are the summer bird surveys which take place in the Woodland Dunes preserve. Woodland Dunes was begun as a result of the very special Great Lakes Ridge and Swale habitat found in the forest here, which provides for a rich variety of plant species which in turn provide nesting habitat for hundreds of species of animals. About 100 different species of birds nest and raise their young at Woodland Dunes, but the exact composition of that population varies from year to year. Beginning on about June 10 and for the following couple of weeks, we discover anew which birds have chosen to continue their lineage by making a summer home here to raise their young.

Because trees and shrubs are abundantly adorned with leaves it is difficult to see birds in the forest in summer. Fortunately, and perhaps because of that, birds communicate their presence and intentions by singing. Even if we can’t see the birds, we can still record the ones we hear, and our summer surveys are done by walking to a designated point in the preserve, and recording all birds either seen or heard during a 10-minute period.

Birds tend to sing more in the early morning, so survey points are monitored between sunrise and about 9 am. Incidental observations made at other times are also recorded.

It is not always easy getting up early in summer, and I admire people who do so every day. Out in the forest, however, the world seems almost magical. Lush green growth all around punctuated by tiny wildflowers with a background of singing birds (and a few humming mosquitoes) makes the effort to rise early worthwhile. We walk quietly from point to point, usually several hundred yards between stops. Phone apps now make documenting birds and the effort to survey them easy, and results can be sent to a global bird database from the field- quite an improvement from the stacks of field notes we used to have to compile back at the office.

The best part, however, is the mystery of discovering which birds are present at each point. Many people think of warblers as visiting our area during spring and fall migration periods on their way to and from the far north, but in reality many northern birds are enticed by the plants they typically see in Canada which grow here thanks to the cooling effect of Lake Michigan. That habitat, and the abundant insect population residing in the forest make for suitable nesting conditions for many of those northern birds. At Woodland Dunes so far this summer we have found more than 80 species, including winter wrens, white-throated sparrows, and ten of the warblers including mourning and chestnut-sided, often northern residents. In the open fields planted with prairie grasses and wildflowers we’ve found savannah sparrows, dickcissels, bobolinks, and meadowlarks, while in the wet spots blue-winged teal, spotted sandpipers, and Wilson’s phalaropes have been found. The marsh is alive with red-winged blackbirds, swamp sparrows, marsh wrens, and Virginia rails.

Each of these birds is special, and giving them a place to nest and continue their species’ existence makes us feel that what we do is worthwhile. This time of year, experiencing the early morning life of the preserve, I appreciate more than ever the foresight of the people who founded Woodland Dunes, realizing what a rich and meaningful place it is, and how reassuring that if you preserve native habitat and try to maintain it, the birds and other wildlife will find it.

In another couple of weeks there will be more time for sleep. For now, experiencing the forest and the birds which live here justifies a few extra yawns during the day. Nothing another cup of coffee can’t fix.

photo: an unusual sighting of a Wilson’s phalarope at Woodland Dunes, taken by Nancy Nabak

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)