Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary: A Wilder Side Adventure

From the Wilder Side of Oakland County on the Oakland County Blog

By Jonathan Schechter – he is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

If you are looking for place to deepen your awareness of nature and embrace her presence, the Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary in the wilds of Springfield Township might just be the place.

The sun had been up for a few hours, but still struggling to break through the overcast sky, when we arrived. A gentle rain, devoid of the drama and power of a sudden spring thunderstorm, was fading. The first few hundred feet of primitive trail was mostly a squishy carpet of moss, and then the rich muck that clung to our boots marked our passage on a narrow creaky boardwalk that nature struggled to reclaim. An ethereal stillness hung over the swamp, interrupted only by the drumming of Pileated Woodpecker, and then the melodious melody of a pair of Barred Owls. I felt a bit like an explorer stumbling into a hidden habitat that was mysteriously wild, where humans are just passing intruders. We were.

The Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary is the largest sanctuary in southeast Michigan managed by the Michigan Nature Association. According to their website, “This 245-acre area has remained largely undisturbed since the surrounding land was farmed in the early 19th century. From the mid-1800s until the MNA’s acquisition, the swamp provided timber for local settlers and farmers, with former logging trails still evident into the early 1900s. The sanctuary is adjacent to Indian Springs Metropark, and together they protect more than 2,000 acres of sensitive habitat and green space.”

Two choices awaited our mid-April rainy day exploration. Both would have been perfect. One would have been to just sit and lean against a tree and absorb the serenity of the swamp. The other choice was to follow the words of William Wordsworth, “Come forth into the light of things. Let Nature be your teacher.” We did both. We wandered the trails slowly, while consciously seeking out nature’s secrets – and stopping at trees to sit, lean and listen. We were well rewarded.

Oakland County is blessed with a diverse array of forest habitats, and some of those habitats are hardwood swamps. The Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary has fascinating forest forensic stories to share. Some forest stories are difficult to interpret, while others are open books of natural history for those that take the time to explore. To understand and appreciate the habitat of Timberland one must take note of the thousands of fallen trees. They fell for different reasons. Knowing the reasons will enrich your trek along the three miles of the narrow meandering trail, a habitat that includes log-crawling slugs, hidden salamanders, numerous species of birds, eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, mink, deer, fox, coyotes, ferns and an impressive array of wet woodland wildflowers.

Blowdowns are downed trees that were uprooted by winds strong enough to topple a living tree. When the cataclysmic fall occurs, a gaping hole is left where their root mat was ripped from the earth. Deadfalls were already dead trees that fell in a wind. Many of the deadfalls in this swamp are ash trees, killed by emerald ash borers. How does one tell the difference between a blowdown and a deadfall? It’s fairly easy. A fresh blowdown usually has bark remaining all around the trunk and a large hole in the ground is present where the base of the tree was located. Deadfalls have little bark left, and a close observer of nature notices another clue, the position of fungi. The fungi on the tree bark of a fresh deadfall is at a 90 degree angle to the ground, while blowdowns grow fungi that are level with the plane of the ground.

The habitat of Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary is nearly flat and encompass small streams, vernal pools, wooded wetlands and of course “swampy” lands. In some locations there is not a clear defining line between what is land and what is water. The wetter parts of the terrain have red maple, silver maple, white ash, black ash, basswood and yellow birch trees. A few feet of elevation led to beech-maple woods, with black cherry, shagbark hickory and mature red oaks mixed in. A small meadow clearing in the woods brought a surprise encounter; a Sandhill Crane that cautiously stalked away from us. Wildflowers were just beginning to bloom during our trek, with delicate spring beauties edging much of the trail, and marsh marigolds adding brilliant splashes of yellow amidst the  thick carpets of skunk cabbage. Trillium bloom is just around the corner, and May Apples will flower shortly. May Apples have an umbrella-like shape as they emerge from the soil and on our magical moist morning hike one could almost image elves hiding underneath the leaves to stay dry.

Three hours was not nearly enough time to explore the trailside wonders of this amazing swamp on the Wilder Side of Oakland County, but four encounters deserve more mention.

May Apples

I consulted my friend Sakoieta Widrick, a Mohawk elder from the Wolf Clan and Instructor of Iroquoian Culture and a Mohawk Language Specialist for his take on the May Apple. Here’s what he shared. “May Apple, also known as a Ground Lemon or Wild Mandrake, was used by the Mohawks and other Iroquois Nations as a medicine to help deal with illnesses and keep the body functioning on a healthy level. It was used for treating infections in animals, used as a laxative, as a medicine for boils, and also as a corn medicine. In its usage with corn, the corn seeds were soaked in the roots of the May Apple to protect the sprouting corn from birds and worms. Then when finished the plant parts were returned to the woods again and thanks was given for the plant helping us as was instructed by the Creator for it to do so.”

Wood Ducks

The Wood Duck is a stunningly beautiful bird. The males are iridescent chestnut and green while the more subdued, yet elegant females, have a distinctive profile and delicate white pattern around the eye. They nest inside tree cavities making wooded swamps, such as Timberland, a five-star habitat. They also have strong claws on the edge of their webbed feet enabling them to cling to tree branches. Ten minutes of patience during our trek enabled us to capture an image of a female wood duck outside of her nesting cavity.

Red-Backed Salamander

The Eastern Red-Backed Salamander is one of the most active, and without doubt, smallest predator of the preserve. Their presence indicated a healthy ecosystem. These tiny creatures thrive in damp habitat under decaying logs and leaves and hunt invertebrates of all sorts, including snails, slugs, and spiders. They are the only lungless Michigan salamander and absorb oxygen through their skin and then directly into the bloodstream. Their skin must be moist at all times. Timberland insures that critical need.

Blowdown Microhabitats

Many of the water-filled holes created by roots ripped out by blowdown treefalls provide habitat for small species, including amphibians. One of those trailside microhabitats had a frog almost hidden under a floating leaf, perhaps waiting for a mate, or a bug to land. A return trip to these blowdown habitat holes tempts, perhaps for the frog, certainly for me.

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Celebrate Earth Day with MNA!

April 22 is the 47th anniversary of Earth Day, a day where more than one billion people around the globe celebrate the earth and take action to protect it.

There are many things that we can do to help celebrate Earth Day and better the environment. By planting trees, recycling and cleaning up trash from lakes, rivers and parks, we are protecting the plants and animals that thrive on a clean environment. MNA has many opportunities to get involved, such as through a nature hike:

Friday, April 21: Earthweek Hike at Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary (Muskegon County) 
In partnership with the Muskegon Area Earthweek group, MNA will host a hike at Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary in Muskegon County. The hike will begin at 6 p.m. All are welcome! For more information or to sign up, contact John Bagley at jbagley@michigannature.org.

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Saturday, April 22: Earth Day Hike at Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary (Cass County)
Come celebrate Earth Day at the spring wildflower mecca of Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary! This event begins at 12 p.m. and should be near peak for flowering. Contact John Bagley at jbagley@michigannature.org for details or to sign up.

Supporters can also visit a booth at Earth Day festivals across the state:

Saturday, April 22: Muskegon Area Earthweek Expo at Montague High School in Muskegon County
Check out MNA’s booth at the 6th Annual Earth Fair Expo from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Montague High School. Celebrate Earth Day in Muskegon County with dozens of local exhibitors featuring eco-friendly, natural, and sustainable products and services. There will also be workshops and presentations this year. Families are welcome!

GVSU interns and Five Lakes steward

Sunday, April 23: Ann Arbor Earth Day Festival at Leslie Science and Nature Center in Ann Arbor
Join MNA at the Ann Arbor Earth Day Festival from 12-4 p.m. at the Leslie Science and Nature Center. Stop by the MNA booth and say hi to our staff and local stewards! We will have a fun and earth-friendly activity for kids (and youthful adults!). The festival is a great opportunity to engage in activities that celebrate Earth and learn about environmental topics through live-animal presentations, naturalist-led hikes, informational presentations and discussions. You can even dress up as your favorite plant or animal! Nature lovers of all ages are welcome. No signup is necessary.

Happy Earth Day!

Learn about monarch protection at the Annual Meeting on April 29 in Grand Rapids

monarchs at Fred Dye by Adrienne Bozic

Join the Michigan Nature Association at the
2017 Annual Meeting
Frederik Meijer Gardens – Grand Rapids
Celebrating 65 Years

Saturday, April 29 – 12:30 p.m.
1000 East Beltline Ave, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Join the Michigan Nature Association for the 2017
Annual Meeting on Saturday, April 29 at 12:30 p.m.
at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park
in Grand Rapids. Your free ticket to the Annual Meeting
includes admission into the Gardens and Sculpture Park!

The event will feature talks from MNA’s Executive Director
and Conservation Director, an exciting look inside some our
latest projects, and light refreshments.

Special Guest Speaker

Dr. Stephen Malcolm is a chemical ecologist and
biological sciences professor at Western Michigan University.
He will be discussing monarch butterfly conservation
in Michigan and beyond.

RSVP Today – Seating is Limited

Please RSVP by April 21 to reserve your spot.
Contact Jess at 866-223-2231 or jfoxen@michigannature.org.

We hope to see you there!

Birding Trails, Fungi, and Protecting Native Species: this week in environmental news

Birdwatchers celebrate two new birding trails in Michigan (Great Lakes Echo): Michigan’s Northwest Lower Peninsula is a paradise for birdwatchers. Piping plovers, on the endangered species list, and the snowy owl nest there in the winter. The region is a stopover for thousands of birds on their way to breeding grounds. The Petoskey Regional Audubon Society, in partnership with local conservancies, plans to celebrate the launch of the Sunset Coast Birding Trail later this year. The trail will start in Mackinaw City and follow a coastal corridor through Emmet, Charlevoix and Antrim counties. According to a report of the Mackinac Straits Raptor Watch, a nonprofit organization that educates the public about the birds and their migration, 47,090 birds migrated through the straits in 2016. Another new trail, The Blue Water Birding Trail in St. Clair County, is also expected to launch this year. Michigan has six birding trails already – North Huron Birding Trail and Superior Birding Trail in the Upper Peninsula, and Sleeping Bear Birding Trail, Beaver Island Birding Trail, Sunrise Coast Birding Trail and Saginaw Bay Birding Trail in the Lower Peninsula.

piping plover

The piping plover. Image: United States Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain Prairie

Fantastic Fungi in Michigan (Oakland County Times): “Fantastic Fungi in Michigan: You don’t have to go to the rain forest to see amazing mushrooms” speaker program is being held on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 beginning 7:30 pm at the Royal Oak Middle School (709 N. Washington). Join Mary Fredricks, Nature Society mycologist, and learn about mushrooms tiny enough to grow on oak leaves, beautiful mushrooms that are among the most poisonous known, mushrooms that are easy to overlook during the day but glow at night, and more, all growing right here in Michigan. There is no preregistration or cost for this program.

Usually the villain, invasive species odd hero for native fish (Great Lakes Echo): A native fish may be poised for a comeback in the Great Lakes with the help of an invasive species. Great Lakes cisco, also known as lake herring, typically grow about 12 to 15 inches long and at one point supported one of the largest commercial fisheries in the region. They disappeared from much of the basin around the 1950s. Now it looks like the stage has been set for their return–by an unlikely ally. Invasive quagga mussels have depleted nutrients in the lakes. Cisco do well in low-nutrient environments, unlike competing species like the invasive alewife. That gives cisco space to thrive.

cisco

Cisco caught in Lake Michigan. Image: Katie Steiger-Meister/USFWS.

Trump admin delays listing bumblebee as endangered (The Detroit News): The Trump administration delayed what would be the first endangered designation for a bee species in the continental U.S., one day before it was to take effect. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a rule Jan. 11 extending federal protection to the rusty patched bumblebee, one of many types of bees that play a vital role in pollinating crops and wild plants. It once was common across the East Coast and much of the Midwest, but its numbers have plummeted since the late 1990s.