MNA’s Fall Adventure to Explore the Irish Hills

By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern

Tens of thousands of years ago, glacial debris formed rolling gravel hills and out wash plains across southern Michigan. Today, these landforms are still present, drawing tourists to see what is now known as Michigan’s Irish Hills. The area will be featured on MNA’s 2013 Fall Adventure, a weekend-long trip exploring sanctuaries in southeast Michigan. The Irish Hills include a combination of unique history, picturesque landscapes and over 50 lakes that have entertained and amused guests for centuries.

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The Old Sauk Trail.

Located roughly in southeastern Jackson County and northwest Lenawee County, the Irish Hills land was settled by Irish immigrants from 1830 to 1850 and eventually became a popular stopping point for travelers along Old Sauk Trail. The trail itself has a very interesting background, as paleontologists have found evidence suggesting that it was a game trail running along the southern edge of forest line. The road had once been used by Native Americans and was later converted into a stagecoach road between Detroit and Chicago. The Irish Hills became a popular stopping point for travelers along this five-day journey, making it one of the state’s first tourist attractions in the 1920s.

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Historic Walker Tavern.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Along the Old Sauk Trail sits Walker Tavern, a historic site that was once a small restaurant for passing travelers. The tavern is one of twelve sites in the State of Michigan Historic Museum system, and it is open for touring. Though never proven true, it is believed that early American statesman Daniel Webster once stayed in the tavern. On MNA’s Fall Adventure, participants will be able to visit Walker Tavern.

In addition to its unique history, the natural geology of the Irish Hills keeps visitors coming back year after year. The Irish Hills area is the highest elevated area in southern Michigan, with its rolling hills still showing evidence of early glacial activity. The hills are vibrant green in the summer and display shades of red, orange and yellow in the fall, providing visitors with great photo opportunities during these seasons. MNA’s Columbia Nature Sanctuary offers a spectacular example of the hills’ colors, which participants will be able to visit during the Fall Adventure. The Irish Hills area also includes some interesting waterways, as many of Michigan’s rivers have their headwaters in this area and eventually flow to both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

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The beautiful fall colors at Columbia Nature Sanctuary.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Ganley.

In addition to its beautiful geological features, the Irish Hills area includes a variety of habitats, including prairie fen, wet prairie and oak savanna-barrens-woodlands. Because of their rarity and diminishing nature in the Midwest, the area’s prairie habitats are especially important. Many rare plant and animal species can be found in the area’s prairies, offering a significant contribution to Michigan’s special diversity. Sand Creek Prairie Plant Preserve, one of six MNA preserves featured on the Fall Adventure, is home to many scarce and threatened plant species.

For decades, people have continued to visit the Irish Hills for its large lakes, beautiful scenery and unique attractions. Explore this beautiful and historic area by attending MNA’s 2013 Fall Adventure, Sep. 20-22. In addition to exploring the area’s geography and habitats, visitors will get to hear about research conducted at MNA sanctuaries and enjoy food from local eateries. To reserve your spot on the trip, contact Danielle Cooke at (517)-655-5655 or dcooke@michigannature.org. We hope you’ll join us in witnessing the scenic Irish Hills!

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Hill’s Thistle Research at Sand Creek Prairie Plant Preserve

By Andie MacGowen and Alyssa Yuill

Sand Creek Prairie Plant Preserve is home to Hill’s thistle, and this may well be the last known extant population in southern Michigan. In order to help preserve this species of special concern, we are evaluating the genetic diversity of Cirsium hillii. We (Andie and Alyssa) are studying the 2012 and 2013 flowering seasons, respectively. We will be senior biology majors in the next academic year, and this project will serve as our senior thesis requirement at Hillsdale College. Our research is being directed by botany professor, Dr. Ranessa Cooper, and conservation genetics professor, Dr. Jeffrey Van Zant. Although there have been multiple studies conducted on the genetic diversity of Hill’s thistle, these studies will be the first conducted on a Michigan population. We are excited to be a part of understanding more about the genetics of the rare Hill’s thistle.

A controlled burn on the south side of the preserve.

A controlled burn on the south side of the preserve.

Sand Creek Prairie Preserve is located in Hillsdale County. The 12-acre land is bordered by Sand Creek and the land is covered with a large variety of ferns, shrubs, and plants. This habitat, oak barren/savanna, is unique for southern Michigan. Hill’s thistle prefers areas that are open and available to sunlight because that helps the seeds germinate. This past May, a controlled burn was done on the south side of the preserve that helped in clearing up leaf litter in the preserve. We were able to visit the site to observe the burn and continue to visit weekly to see the growth occurring in the Hill’s thistle population.

Andie suited up to help with the controlled burn.

Andie suited up to help with the controlled burn.

The Hill’s thistle is a short perennial (similar to Pitcher’s thistle) that generally flowers once before dying, around age two or three years. At death, the main taproot sends runners off to create more thistles. Many of the observed plants will hopefully contain the purple flowering head this season which begins in early June. In 2012, we collected data on how many plants were on either the north or south sides of the preserve. Once the thistles were blooming, we collected a leaf from about 120 plants in order to conduct the genetic analyses. We just completed this season’s population count, and the collection of leaf samples will take place soon.

Cirsium hillii rosette preparing to blossom.

Cirsium hillii rosette preparing to blossom.

Currently, we have analyzed several different sequences for about 40 of the collected leaves. We have been optimizing primers and evaluating sequence data over the last couple weeks. Due to the rarity of the habitat, Hill’s thistle is a species of special concern.  The dwindling number of available habitat is keeping Hill’s thistle populations low and possibly decreasing genetic diversity for the species. Our study hopes to find that the population is diverse and healthy, especially now that the preserve is being managed.

Ed. note: You can learn more and explore Sand Creek Prairie Plant Preserve on MNA’s 2013 Fall Adventure. Dr. Ranessa Cooper will join us on the Adventure to discuss research at Sand Creek Prairie Plant Preserve, and guests will have the opportunity to take a guided tour of the sanctuary (and several other MNA sanctuaries). For more information, visit the MNA website or call (866) 223-2231.