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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Species Spotlight: Sandhill Crane

By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern

Birdwatchers often pay close attention to detail. Usually, a keen sense of hearing and a good pair of binoculars are a necessity for spotting birds in the wild. Finding the Sandhill crane, however, is a different story.

Image

An adult Sandhill crane in flight.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Considering its size alone, the Sandhill crane is not subtle. On average, males weigh about ten pounds, with females around eight pounds. Though adult birds are gray overall, their distinguishing features are their red featherless foreheads, white cheeks and long black bills. The birds stand on long, dark legs and are about two to four feet tall. Despite their size, Sandhill cranes are very skilled soaring birds, with a flight style similar to eagles and hawks. Unlike herons, which bend their necks in flight, Sandhill cranes keep their necks straight when flying.

Sandhill cranes are migratory birds, breeding in Canada and areas of the northern United States (Michigan included) in the summer and retreating to Texas, Florida and Mexico for the winter. The birds sometimes travel south in flocks of over 10,000 birds in concentrated areas, creating a spectacular sight for migratory areas in late fall. Most breeding pairs in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula are found in a six county area near Jackson and Ann Arbor, with highest Upper Peninsula concentrations in eastern counties. Some MNA sanctuaries are home Sandhill cranes, as these interesting birds nest at Lefglen Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County and have been spotted at Goose Creek Grasslands in Lenawee County.

Because Sandhill cranes are ground-nesters, building their solitary nests in or near shallow water, they are often found near marshes or bogs. The bird’s eggs are pale brown and relatively large, and its chicks are dark orange and fluffy. Offspring begin breeding when they are 2-7 years old, and sometimes live for roughly 20 years. The cranes can also be found feeding in corn and upland grain fields, as their diet mainly consists of grains and seeds, with a few insects and invertebrates added to the mix.

A Sandhill crane chick. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Sandhill crane chick.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The call of the Sandhill crane allows birdwatchers to identify the species without even seeing it. Frequently, the bird gives off a loud trumpeting sound, which can be heard from a far distance. The Sandhill crane’s unique sound resembles a French-style “r,” rolled in the animal’s throat. Intensifying the noise, mated pairs often participate in an act known as “unison calling,” where the two stand close together and call in a synchronized manner.

Regarding conservation, the Sandhill crane is not considered threatened as a species and is one of the few crane species that are still common. With a population of over 400,000, the Lesser Sandhill crane is the most plentiful crane alive today. Still, its three southernmost subspecies, the Florida, Mississippi and Cuban Sandhill cranes, are rare and face multiple population threats. Habitat destruction has had an especially negative effect on Florida Sandhill cranes, though it is expected that management strategies will keep the species from becoming critically threatened. In Michigan, Sandhill crane numbers were reduced by shooting and habitat destruction in the late 20th century but have grown in recent decades.

An excellent opportunity to see Sandhill cranes in the wild is MNA’s 2013 Fall Adventure, September 20-22. The weekend of guided tours will explore Michigan’s Irish Hills area, which is home to many of the Lower Peninsula’s Sandhill cranes. For more information on the trip or to reserve your spot, contact Danielle Cooke at (517) 655-5655 or dcooke@michigannature.org.

Whooping Crane in Michigan

by Tina Patterson
MNA Volunteer

In North America there are only two species of cranes that can be found. First, the sandhill is the most common of all cranes and is one the four crane species not to be considered endangered. The other crane found in North America and the most at risk of extinction, is the majestic whooping crane. Standing almost five and a half feet tall with a wing span of more than seven feet, the “whooper” is the tallest bird in North America. The sandhill crane has become a common sight in the Jackson and Chelsea (Michigan) area with approximately 17,000 counted this year at an Auduban sanctuary. While in comparison there are less than 300 whooping cranes found in the wild (the 2010 estimate was just 263).

whooping cranes flying

Whooping Cranes Flying

A wayward “whooper” has somehow found its way to the sandhill migratory resting place at the Phyllis Hanehnle Sanctuary just north of Chelsea, attracting birders from near and far. Standing among the sandhills the whooper is hard to miss with his distinctive coloration: bright white body, red crown, long dark legs and dark pointed bill standing out in contrast to the more subtle colored sandhills.

This bird is thought to be bird # 37-07 based upon the multiple leg bandings, meaning it was the 37th bird hatched in captivity in Wisconsin in 2007. At 3 years old he has reached maturity and with a lifespan of 22-24 years in the wild, scientists hope that he will mate and continue to help the endangered population grow.

The crane’s stop in Michigan is a pit stop en route from the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin towards his winter home in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, a 1,200 mile journey.

Bird # 37-07 is part of “Operation Migration,” a non-profit group working with the Wildlife Service and other agencies to condition the young birds to fly behind ultra-light airplanes as they are lead from Wisconsin to their winter home in Florida. While it is a perilous journey for the chicks, with high rates of mortality in their first year of life, the project has brought back this magnificent bird from the edge of extinction in the 1940’s to a flock that is reproducing and growing in number. How fortunate we are to be able to see one right in our own backyard.

Due to the migration path of the whooping crane, it is unlikely that any MNA properties would act as host. If however their route would change or a lone crane would stray, Edwin and Margarita Palmer Memorial Nature Sanctuary in Kalamazoo County, Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary in Muskegon County and Hamilton Township Coastal Marsh Nature Sanctuary in Van Buren County are the properties with the greatest likelihood of hosting a whooping crane on their migration.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill cranes can be seen throughout MNA Nature Sanctuary, including Martin Bay Nature Sanctuary in Delta County, Goose Creek Nature Sanctuary in Lenawee County, Big Valley Nature Sanctuary in Oakland County, Saginaw Wetlands Nature Sanctuary in Huron County and H.E. Hardy Memorial in Livingston County.

To learn more about the wildlife and habitats of MNA Nature Sanctuaries, click here.