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.

Showcase Sanctuary: Dowagiac Woods

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Hunter’s Creek. Photo: Dan Sparks-Jackson

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Since its establishment as a Michigan Nature Association sanctuary in 1983, Dowagiac Woods has become renowned for its dazzling, weeks-long display of spring wildflowers.  In fact, this in part is what inspired the Michigan Nature Association’s interest; shortly after a member visited the woods in 1975 and noted the abundance of Blue-eyed Mary on a 220-acre forest lot that was for sale, an appeal was made for funding to purchase it. The original purchase has since been expanded to encompass an additional 164 acres.

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Trails of Wildflowers. Photo: Judy Kepler

Every year visitors walk the trails meandering through the diverse blooms, some of which are hard to find elsewhere in the state. However, Dowagiac Woods is a unique example of the value of Michigan’s natural heritage, not just for its famed spring wildflowers, but because it’s a largely undisturbed 384-acre block of high-quality forest habitat with ample biodiversity to support a variety of Michigan-native wildlife, including many rare and some endangered species. Nearly 50 kinds of trees and hundreds of various other plant species, as well as close to 50 kinds of birds, have been catalogued by MNA. These include the Yellow-throated warbler whose clear songs grace visitors with joyful notes, the notorious Pileated woodpecker, and the rare and lovely Cerulean warbler.

Large, intact forest blocks like Dowagiac Woods are vital to the composition of habitats that support an array of wildlife, yet are becoming increasingly rare in southern Michigan as landscapes are fragmented by industry and human use. Additionally, the majority of Michigan’s intact forests reside in the upper half of the state. Thus, as the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula and a rare, high-quality example of the natural state of Michigan’s mesic southern and southern floodplain forests, Dowagiac Woods is truly a state treasure.

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Dowagiac Woods the largest MNA sanctuary in the southern Lower Peninsula. Photo: Patricia Pennell

The ecological importance of biologically diverse plant communities can’t be overstated. Plants form the basis of habitats and aid in performing various hydrological functions not limited to natural flood control, water purification, and the cycling of water. They anchor and enrich the soil, cycle important nutrients, and convert carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen. Forests also act as important carbon sinks by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide. The more diverse the community of plants that make up a community, the more efficiently it can function as a whole and perform these essential services. When biodiversity drops, ecosystems become less resilient against disturbances like disease or fire, because a single species comprises a much greater proportion of the plant community and its decline takes a greater toll.

With the exception of a section of woods that was selectively cut in the 1960s, the majority of Dowagiac Woods has thankfully remained undisturbed. The Michigan Nature Association’s mission is to preserve and maintain pristine areas like Dowagiac Woods. With soil that has never been plowed and trees that have never been clear-cut, it is the closest illustration of how Michigan’s forests may have looked prior to settlement. Visitors are encouraged to walk the trails and take in the rare sights and sounds of the many unique species found there. With careful management, what remains of Michigan’s natural heritage may yet be enjoyed for generations to come.

Ten MNA sanctuaries to visit this fall

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

As the season changes, so do the leaves. Well, at least in Michigan! Fall is one of the most beautiful seasons to experience in Michigan as fall colors surround beautiful landscapes. MNA’s nature sanctuaries are home to a variety of habitats offering breathtaking colors perfect for a fall hike. We had a hard time narrowing the list down, but here are a few sanctuaries to check out if you’d like to experience Michigan this fall.

For a complete list of upcoming guided fall hikes, download the Fall 2014 edition of Discover Michigan Nature or check out the online calendar of events. Click here to access a map of MNA’s nature sanctuaries in Michigan.

Ten MNA Nature Sanctuaries to Visit this Fall:

1. Timberland Swamp Nature Sanctuary in Oakland County

Autumn hardwoods

Photo by Mark Carlson.

This 245-acre sanctuary offers guests the chance to explore the wonders of the woods. This sanctuary contains hardwood swamp and second hardwood growth. Visitors are welcome to explore on a 2-mile loop trail, but be sure to pack proper footwear as the sanctuary can be wet and swampy (as the name implies).

2. Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary in Newaygo County

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Photo by Matt Schultz.

 

This 210-acre sanctuary is made up of oak and pine barrens. Despite having no trails, the terrain makes it easy for visitors to explore. In this sanctuary, the fall is prime time for the blooming of sunflowers, goldenrod and asters.

3. Wilcox-Warnes Nature Sanctuary in Macomb County

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Photo by Jeff Ganley.

 

Visitors can take a hike on a mile-long loop through this sanctuary. The 44-acre sanctuary is home to an array of different plant species including tulip trees and round-leaved orchids and parts both mature and mesic forest.

4. Estivant Pines Nature Sanctuary in Keweenaw County

Photo by Marianne Glosenger

This 510-acre sanctuary offers two loop trails, each about a mile long, that intersect offering a 2.5-mile challenge for visitors’ hiking pleasure. The giant white pines have an awe-inspiring height of up to 125 feet, which surround guests with beautiful color as they make their way through the trails. There are also many bird species to watch out for at Estivant Pines.

5. Mystery Valley Karst Preserve and Nature Sanctuary  in Presque Isle County

Photo by Katherine Hollins

Photo by Katherine Hollins

Mystery Valley is home to one of the largest karst “collapse valleys” in the Great Lakes region. On the 1-mile Earthcrack Trail, visitors can explore the incredible earth cracks and valley formed by the erosion of limestone beneath the earth’s surface. The half-mile Valley Trail passes fossils of marine life embedded in the rock. In addition to the sanctuary’s interesting geology, the slightly acidic soil supports a northern-mesic forest, dominated by sugar maple, beech and hemlock trees. In the fall, the trees change and beautifully highlight the landscape.

6. Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary in Cass County

Autumn in the woods

Photo by Sherri Laier.

This sanctuary offers a 1.5-mile loop as well as boardwalks over naturally wet areas and some benches to take a rest. Even if visitors are just sitting for a moment, they still have a great opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of the nature around them in this “crown jewel” nature sanctuary. The sanctuary is a mixture of floodpain, southern mesic forest and hardwood swamp, a home for several different bird and reptile species. The Dowagiac River also flows through this sanctuary.

7. Columbia Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County

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Photo by Jeff Ganley.

A beautiful array of colors can be seen in this 40-acre sanctuary consisting of southern hardwood swamp, emergent marsh and southern hardwood forest. It is in this sanctuary where over 150 plant species can be found. Some notable plants are Michigan holly, several types of bedstraws and sedges.

8. Twin Waterfalls Plant Preserve in Alger County

Photo by Mike Zajczenko

Twin Waterfalls boasts great beauty in its falls themselves, as well as unique plants. Some plants found in this sanctuary are twisted stalk and American milletgrass. The milletgrass is known for being 5 feet in height and a foot-long panicle. The Munising Formation is also an interesting sight — a large sandstone wall made of a variety of colors.

9. Phillips Family Memorial Nature Sanctuary in Van Buren County

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Photo by Nancy Goodrich.

This sanctuary is unique because of its coastal marsh habitat. Along with coastal marsh, it is also composed of southern mesic forest. Some trees to look out for are hardwoods, red maple, pin oak and black cherry.

 10. Dauner Martin Nature Sanctuary in Genesee County

Photo via MNA archives.

Photo via MNA archives.

This nature sanctuary is an interweb of pine groves and hardwood forests. Visitors can choose between several different trails to discover the variety of trees in the sanctuary. Some trees to look out for are oak, elm and ash.

 

We want to explore Michigan with you! Download the Fall 2014 edition of Discover Michigan Nature or check out the online calendar of events and join us in the field!

MNA Volunteer Days: Red Cedar River Plant Preserve

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

Part of the boardwalk at the Red Cedar River Plant Preserve Sanctuary. Photo via MNA archives.

Part of the boardwalk at the Red Cedar River Plant Preserve Sanctuary. Photo via MNA archives.

The Red Cedar River Plant Preserve is more than just a 10-acre sanctuary in Williamston, Michigan, and the only one in Ingham County. This sanctuary is one of five MNA sanctuaries within the boundaries of a city and is close to the MNA’s former headquarters.

Usually land within cities has been far too degraded for MNA to claim as a sanctuary, but because of the floodplains within the Red Cedar River Plant Preserve, this area has surprisingly maintained its natural character so close to an urban area. This sanctuary was historically known as the Williamston Floodplain.

The sanctuary consists of floodplains and wetlands because it is so close to the Red Cedar River. There are also marshy and swamp-like areas as well.

These habitats are home to plant-life like marsh marigold, skunk cabbage and jewelweed. Some types of trees that grow on the floodplain ridge are black cherry and red oak. The ridge is welcoming to visitors, giving them a place to walk and explore during spring flooding season.

Volunteers at the boardwalk. Photo via MNA archives.

Volunteers at the boardwalk. Photo via MNA archives.

This sanctuary is one of the few that MNA has built a boardwalk on and it is one of the longest and the only with an observation deck included in its design.

The area was donated in 2005 by Doug and Darlene Price, who with the help of engineer David Geyer have worked on protecting important parts of the habitat. MNA collaborated with them to change the future plans of the development of uplands in order to preserve the area within the sanctuary.

The redevelopment of the sanctuary’s boardwalk will help protect the floodplain. The old design could not withstand the severe flooding so MNA has organized volunteer days to rebuild the boardwalk with a design engineered to allow it to be more stable and provide more access to the sanctuary. About 40 feet of the boardwalk must be built this year of a total of 150 feet, and MNA is enlisting all the help it can get.

MNA extends its gratitude to engineers Jim Rossman  and Paul Rice for volunteering their time to develop the design, cost estimates and construction phases, and stewards Jim and Besty Pifer who assisted in the planning process.

Upcoming Volunteer Days:

  • Thursday, July 10 at 9 a.m.
  • Thursday, July 24 at 9 a.m.
  • Wednesday, August 20 at 9 a.m.
  • Thursday, September 11 at 10 a.m.
  • Thursday, September 18 at 10 a.m.

Please contact Rachel Maranto for more information about the project and volunteer days at rmaranto@michigannature.org.