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.

Upcoming Wildflower Walkabout Tour: Black Creek Nature Sanctuary

By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern

With warm temperatures and wildflowers in bloom, late-summer is a great time to get outside. Explore what northern Michigan has to offer by joining Erika Vye, MTU Geology PhD student, for a hike through Black Creek Nature Sanctuary on August 3, at 11 a.m. The tour is part of MNA’s 2013 Wildflower Walkabout, a series of guided tours throughout spring and summer featuring the abundant plant life in many sanctuaries. In addition to its diverse summer flora, the sanctuary displays many of the Upper Peninsula’s iconic animal species as well as the picturesque shores of Lake Superior.

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Black Creek’s Lake Superior shoreline.
Photo courtesy of Sherri Laier.

Black Creek Nature Sanctuary is located near Calumet, Michigan in Keweenaw County, off of Cedar Bay Road. Visitors can follow the sanctuary’s marked trail, which is about five miles to the end and back. The trail begins in a sandy, backdune landscape, where visitors can expect to see a variety of blueberry, bearberry and trailing arbutus plants. Further along, the sanctuary is shaded by towering white birch, fir and sugar maple trees.

Many wildflowers are native to the area, including rattlesnake plantain, baneberry, and sarsaparilla. The flowers should be in full bloom this time of year, displaying spots of color along the trail, so visitors will want to bring their cameras along for the hike.

Visitors might also catch a glimpse of some wildlife along the trail, as Black Creek is home to many of northern Michigan’s animal species. Though wolves, black bears, and moose have all been reported in the sanctuary, a more common animal is the spruce grouse, a medium-size bird native to the area. The spruce grouse is known for its immobility, and it will only fly away other animals come closer than a few feet.

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A beaver dam in Black Creek’s lagoon.
Photo courtesy of Charlie Eshbach.

Near the end of the trail lies Black Creek’s picturesque and unique lagoon, located where Black Creek and Hills Creek converge before entering the lake. The lagoon provides a critical habitat for fish and surrounding wildlife, and it is an especially popular location for beaver dams. Depending on the weather, the lagoon’s size and shape is constantly changing, creating an ever-altering landscape.

Black Creek Nature Sanctuary is also known for its shoreline. The first 121 acres of the sanctuary were initially donated in 1991 by Calumet native Ruth Sablich, who hoped to create more public beaches along Lake Superior. A year later, the preserve expanded an additional 120 acres, making it the expansive 241-acre sanctuary it is today. Visitors can follow 1,300 feet of Lake Superior shores, which are angled and capable of producing 18-foot high waves during the most powerful storms.

With an abundance of natural photo opportunities and warm, summer air, Black Creek Nature Sanctuary is sure to satisfy any adventurous spirit. For more information on MNA’s August 3 hike or for directions to the sanctuary, email nancy@einerlei.com.

Spot wildflowers in bloom at MNA’s spring events

By Annie Perry, MNA Intern

White trillium at Trillium Trail Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Ron Grogan.

White trillium. Photo by Ron Grogan.

Throughout spring and summer, many of MNA’s sanctuaries are covered with abundant, colorful wildflowers. This spring, MNA is hosting a variety of wildflower-focused events, including a hike at Trillium Ravine Nature Sanctuary on May 1 that will give visitors a chance to check out the sanctuary’s three rare trillium species, which should be blooming throughout the sanctuary at the time of the hike.

Trilliums are spring ephemerals, or wildflowers that bloom in early spring and die after a short growth and reproduction phase. They appear to be plants with unbranched stems, but they actually produce no true leaves or stems above ground; the “stem” is really an extension of the horizontal rhizome (a stem that grows continuously underground and puts out shoots and roots) and produces small, scale-like bracts that look like leaves.

Red trillium at Jasper Woods Memorial Nature Sanctuary. Photo by Al Menk.

Red trillium. Photo by Al Menk.

Trilliums are divided into two major groups: pedicellate and sessile.  Pedicellate trilliums have flowers on stalks, while sessile flowers have no stalks and sit directly on the plant’s bracts. In all, there are 38 species of trillium, four subspecies and seven varieties.

Four trillium species are protected in Michigan. The state lists toadshade, prairie trillium and snow trillium as threatened and painted trillium as endangered. MNA sanctuaries protect several trillium species, such as red trillium, drooping trillium, painted trillium, prairie trillium and toadshade, among others. Trillium Ravine has three trillium species, but Trillium Trail Nature Sanctuary, Jasper Woods Nature Sanctuary, Joan Rodman Memorial Plant Preserve and other sanctuaries protect a few species, as well.

Visitors have more opportunities to see the spectacular wildflower displays in MNA sanctuaries throughout the summer at the 2013 Wildflower Walkabout. The Wildflower Walkabout is a series of guided tours through our nature sanctuaries from May to September. Each sanctuary was picked for its unique wildflowers, and each trip is planned during the time when those wildflowers are best for viewing and photographing. For more information on these tours, visit the MNA website.

The Odyssey Tour Visits Dowagiac Woods

By Tina Patterson and Dave Wendling

Dave shows the group wildflowers

Dave pauses to show the group some of Dowagiac Woods’ wildflowers. Photo by Tina Patterson

Tina: Did Dave ever stop smiling as we convened at Dowagiac Woods Nature Sanctuary the sunlit morning of April 29? I don’t believe anyone ever saw a smile leave his face as we began our hike through his favorite sanctuary, which he has been co-stewarding for years with Maggie Ebrite and Tracy Braswell.  We started the second segment of the Odyssey in southwest Michigan at the second largest sanctuary in the Lower Peninsula: Dowagiac Woods. The sanctuary boasts 384 diverse acres of beech maple and flood plain forest which have been evolving in a mostly undisturbed state. Though the Woods has been selectively logged and the Dowagiac River has been channelized, the Woods has never been farmed or pastured.  The major reason most visitors come to Dowagiac is to view the amazing display of spring flowers, where more than 50 different species can be found, but any time of year is a good time to visit this special place. Continue reading