The Bog, the Swamp and the Dawn of Spring



In these warming, waning days of winter, signs of spring’s approach are everywhere, but she leaves her most obvious door-knocking notices near our bogs and swamps. Henry David Thoreau wrote His soft warble melts in the ear, as the snow is melting in the valleys around. The bluebird comes and with his warble drills the ice and sets free the rivers and ponds and frozen grounds.”  Those words are true today: the eastern bluebird flits above meadows of crusty snow and perches on branches and old fence posts at the edges of swamps on the wilder side of Oakland County. At this very moment, something seemingly odd and other worldly is happening in our swamps. It’s an event that always seems to occur just as the warble of bluebirds sweetens the day.

As creeks babble and splash over glacially polished pebbles and ice crackles along the shores of swamps, one of our first flowering plants emerges during the final weeks of winter. Just before spring officially arrives, we can view the emergence of skunk cabbage. This strangely wonderful and oddly beautiful plant gets its name from the slightly putrid smell that comes if its leaves are crushed. It is not a coincidence that skunk cabbage seems to poke up through the ice at the edge of swamps, bogs and creeks as the plant warms its own micro-environment to 30 degrees or higher above the surrounding temperature. Skunk cabbage, a plant that always wants its roots deep in mud, is often referred to as a warm-blooded plant. That is not so far from the truth, as the snow and ice melting ability of skunk cabbage is legendary to botanists. This harbinger of spring actually creates its own heat through a process known as thermogenesis, a process that is almost exclusively in the domain of animals.


At the edge of the very same skunk cabbage habitat, a keen-eyed observer of nature may spot bluebirds overwintering here as well. Contrary to range maps that proclaim bluebirds as migratory in Michigan, many eastern bluebirds overwinter at the edges of bogs and swamps, areas rich with tiny fruits, seeds, and their primary food source – insects. And now, as the hours of daylight lengthen and the great melting of snow continues, bluebirds seek out nesting cavities in stumps and hollow trees near meadows that embrace the swamps edge. These habitats can be found in many of the 13 Oakland County Parks.

As the duel between winter and spring accelerates and softens the landscape, hikers will be rewarded by both the song of bluebirds and the sight of skunk cabbage along many Oakland County Parks’ trails. Specifically, any trail meandering near wetlands at Independence Oaks and Waterford Oaks, all the trails of Highland and Rose Oaks, The Buhl Lake Trail of Addison Oaks, and the aptly named Bluebird Trail of Orion Oaks County Park.


Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks.

For more information on all 13 Oakland County Parks, please visit



Scent of Love Spices the Air: Romancing the Skunk


Courtship is well underway for Mephitis mephitis, the often maligned striped skunk. That means the scent of love is in the night air. Romance for the skunk is a simple affair: wander about under the cover of darkness and search for a suitable mate. Yet, during these nocturnal searches, as winter slowly wanes, skunks may encounter other critters of the night: raccoons, coyotes, fox, cats and dogs. If these creatures do not give the hormonal-driven skunk, with a mission of mating on its mind, a wide berth, the skunk swings into defensive mode. First comes a warning: the front paws pound up and down. Perhaps that message serves to say, “Do you remember me from last time?”

A skunk  captured under a deck in a live trap presents a removal challenge for the homeowner.

A skunk captured under a deck in a live trap presents a removal challenge for the homeowner.

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The Red-Crested, Tree-Whacker of Oakland County



A male Pileated with a noticeable red cheek stripe creates a cavity to search out insects.

Pileated Woodpeckers are the loudest and most striking forest birds in the woodlands of Oakland County. They are also the largest woodpecker species to be found in North America, with the exception of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker: a magnificent bird that once haunted the southern swamps of the United States and forests of Cuba. Sadly, most ornithologists believe that the Ivory Billed is now extinct due to habitat destruction. In 2004, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy put a team together to investigate a dramatic sighting of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Their findings remained inconclusive but leaned toward credibility; the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker remains the Holy Grail of ornithology. Continue reading

Barred Owls: Ghostly Voice of the Swamp



“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?” That’s the classic ghostly call of the Barred Owl, an owl very much at home in Oakland County. The rising and falling melody with a hint of a southern drawl in the last few syllables reminds naturalists that the owl’s breeding season is here. Yet, others less admiring of the raucous chorus of barred owls hooting back and forth may describe the sounds as the music of a troop of rowdy monkeys. That description  is very close to the truth.

Follow the Cornell Lab of Ornithology link to hear the calls of barred owls: 

Every now and then, a hiker might hear or even see a barred owl perched on a tree limb in daylight. Oakland County Parks, Huron-Clinton Metroparks and the State Recreation Areas of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (located in Oakland County) all host these beautiful raptors of the night. Barred owls favor wooded wetlands with nearby open areas for hunting; that means trailside swaths of Addison Oaks, Highland Oaks, Independence Oaks, Lyon Oaks, Rose Oaks and Springfield Oaks county parks are perfect barred owl habitats.

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NIGHT MOVES: Wildlife Selfies on Hidden Camera


When many of us think about nature and wildlife, our thoughts drift to faraway places. However, Oakland County remains surprisingly rich with wildlife. Even with increased urbanization and a loss of biodiversity accelerated by human actions, wild animals are abundant in parks, trails, greenways, and even have the freedom to wander our cities, villages, and townships. One might say their wild spirit leads them, but in reality, it is their endless search for prey.


Despite the fact that we live in the midst of a vast array of wildlife, it’s not easy to get a true glimpse into their daily lives. By using hidden cameras, we can observe wildlife in their natural habitat and view a true representation of their day and nighttime behaviors. Three species are standouts when it comes to being captured by motion-activated camera traps: the red fox, the white-tailed deer and the eastern coyote. Their stealthy night moves, caught on camera, give us a glimpse as they are, not as our minds imagine them. Continue reading

Wildlife Adventure Stories in the Snow



The eastern coyote is seldom seen, but tracks tell the winter tale of its wandering.

Winter is the perfect time to search for some of the most elusive creatures of Oakland County, especially nocturnal mammals and those species that struggle to avoid human contact. If you think there isn’t much to discover in the dead of winter in the Oakland County Parks, it’s time to think again. Tracks and trails in the snow are clues akin to those scattered about in a good detective novel. Sometimes the tracks and trails leave one with a shock and awe feeling, perhaps wondering, “What happened here?”


A hiker compares her hand to raccoon tracks in the snow.

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MUSKRATS: Masters of the Murky Marsh



With a bit of imagination, the common muskrat might be compared to a very large field mouse: one with a can do attitude that easily adapts to life in the wetlands and waterways of Oakland County. To muskrats, winter is not an obstacle for cozy living. For just like beavers, the muskrat prepares, with a few additional twists of its own, to guarantee Homeland Security during winter. This paunchy appearing rodent is covered with a rich, dark brown waterproof layer of fur (except on its scaly-skin tail). As soon as ice coats the lakes of the Oakland County Parks, the well dressed for the weather muskrats create pushups. Pushups provide a unique way for them to feed, travel and stay out of sight.


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Mighty Mouse: A Master of Survival


Bird's Nest with white footed mouse

A re-purposed bird nest with a new roof is a perfect winter home for the white-footed mouse. Photo courtesy of Wendy Pellerito, Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy

Hike the snowy trails of Oakland County Parks – or search your own yard – and you may discover a finely crafted bird nest from last spring. It may have a new roof on top, and perhaps be wedged between the branches of a hawthorn tree or found in leafless shrubbery. Many of these nests are not empty. They have been re-purposed by Oakland County’s least heralded, but perhaps most abundant small mammal, the white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus). White-footed mice, while being masters of winter survival, home-invasions and kitchen-trespassing, also serve another role in the wilds of nature’s way. They are crunchy entrées on the winter menu for the eastern coyote, red and gray fox, screech owls, great horned and barred owls, red-tailed hawks, mink, weasel and even opossums.

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ICE: A Clear and Present Danger


The glaciers that shaped Oakland County have gifted us with beautiful lakes that support winter recreational activities of every imaginable focus. These lake activities range from high-speed ice boating to the peaceful solitude of a lone ice fisher staring solemnly into a dark hole, waiting for a fish to bite.

Sadly, winter often brings ice related accidents and sometimes fatalities. These tragedies result from a combination of four factors: excitement, poor judgment, poor decision making and inadequate information. The fact of the matter is clear; anyone that ventures onto ice must accept the fact that NO ICE IS SAFE ICE (a mantra of the United States Coast Guard). There is always risk. That is a lesson I learned last winter.


Ice that appears solid may not be; my initial crossing was uneventful.

It was early in February, after weeks of record cold temperatures. I knew, without a doubt, that the ice on the small kettle lake I was heading for was rock solid. I was wrong. I shuffled across the lake in single digit weather with snowshoes strapped to my boots and a camera around my neck. I was without a care in my mind on a spectacular and sunny day. A few minutes later, after crossing the middle of the lake, I reached my quest. It was a snow capped beaver lodge and I happily captured the photos I sought. I rested for a few minutes, relishing the sparkling sunlight of the frigidly cold day. After, I headed for the closer shore to do a bit of exploring on the nearby hillside. Continue reading

Secret World of Beaver Freezers: Life Under Ice



Beavers are the largest, yet least seen, rodents found in Oakland County. Even though these creatures can weigh more than 50 pounds with their massive flat tails, it’s difficult to spot them because they are mostly nocturnal and semi-aquatic. They are without a doubt, the best dam builders in our county. During late autumn, beavers busied themselves preparing for winter by strengthening their dams, adding extra mud and sticks to their fortified lodges and most importantly, stocking their underwater pantries. Wildlife biologists like to call those winter food caches Beaver Freezers. Rarely does a human get to see these underwater food storage sites; for usually, as the ice begins to freeze, it quickly turns opaque and snow blocks any view. Not this year. On the second day of January, I had the unusual opportunity to inch my way carefully out over crystal clear ice and capture images of the top of a beaver freezer in one of the 13 Oakland County Parks.

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