The Bog, the Swamp and the Dawn of Spring

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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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.

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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.

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Text and photos by Jonathan Schechter, Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. schechterj@oakgov.com

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

 

 

Barred Owls: Ghostly Voice of the Swamp

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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“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: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/barred_owl/sounds 

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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Wildlife Adventure Stories in the Snow

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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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?”

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

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Secret World of Beaver Freezers: Life Under Ice


WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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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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Winter Solstice: The Gateway to Winter Adventure in Oakland County Parks

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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Winter officially began at 23:03 Universal Time on December 21. That moment marked the point at which the least amount of sunlight fell across the northern half of the globe. The earliest humans on earth may not have chatted around a campfire about the winter solstice, but they managed to grasp the fact that the sun’s path across the sky, the length of daylight and the locations of sunrises and sunsets all shifted in detectable patterns. Stonehenge is one such testament to the event. Winter, in all likelihood, was a time of great challenge, when many struggled just to survive. Today we have Facebook and Twitter to mark the solstice and here in Oakland County, we have 13 parks that take on a special beauty during the slowly lengthening days of winter. Addison Oaks County Park, Independence Oaks County Park and rural Rose Oaks County Park are three of our hilly and glacially sculpted parks that are rich in winter trails and wild land adventures on the wilder side of Oakland County. Continue reading

The Virginia Opossum: Oakland County’s Mysterious Marsupial

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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What animal lived during the age of the dinosaurs, gives birth 13 days after a honeymoon, has thumbs on their hind feet and is falsely accused of being, a big ugly rat? If you guessed Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum, you are right. The opossum is the only marsupial found in North America; Oakland County is home for hundreds, if not thousands of these amazing omnivores. The Virginia Opossum has fifty teeth (the most of any mammal) and feeds on almost anything and everything. They will hunt, kill and eat mice and rats and relish rotting road kill and crunchy cockroaches. Bird eggs, berries, beetles, frogs, fish and fruits of all sorts are also on the delicacy list. Don’t forget to add snakes, slugs and snails too. To put it simply, if it produces a scent, the opossum will eat it. Continue reading

Squirrels: Master Nest Builders & Feeder Raiders

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

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This time of year, the squirrels of Oakland County are full speed ahead, with the notable exception of the seldom seen thirteen-lined ground squirrels that snooze the winter away underground in deep hibernation. Squirrels need to stay in the full speed ahead, always alert mode, if they expect to live until spring. Coyotes, red and gray foxes, red-tailed hawks, feral and domestic cats, and the great horned owls that hunt at dusk all pay attention to squirrels as a winter food source. Frequenting bird feeders, one of these hungry predators can easily find a bounty of busy squirrels.
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