WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
A few fireflies still twinkled on the dark side of dawn as I prepared to head to the Shiawassee Basin Preserve, a 515-acre sanctuary managed by Springfield Township Parks and Recreation. My plan last Saturday morning was simple. Drive 20 miles from my house to the Village of Davisburg and then head north on Eaton Road to the northernmost access point of this heavily wooded, glacially sculpted preserve to capture summer sunrise images and trail tales amidst its moraines, meadows and wetlands. Things did not go as I planned, but sometimes that happens when exploring on the wilder side of Oakland County.
I arrived on site at about 6:15 a.m., under a light, misty drizzle and was greeted by a locked gate and a sign informing me the northern access point of the Shiawassee Basin Preserve is closed until 8:00 a.m. I would not be happy with a 90+ minute wait so I parked on the roadside and walked into the locked parking area to read the more detailed sign. “When the gates are closed the park is closed and violators can/will be ticketed. Violators can/will be reported to the Sheriff’s Dept.” It was time for a spontaneous “Plan B”, and so I walked back to my car and drove about six miles to a new Springfield Township nature sanctuary, the 71.5-acre River Run Preserve. Springfield Township’s website explains River Run this way, “This property includes a quality natural resource ecosystem along the headwaters of the Shiawassee River. The purchase of the property was made possible through a donation to Springfield Township by the North Oakland Headwaters Land Conservancy from an endowment fund.” That sounded good to me!
That preserve did not have a locked barrier gate and so I pulled in, grabbed my day bag of exploration essentials, and much to the pleasure of squadrons of mosquitoes that lurked in the shadows and had not yet savored a morning meal of human blood, I set out along the trails, trails that were still very much works in progress.
Two minutes passed. My boots were squishy with sole-sucking mud, deer flies found my head and mosquitos enjoyed my neck. So I did what any adventurer would do – I hiked on and encountered signage that seemed a bit unusual, “Area May Flood Due to Rain.” Light rain continued. I continued to hike and explore. There was no flood, but water droplets shimmered on pale green sensitive ferns, so named because the first frost of autumn quickly turns them brown. After an hour of hiking about that misty, almost magical world of wetland flora and fauna, listening to bird songs I could not identify and noting crayfish burrows, deer tracks, and coyote scat, I headed back to the Shiawassee Basin Preserve arriving at exactly 8:00 am. The gate was now open, so it was back to “Plan A”.
The chatter of a Pileated Woodpecker, the red-crested forest giant, was my avian greeting as I set off on the trail system after my 90 minute entry delay. The trails are only for foot travel, are steep in some locations, and mostly primitive in nature. Some are topped with gravel, while sections near meadows are mowed. Painted arrow markings of blue, red and yellow mark the main trail junctions. Total trail mileage in this section of the preserve is about two miles, but with all the meanders and ups and downs of the hills it felt longer, and that was fine with me. There were no maps in place showing the routes, but the online map was a good place to start.
I wandered with no real destination in mind and stopped several times to feast on rapidly ripening blackberries. With the humidity staying high, and the sun still obscured by a thick carpet of clouds, mosquitoes found me again. I was not their only blood meal. Many of the frogs that lined the banks of a small glacially created kettle lake had two or three mosquitoes feasting on their backsides, nature’s way on a sultry day of summer in a sea of murky green. Much to my surprise a lone juvenile Hooded Merganser rested on a partially submerged log. A painted turtle sprawled out a few feet away not caring about his out-of-place winged companion. A flash of sudden motion among the reeds gave away the hiding location of a Green Heron; perhaps a frog had just gone down its gullet.
I hiked on, and watched bumblebees gathering pollen from the yellow blossoms of a tall mullein stalk and noted both monarch and swallowtail butterflies flitting over a meadow that had been managed by prescribed fire. They seemed to struggle a bit in the moist air, but they flew on. I meandered a bit to the northwest along the B Trail and then turned west on the A Trail and headed for a lake overlook. In ten more minutes I made my silent approach, just in time to listen to the deep melody of bullfrogs hidden in the shallows below the overlook platform. A small path next to the overlook platform drew my attention and so I followed that narrow meandering trail to the water’s edge, taking note of colorful newly emerged fungi, including two species of Amanitas: a species that bears the skull and crossbones in mushroom hunter field guides.
It was there that I encountered Buttonbush, a native wetland loving shrub with perfectly round, fragrant flowers studded with very prominent, round-headed pistils. Hummingbirds, honey bees and butterflies are all attracted to this peculiar looking, nectar providing flower. Dew-speckled jewelweed blossoms added splashes of orange to the shoreline, and reminded me that by late July most wildflowers of wet meadows and fields are approaching peak bloom. With that thought in mind, I detoured back to my starting point through one of the larger meadows and managed hazy day photo captures of Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, Queen Ann’s Lace and my favorite, sweetly scented Wild Bergamot.
My final stop was the Davis Lake Overlook on the west side of Eaton Road, about midway between where I parked and Davisburg Road. It’s part of the Shiawassee Preserve and can be accessed from Eaton Road or through the trail system. At long last the sun broke through, the mosquitoes retreated, and I was rewarded with a view of the lake and prairie fen that are part of the Shiawassee Basin Preserve, a biological-rich ecosystem that is also home to rare and endangered species including the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake and the Poweshiek Skipperling Butterfly. The entire preserve really is a great place to embrace the wonders and small discoveries of nature’s way on the wilder side of Oakland County, even when the sky is gray, clouds hang low, and mosquitoes are hungry.
Be sure to visit Springfield Township’s website for details on the River Run Preserve and the Shiawassee Basin Preserve. The website includes information on the more developed southern end of the Shiawassee Basin Preserve that is accessed from Davisburg Road and includes the Township Civic Center, soccer and baseball fields, picnic areas and a farmers market. You’ll also find information on nature programs, family and outdoor recreational activities and upcoming events.
Jonathan Schechter 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.