WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
The distant din of traffic from M-24 and I-75 was barely audible when I heard a rather odd sound. It seemed to come from a small pond nestled away on the west side of Bald Mountain Road in Auburn Hills. It sounded something like a hoarse frog struggling to sing an unknown melody. I knew it wasn’t a spring peeper, wood frog, or chorus frog, the three species most likely to have been singing in the last weeks of April. I tried to peer through a thick wall of invasive phragmites for a better view of the hidden songster, but had no luck. As I advanced off trail, my steps made a crunching noise on dried sticks. Then, in a burst of speed and flurry of wings the “frog” and his companion erupted into flight. That’s how my unforgettable and most delightful early morning exploration of the 80-acre Hawk Woods Nature Center began.
It was not until I returned home and researched on the web for information that I was able to confirm what I suspected; it was a male Hooded Merganser’s courtship call. The merganser had become the prime songster suspect, for as soon as it flew off the mystery sound ceased. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Hooded Mergansers are usually silent, but they call during courtship and around nest sites. A courting male makes a deep, rolling sound like the call of a pickerel frog, earning it the nickname of “frog-duck” in Georgia.”
Hooded Mergansers nest in tree cavities and have found their niche in Oakland County. The female merganser is very attractive with chestnut colors and a cinnamon crest, however the male is far more extravagant. He has rich chestnut flanks, golden eyes, and brilliant black and white coloring, including its feathery crest that can be raised or lowered. I am guessing this pair found a place to nest near the pond and small fish to feast on (they are meat eaters) and could care less about the noise of distant traffic in this human-dominated, yet wildlife friendly section of Oakland County.
The small nature center building was closed for maintenance during my visit so for the next few hours I trekked their meandering trails that embraced woodlands, wetlands, swamp habitat, and open fields. The Trail junctions were well marked and are all interconnected, making for easy exploration. Hawk Woods is a great escape into the ways of nature. I hiked on an old section of the boardwalk trail that went through a wetland and it was very easy to explore, although water made it extremely slippery. I was pleased to discover skunk cabbage emerging immediately adjacent to the trail. As the weather warms up I suspect northern water snakes and green frogs will soon appear. My meandering took me to the banks of Sergeant Creek; muddy footprints were clear evidence of the night-trekking raccoons, most likely hunting creek-side crayfish.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the trail system, that is open every day of the year, are the well-placed interpretive signs. These signs draw attention to many natural features and creatures of the wild. In addition to clearly understandable, science-rich text, the bold headings were catchy. A sign titled, “Major Overhaul,” described the metamorphosis of tadpoles to toads, while “Dragons of the Deep” shared the story of dragonflies starting with the time they were underwater nymphs. The two interpretive signs were placed next to glacial erratics, large boulders left on the surface as glaciers retreated. Other interpretive signs advise against randomly devouring wild mushrooms and help to identify tree species. An impressive variety of native trees are in the preserve, including some stately sassafras trees.
The drumming of a woodpecker lured me towards a circle of cabins, one of the most unique features of any nature preserve in the county. Hawk Woods has numerous opportunities for organized outdoor group recreation, including cabin camping. The preserve includes six log cabins available for rent, a heated restroom/shower facility, a covered picnic facility that can be reserved, and a two-story log cabin lodge complete with an outdoor amphitheater that is perfect for meetings and presentations. Visit the City of Auburn Hills for more information on these facilities.
Just before departing, I went back to the pond hoping for a second encounter with the mergansers. Although they weren’t visible, I was treated to a dramatic encounter with an elegant Great Egret. I was excited to discover this magnificent white wading bird was fully “dressed up” for breeding season. A small patch of their skin turns bright green in breeding season and I was able capture an image of the green markings that almost looked like a leaf stuck on his bill. Long feathery plumes that are prominent during breeding were also visible. Those plumes, which are present on both the male and female, almost led to the species demise in the late nineteenth century. The birds were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands so the plumes could be used to adorn fancy hats of fashion conscious women. Before protection ended the slaughter, this common species survived only deep in the Everglades and other remote, inaccessible southern wetlands. They are now becoming increasingly common in Oakland County as the climate slowly warms.
I watched the egret waiting motionless at the water’s edge for prey to come close enough to catch. As I started to leave, it suddenly stabbed into the water with its yellow bill at what I think was a frog. It was the perfect conclusion for a peaceful and enriching sunny day hike in this protected, yet easily accessible “backyard” of one of the most heavily developed areas of Oakland County. Another reminder of the words of John Muir—“In every walk in nature one receives far more than he seeks.”
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.