WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Hiker T. Moose, that’s the name of a trail, not a moose that hikes. This was my destination on the wilder side of Oakland County two weeks ago under a quiet gray sky, a scene enlivened by serenading songbirds birds, the emergence of woodland wildflowers, and the overhead flight of Sandhill Cranes. Almost six years had passed since my last trek on that oddly named trail and back then my exploration was on cross-country skis. On that day the shoreline of the Shiawassee River was laced in ice and all but obscured in swirling snows. And just like back then, there were no encounters with moose this time either along that meandering portal to nature’s way known as the “Hiker T. Moose” trail.
The trail is located within Sorensen Park in Holly Township. Most of my trail-savvy hiker friends are unaware of this 93-acre park managed by Holly Township Parks and Recreation. Local residents know the park well, more for its softball fields and athletic programs than its rather enticing trail that also attracts runners readying themselves for 5K races. It’s an easy to miss place unless you know where to look, the entrance is all but hidden away in a neighborhood. A large weathered sign at 5142 East Holly Road announces its presence and it’s still possible to miss the trail system after entering.
The entrance driveway splits; the athletic fields are to the left, while straight ahead is a green building with an attractive “welcoming moose” metal sign, hanging from the eves. The green building is their nature center and during my winter exploration six years ago, the building was closed. I’ve since discovered that the hours are very limited: Tuesday, 9am-noon; Wednesday: Noon-5pm; Thursday: 1-5pm. The Holly Park website states, “it houses many displays for kids, a nature library, a sitting area to enjoy the birds, and even some live animals! There is also a small gift shop and a rest area for those using the trails. There is no cost to visit the nature center or use the trails.”
The Hiker T. Moose Trail is actually a combination of several trails that loop through or around the wetlands edge, oak woods, several marshes and meadows, and around the athletic fields to create a 5-kilometer trail. Trail maps were not in the outside display rack by the front door the day I visited, however an attractive signboard on the exterior wall outlines the basics of the trail system. Take a photo of the sign with your smartphone and it will aid your trek, but keep in mind the top of their map is South, not North as in most maps. Some of the trail junctions have small directional signs indicating the way to the Shiawassee River Overlook, a favorite destination.
I started my nature meander adjacent to the north side of the nature center and initially followed the Wetland Edge Trail. My quiet approach to the small woodland pond brought an encounter with one of our most beautiful species of ducks, the Wood Duck. Just as I kneeled and leaned forward to snap a few images of these wary ducks of the woodland, I noted the fresh greenish-red leaves of emerging poison ivy clinging to the tree trunk, which quickly ruined my plan. I walked a few feet forward, leaving the ducks to their quiet waters and settled for a photo of recently emerged white trillium, a protected wildflower species along the trail’s edge.
From there I meandered south through the woods and gently rolling terrain, crossed a small wooden foot bridge and continued on until coming to a junction where the trail splits. I paused and watched a gray squirrel nibbling on what appeared to be freshly emerged catkins (male flowers) of one of the oaks trees at the edge of a field. There was no question that spring had firmly taken hold and was racing ahead to summer. I was pleased to see wild lupines already about eight inches tall emerging amidst the flowers of wild strawberries. The scent of fruit tree blossoms that were just beginning to open, sweetened the air and by the time you read these words that clearing will be a kaleidoscope of colors and will be attracting a great variety of pollen and nectar seeking insects and ruby-throated hummingbirds.
I walked a few feet off trail to see what the “white thing” was in a young black cherry tree. As I thought it was the silky nest of eastern tent caterpillars, perhaps the only insect species far more easily recognized by their homes than by their appearance. These leaf-munching caterpillars emerge in spring and feast on their favorite local foliage, black cherry. They rarely do enough defoliation to kill a healthy tree and in turn, these rather sociable tent sharing caterpillars are feasted on by birds.
Another five minutes of meandering brought me to the Shiawassee Overlook just as small patches of blue sky began to duel with the clouds. The view was serene and enforced the “Up North in Oakland County” feeling that appears on the website of Holly Township. Sandhill Cranes sounded off again from somewhere between the overlook and distant train tracks as tree swallows swooped low over the water. Their amazing acrobatic flight with swift turns, dives, and loops over the marshy area told me they were successful in their insect pursuit. One of these beautiful swallows landed on a dead tree about 100 feet away and stayed motionless long enough to capture an image. That handsome male with iridescent blue wings was positioned perfectly for a glimpse at what is known as a “brood patch.” Feathers provide excellent insulation, so during the nesting season birds develop a small patch of bare skin known as a brood patch that allows the warm belly to come in direct contact with eggs. The male tree swallow, as the brood patch confirms, takes turns incubating the eggs.
Turkey Vultures soared overhead as I settled down on an old wooden bench on the overlook that had seen better days. I closed my eyes to listen to the birds and the wind, it was just what the doctor ordered after a very busy week. On my return trek, I followed the east side of the park starting with the Oak Trail. Instead of following the trail directly I meandered a bit off trail to explore the edge of the wetland near one of the wooden benches along the trail. That sun-warmed hillside was neither forest nor wetland and its habitat in transition seemed to draw many creatures. A Blue Jay feather from an unseen nest drifted in a breeze, a leopard frog hopped near my feet, and just as I leaned forward to admire some lichens on a log, I realized I had company. An eastern garter snake sun bathed a few feet from me, perhaps taking a restful moment out of its day, or perhaps with an eye on the bug-hunting leopard frog.
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