Wilder Side of Oakland County
Beautiful and Rare, Springfield Township discusses an endangered butterfly, pictured above by CMU Research Assistant Michael Belitz.
“Springfield Township’s Shiawassee Basin Preserve, known for protecting one of the highest quality prairie fen wetlands in Michigan, is also one of the last places on earth to sustain a critically endangered butterfly known as the Poweshiek Skipperling. The Poweshiek Skipperling is a small (<1.25” wingspan) butterfly that depends on high quality prairie habitats like our fen for its survival. Until recently, the Poweshiek was one of the most common prairie butterflies in North America, being found in many states and provinces from the Great Plains region to the Midwest, but around 2005 the population began a mysterious decline in abundance. Today, there are less than five hundred individuals occurring in only a handful of locations across their former range.”
The largest known population of the Poweshiek Skipperling in the world is found amidst a tranquil and secluded patch of protected prairie fen. The prairie fen was formed after the last retreating glacier sculpted our landscape some 10,000 years ago. It’s right here on the wilder side of Oakland County and is perhaps the very last stronghold for this species on Planet Earth. The Michigan State University Extension Service describes prairie fens.
“Nestled within wet depressions among the rolling hills of southern Lower Michigan, prairie fen wetlands are one of Michigan’s biological treasures. These globally rare wetlands are dominated by sedges and grasses and provide habitat to hundreds of native plants and animals. In addition to being incredibly rich in biological diversity, prairie fens form the pristine headwaters of many of the region’s rivers and lakes.”
With those facts in mind I joined Mike Losey, the Nature Resources Manager of Springfield Township and a dozen members of Oakland County’s Trail, Water & Land Alliance for a behind the scenes tour of the Davis Lake Overlook. The Davis Lake Overlook encompasses approximately 40-acres and is part of Springfield Township’s 515-acre Shiawassee Basin Preserve. The property includes remnants of oak savanna habitat, mature oak-hickory woodlands, wetland-loving tamarack trees, extremely large aspen trees, and the protected prairie fen. The prairie fen is ideal habitat for all sorts of well camouflaged creatures, including Michigan’s only venomous snake, the Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, a threatened species that coexists with the small population of Poweshiek skipperling butterflies, the most Endangered Species of Michigan.
The entire Shiawassee Basin Preserve described in one word: beautiful. But to get a feel for the Davis Lake Overlook section, one would need to walk slowly and absorb the sights, sounds, and scents of summer. The heavily wooded sections are hilly and bisected by an old two-track that functions as a trail; while other parts of the primitive trail near the fen are not much wider than a deer path meandering through shrubs and wildflowers that are chest high. It’s the kind of place where one goes to quietly embrace nature’s way and revel in the wild moments of nature. During our exploratory hike I chatted with Michael Belitz, a research assistant from Central Michigan University. Belitz is very educated on the behavior of Poweshiek skipperling and its struggle to not just survive, but perhaps, hopefully, thrive in Springfield Township.
Springfield Township gives it a fighting chance, for without question the township is a dedicated steward to one of Michigan’s largest, most pristine prairie fens: a globally rare wetland system known for its spectacular array of native wildflowers and rare wildlife. That fact is critically important for the Poweshiek skipperling, a habitat “specialist” which needs remnants of native prairie, such as the prairie fen at Davis Lake for its survival. Belitz later wrote in an email,
“The Poweshiek skipperling is a historically common butterfly formerly found in prairie systems throughout the upper-midwest. Range-wide declines in Poweshiek skipperling sites and population numbers have restricted this species to six verified extant sites, with four of these sites occurring in Michigan prairie fens. To assist conservation of this species, researchers from Central Michigan University and Michigan Natural Features Inventory have been partnering with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Springfield Township, Michigan Nature Association, and Michigan DNR to address critical information needs on the species’ biology and causes of decline.”
Click here for more information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the fight to save the species from extinction. As we hiked, we talked about the “forest forensics” of the Shiawassee Basin, including the formation of Davis Lake, a “kettle lake” created by a giant block of glacial ice that depressed the soil creating a water holding “kettle.” Progressive management techniques are in place at the preserve. One of those techniques is carefully timed prescribed fire, a critical component for keeping the habitat healthy for butterflies, massasauga rattlesnakes and dozens of other native species of flora and fauna. Below is a controlled burn I participated in at the Shiawassee Basin about five years ago.
The wildflowers of midsummer that are now blooming are exceptional. The list is long with brilliant purple Marsh Blazing Stars being standouts amidst fields of Black-Eyed Susans, with Joe-Pye weed clustered about small springs. Fun fact: Springfield Township gained its name for the abundance of springs, a factor that decreased the chance of early development and made farming difficult. As we wrapped up our hike, we stopped to admire a few clusters of late-blooming Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense), a spectacular beautiful native species of lily that survives at the woodland’s edge. Their spotted backward curving tepals that expose stamens and pollen confirmed the identification.
After returning home I contacted manager Mike Losey for his follow up thoughts. Here’s what he wrote,
“These habitats are managed by the Township by removing invasive plant species and conducting prescribed burns, which help increase the native biodiversity on the property. The Shiawassee River flows into and out of Davis Lake along the southern boundary of the property. Visitors can follow a rustic trail comprised of an old two-track and some mowed pathways to explore the property and gain access to the rest of the Shiawassee Basin Preserve’s trail network. While exploring the Davis Lake Overlook, take time to enjoy the mature oak trees, native wildflowers and wildlife including various bird and butterfly species. Address to trailhead and parking lot is 8731 Eaton Rd, Davisburg, MI 48350. This parking lot is closed seasonally, during winter months.”
Our email exchange enticed me to return for further explorations and wrapped up with additional information from Losey for those that would like a guided experience at this unique and very valuable section of the wilder side of Oakland County. He added,
“I will be hosting three hikes at the Shiawassee Basin Preserve this summer and fall that will take visitors along and into the fen habitat. The dates and times for those are July 29 and August 25 from 10 a.m. to noon, and September 22 from 9 to 11 a.m. Have folks RSVP with me via email firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is available on our natural resources page.”
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.