WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
The first days of January signal a New Year of adventures along the trails, and in the parks and wildlands of Oakland County. Snowy Owls, the denizens of the Arctic tundra irrupt into Michigan most winters confirming the season of snow has arrived – even when it’s delayed. Snowy Owls have already been sighted not far from our county. They perch motionlessly on fence posts and telephone poles near farm fields, spacious meadows and frozen lakeshores to wait for meaty entrées, perhaps mice and meadow voles, or a duck that did not wing south. January is the month that early rising hikers and trail runners find their favorite trails of solitude and solace, crisscrossed with tracks of our apex predator, the eastern coyote. It’s the season I look forward to sharing sunrises on a wooded, often snowy bluff that overlooks Buhl Lake, a four season gem of Addison Oaks County Park.
Nights may be frigid, but the red squirrels in our midst stay warm and active. Preparation was the key to their survival. During autumn they stored black walnuts and acorns in the hollows of trees. On sunny, windless days, they bask comfortably adjacent to their tree hole entrance openings. It’s also a time of great peril for red squirrels when they scurry under bird feeders for an easy meal. Red-tailed hawks still-hunt near feeders and wait for glutenous squirrels. And much to the chagrin of humans, red squirrels may break into old attics to establish nesting grounds, just as raccoons commandeer chimneys.
Sandhill Cranes begin to return to their breeding grounds while ice still grips our wetlands. Although many humans flock to Kensington Metropark to witness these crimson-capped beauties, I seek them out and listen to the primordial trumpeting and rattling music of these four-foot tall omnivores with six-foot wing spans in the more isolated marshes of Rose Oaks County Park and Indian Springs Metropark. March brings more subtle music too; the rhythmic dripping of maple sap into tin buckets is a favorite. A new flurry of bird activity fills the air with the spring melody of Black-Capped Chickadees and the warble of Eastern Bluebirds along the Polly Ann and Paint Creek Trails.
The early days of April are enriched by woodland wildflowers. Bloodroot, a wildflower that appears to bleed if the root is bruised, is one of the first to emerge, along with hepatic and skunk cabbage. Wetlands are alive with amphibians as the last of the ice melts with spring peepers and chorus frogs sounding off with magnificent symphonies. The duck-like quacking of wood frogs resonates from our woodland’s vernal ponds, critical wetlands that also provide mating habitat for salamanders. Toads are trilling too, and turkey vultures return in search or roadside kill, dandelions add color to suburban lawns and wild asparagus emerges in locations I keep secret. April is the month my hiking boots are always ready, and often muddy. Perhaps yours should be too.
Fawns and May are an inseparable couple. May is a month of excitement for anyone and everyone who loves the ways of nature. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels, a lesser known but stunningly beautiful sleek creature of our county, scurry about hunting insects. They are “habitat specialists” (you won’t find them everywhere, like a habitat generalist) and I look for them at Indian Springs Metropark and the Shiawassee Basin Nature Preserve. The far more common and smaller chipmunks seem to be everywhere and bring unbridled excitement to the youngest of humans that note nature on tiny, fast-moving furry paws. May is the month of butterfly and hummingbird appearances, wild strawberries, turkeys gobbling and of course it’s the month when morel mushrooms emerge from the moist grounds of fertile woodlands and old orchards. It’s a wonderful month to embrace the wilder side of our county.
June is the “family month” in the world of nature’s way. Fuzzy ducklings waddle after mother mallard. Bluebirds and Great Crested Flycatchers are in constant motion, bringing insects home to their young. Red fox pups sunbathe at the door of their dens. Canada Geese guard their young and drive off four-legged and two-legged intruders with notable ferocity. Honey bees cluster together in their family of thousands every night. Young groundhogs raid the family gardens of humans. Only the mighty snapping turtles seem out-of-place in “family month” as these solitaire living dinosaurs continue to lumber ashore to lay eggs in moist soil.
Osprey are very much at home in Oakland County. These majestic “fish-hawks” that have reclaimed their territory with a few decades of help from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources are now symbolic of “the wild” part of the wilder side of our county. Young osprey test their wings in July, and July also brings an explosion of wildflowers in meadows, a plethora of cottontail rabbits, and catbirds singing to the sunset to the accompaniment of bullfrog tunes. It’s the month that tadpoles finish their transition into frogs and young raccoons scurry after mom as she teaches them the ways of the wild, and the art of suburban trash can raiding.
Brilliant orange butterfly milkweed has reached its peak bloom by August and lures migrating monarchs, as well as the human eye. Chipmunks, known for their terrestrial scurrying, now take to the trees to gobble small wild fruits. Crickets sing to the night, hornet nests grow larger than basketballs, skunks wander and scent the night air, and young red squirrels strike out on their own. Mosquitoes provide substance for bats, Tree Swallows and Chimney Swifts. Leopard frogs hop through moist meadows so fast that human frog-chasers can rarely catch one.
September arrives and the pace of nature seems to quicken, or perhaps it’s just that we humans are more active. Green frogs however wait patiently in puddles for juicy bugs to fly by, and gray treefrogs do the same under bug attracting porch lights. Monarch butterflies accelerate their gentle drift southward. Salamanders take advantage of the still warm nights to hunt tiny worms under decaying logs on the forest floor. September is also the month that human adventurers head for hilly Oakland County trails to strengthen leg muscles for October backpacking in the northern reaches of our state.
October is a glorious month in Oakland County. The fiery orange and red leaves of maple and sassafras trees draw the human eye skyward as stands of tamarack trees turn to gold. It’s also the month that our only venomous reptile, the rather reclusive Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake, soaks up sunshine for a few more weeks on the warmth of paved trails such as those at Indian Springs Metropark and the grassy edges of trails near the headwaters of the Clinton River at Independence Oaks County Park. Live and let live is the way to go if you are so lucky as to see one of our “swamp rattlers” a Threatened Species that’s protected by State and Federal Law.
November is the month that bucks are their most majestic, and restless. It’s also the month that the pounding of our winged red-crested forest giant, the Pileated Woodpecker, resonates through the woodlands as they blast away at our endless array of dead and dying ash trees in search of carpenter ants and other meaty morsels. Woodchucks make their last garden raids in November before snuggling down for the winter in their hibernation dens. The last flocks of Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes finally fly south, but a few still loiter in our warmer climate. And under the cover of darkness, white-footed mice move into abandoned bird nests, the perfect “cabin in the trees,” safe from the pounce of coyotes and foxes.
The whirling and swirling snows of December go unnoticed by the beavers. They are snug and secure in their well constructed lodges. When hungry, these industrious builders slip out of underwater entrances to reach their caches of tender tree limbs under the ice. Woodpeckers feast at feeders with suet, mice nibble on shed antlers, and wild turkeys retreat to thickets. Great horned owls hoot their deep melody as they establish and defend territories for the next breeding season. Although the days may be short, it’s a grand month to explore the trails and read the dramatic stories in the snow left by furred and feathered creatures that take the month in stride as the earth continues its endless season changing journey around the sun.
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.