WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
A spectacular sunset accompanied by the primordial symphony of Sandhill Cranes settling in for the night was the crowning and most memorable moment of my spring-embracing adventure last Friday evening. That “wilder side” adventure however started four hours earlier in the Goose Meadow parking lot of the 5,900 acre Highland State Recreation Area in White Lake Township.
Flashback four hours.
I arrived at the Haven Hill Natural Area section of that multi-use State Recreation Area (managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) around 4:30 in the afternoon to explore the hilly woodlands. I wanted, perhaps needed is a better word, time to search for confirmations of spring before a 6:00 p.m. program led by the Oakland Audubon Society, and hosted by the Friends of the Highland State Recreation Area, began. I’m glad I did, for Haven Hill is a true treasure located within a treasure and its rich combination of natural and human history led to its recognition and registration in 1976 by the National Park Service as a National Natural Landmark. This short video clip, produced by the Friends of Highland State Recreation Area, shares history of the site, including information on Edsel Ford, and sets the stage for the rest of this wilder side tale.
Viewing the sky-dance of the American Woodcock, aka the Timberdoodle, was the point of the Oakland Audubon quest, but first it was time for my unscheduled hike. A walk of less than a two-minute duration from the parking area placed a friend and me in a vantage point to capture images of a pair of wary Sandhill Cranes poking about the edge of the meadow, searching for seeds and perhaps early emerging insects or even a meadow vole. These red-crested giants are very much at home in Oakland County and are believed to the oldest living bird species that have “existed for more than 9 million years in their present form,” according to the website of Michigan Audubon. They are very tall birds, standing over four feet tall with a wing span of seven feet. I thought to myself, they are a lot easier to spot than the object of our evening ornithological quest, the diminutive and rather pudgy looking American Woodcock, a well-camouflaged fist-size elusive bird with a prehensile bill designed for grabbing earthworms that is about as elusive as a bird can be – until it’s time for the sky-dance.
With the magnificence of spring urging me on, we hit the woodland trail after pausing to watch robins on their worm hunting mission. A creek meandered through the woods and cut through the glacial moraines, a creek that most likely was formed 10,000 years ago as the great glacier retreated. We noted the diversity of forest trees, and chatted about it while we climbed over some that had been downed by powerful windstorms a few years ago. Those trees now offer shelter to tiny creatures of all sorts and add to the health of the habitat. Some standing dead trees, showed char marks from a prescribed fire: a land management tool that helps keep landscapes healthy in a fire-adapted landscape.
We made it back to the Goose Meadow meeting site just in time to catch an informative presentation by Larry Falardeau about the history of Highland State Recreation Area. Armed with that knowledge and welcomes by Don Burlett, the president of Oakland Audubon, and my naturalist friend Kathleen Dougherty, the leader of the Young Birders Club of Oakland Audubon, we hit the trails again to meander for 90 minutes before it would be dark enough to witness the sky dance of the American Woodcocks, who were in all likelihood very close by, hidden in plain sight at the edge of the woodland.
Hiking with birders is not really hiking. It’s about walking about 100 yards, or sometimes 100 feet, or sometimes just ten feet before someone raises binoculars to view whatever winged creature drew their attention. Then everyone stops and stares too. And that’s the way it went on our trek through woodlands, around small marshes and up and over hills.
My most successful photo capture of the evening was of a juvenile Red-tailed hawk perched on a tree limb about 40 feet off trail. That alone made the trek a night to remember.
As others focused mostly on birds, I found my eyes scanning the oak-hickory forest floor for emerging wildflowers. Just as we passed a wooded swamp, a male wood duck exploded into flight and disappeared into the forest reminding me that sometimes “accidental” birders are rewarded. With the sun settling over the horizon, it was time to head back to Goose Meadow for the woodcocks’ courtship ritual that is anything but discreet, and starts just as the curtain of darkness begins to descend.
If environmental conditions are perfect and the light is right, the male woodcock will fly out of the nearby woodlands and alight at his predetermined performance stage in an open meadow. As soon as he arrives, he begins to emit a throaty peent every few seconds, with the hopes of drawing the attention of female woodcocks. When the male believes he has an admiring audience (and a crowd of humans does not count), he takes off in flight and then rises high in the sky, sometime one or two hundred feet upwards in a circular pattern. A musical twittering sound comes from air rushing through the primary wing feathers and is audible to both humans and his, hopefully, lady love. Then it’s time to plunge back to earth with hopes that the show is suitable enticement for a female woodcock.
Our group stood silently at the edge of the meadow as darkness increased. We watched deer come out to browse. We listened to the rustles of dry leaves in the breeze, and finally peents could be heard, faintly, but distinctly. As for the viewing the sky dance, I missed the show but that did not matter; for just being out in nature on a glorious early spring evening made the trek worthwhile.
I contacted Kathleen Dougherty the next day to thank her and she emphasized that Oakland Audubon field trips are open to the public and are a great way to discover the wide array of parks and state recreation areas within the bounds of Oakland County. Jay Fitzgerald is the secretary of the friends group and hiked with his ten-year old son Jake and the rest of the group. He shared similar sentiment and wrote, “The members of the Highland State Recreation Area’s volunteer group that supported the evenings’ event would love to meet and host other area organizations with missions similar to that of the Oakland Audubon Society. Groups like them do such a great job educating our community about our natural surroundings and the Highland Recreation Area has many great opportunities to share the great outdoors and teach of the need for its conservation.” He later added, “The members in attendance this evening enjoyed hosting the Oakland County Audubon society members and their guests at Haven Hill. It’s truly an amazing place filled with rich history, beautiful forests and grasslands, and of course, birds and other wildlife.”
Spring is fleeting, always exciting and perhaps the very best time to celebrate the wealth of wildness in our county, at Highland State Recreation Area, or hundreds of other parks and wildlands across the wilder side of Oakland County.
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.