WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
The summer solstice officially arrives in Oakland County today, June 21st at 11:54 a.m. EST. This annual astronomical phenomenon heralds the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere and conversely, brings the shortest night. The longest day of the year, and all the days of summer that follow, are ideal for exploring the ways of nature in the wilds, and the not so wilds of Oakland County. The Farmer’s Almanac may be a great resource to follow seasonal changes and weather predictions, but just a simple walk in the woods and on the trails of Oakland County will confirm that summer is really here, and so today, I share some of my favorite natural confirmations of summer.
Bucks in Velvet
The growth of antlers is triggered by increasing doses of daylight. When new antlers are growing, they are covered with a “skin,” commonly called “velvet.” The velvet is loaded with nerves and blood vessels that provide nutrition to the rapidly growing antlers. Forget the science for a moment, for in the early days of summer, a buck in velvet in the soft morning light is a stunning sight. It proclaims summer is here.
Everyone knows eastern cottontail rabbits. Although they are active all year, it’s the dawn of summer that seems to bring them into our view. But perhaps that’s because we are out more now and we share much of their habitat without even knowing it. Cottontails are highly adaptable creatures that can thrive in meadows, fields, cities and the ”edge zones” of where shrubs meet the lawns of palatial suburban homes. They seem most at ease in the dawn’s early light and again on sultry summer evenings as they graze on herbs and grasses, and the vegetated sides of trails. When they freeze in place at our approach, it almost appears that they wish to pose for a summer portrait. After dark, their foraging continues and as observant gardeners discover, they are especially fond of peas and the leafy vegetables of early summer.
Green Frogs of Puddle Paradise
Green frogs are the quintessential frogs of summer: the frogs many of us chased after when we were kids, the frogs that magically lured us to the edge of ponds, the frogs we tried to sneak into the house for pets. Green frogs are found almost everywhere and anywhere where ponds and the shallows of lakes embrace weedy shorelines, or where a heavy rain creates a big long lasting muddle puddle. It is there at the water’s edge where these ambush hunter extraordinaires wait for dinner. They are opportunists when it comes to a food preference. If someone was to ask me what green frogs eat on a summer’s day, my reply would likely be, “Anything that crawls, wiggles, swims, hops, jumps, flutters or flies that can fit in its mouth.”
Gray Treefrogs Grinning
There is nothing in the world quite like a gray treefrog, a master of camouflage that can change its color in seconds. They may be found in various shades of green, brown or gray or a mottled combination of colors. The important thing is to blend with their immediate environment and to be ready to ambush their meal when it passes by. Although literature states they are a nocturnal species, the gray treefrogs of Oakland County may not be able to read, for they sound off loudly and frequently on humid summer days from their hiding places in shrubs and the lofty leafed branches of trees. Some gray treefrogs like high-rise living. This one moved into an abandoned wren box for its summer hideaway. I’d like to think it is actually grinning over its discovery.
Indigo Bunting Beauties
The deep blue coloration of a male Indigo Bunting is stunning. And although the Indigo Bunting is a blue colored bird, it is not our native Eastern Bluebird, a reminder that all blue colored birds are not bluebirds. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has this fascinating factoid about these blue summer beauties on their website, “Like all other blue birds, Indigo Buntings lack blue pigment. Their jewel-like color comes instead from microscopic structures in the feathers that refract and reflect blue light, much like the airborne particles that cause the sky to look blue.” A bike ride on the Polly Ann or Paint Creek trails may put you in just the right location for an encounter with an Indigo Bunting. Some of our expansive State Recreation Areas, County parks and metroparks are bisected by power lines, and the edges of the clearings near those lines often present excellent habitat for Indigo Buntings. Large swathes of Ortonville State Recreation Area, Independence Oaks County Park North, and Stony Creek Metropark fit those descriptions. The Indigo Bunting that “stars” in this solstice blog made its summer day appearance along a trail at the Bald Mountain State Recreation Area.
Butterfly Weed Blossoms
The name says it all, Butterfly Weed. Butterflies and honey bees love the nectar-rich orange blossom of this beautiful meadow flower of summer that undeservingly bears the “last name” of weed. Dozens of species of butterflies and other insects look at this brilliant beauty of summer as their oasis of life: a place to sip nectar, a place to rest, and for the monarchs, a place to lay eggs and jump start a new cycle of life. You’ll find these native wonders of summer in uncut wild meadows, sun-bathed hillsides, bluffs along roadsides and in the remnant prairies of our county. Butterfly Weed equals summer.
Berry Feasting Chipmunks
Living is easy for eastern chipmunks at the time of the summer solstice, except for the small army of predators that pursue them as a meaty mouthful. The early days of spring sent them scurrying about the forest floor, looking for last year’s nuts and seeds and emerging mushrooms. Now that summer has arrived, look for them on their purposeful forays up into fruit bearing trees. Berries are a delicacy for these omnivorous creatures and occasionally a bird egg is added to the menu. Much to the chagrin of some homeowners, chipmunks sometimes set up living quarters under a deck to be near to bird feeders and garden delicacies.
Rivers to Paddle
Summer means it’s the time to grab a paddle (don’t forget the PFD) and head for our river trails. The natural wonders of the Shiawassee, Clinton and Huron Rivers beckon adventurers and there is nothing quite like a peaceful paddle on any of the rivers that meander through our county to enjoy the wilder side of the sultry days of summer. I’ve paddled on all three, always with a friend or sometimes with the Six Rivers Land Conservancy or “Heavners.” I look forward to more moonlight paddles on the Huron River sponsored by Heavner Canoe and Kayak Rental at Proud Lake State Recreation Area. The dawn of summer is the perfect time to paddle down to Milford for a bite to eat, and then paddle back to the launch site in magical moonlight.
Fawns still hold their spots, and just like human children, they are out and about longer in summer days. When motionless in woodlands, they remain hard to spot. But when triplets meander through a meadow, it’s a sight to behold – a summer memory that lasts as long as the season.
Mellow Summer Meadows
Summer is family time and wondrous moments of summer wait for no one. If you don’t have time to explore a park, a state recreation area wildland, or a woodland trail, then it’s time to set aside the time to make the time. Reward yourself with a reprieve from the daily routines of modern life, overflowing with distractions, noise and a nonsensical need for constant connectivity. As Sierra Magazine wrote on the cover of their May–June issue, “Everybody Needs Beauty – Time in Nature Should Be a Human Right.” Perhaps make the summer solstice the catalyst to start the pleasant, perhaps contagious, habit of exploring nature’s way. Visit a park. Paddle a river. Hike a trail or just go meandering with friends or family in the meadows of summer.
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.