WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Oakland Audubon Society offers free, fun filled trips for birders of all ages. They are enriching family-friendly events where participants often encounter the unexpected. As expected, my hike with their “young birders” last Saturday morning at 2,454-acre Indian Springs Metropark was no exception. Thirty-six species of birds, including five different species of swallows, were encountered during our two and a half hour meander, but my two favorite species of wildlife encountered were not birds. One had scales, the other fur. It’s not every day I witness an eastern garter snake up in a tree or go face to face with a pair of young thirteen-lined ground squirrels, but on Saturday I did.
Indian Springs encompasses the headwaters of the Huron River and protects a diverse landscape of woodlands, wetlands and restored prairie habitat. It’s a dynamic place where if you walk slowly and stop often you can feel the pulse of nature, even on sultry summer days. And as I have come to discover, when you walk with birders you always walk slowly and stop very often – for that’s what birders do. Our destination was the edge zone of the sixty-acre restored prairie habitat that is adjacent to their Environmental Discovery center located near the Spray ‘n’ Play children’s area. View an online map here.
I arrived a half an hour before the starting time and wandered around the parking area, our designated meeting area, making note of the swallows swooping around and nesting on the building. A few small signs also drew my attention; they advised of the presence of Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnakes, the only venomous reptile of our county, and reminded me of my exciting encounter about five years ago when I photographed one sunning on the park’s popular paved Hike-Bike Trail.
Restless winds set the flower heads of compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) that bloomed on an adjacent bluff into motion. I started to approach for a closer look just as an Eastern Kingbird landed on top of the tallest flower, the perfect perch to watch for flying insects. Most birds do not pose for photos, but this one seemed to. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology shared this factoid on how it got its name, “The Eastern Kingbird has a crown of yellow, orange, or red feathers on its head, but the crown is usually concealed. When it encounters a potential predator the kingbird may simultaneously raise its bright crown patch, stretch its beak wide open to reveal a red gape, and dive-bomb the intruder.”
When the kingbird took flight, I went back to admiring the compass plants, a native species of our diminishing tall grass prairies. They are a sight to behold in the heat of the summer and are impossible to miss. They grow six to twelve feet tall and their yellow blossoms are stunning against a clear blue sky. Their name derives from the belief of early pioneers that the leaves of the compass plant could be used to help with navigation when crossing our prairies. The USDA confirms that the leaves of the plants orient themselves in a north to south direction to avoid the direct rays of the midday sun, thus leading to the plant’s common name.
Kathleen Dougherty, a former park naturalist and avid birder is the Young Birder’s Club Coordinator and her arrival lured me back to the parking area. We chatted just before the program began as she explained, “Oakland Audubon has a long history of promoting interest in the outdoors to Oakland County residents though field trips, programs, a newsletter and in social media. Established in 1958, Oakland Audubon is a chapter of Michigan Audubon. The Young Birders’ Club offers monthly field trips and programs to youth ages 8–18 which encourage children and their families to explore the outdoors and learn about local birds and their conservation. Young Birders’ Club events are open to the public and supported by the membership of the Oakland Audubon Society.” To learn more about the Young Birders’ Club, visit their website.
By 9:30 a.m. our small group was wandering in search of birds. Most carried binoculars and I carried a camera. Just a few hundred feet into our trek, we encountered our first bird and could identify it without hesitation: a hen turkey strutting through a field. Her behavior of stopping and pecking downwards hinted that she was perhaps feasting on grasshoppers.
We walked onward, skirting the edge of the Spray ‘n’ Play children’s area. As others identified Field Sparrows, Songs Sparrows, Catbirds, and at least one Eastern Wood-Pewee by sight and sound, I struggled to spot what they were seeing and hearing. Suddenly, the youngest member excitedly announced, “A snake in the tree!”
She was right.
A large eastern garter snake remained motionless on a low tree branch in what I assume was an ambush position for small prey. Garter snakes are opportunist hunters that will eat almost anything they are capable of overpowering and small enough to swallow. That list includes insects, earthworms, toads, small green frogs, treefrogs, bird eggs and even fledglings. We watched the snake for a few minutes before it became wary of our presence and quickly dropped back down to the cover of the tall grass. With the snake diversion out of sight we continued our pursuit of small hidden birds. Perhaps the snake did the same.
Just a few minutes later I noticed movement on the stone steps of a children’s play area and quickly realized I was about to play hide and seek with a pair of young thirteen-lined ground squirrels. As the birders wandered on, I sat to watch and capture images of their antics and behavior. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels resemble eastern chipmunks in appearance and size, but they are sleeker appearing and have 13 stripes down their backs that alternate between dark with white spots and narrow whitish stripes. They are omnivorous creatures that feast on nuts, seeds, grasses, roots, bulbs, fruits and meaty delicacies such caterpillars, cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers, worms and even the occasional mouse. Although once confined to prairie habitat, they appear in scattered locations in Oakland County including golf courses, well-grazed pastures and cemeteries.
Bidding the ground squirrels goodbye, I caught up with the birders and wandered with them for another hour looking for birds in fields, meadows and the woodland’s edge, remaining happily distracted admiring dragonflies and wildflowers of all sorts too.
Our adventure ended where it started, next to the Environmental Discovery Center, a building that attracts five species of swallows: the Cliff, Barn, Bank, Tree and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. It was a pleasure watching them flitting over the created pond that the building overlooks and then flying to their nests to feed hungry mouths. Several pairs set up housekeeping just a few feet from the entrance door, but the best swallow viewing was from the deck on the pond side of the building.
The adventure was a great nature-embracing experience and although it had a birding theme, the abundance of wildflowers, dragonflies and of course the snake in a tree and the 13 lined ground squirrels confirmed the timeless truth of the words of John Muir, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” I certainly did.
Dougherty e-mailed me after I returned home that that just as I left a Bald Eagle flew over the parking area and so I shared my final surprise final encounter with her. A snapping turtle was crawling ever so slowly across the road just inside the park’s entrance as I left. I stopped in the road blocking the minimal traffic, carried her across, wished her well and drove home smiling, already thinking of a return visit to greet the rising sun and watch swallows swoop low over the water.
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.