WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“January observations can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who had done what, but to speculate why.” A Sand County Almanac (Leopold, 1949)
We are two weeks into the new year, and with increased hours of daylight, we have more time to both observe and to speculate about the “whys” of nature’s way. For some of the answers, naturalists look to phenology: the study of how the life cycles of all animals and plants change in response to seasons and varying conditions such as temperature, length of daylight, soil moisture, and climate change. Here’s a look ahead to a new year of nature’s way in the world of phenology.
There was something serene and soothing about the first snows of January, a snapshot of nature’s way that brought exquisite beauty to the woodlands and swamps of the wilder side of Oakland County. Perhaps that event nudged our Black-capped Chickadees and cardinals to begin their territorial songs and signaled our elusive red foxes that it was time to mate. Before January ends, Great Horned Owls will be on their nests and rabbits will fall prey to these silent flying raptors of the night. For that is what the cycles of nature’s way dictate, and always will.
February is more than the month that mythical Punxsutawney Phil and his wild groundhog cousins emerge to look for their shadows and perhaps, stay topside to practice garden gluttony. It’s the time when skunk cabbage confirms spring draws near, by actually creating enough heat to thaw frozen earth and push through thin layers of ice. February is the month mink hunt meadow voles in our marshes, coyote sightings increase, and skunks meander at night looking for love, sometimes in all the wrong places. It’s the month winter-loving adventure seekers strap on their cross-country skis and head for the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, Oakland County Parks, Paint Creek and Polly Ann Trails, and the hilly wildlands managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Maple sap pings musically into tin buckets on sunny days in March. But that’s not the only sign that spring draws near. Sandhill Cranes, the crimson-capped, long-legged beauties of our healthy wetlands, appear as quickly as crocuses emerge through melting snows in suburban lawns. Red-tailed Hawks soar overhead, watching movement below. Wild Turkeys strut their stuff. Chickadees become more vocal, but perhaps no sound confirms a seasonal transition has occurred more definitely than the duck-like quaking of hundreds of “mate-waiting” male wood frogs in the vernal ponds of our woodlands, ponds that still may have traces of ice.
An old adage proclaims April showers bring May flowers. That’s very true, but April is also the month that even the most casual observer notes dramatic seasonal transitions. Round-lobed hepatica blooms on the south side of woodland slopes. Spring peepers peep, sounding off like millions of tiny bells jingling in a marsh. American toads trill from shallow ponds and roadside ditches. Turtles bask in the sunlight on warm afternoons. Nature lovers and hikers – they are often one and the same – meander our trails. As the month draws to a close and the forest floor warms, a lucky few may even stumble upon a superbly camouflaged Timberdoodle (AKA Woodcock), hidden motionlessly in plain sight on their ground nest.
May is for monarch butterflies, morel mushrooms, and mayapples. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds hover at flowers and nectar feeders. Lilacs bloom, wild strawberries ripen, and wild asparagus seems to grow an inch a day as green frogs create music akin to banjo plucking. Black-eyed Susan’s bloom. Beavers give birth in their lodges. May is also a marvelous month for nature-embracing family adventures, hiking, planning future outdoor adventures, or for just sitting back quietly and watching Eastern Bluebirds at their nesting boxes. It’s the month I wait for fawns that wander through my meadow of wildflowers on their wobbly legs.
June is the time my fingers are perpetually stained from foraging for black raspberries. It’s the month I meander trails at sunrise, head out on day-long adventures and wait for the new day. For those that take the time to look and listen to nature, it’s the season every marsh and every wetland share their stories. Red-winged Blackbirds cling to cattail stalks. Turtles lay eggs in the moist earth. Great Blue Herons fish for frogs. Ospreys hover and then plunge downwards with outstretched talons. June is the month where I sometimes spot a beautiful, but uncommon native wildflower that’s hidden in our midst, the stunning Michigan Lily.
Honey Bees are all the buzz in July, for both beekeepers and those that understand their value for our crops. They harvest pollen from field flowers, especially goldenrod, as the protein source for their colony. July is the month when seed pods of spotted jewelweed delight children when they burst open explosively at the slightest touch. Kayakers paddle peacefully between lily pads as muskrats feed in the shallows and swallows swoop low overhead. It’s the month I listen to catbirds singing to sunset and watch baby toads hop by the hundreds in moist woodlands.
American Goldfinches are one the latest nesting songbirds of Oakland County. August is their season in the spotlight of nature’s way. I take delight in watching these golden beauties gather thistle seeds. In the days of August, turtle hatchlings emerge. Crayfish stay hidden in their tunnels, only emerging at night to hunt for food in the cool of the night. Dragonflies are everywhere, hunting bugs and mosquitoes. Curious young raccoons explore their world. Bald-faced hornets create enormous nests. While fireflies flicker near our feet, Perseid meteors streak across the night sky, reminding us we are just specks in the universe.
Gray treefrogs, true masters of camouflage with the ability to change skin color rapidly, take advantage of warm September days to match their color to a leaf’s color. They then wait in silent ambush for a passing bug or beetle. Massasauga rattlesnakes soak in the late-season sunshine. That sometimes occurs on sun-soaked paved trails, just yards from signs stating, “Rattlesnake Habitat – Please Stay on the Trail.” Monarch Butterflies and Tiger Swallowtails drift through meadows, alighting on flowers amidst foraging honey bees. Beavers are “busy as beavers,” harvesting young tree branches for their winter pantries.
October is more than the month to celebrate the kaleidoscopes of beautiful falling leaves. It’s the month that the stunning Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria), our quintessential mushroom of fairy tales, appears at times in great numbers in shaded habitats of Oakland County and much of Michigan. Bucks are restless in October, tamarack trees turn smoky gold, woodpeckers accelerate their activity, and groundhogs and eastern massasauga rattlesnakes head underground to hibernate. And of course, October is the month that pumpkins take center stage, reminding young children that there are predictable cycles of nature’s way.
The days of November shorten, signaling to creatures of nature that winter draws near. It’s a month of infinite variety for those that walk slowly, stop often, look, and listen. Beavers add fresh mud to their lodges to fortify them from cold winds and increase structural integrity. Chickadees feast on tamarack seeds, Pileated Woodpeckers carve holes in search of hibernating carpenter ants, and white-footed mice set up housekeeping in abandoned bird nests. As temperatures fall and frost greets the dawn, coyotes meander, mallards migrate, and Screech Owls whinny in the night.
December is only the end of the year on a calendar. But for those that follow nature’s way and explore the world of phenology, it’s part of the loop that connects the seasons and enriches our lives. It’s my time to cross-country ski in a world of wildlife tracks and discover the stories they tell. It’s the time deer bed down in snowy meadows and Great Horned Owls hoot to me at dawn. It’s the season I smile at Eastern Bluebirds scrounging under my bird feeders and also when I’m told by friends, “Bluebirds always migrate in winter.” I remind them that when a bird disagrees with a bird book, always believe the bird. It’s observations such as bluebirds in winter that remind me phenology is not dull record keeping; it’s an exciting science that celebrates the timing of biological events in relation to changes in season and climate.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.