WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Summer is the season nature’s way may appear to slow, but that only holds true for those that do not venture out onto our trails or into our parks and wildlands. Walk alone in solitude in the dawn’s early light and the landscape will come alive with hidden secrets, or hike with your nature-embracing companion, and pleasures will increase through the art of sharing. Walk slowly, stop often, look, and listen, and a new world of nature will spring to life. I thought about and now share, some of my favorite creatures that thrive on the wilder side of Oakland County as the dawn of the summer solstice draws near.
I’ve come to realize that many wild animals play to have fun. To me, denying this fact is both unscientific and diminishes our appreciation of nature’s way. One of those creatures is the red fox. I was thrilled a few weeks ago to discover that I have a family of these beautiful creatures living just a few hundred feet from my house. The fox pups have apparently developed their playful version of hide-and-seek as they race about the tall-grass meadow we share. At times, they watch my meanderings from their den site on a shrubby hillside not far from my beehive. If I advance even a few feet towards their location, they instantly retreat and then head to the meadow again, with only the swaying of the grasses or the white tips of their tails exposing their location. I’ll confess that it’s going to be an exciting summer living in their world.
Rabbits are prolific breeders and may have three to five litters per year, which ensures some survive, even when a hungry fox family is their next-door neighbor. A female may even breed again the same day a litter is born! When creating a nest, the female collects grasses to line it with and also uses her own fur. Just hours before I sat down to write this ramble, I noticed a cottontail rabbit creating a nest within the weedy section of my fenced garden that’s immediately adjacent to my house, a site they always seem to favor. Being able to photograph her with a mouthful of nest-creating straw, something I had never witnessed before, was a delight.
About six years ago, I used a trail camera in that same location and was excited by those results as well.
Last week’s heat signaled female snapping turtles to come ashore for their annual egg-laying missions. Several hours may pass as they slowly dig shallow, bowl-shaped nests with their powerful hind legs. They typically choose well-drained sunny locations, which often turn out to be in suburban flower gardens. After covering 20 to 40 creamy-white eggs with a layer of soil, they return back to the water leaving the eggs and future hatchlings to fend for themselves.
Strategically located trail cameras, near a secluded and protected wildland lake location that I know well, captured part of that dramatic egg-laying action. Watching their land-lumbering missions makes one think of a prehistoric creature that will readily bite with powerful jaws if harassed or handled.
Gray treefrogs have been trilling their musical call for hours on end from their hiding spots on sultry nights as the solstice draws near. They are true masters of camouflage and are often heard, but seldom seen because of their ability to change colors to match their location, such as this one that perfectly matched the color of a boneset leaf. During daylight hours, they usually hide in tree cavities, under loose bark, or amidst leafy shrubs and will “sound off” when humidity rises. At night, they search for insects in trees. It’s an easy task for them since they can climb vertically or horizontally with specially adapted toe pads. Their large sticky toe pads even enable them to scale glass windows with ease, where they wait in full “stealth mode” for bugs and beetles drawn to porch lights.
Perhaps you have noticed frothy spots of tiny bubbles on plant stems? You won’t have to look far to find those frothy masses, for the dawn of summer is the season of the amazing spittlebug, one of nature’s most hidden wonders. It’s not spit at all, but a bubbly secretion created where they sucked the moisture out of plant stems and then secreted a bubbly substance as protection from high heat, low humidity, and hungry predators. The New York Times has a superb video about these strange creatures hidden in our midst.
One of the signs of summer I have been closely watching is the changing action at my beehive. The amount of pollen coming in has decreased, but worker bees have accelerated their foraging from dawn to dusk. They are taking advantage of an excellent nectar flow to create honey for winter storage, some of which I will hopefully harvest. When summer really kicks into high gear, and both the days and nights become unpleasantly hot for humans, as it was last week, bees feel the heat too. Honey bees have multiple strategies for chilling out. Some fan the hive from the entrance to create circulation, others sleep outside on the hive entrance, and when the heat really kicks in, some gather water to set up their own air-conditioning system. They collect water from dew on plants or puddles, store it in a special compartment inside their stomach, and then fly back to their hive and directly transfer it to another worker bee. That bee then “places” the water where it will be fanned to cool the hive to an ideal temperature for brood development and hive comfort.
Although raccoons are most active during the early evening and at night, they adjust to conditions at hand and meander widely in their home territory in search of food. Summer is their season of “easy living” and if it fits in their mouth and is edible, it’s dinner. The list includes all sorts of fruits and berries, along with crayfish, mice, insects, worms, baby birds and baby turtles, and frogs. During the day, they are usually sleeping within hollow trees or occasionally hidden in underground burrows or road culverts. However, on exceedingly hot days, they may seek out a protected resting spot, as this one did to capture afternoon breezes and perhaps spy on me as well.
Summer heat and rising humidity push deer to seek refuge in and near wetlands where the temperatures are just a little lower and solitude and security can be found. During the summer months, deer feed on a great variety of plants, including wild grasses, young woody plants, mushrooms, wild berries, fallen fruits, and fiddleheads. However, the abundant wetland habitat of Oakland County offers a bonus – the opportunity to feast upon tender emergent vegetation, an act I witnessed a few days ago as a trio of does feasted in the shallows of Crooked Lake at Independence Oaks County Park early in the morning.
What’s your favorite creature or passion of summer’s arrival? Everyone may have different ideas of nature-embracing summer adventures, but one fact is without debate; our abundant parks, lakes, trails, and wildlands beckon. Now is the time to hike, paddle, or just sit in peaceful solitude on the wilder side of Oakland County.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County