WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
Here in the Midwest, we are privileged to fully experience four distinct seasons. Summer brings endless encounters with our natural world, especially within our wetlands, perhaps my favorite nature-embracing environment on a sultry summer day.
Explorations into the ways of nature, with no particular goal in mind, can be exciting and remind many of us of our carefree childhood days. I started running barefoot down a woodland trail leading to our swamp back in rural Connecticut at about the age of two. More often than not, so I have been told, I would race back to the house with long-winded tales of real and imaginary wetland encounters while holding up my shorts with one hand and often carrying a frog in the other.
My primal passion for wetlands continues today. They still entice and delight me, but now I tend to dress more appropriately and wear shoes, a shirt, and pants. I also take immense pleasure in often being accompanied by a nature-embracing companion with equal fondness of nature’s way, especially when it comes to the world of wetlands and the inhabitants within. I’ve come to realize from those shared adventures that when you view nature through “understanding eyes” and the experiences of another, the excitement and pleasure of the encounter deepens.
The sultry days of summer have arrived and wetlands beckon once again. For even in the heat of the summer, a wetland is a vibrant place that never sleeps. From dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, the wetlands of Oakland County are alive with creatures great and small, seen and unseen, silent and incredibly vocal. With the arrival of August just hours away, today’s “Wilder Side” blog shares natural history information on ten creatures that add wonder to a summer day.
Great Blue Heron
There is something magical about watching a Great Blue Heron in the dawn’s early light as it waits in the shallows with statue-like stillness for a fish or frog to pass by. When movement is detected, a rapid thrust of the neck and head occurs and a capture is made with its long dagger-like bill. The action is so fast that often all a watchful human may see is the splash of water, and not the actual capture of a creature, as depicted in this blog’s first image.
The much smaller Green Heron has perfected a lying-in-wait ambush strategy. Green Herons tend to be solitary and spend much of their time in wetland foliage at the edge of duckweed-coated ponds or on partially submerged logs waiting for dinner. On occasion, they will be perched in a tree, looking down for any sign of movement that signals dinner is swimming their way.
Great Egrets were once hunted almost to extinction for their long delicate plumes, a near tragedy that sparked conservation movements leading to the birth of the National Audubon Society. This opportunist and rather dazzling hunter has made a dramatic comeback across our country and county. They feast on whatever can be caught at or near a wetland, even including small mammals. Great Egrets are often spotted perched on tree branches at dusk near shallow wetlands, hunting solo in swamps, or in large flocks where frogs and fish are easy prey.
Majestic Trumpeter Swans, the largest swan species of North America, are native to Michigan and remain on our State’s Threatened Species list. They are well on the road to recovery; however, the increasing presence and aggressive behavior of invasive Mute Swans can be problematic and remain a threat. An adult Trumpeter Swan, such as this one in a Brandon Township wetland, can be easily recognized by its jet-black bill, unlike the orange bill of an adult Mute Swan.
I have no idea what kind of frogs I was catching when I was a toddler running half-naked to the swamp. Back then, a frog was a frog, and all frogs were subject to my pursuit. I suspect it would have been the green frog, an extremely common frog across eastern North America. Green frogs inhabit most of our wetlands and often sit motionlessly at the water’s edge waiting for dragonflies, grasshoppers, and perhaps butterflies to come within range of a lightning-fast tongue. This one that posed so nicely for my nature-embracing companion and me is a male. I know that because the bright-yellow throat is a defining characteristic of males. Of note, large green frogs are sometimes confused with bullfrogs, however, the green frog has a noticeable ridge called a dorsolateral fold on either side of its body that goes straight back. On a bullfrog, the fold curls around behind the eye.
The leopard frog’s camouflage of irregularly shaped dark spots that adorn their backs and legs makes them hard to spot, especially when they are motionless in moist grass at the wetland’s edge. They are masterful ambush hunters and will pounce forward, propelled by their powerful hind legs. Leopard frogs eat just about anything they can fit in their mouths, and that includes smaller leopard frogs. Have you ever chased after a leopard frog? I’ve tried and usually fail to make a capture.
Northern Water Snake
Northern water snakes are common in, and adjacent to, our numerous Oakland County wetlands. They often bask on shoreline rocks and logs or even on tree branches overhanging the water. I am excited about this lucky photo that I captured on a heavily overcast day. The snake was motionless on a very humid morning, most likely waiting for a frog to come within easy striking range. Look closely! Two mosquitos took advantage of the situation and one is engorged with water snake blood.
Muskrats are abundant in shallow waters surrounded by cattails. These semi-aquatic mammals with brownish fur and thin, rudder-like tails are usually spotted when swimming. This one at the Bald Mountain Recreation Area was partaking in a take-out dinner of a freshly harvested cattail stalk. Canada Geese benefit from the engineering work of muskrats and in early spring often commandeer the top of a muskrat lodge as a perfect nesting site with a view.
In the heat of the summer, white-tailed deer will sometimes head into thick growths of cattails, feed on shoreline white cedars, or even wade in the shallows in search of aquatic herbaceous plants. This one caught my attention. The doe was licking at a moist stump in a shallow wetland at Innovation Hills, a beautiful new park in Rochester Hills. Why was she doing that? The jury is still out, but she was most likely in search of minerals and perhaps consuming some ants or other insects as well.
Snapping turtles are highly aquatic opportunist hunters and are seldom observed basking in the sun and rarely come ashore except for egg-laying in the spring. According to the Animal Diversity Web, “Snapping turtles will eat nearly anything that they can get their jaws around. They feed on carrion, invertebrates, fish, birds, small mammals, amphibians, and a surprisingly large amount of aquatic vegetation.” The nostrils of a snapping turtle are strategically located so that the turtle can stay almost totally submerged as they search for prey on the surface, which may include ducklings, snakes, frogs, and smaller turtles. This phenomenal photo capture by Taylor Reynolds shows one in the ambush hunting position, partially camouflaged by a growth of algae with nostrils exposed, a truly unforgettable wetland moment from 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.