WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY
“It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundreds of little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all the salient facts about any one of them.” –Aldo Leopold
Embracing the ebb and flow of our seasons is much like awaiting the return of a long absent friend that departed months earlier. We know the return will eventually occur, but never seem to know exactly when our friend will arrive back in town, especially if their name is spring. Spring’s arrival is fickle. Sometimes spring can sort of sneak into town unobserved—and then its warmth is here! However, one thing is certain: no matter where you wander in woods and meadows; those introductory words of Leopold are so very true. I am glad they are!
I knew spring was here to stay before I headed off to Stony Creek Metropark. How did I know? I witnessed a pair of Killdeer in their courtship ritual not far from my house in northernmost Oakland County. That Killdeer pair followed the ritual to a T, as described by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I felt fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and have my camera with me.
“The male and female of a mated pair pick out a nesting site through a ritual known as a scrape ceremony. The male lowers his breast to the ground and scrapes a shallow depression with his feet. The female then approaches, head lowered, and takes his place. The male then stands with body tilted slightly forward, tail raised and spread, calling rapidly. Mating often follows.”
My friends at the Blue Heron Headwaters Conservancy, formerly known as the North Oakland Headwaters Land Conservancy, also look to the return of the Killdeer as the real confirmation of spring. They know that many Robins are false harbingers of spring and overwintered in Oakland County, while Killdeer never do.
Extending across Oakland and Macomb counties, Stony Creek is one of the 13 Metroparks in Southeast Michigan managed by Huron-Clinton Metroparks. It’s a beautiful location to embrace the world of nature in all seasons, especially in spring. Metroparks writes, “Stony Creek Metropark offers 4,435 scenic acres teeming with opportunities for outdoor recreation all year long. At the heart of the park sits the gorgeous 500-acre Stony Creek Lake, where boaters, anglers, and swimmers can spend time enjoying a day on the water. Surrounding this serene lake, you’ll find lush woodlands, gorgeous wetlands, tallgrass prairies, and expansive fields in every direction. With great paved and unpaved trails for hikers, cyclists, in-line skaters and wanderers.”
I happily considered myself one of their “wanderers” and almost always seek out their unpaved primitive trails, many of which meander out from near their nature center building. The blue sky morning added to the pleasures of my day as I set out in search of signs of spring and hidden dramas of nature’s way.
Stony Creek Metropark Nature Center is situated on a bluff above Stony Creek, and that’s where my adventure began—with a downhill climb to the edge of the creek where I started my wanderings along their Habitat Trail and quickly encountered skunk cabbage, another early harbinger of spring. I was also greeted by an unmistakable “wuk wuk wuk” alarm call and then a fleeting glimpse of a vocal pair of Pileated Woodpeckers.
Well-designed sign post maps and numerous eye-catching interpretive signs along the trail systems adds to the experience and comfort of hiking Stony. Their website accurately states, “The watershed and its history are explored through interpretive exhibits focusing on landforms carved by the last Glacial Age, the First Peoples and Settlers who called this area home, live native animals and taxidermy examples of local wildlife. Explore trails shaped by ice sheets 10,000 years ago as you walk through wetland areas, hardwood forest, restored prairie, old fields, along ponds and Stony Creek.”
With spring thaw well underway, the numerous vernal ponds of Stony Creek that “slept” all winter will soon explode into activity and host some of nature’s finest amphibian music. Vernal pools are a unique and extremely critical type of wetland habitat at Stony Creek and the rest of Oakland County. They are typically small, shallow, ephemeral water bodies, and unlike a pond or a lake, they have no permanent inlet or outlet. Snow melt and spring rains will fill them and most, if not all of them, dry up by mid- summer. Wood frogs will soon be quacking like ducks from the vernal ponds and salamanders will be wiggling out from under decaying logs and heading down to ponds to mate. That ‘drying up’ period is critical, for it prevents the survival of fish that might otherwise consume the amphibians or eggs of amphibians that use the ponds for breeding.
After navigating a very icy section of trail at the edge of a meadow, I re-entered the woodlands and once again encountered pileated woodpeckers. They were busily pounding away on a fallen tree that most likely served as a “come one come all” banquet for these voracious consumers of insects. Dead trees are very much part of nature’s way in a healthy forest and the Stony Creek hike provided numerous examples of trees with nesting cavities for creatures. One tree in particular caught my attention with hundreds of fungi growing along an arched section. I meandered slightly off trail to capture a few images for my fungi-loving trail companion that was not on this trek.
I was pleased to encounter a few families with young children exploring the meadows and an easily accessible section of woodland trail. I strongly believe a love for nature is nurtured by early exposure.
Turkey vultures and Red-tailed hawks soared above as I approached a pond at the edge of a meadow. That pond played host to a pair of Canada Geese, a male Red-winged blackbird loudly proclaiming his territory and a few Eastern Bluebirds flitting about the edges.
As I neared the end of my nature-embracing trek, I paused at a very small creek, most likely fed by spring thaw. The soothing music of the water reminded me of the bluebirds in one of my favorite spring equinox quotes of Henry David Thoreau: “His soft warble melts in the ear, as the snow is melting in the valleys around. The bluebird comes and with his warble drills the ice and sets free the rivers and ponds and frozen grounds.” As if on cue, the next meadow I passed through also had bluebirds.
Another 30 minutes of nature-embracing trekking led me back toward the nature center where I took time to sit on a bench and simply listen to the flow of Stony Creek on its journey towards larger tributaries and I suspect, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.
My adventure, however, did not end back at the trailhead adjacent to the nature center. I drove to a parking lot near Stony Creek Lake and slowly wandered down to a secluded part of the wooded lakeshore. I’m glad I did. I watched a Mute Swan swim past a motionless Canada Goose standing on a melting ice flow in a pose that seemed to say, “I don’t see you.” Moments later, a male and a female Redhead Duck, a species I rarely see anywhere, came into view. They were followed almost immediately by a pair of Ring-necked Ducks; another uncommon find for me. As I walked back uphill toward my car, I noticed rapid movement at the edge of the parking area. I knew spring was here to stay as I paused to watch a Killdeer scurrying about on the dawn of the 2022 Spring Equinox in its search for insects and earthworms.
Stony Creek Metropark has something for everyone with high quality paved paths, primitive trails, trails that mountain bikers and runners love and a high quality nature center. Be sure to visit their website for details on park passes, rentals, camping, special events and ways to stay connected with nature. Then, greet the sights and sound of spring at Stony Creek.
Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.