Red Oaks Nature Center – An Urban Gem

Exterior photo of building at Red Oaks Nature Center


Natural wonders of spring are appearing along the trails and in the woods of Red Oaks Nature Center in the City of Madison Heights. If you are a birder, this hotspot of biodiversity is one of the best places to be in these early days of May. I was there earlier this week on an overcast morning that hinted of rain to come. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a watchful snacking squirrel perched on the edge of the parking lot fence.

Red Oaks County Park is one of 14 parks managed by Oakland County Parks and Recreation, and it’s one of their most urban parks. The woodlands of Red Oaks are a hidden gem for birds, birders, and local residents. Oakland County describes the Red Oaks complex this way: “Red Oaks’ 163-acres are a unique example of repurposing urban land for recreational use – the park is located atop the enclosed George W. Kuhn Drain. Red Oaks is a busy place, with five unique recreation facilities: Dog Park; Golf Course; Nature Center and trails; Youth Soccer Complex; and Red Oaks Waterpark.”

All of the facilities, with the exception of the nature center, are on the north side of 13 Mile Road. The nature center and its 38 acres of natural habitat, known as the Suarez Friendship Woods, are on the south side of 13 mile Road. Access is gained from Hales Road located between John R and of Dequindre Roads.

My first stop was a visit to the nature center building to chat with my naturalist friend, Benjamin Prowse. The 2,400-square-foot log cabin-style nature center is nestled in the north end of the natural area. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m., and is closed on Mondays. However, the 1.4-mile paved trail is open sunrise to sunset seven days a week. The level surface makes the trail accessible for all who would like to explore it.

If it’s your first visit to Red Oaks, I suggest stopping in the nature center first to view their displays and glean a bit of current information on migrating birds. I consider myself an accidental birder, not an avid birder. By accidental, I mean I appreciate birds I encounter, but I rarely search for a particular species; a passion of avid birders. Warblers are on the move, and Ben mentioned their first Yellow-rumped Warbler has been spotted. During my trek I listened to Red-bellied Woodpeckers pounding on dead trees and watched many small birds, unidentifiable to me, flitting about the shrubbery and tree top canopy.

Ben and I continued our chat outside the building, accompanied by other members of the team. He shared with me the location of a well-hidden Cardinal on her nest, very close to the nature center’s artificial water fall, and also reminded me about some upcoming nature programs. Oakland County Parks and Recreation’s spring nature brochure has information about programs for children and adults at Red Oaks Nature Center as well as Wint Nature Center at Independence Oaks County Park.

As soon as I started my intentionally slow-paced meander, I encountered a half dozen avid birders, many of them with spotting scopes and impressively large telephoto lenses. There is a reason why birders travel to this small pocket of green surrounded by homes and urban activity. It’s a significant spring migration rest stop, with evidence of past use including a very large grape vine. The trails include wetland and marshy areas, which means abundant flying insects are present that serve as a food source for resident and migrating songbirds. The habitat also supports a few deer and an occasional visit from a coyote or two. The coyote presence was confirmed by Ben, who shared his coyote scat photo with me and mentioned that red fox also appear.

Red Oaks’ looped trails are both north and south of the nature center, but I decided to focus most of my attention on the forest trails on the south side. I’m glad I did, because I quickly found five of my favorite spring flowers, shrubs, and trees.

Yellow Trout Lily is abundant. This extremely eye-catching woodland wildflower also goes by the name Adder’s Tongue, a snake tongue reference. They are just beginning to blossom and should be at peak bloom next week. A paved trail made it easy for me to lay down on my belly for some trailside shots without getting coated in mud.

Bloodroot’s name comes from the fact that their roots have a bright reddish orange sap. Their delicate white flower petals rises from a stalk in the center of its curled leaf. It opens in full sun, and closes up at night. Most have already blossomed within the wildland but a few were just emerging.

Mayapple thrives and creates several large carpets of green in the moist woodlands of Red Oaks. Their large twin umbrella-like leaves make it a very conspicuous forest wildflower and in a few weeks a white colored flower will appear under the leaves followed by an apple-like fruit.

Spicebush is a native shrub that grows well in wet forest locations with fertile soils. I noticed that at Red Oaks, spicebush was growing near the mayapples, which made sense because they both thrive in shaded, moist areas. Spicebush often goes unnoticed until early spring when their small but abundant yellow flowers appear, and that fact of nature’s way is happening now. Its name comes from a citrus-like aroma of a crushed leaf. In late summer, their tiny fruits turn a bright shade of red and attract a great variety of birds and other wildlife.

Red Maple does very well in moist habitats, and their early emerging leaves clearly define how the tree gets its name. They are very common along the southern part of the trail and far less so in the drier section north of the nature center.

As clouds began to gather, I made a final second loop along the northern trail section, glancing up in the trees as I meandered. I paused to watch a squirrel carry a paw full of leaves up to her lofty nest, perhaps to make things more comfortable for her kits.

Just as I was about to walk back, something blue on a trailside tree caught my attention. Even with my novice birding skills, I quickly confirmed it was a nesting Blue Jay, something I don’t ever recall seeing before. The blue jay stayed silent but watched my presence and that of a nearby camera toting trail trekker who was searching tree tops for warblers. But just to be sure I did not disturb her, I used my telephoto lens to capture some photos as she stayed motionless on her clutch of eggs.

That final encounter brought to mind the words of Gary Snyder in The Practice of the Wild. “The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.

Perhaps make Red Oaks your next nature-embracing destination, and create your own good story to share.

Jonathan Schechter is the nature education writer for Oakland County Government and blogs about nature’s way on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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