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Nature through the seasons


Reflections on cycle of life from Seven Ponds naturalist Lois Rheaume


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Frozen landscape at Seven Ponds provides a peaceful setting to study and admire the wonders of nature. photo by Catherine Minolli.

December 17, 2008
Editor's note: The following guest column was written by Lois Rheaume, a naturalist at Seven Ponds Nature Center. Rheaume, who first fell in love with nature on bi-monthly visits to her family farm across from General Squier Park in Dryden, changed career paths as an adult. She was bitten by the science bug when she took a typography class to improve her vocation as a professional sign painter. A science class was required, and Rheaume was hooked. She earned a degree in ecology with minors in geology and biology, and served an internship at Seven Ponds. A permanent job opening became available—and she's been there ever since. That was 14 years ago. Rheaume lives in Imlay City.

The following piece is reprinted in part with permission from 'Heron Tracks,' the nature center's quarterly newsletter. Here, Rheaume takes us through the cycle of life at the nature center in winter and spring. Summer and fall reflections will be published at a later date.

While closing the drapes at the nature center one evening, I was stopped in my tracks. The scene out the window looked like a page from an outdoor magazine, truly a sight to behold! The setting sun threw a golden wash over three lakes, starting from Big Pond a quarter mile away. Leaves were sifting from the trees, unfolding circular blankets of red, yellow and rust around bare skeletons. A wedge of mallards knifed their way over Tree Top Pond, while a gust of wind whipped up the water, churning and mixing its life-giving nutrients. This beautiful scene stirred up memories of a myriad of wildlife watching adventures I had experienced throughout this past year here at Seven Ponds.

Winter

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Finally, last winter we had received enough precipitation to actually strap on the old cross country skis and glide out over a blanket of sparkling snow. The low angle of the sun created such marvelously warm colors and long shadows lay grids across the landscape. One of my favorite places to ski is the prairie. The skeletons of tall grasses spear toward the sky as mounds of fluffy snow shroud loosely over smaller prairie plants. I passed by one of the victims of a hard winter, a six-month-old fawn. A feeling of sadness was quickly replaced with interest as I studied the amount of track activity displayed in the snow around the carcass. To follow a deceased animal—from fresh kill to bare bones—is a story in itself. The first activity I observed was coyote sign: fresh scat and tracks were written like words on a page. Coyotes usually start feeding on the hind quarters, where a majority of meat exists. A few days later, raccoon and opossum prints patterned the area, as they too grabbed a bite to eat. And within a few weeks, arrow-shaped tracks identified turkeys and propensity to "clean the plate," reducing the corpse to mere bones and flaps of hide.

The turkeys offered an additional wildlife watching opportunity to me each subsequent visit around the prairie. Their favorite roost last winter was the pine grove on the south side of the prairie. Hearing their wings rustling fro far off alerted me to the nightly ritual. How oddly comical it is to see enormous fowl perched high in the trees, bedding down for the night. This sight made me stop and marvel how these seemingly clumsy birds delicately alight on branches within the evergreens. Halting my activity to watch did not go over well with the flock, as suddenly 30-plus turkeys exploded out of the trees to find a better, well-hidden roost. I felt bad disturbing them, causing them to spend precious energy that would help them stay warm at night. After spotting the same situation on the next visit, I was very careful to keep moving, gliding past, and thus not disturbing them as they nestled in. One secret to watching wildlife is to keep moving and use your peripheral vision to observe; using this technique, the animals think you are unaware of their presence. As I continued to ski the prairie throughout the winter, I did not disturb them again.

Spring

Springtime at Seven Ponds is by far the most stimulating for many nature watchers. One of my favorite things to notice, often overlooked by many, is the myriad of colors revealed when the trees flower. It is very much like a mini fall color display. Red maples burst

forth with minute flowers the color of crimson sparks. Willows wear yellow, beaded jewelry before dressing themselves in a moss green skirt. This past spring was especially exciting to see the change in the vegetation within the Woodland Wildflower Area. The eight foot fence installed two years ago to discourage deer browse has proved to be a success. Within the protected area, where three large-flowered trilliums used to struggle to remain uneaten, 17 unfurled their brilliant, snowy white petals. Foam flower frothily bloomed, while spring beauty and hepatica punctuated the trail edges. Wild ginger plants hid their beautiful mahogany flowers close to the ground, and marsh marigold flowers gleamed gold along the stream. How nice to see the rich and diverse native wildflowers once again thriving at the nature center. Eyes and ears are treated with the return of the longer, warmer days.

This past spring found Turtle Pond with an abundance of water, much to the liking of wood frogs. A cacophony of duck-like sounds resonated from the far side of the little circular pond. Wood frog songs are among the first, albeit brief songs of the spring, followed by chorus frogs and spring peepers. Soon leopard frogs take up their croaky melody, sounding like fingers rubbing over many balloons. And Oh! How I look forward to the April serenade of the American toad. Last spring the toads were rudely interrupted by a cold snap that lasted for weeks, but lo and behold, as soon as the warmth returned, so did their music. The month of May found gray tree and green frogs singing, as they vied for females from near their breeding ponds. While June was reserved for the majestic bull frog to take the stage with a resounding "jug-o-rum."

Seven Ponds Nature Center is located at 3854 Crawford Road in Dryden. Its mission is "to conserve the natural environment of Seven Ponds as a sanctuary for native plants and animals, as a living classroom for environmental education, and as a peaceful retreat for its visitors. The nature center fosters an understanding and appreciation of our natural world and the development of an environmental ethic in the people and communities of southeast Michigan through education, service as a community resource, and responsible stewardship of Seven Ponds and adjacent lands."

For more information see www.sevenponds.org or call 810-796-3200.

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