Saturday, March 24, 2012

Changing of the Seasons at Meadowbrook Park: March 24, 2012

During my visit to Meadowbrook Park on the morning of March 24, I was thinking about more than capturing the changing of the seasons. Later that afternoon, I would lead a hike through Meadowbrook for my son's Cub Scout pack, so my senses were on high alert for anything that might be of interest to a bunch of elementary school boys and their parents.

I started off on the west side of Meadowbrook, near the organic vegetable garden. Not far from these community plots, McCullough Creek winds through the park. I was expecting it to be running high, and perhaps flooded, because of the heavy rains we'd received the night before. When I saw that the creek was barely a trickle at this end of Meadowbrook, I knew the beavers must have built a new dam. Just a bit upstream, I found their new home. Behind the dam, the creek ponded and spilled over its banks. Where I was standing, I could step across the creek without submerging my boots.

I was hoping the resident deer would make an appearance later in the day with the scouts. They were certainly active along the stream since the rain. The tracks along the muddy banks would be the perfect teaching opportunity with the scouts. Evidence of animal life comes in all shapes and sizes.

On a grey, overcast morning, the color of the redbuds (Cercis canadensis) stood out from afar. Later I would teach the scouts that you can't necessarily know what a plant looks like from a common name. If that were the case, these spring favorites would be called purple- or magenta-buds.

When the scout hike was planned weeks in advance, I thought I would have a restored prairie to use as a living example. When I emerged from the woods along the creek, my nose gave me the first clue that I'd have to change what I talked about. The smell of char filled the air. Earlier in the week, the park district held a prescribed prairie burn, leaving nothing but the burnt stubble of last year's prairie.

After standing in utter disappointment for what seemed like an eternity (in the realization that a large part of my hike talk was now up in flames and that I had missed the chance to photograph the prairie burn), I began reworking how I would talk about the prairie. Luckily some of the plants had begun to sprout post-burn, so I'd have good examples of rejuvenation.

At the edge of the McCullough creek woods, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Blending in seamlessly with the underbrush, a white-tailed deer watched me cautiously. The Meadowbook deer are not as skittish as most deer in the wild; they have grown accustomed to the number of people who come through the park each day.

Once my ability to talk about the restored prairie was limited, I knew I'd have to rely more on the animal life in the park. So I began to scout out the best examples of beaver damage. The tree pictured above is slowly being felled by the beavers. Park managers don't know if there is one beaver, a mated pair or a whole family of beavers in the park. Judging by the amount of damage along McCullough Creek, I'd say Meadowbrook is home to one very eager beaver or populated with an industrious army of them.

The wild plums (Prunus americana) were a few days past peak bloom. Their sweet scent was masked by the smell of the burnt prairie.

The reddish foliage of staghorn sumac (Rhus hirta) had sprouted from furry, upright stems along the edge of the woods.

The Callery Pear (Pyrus calleryana) is considered one of the major invasive species in Meadowbrook. It is common in home landscapes, and spreads aggressively with the help of birds who eat the fruit. In contrast to the wild plum, its scent hung acerbically in the air. The drastic difference between the scents in these flowering fruit trees inspired a question for the scouts: Why do flowers in the wild have the scents they do? The answer: Some pollinator finds that scent attractive.

The silver maples (Acer saccharhinum) in Meadowbrook are carrying a bumper crop of seeds. I knew most of the scouts would know these as "helicopter" seeds. In most of the scouting hikes I've led, I attempt to show at least one example of how plants spread seeds. These maple samaras would be another fun example of how plants have evolved to take advantage of their environment -- in this case, the wind.

I ended my hike at the northern entrance to Meadowbrook, near the inlet to McCullough Creek. Two large culverts direct the flow of stormwater from Urbana into the park. A mated pair of mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) rested on the rocks as water trickled in through the culvert. I decided this would be the perfect place to begin the afternoon hike, to show the scouts the importance of keeping garbage and chemicals out of the stormwater system. Everything that goes down the storm sewers will eventually find its way into areas like Meadowbook.

Walking through the park with the afternoon hike in the front of my mind helped me to appreciate Meadowbrook in new ways. We are so fortunate to have a natural area like this in the middle of town. It gives us the ability to appreciate both plants and animals in a natural setting, while also providing direct reminders about our impact as humans on the natural environment.

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