Sunday, November 8, 2015

Wandering with Chris Walker

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

On July 16, TLC Board Member, Chris Walker and I journeyed to Tuscola County for the day with the aim of photographing natural features and points of interest for future TLC guides and presentations. Home for the summer with his mother near Lexington, Chris and I agreed we should meet up for an excursion before he headed back to Minnesota State University, Moorhead, where he teaches photography as an Assistant Professor in the School of Communications and Journalism.

Chris Walker's faculty listing on the Minnesota State University web site. That must be his faculty face because the Chris I know looks more mischievous, and cynical perhaps.

Without a specific plan, other than a few spots I wanted Chris to photograph, we basically covered northwestern Tuscola County, looping from the Caro area, north to Saginaw Bay at Bay Park, and back down. We decided on Tuscola County because we don’t get up there as much as we’d like, and with impressive features like the Cass River, glacial moraines, extensive forest, and the Saginaw Bay, I hadn’t given Tuscola County due attention. I’ve often passed through on M-46 on my way to and from northern Michigan. Occasionally, I’ve worked near Caro, Vassar, and up on the Saginaw Bay, and have done some exploring, but there’s never enough time. Since moving to the Brown City - Marlette area in 2004, I’ve discovered the Vassar and Tuscola State Game Areas, Juniata, Wahjamega, Indianfields, Cork Pine, and lakeplain prairie remnants near Quanicassee, just to name a few.

Our approximate route.

Chris Walker and I first met in July of 1978 while working on Boy Scout summer camp staff at Silver Trails Scout Reservation near Jeddo. I had my choice of working on the rifle and archery range, or with Chris as his assistant teaching nature. As a kid growing up in the woods around my parents’ home in Fort Gratiot, I was fascinated by nature, but had little formal education and knew next to nothing. My enthusiasm was my greatest strength. So there I was, at the age of 15, working at Silver Trails for the summer, helping Chris teach merit badge courses in environmental science, bird study, botany, forestry, and soil and water conservation. In our spare time, Chris taught me almost every tree, shrub, and wildflower on the camp, and several forest birds by call. I remember the specific plants he taught me, and even where they were located on the camp – American Beech, Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch, American Basswood, Black Cherry, Eastern Hemlock, Tuliptree, American Hornbeam, Witch-hazel, Spicebush, Poison Ivy, Virginia Creeper, Spotted Jewelweed, Blue Cohosh, Solomon’s-seal, Wild Leek, Hepatica, Bloodroot … at least I already knew White Trillium, Red Trillium, Mayapple, and Yellow Trout-lily from the woods back home but probably not the actual names. The bird calls – Ovenbird, Eastern Wood Pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Barred Owl, and more. Chris was so encouraging, I picked up on everything quickly. We worked together again in 1979, Chris the Nature Director and me the Assistant. In the summer of 1980, I was the Nature Director and received my famous nickname, “Yoda”. Except for two years, I continued working on summer camp staff through 1986.

In the off-season, Chris and I often wandered southern Sanilac and northern Saint Clair Counties. He always had an itinerary with somewhere, something, or someone to visit and photograph, and I was always an eager tag-along for the day. Usually, it was birds. Sometimes a particular wildflower in full bloom, or special tree, a mushroom, an old barn, an old Chickadee lady, and so on. I remember sitting with his parents in the living room of their home near Lexington, watching slide shows of Chris’s latest finds. His parents made me feel like an adopted member of the Walker family.

As I recall, it was in 1979 that Chris introduced me to the Blue Water Audubon and then BWA President, Bob “Bio Bob” Collins, who would be my teacher at Saint Clair County Community College a few years later, my first formal education in biology. Bob was not related, but had the same name as my father and occasionally we would receive a phone call at our house from someone looking for Professor Bob Collins. My mother was quite surprised when one day, Chris and the other Bob Collins showed up at our house. Blue Water Audubon opened a whole new world of birds and people I had no idea existed. At the first meeting I attended, BWA voted on a resolution regarding proposed oil drilling in the Pigeon River State Forest. This felt like a very important group. There I was introduced to Bill and Harriet Davidson, who traveled the world, sometimes just to see one species of bird.  

In 1979 and 1980, I helped Chris with PBb – Project Bluebird, maintaining a few hundred Bluebird nest boxes across southeastern Sanilac and northeastern Saint Clair Counties. You get an idea of Chris’ warped sense of humor if you consider that, only a few years before, Michigan experienced a widely publicized environmental catastrophe caused by the accidental contamination of livestock feed, and subsequently most of us in Michigan, with PBB – Polybrominated Biphenyl, a fire-retardant and potential carcinogen. Everyone in Michigan knew about PBB. I guess the Michigan United Conservation Clubs of Michigan didn't mind the name, because they awarded him the Youth Conservationist of the Year award in 1980 for his PBb work.

Chris turned his lens toward me a few times, and thankfully so. In May of 1983, Chris had me, my sister Pam, and my brother Dan, pose together in the Port Huron State Game Area during the annual Blue Water Audubon spring bird banding. This is the absolute best photo of the three of us together.

Me, Pam, and Dan in the Port Huron State Game Area for the Blue Water Audubon spring bird banding, May 1983. Photo by Chris Walker.
Future wetland ecologist and consultant, me, circa 1983-84. On an oxbow pond along the east side of Black River, just south of Jeddo Road, near Silver Trails Scout Reservation. Photo by Chris Walker.
Forward to our July 16 trip to Tuscola County. Chris and I hadn’t cut loose like this since the early 1980’s. We’ve both kept ourselves extremely busy, but we set aside this day for a Walker and Collins Ride Again reunion. I’d rather not be 35 years older, but otherwise, not much has changed. He still has an expensive camera and I still have a cheap one. I trust that I will get Chris’ photos when his university schedule slows down, maybe around Christmas. You can view some of his long-term projects on his web site at or, if he’ll friend you on Facebook, you can see his very latest work there.

In the meantime, here’s a few that I took with my cell phone:

To the owners of Pennywick Tree Farm: If you are still wondering who those strange individuals were hanging around your Santa, it was us.
Chris started by sitting down on the job.
OK. Chris was sitting to photograph my favorite hand pump water fountain at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
The Cass River at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
The Cass River at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
The Cass River with almost-blooming Joe-pye-weed at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
Chris Walker on the banks of the Cass River at the Cass River Roadside Park along M-46.
On a moraine ridge top at Lobdell Road and Hunt Road in Fremont Township, Tuscola County.
Chris shooting a Red-winged Blackbird.
Chris shooting near the bottom of a moraine ridge on Lobdell Road in Fremont Township.
To the Dietz family, owners of these roughly 100-year old farm buildings along the north side of Blackmore Road: You have a ready-made museum and minor tourist attraction waiting to happen here with some very interesting structures and artifacts.
Some of the structures are rough, but just need a little TLC.
Blackmore Road heading up a moraine ridge.
The mid-afternoon heat apparently got to Chris, revealing an inner jerky-smoking boss man persona I had not encountered before. I had no choice but to become his wiseguy sidekick yes-man. Strangely, he still retained an extensive knowledge and appreciation of the natural world.
The Cass River at Caro.
Saginaw Bay at Bay Park.
Chris shooting on Saginaw Bay at Bay Park.
Saginaw Bay at Bay Park. Industrial structures in Bay City are visible on the horizon.
Chris shooting frogs at Bay Park.
Saginaw Bay at Bay Park. The sign is a reminder that all road ends along the Great Lakes are public access points. Improving access is an issue that the TLC would like to work on in the future.
The Cass River just northeast of Vassar.
Chris shooting Wild Bergamot near the Cass River.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Thumb Nature Guide and Landforms Map

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

In May, June, and July of 2015, the TLC produced the first edition of our Thumb Nature Guide. This is an introduction to the basic landforms and vegetation of the Thumb. The guide will help people understand the origins of the landscape and distribution of the flora and fauna. With this knowledge, we hope that residents and visitors in the Thumb will gain a greater appreciation of our unique region.

As a companion guide, the TLC produced the Thumb Landforms and Natural Areas Access Map. This map shows the basic landscape in some detail, and all known public or semi-public access areas. The map provides an easy guide to places where you can view and experience particular landforms, natural features, and plant communities across the Thumb and beyond. We realize that this first map is incomplete and updates will be an ongoing project, but we think we have included most access opportunities.

The Thumb Nature Guide is available from the TLC as a full-color tri-fold brochure for $4.00. The Thumb Landforms and Natural Areas Access Map is available for $2.00. Both the guide and map are provided with an annual $30 TLC family membership. A membership form is provided below.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

TLC Presentation to Blue Water Audubon - 2015 April 06

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

On 2015 April 06, I gave a presentation to the Blue Water Audubon in Fort Gratiot, Michigan. Below is a video adaptation. This is my first film, so forgive me. There's no music. Just turn on your favorite.

As of November 2015, nothing has changed, except that we lost more forest. We are still waiting for a final agreement with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to finally place conservation easements on the new preserve lands described in this video. But, I'm told this should happen real soon. After about 5 years in the making, it is an understatement to say that it can't be soon enough. This will result in a 21-acre addition to our Peltier Beach Ridge Sanctuary in Fort Gratiot Township, another 20 acres about a half-mile south near other protected land west of Shorewood Forrest in Fort Gratiot Township, and a 30-acre addition to the Michigan Nature Association Sharon Rose Leonatti Memorial Sanctuary in Kimball Township.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Spring Garlic Mustard Pull

Bill Collins, Executive Director, Thumb Land Conservancy

On 2015 May 16, the TLC conducted our biggest Garlic Mustard removal yet on the Dead End Woods Sanctuary in Fort Gratiot Township, Saint Clair County. We had a very good turn-out for us; 13 people, and we filled about 10 garbage bags with Garlic Mustard. It appears we are finally making major progress on eliminating it from the woods after 5 years of pulling. Again, we concentrated on the south side of the preserve where the Garlic Mustard is most widespread and where the infestation likely began from yard waste dumped at the dead end of Wilson Drive. But, we also pulled interior patches that we had not gotten to previously.

Left to right: TLC Intern Alex Roland, SC4 student Cole Meyers, Mike Kabacki from Huron County, and TLC Board Member Dr. Scott Ferguson. Piled and bagged in front is most of the Garlic Mustard we pulled, but there was more.
TLC Intern Alex Roland on the left, and her mother Ann Roland on the right.
TLC Board Member Dan Rhein with his daughter Claire (left) and Joe Zauner of the Blue Water Audubon Society (right) very busily picking Garlic Mustard.
Dan and Claire Rhein.

Some people like posing for the camera while others work diligently.
Garlic Mustard – Alliaria petiolata was brought to North America as a culinary herb in the late 1800’s. It’s native to Eurasia and North Africa, and like so many introduced species, became an invasive weed here. It seems like we didn’t see much of it in the area until the 1990’s, but since then it’s invaded a lot of our forests. Garlic Mustard lives up to its name and is quite tasty, but is also quite invasive in open woodlands, displacing native plant species where it grows in thick patches.

Garlic Mustard - Alliaria petiolata in the Dead End Woods Sanctuary.

Garlic Mustard is easily recognized by the small white flowers on plants that are typically a few feet tall at maturity, but can range from a few inches to over 3 feet tall. Each flower has 4 petals as do all the species in the Mustard Family, otherwise known as the Brassicaceae or the older Family name, Cruciferae, meaning "cross-bearing" and referring to the cross arrangement of the 4 flower petals. Other plants in this same family include mustard, of course, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnip, radish, horseradish, watercress, and rapeseed, the source of canola oil. Garlic Mustard can also be fairly well recognized by the basically triangular stem leaves with large blunt teeth. The basal leaves at the bottom of the plant are more rounded with wavy edges. Characteristic of the Mustard Family, the seeds are borne in long, thin pods that dry and split open to release the seeds in June and July. Garlic Mustard is biennial, meaning that it typically requires two years to mature. Each mature plant can produce hundreds of seeds that typically survive in the soil for 5 years or more. Because of the dormant seeds in the topsoil, Garlic Mustard control almost always requires multiple years of plant removal until all the seeds are dead.

Garlic Mustard - Alliaria petiolata.

Skunk-cabbage - Symplocarpus foetidus in the Dead End Woods Sanctuary. I don't remember it growing in the woods until recently, but there is quite a bit now.

Marsh-marigold - Caltha palustris. Actually it's not a marigold, but a buttercup in the Buttercup Family - Ranunclaceae.

After our work, we all enjoyed a cookout lunch in the front yard of TLC Board Member Dorothy Craig, even though she was not there to join us. I guess after pulling all that invasive Garlic Mustard, we got a little invasive ourselves. I was the only person bold enough to sample the fresh Garlic Mustard on my grilled hamburger, which was delicious. I told everyone they didn’t realize what they were missing, but I couldn’t even get my dad to try it, which was unusual considering all of the things he’s eaten.

Thank you to all who helped:

Joe Zauner
Cole Meyers
Mike Kabacki
Alex Roland
Ann Roland
Tiffany Reagin
Traci Brown
Dan Rhein
Claire Rhein
Scott Ferguson
Bob Collins
Dorothy Craig
Cheryl Collins
Bill Collins

Thank you also to Meijer of Marysville and Neiman’s Family Market of Saint Clair for providing food and materials.