The short Chickadee Loop at the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) is rewarding. From the Welcome Center parking area take a quarter mile walk for exposure to things wild and natural.
Walking directly west from the Welcome Center, the trail leads through an oak forest to a junction where the trail continues north (right). The habitat transitions from oak forest to young oak forest at the junction. The area was maintained as an oak savanna in the 1980’s through the 2008.
A savanna is an open grass and forbs community with scattered trees. Scattered trees allow sunlight to penetrate to ground vegetation. In the savanna, Wild Blue Lupine (a forb) flowers in late May. It adds nitrogen to the soil with the aid to root nodules that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. A variety of plants thrive in a savanna’s lightly filtered sunlight.
Oak savanna is Michigan’s rarest plant/animal community. We often hear how over 70 percent of Michigan’s wetlands have been drained and has led to a great decline in waterfowl and associated wetland species. Groups like Duck’s Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the Audubon Society, and many others have worked for a century to restore essential habitat for nature niche neighbors that depend on wetlands.
Savannas are home for rare and endangered species that require survival help and management if we are to keep nature’s bounty alive and well. There are a few prairies species that can be found at HCNC but the landscape does not contain any prairie habitats. Michigan’s prairies were mostly restricted to SW counties of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Oak savannas contain some prairie species but referring to it as a prairie would be a disservice and teach scientific misconceptions.
Chickadee Loop turns east at the north end of the former savanna. A beautiful shrub known a winged sumac grows at the clearing edge. It has large compound leaves. A compound leaf is a leaf that has many leaflets that appear leaf-like. To recognize a leaflet from a leaf, look at the base of the flat leaf-like blade. If a bud is present, it is a leaf. If one needs to look farther back to find a bud, it is a compound leaf made of several leaflets.
At the next trail junction Chickadee Loop turns south toward the Welcome Center. At the junction one can take a short spur to the left that leads about 100 feet to a vernal pond. I designed a trail around the west side of the pond to the nature center’s service drive. That allowed the east half of the pond to remain wild for nature to carry on without disturbance from human activity. Please recognize you are a guest in nature’s habitats when visiting HCNC and provide proper respect for plant and animal privacy and living condition needs.
On the final stretch to the Welcome Center, you will cross a floating bridge that rises and lowers with water level at the permanent pond. A pond is a body of water where light penetrates to the bottom. Lakes are deep enough to prevent good light penetration. Size is not best measure for separating ponds and lakes biologically.
Before reaching the Welcome Center, you pass the Howard Christensen Memorial Spring. Frank and Rita’s only child died from a brain tumor while a high school senior and graduated posthumously in 1962-63. To honor him, his parents donated land to establish a nature center that would allow youth to experience discovery in the natural world. Frank and Rita were not wealthy people but owned about 100 acres they gave to the community. It was a gift of the heart that founded HCNC in fall 1974. The Grand Rapids Downtown Kiwanis Club provided funds for the construction of the Welcome Center, memorial spring stonework, and the drilling of the flowing well. Visit the office to purchase a HCNC membership.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.