Life On The Dunes
Natural Plant Communities
There are six different plant communities within the dunes preserve. These different communities are an excellent example of dune succession, a natural transition from lake shore beaches to the old back-dune forests atop Kitchel Dune.
The main factors that contribute to the quality and integrity of the open dunes at the dunes preserve are wind, vegetation, and erosion. Pioneer species (the first plants to colonize an area after disturbance) such as marram grass are the dominating species on the open dunes. Cottonwood trees are also early colonizers along the dunes and some of the first trees to become established in the open. You can find flowers such as hairy puccoon and the threatened pitcher’s thistle in the dunes as well. Wormwood is also a common sight among the open terrain.
Great Lakes Barrens
As grasses and early colonizing trees begin to inhabit open dunes, other vegetation can become established, thus forming a Great Lakes Barren. This plant community often has a mix of clumped pines, hardwoods, and savanna openings. The most prominent species you will find in this community are jack pines and scotch pines. The shrub layer is primarily made up of dune grasses and pussy willow. Herbaceous plants such a American holly and lyre-leaved rockcress are common in these communities and can be easily found around the preserve.
Transitional Hardwood Forests
As more trees become established, open dunes change into a mix of conifer and hardwood species. This type of plant community is difficult to define because it is a mix between a young forest and a climax community. These forests are young compared to the other forest types around the preserve. You are likely to come across this community in the northern portion of the preserve where you can find red oak, eastern hemlock, white pine, and sassafras. The understory is sparse and consists of younger trees.
This forest type, which can be found at the top of Kitchel dune, represents a climax plant community. While it is difficult to place this community into an exact group, the title of dry-mesic forest is the most appropriate. This forest type is dominated by red oak accompanied by white pine, sassafras, black cherry, and sugar maple. You can find witch-hazel and two different species of ferns in this community as well. If you look closely, you may even find wildflowers such as mayapples and bluestem goldenrod.
Pine Plantation Forests
The pine forest that you will find along the Hartger trail is not entirely natural. This plantation forest was planted in the 1940s to help stabilize the dune and for harvesting purposes. Three pine species dominate this area: red pine, pitch pine, and scotch pine. Unfortunately, the latter two are introduced species that have spread considerably throughout the preserve. Due to the closed canopy of this forest, there is very little ground cover besides mosses. You may find a few red oaks and black cherry trees growing through the breaks in the canopy.
You’ll find these wetlands throughout the preserve in depressions in the dunes. Interdunal wetlands are dominated by grasses, sedges, and rushes. There are about 20 wetlands within the preserve and there is a great deal of diversity among them. Some common plant species that you can find include little bluestem, broom sedge, and twig rush. You can also find several wildflowers near these wetlands such as southern blue flag iris, Canada St. John’s-wort, and wild mint. Paper birch grows well near interdunal wetlands as well.
Martinus, W. (2005). Natural Features Inventory. Kitchel Lindquist Dunes Preserve and the Harold V. Hartger Dunes Preserve.
The dunes preserve offers a variety of habitats for several different mammals. If you look hard enough you are sure to see any of these fur-covered animals as you follow the paths around the preserve. Keep a wary eye as some are more elusive than others.
The white-tailed deer is the most common mammal on the dunes preserve. These animals are quite abundant at the preserve and can be seen along any of our five trails. Deer are primarily browsers, meaning they eat twigs and leaves right off the tree. During the late spring and summer, mother deer and fawns are a common sight all around the preserve.
Eastern gray squirrels are common within the hardwood forests of the dunes preserve. With this species, there are generally two different color morphs; gray-brown and black. Both color types can be found at the preserve. You will likely see these squirrels near oak trees because they mostly eat acorns from the abundant red oaks that grow at the preserve. Gray squirrels will also consume seeds, berries, fungi, and buds.
Red squirrels are the other species of squirrel that you may see while walking the preserve. These reddish-brown squirrels are smaller than their gray cousins and can be found within the pine plantations and great lakes barrens. These squirrels are very feisty and will make themselves heard when they feel threatened. Red squirrels prefer to eat pine cones seeds but will also consume nuts, berries, and fungi.
Virginia opossums are quite a sight at the preserve with their beady eyes, wiry fur, and long naked tails. However, they are very shy and hardly dangerous. Opossums are the only marsupial in North America, as the mother carries her young in a pouch on her belly. Opossums are great friends of the preserve because they love to eat ticks! These nocturnal animals are slow moving and will hiss or play dead when threatened - though it’s all a show for protection.
Red foxes are quite elusive here at the preserve. These solitary canines are most active at night but can sometimes be seen searching for mice and rabbits during the day. Red foxes have great hearing which they use to hunt their prey. During the spring, mother foxes will dig dens for their kits to keep them protected from predators and the elements. Due to their shy nature and private lifestyle, these mammals are a difficult find at the dunes preserve.
The striped skunk is the most common species of skunk in North America and can be found in a variety of habitats. Many people tend to fear this opportunistic and highly adaptable mammal because of its smell. However, they only spray when threatened and cornered. If you respect their boundaries you can avoid the unpleasant smell. Skunks are nocturnal and will eat many things including insects, berries, fungi, bird eggs, and even small mammals.
The dunes preserve is home to over 60 species of birds and hosts many migratory birds during the spring and summer. Because of the many different habitat types, the preserve is a great location for the wide array of birds that will stop over at the dunes throughout the year.
Birds Throughout the Dunes
The American Robin (left) and the American Crow (right) are two common species you will see throughout the preserve. Crows form strong family groups and are highly intelligent. You will often see robins busily picking through the underbrush in search of a tasty meal.
Open Dunes Regulars
Flocks of Barn Swallows (left) and Cedar Waxwings (right) are a common sight around our outdoor classroom. Barn swallows are fast fliers and eat while flying. Cedar waxwings love to eat cedar berries and can be identified by their high-pitched trill calls.
Birds of the Great Lakes Barrens
You’ll often see Song Sparrows (left), Gray Catbirds (center), and Yellow Warblers (right) fluttering within the Great Lakes Barrens, especially along the Hendricks trail. All three are recognized for their songs. Song sparrows will sing sweet melodies while catbirds will produce a cat-like mew while mimicking the calls of other birds. Yellow warblers are bright little birds that tend to hide in plain sight. They too produce a nice melody that you can hear as males call for the attention of females.
Pine Plantation Birds
Pine Warblers (left), Wild Turkeys (center), and Northern Cardinals (right) are frequent fliers within the pine plantation on the preserve. Pine warblers are migratory birds that hold true to their name, nesting within pine forests. Wild turkeys are a common game bird that are as bold as they are showy. Northern cardinals are familiar birds that are easily identified by their bright red feathers and crest.
Birds of the Backdune Forest
You’ll find Tufted Titmice (left), Chipping Sparrows (right), and Pileated Woodpeckers (bottom) within the hardwood forests of the preserve. The tufted titmouse is an active bird known for the gray crest atop its head and its peter-peter-peter song. Chipping sparrows are easily identified by their fast, chip-chip-chip calls. Pileated woodpeckers are the largest of their kind in Michigan and will drill massive holes in dead or dying trees in search of carpenter ants.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The dunes preserve offers a variety of habitats for many different species of reptiles and amphibians. Most reptiles will call the open dunes and forests their home, while you will always find many different frogs in and around the interdunal wetlands within the preserve.
Eastern garter snakes are the most common snake in Michigan. These snakes can be easily identified by their grey bodies and long yellow stripes. They normally reach lengths of around 24 to 30 inches. Garter snakes can survive in a wide range of habitats, from urban gardens to the forests here at the preserve. These snakes are non-venomous and will eat frogs and earthworms.
Fowler’s toads can be easily mistaken for their American toad relatives. These toads are brown in color and adorned with darker brown spots. Unlike its cousin, Fowler’s toads will have three or more warts within these spots. These toads prefer to live in sandy woodlands and are usually found within Lake Michigan’s coastal dune forests.
Spring peepers are the first frogs at the preserve that you will hear in the spring. Their loud mating calls can be heard as early as mid-March and are often seen as a sign of the changing seasons. For their loud call, these light-brown frogs are small in size and are easily distinguished by the dark brown “X” mark on their backs.
The green frog is a large frog that you can find in most of the interdunal wetlands around the preserve. These frogs vary in color from leaf green to olive to brown. They are most often found in woodland swamps, ponds, and marshes. Because of their large size, it can take all winter and spring for tadpoles to transition into frogs. Green frogs normally eat insects but in some cases, will eat smaller frogs!
The wood frog is a small brown frog that can be identified by the dark triangular marking and white stripe below it eye. These frogs are common in wooded wetlands and will sometimes lay their eggs in temporary spring ponds. Here at the preserve, you can find these frogs in the wetlands scattered along the Lindquist trail.
Insects and Other Invertebrates
The dunes preserve is also home to various insects and other invertebrate species. Most invertebrates are especially attracted to the interdunal wetlands because of how quickly the dunes and shallow waters warm during spring and summer.
Dragonflies are common arthropods found throughout the preserve, and are indicators of a healthy ecosystem because they require clean water for egg-laying. Dragonflies are also predators of other insect species, especially mosquitos. They play a significant role in regulating insect populations.
Bumblebees are another insect that can be found at the dunes preserve. Bumblebees will regularly visit flowers among the dunes, wetlands, and forests. When they stop at a flower to feed, they pick up pollen that travels with them to the next plant, which reproduces through cross pollination.
Another pollinator frequenting the preserve is the monarch butterfly. They spend their summers in Michigan and other parts of the midwest. Monarchs heavily rely on milkweed, the sole host plant for monarch eggs and caterpillars. Declines in monarch populations have been linked to climate change, which has restricted growth of milkweed.
Pillbugs, also known as "roly-polies," are terrestrial isopods; non-insects more closely related to crayfish and shrimp. When threatened, they are able to roll up into a tight ball. They require moist environments. At the dunes preserve, they can be found under rocks, logs, and fallen leaves.
Believe it or not, ticks are not insects either! They are parasitic arachnids related to spiders, mites, and scorpions. Deer ticks can be found in low vegetation and near trails where small animals, deer, and humans frequent. Ticks are the main vector for Lyme disease, so be sure to check yourself before leaving the preserve or any other area ticks inhabit.