Pulling Garlic Mustard at Wau-Ke-Na Brings Unexpected Rewards

June 18, 2012

Another garlic mustard season winds down, and strangely enough, I’m actually feeling a bit uplifted this year.  Randy Counterman, SWMLC land steward, and I spent a total of six days surveying SWMLC’s 365-acre Wau-Ke-Na Preserve, located in Glenn.  We walked away with less than 20 bags of garlic mustard in total.  This was pretty enlightening for me.  Often, beating this invasive plant seems like a never-ending battle.   After a season of pulling garlic mustard, I usually begin to despise even the smell of garlic. Fortunately, our stewardship crew is taking a new approach and tackling populations before they have a chance to flourish. 

This project will be one of many in which we spend our days working near the Lake Michigan shoreline in search of invasive vegetation threatening our unique costal ecosystem.  This work is part of the Sustain Our Great Lakes initiative, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.  SWMLC is working in collaboration with organizations statewide to complete thorough surveys, documentation, and treatment of invasive plants inhabiting the eastern Lake Michigan shoreline.  The strategy involves what conservationists call Early Detection Rapid Response (EDRR), which essentially means discovering invasive plant populations before they are well established, and using appropriate treatment methods to prevent them from spreading.  Garlic mustard is one of many species on our target list, and I can happily say we have pulled all of the garlic mustard plants we encountered on Wau-Ke-Na Preserve.  Of course, we will be back again next year to ensure the populations do not return.

Though pulling garlic mustard may not sound like a very exciting job, experiencing Wau-Ke-Na’s various habitats and abundant wildlife turned a somewhat dull task into a very rewarding one.  One of our first days surveying Wau-Ke-Na’s south tract, we found ourselves almost knee deep in water surrounded by bright yellow swamp buttercups and sedges as far as the eye could see.  It was a spectacular sight . . . a habitat type I had never seen before.  It was almost as if we’d been transported to a different region entirely.  While tromping through the south tract in search of the garlic monster (or mustard if you prefer), I stumbled upon a woodcock nest in the grass, and I watched as the startled bird frantically and ungracefully fluttered away.  I also caught a glimpse of the bushy tail of a coyote in broad daylight, off to catch its next meal.   Beautiful bird melodies could be heard all over the property, and when we crossed paths with a small female box turtle, she was sweet enough to let us hold her and snap a few pictures.

Driving by, you wouldn’t expect to find so many different habitat types — wet forest, dry forest, prairie, savanna, wet sedge meadows, streams, bluffs and beaches — tucked in a relatively small area between the lake and 70th Street.  And while our adventures in the south tract were some of my favorite, the north tract of Wau-Ke-Na was full of its own natural surprises.  Our first taste of Wau-Ke-Na’s north tract was somewhat disappointing, as we were finding comparatively more garlic mustard.  We began our surveying in the northernmost portion of the preserve, a savanna-type habitat rich with bugs and poison ivy.  I was beginning to develop a slight distaste for the north tract, when, in pursuit of the next patch of this pesky plant, I nearly stepped on the tail of a wild turkey.  This clever bird had hidden her nest very well, and to my surprise, did not budge as I stood nearby in awe.  Soon after, Randy stirred up a turkey, and then another one, so we peeked inside both of the nests and considered having turkey eggs for lunch . . . just kidding!  The first nest held 12 eggs, and the second 18! 

Another day in the north tract we found ourselves almost walking in circles.  While our plan seemed simple — walk north and south between trails through the preserve — I’m pretty sure we walked through some kind of time warp a few times.  After walking through a wet forest for quite some time and seeing no sign of a trail or anything familiar, Randy and I decided we needed to figure out where exactly we were.  A few steps farther and we could see the blue of the lake.  We wandered over to the bluff and peered out at a serenely calm and sky-blue Lake Michigan.  It was nearly impossible to define where the lake ended and the sky began. The water looked like glass, strewn with loons, seagulls, and ducks, including a couple Red-breasted Mergansers.

And to top it off, we ran into a newborn fawn our last day at Wau-Ke-Na.  It was a beautiful day:  we found few garlic mustard plants, saw an incredible display of what seemed like every fern type in Michigan, and spotted a baby wood frog near the bluff.  This garlic mustard season was by far the most exciting and rewarding yet.  It’s hard to complain about pulling “weeds” when you get to walk around in a beautiful nature preserve all day and eat your lunch on the beach.  I can’t wait to see what our next field adventure will bring.

— Kristin Schinske

[photos by Kristin Schinske]