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Taking a new adventuresome step into Nature in Tuscola County's Murphy Lake State Game Area

Tom Lounsbury

Tue, 25 Jul 2017 11:05:50 EDT


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              Taking a new adventuresome step into Nature in Tuscola County's Murphy Lake State Game Area
By Tom Lounsbury

Murphy Lake is located in southwestern Tuscola County and is truly a literal geological wonderment. Glaciers created what is a known as "kettle lakes" (deep gouges filled with water) all over various parts of Michiganís Lower Peninsula, as they ground their way slowly along. During the process they made what is known as the "Millington Hills" between Mayville and Millington, and as a result a deep canyon was sculpted out entailing seven kettle lakes close together, what we can consider as being a geological phenomenon, if you will.
Settling that part of the state during the mid-19th Century would start changing the picture in a surprisingly dramatic fashion, as can be readily pictured all across our country as it began to grow in leaps, and eventually in great bounds, to what we have today. Early settlers would try damming some of the kettle lakes to help raise water levels and getting timber to the Cass River and thus on to lumber mills. However, it wasnít until the 1940's or so a dam would be built to create what we know today as Murphy Lake.
My first Murphy Lake connection occurred in the early 1960's when my eldest sister Joyce and her husband Jim Schad purchased a motorboat. They lived in Clio and Murphy Lake was a great central location to come and join them and enjoy some fine times with the new motorboat, and in fact I learned to water ski behind that boat on Murphy Lake. There is a small island in the lake, and I can remember enjoying some fine picnics on it. Other than that, it was my only introduction to Murphy Lake.
My late father was the Tuscola County Drain Commissioner during the early 1970's and I can remember it was part of his duties to control the water level of Murphy Lake, something I believe is still the case for the Dain Commissioner today. I do remember muskies being planted in the lake, but they were removed, as well as a major attempt was done to eliminate carp, and walleyes were also introduced. Actually, I havenít been anywhere near Murphy Lake for some time now.
Then I recently got a call from Miles Willard of Mayville to come and join him on a nature hike in the area near Murphy Lake, known as the Murphy Lake State Game Area (SGA). I do know for a fact that the Murphy Lake SGA was right at the forefront when the state decided to form SGA's in southern Michigan. The ground selected for the SGA's was because they had proven to be pretty much unsuitable for agriculture, and what better way to use them, than for conservation practices which allowed public access. This in my mind was a fortuitous government decision that saved certain areas from ongoing progress, and in the case of the established Murphy Lake State Game Area, protected a precious and unique jewel of nature for all to enjoy and savor, something I was about to be introduced to firsthand.
Miles Willard is a retired Reese school teacher who grew up in the Frankenmuth area and when the opportunity presented itself, he purchased some wooded property over 40 years ago near his beloved Murphy Lake SGA, an area that has drawn him in and where he spends practically every day possible exploring and discovering new things. Miles can clearly be described as being a naturalist, and he is a down to earth naturalist I truly appreciate. He is an avid hunter and fisherman and performs his own taxidermy on matters he wishes to preserve. He has a complete and realistic grasp of the circle of life, and an undying desire to learn all he can about nature and share it with others. I considered it an honor to accompany him on an exploration of the wonders of nature found in the hinterlands of Tuscola Countyís Murphy Lake. On my part, it was truly a learning experience.
Before our nature trip Miles showed me pictures on his laptop of various bird species he has photographed in the Murphy Lake SGA including unique warbler hybrids which reproduce. He also showed me the photos he had just taken of a very unique lizard which can only be found in Michigan in this locale on a certain hillside. It took Miles 45 years of trying, but he finally located the "six-lined whip-tailed race runner" (hopefully I spelled all that right from my notes) which is a fast moving and colorful little lizard that is brown, blue, green and turquoise.
We loaded special equipment into my Jeep for our adventure that included a long handled butterfly net to be used for catching dragonflies if need be, something I had told Miles I was especially interested in (ever since I had a strange water bug crawl out the water in front of my face while I was lying prone on a rock and photographing a bull moose eating water lilies on Isle Royal, and the water bug pulled apart and a scarlet red dragonfly crawled out. It unfurled its transparent wings and I watched insect blood course down invisible veins and soon the dragonfly flew off to join other flying scarlet dragonflies and I was left mystified by what I had just witnessed. I never did get a good photo of that moose, but I have no complaints). Miles' wonderful wife Marilyn had also packed a big lunch for us to eat in the field, so I knew right off we were in for a day long adventure.
Miles Willard had told me a new dragonfly species had shown up in the Murphy Lake area just 5 years ago called the "spatterdock darner". This particular dragonfly requires spatterdock (also known as bullhead) water lilies in order for the female to lay eggs. The female has a small hook on the end of its tail which is used to make a small slit in the stem of the water lily and an egg is then deposited in it. So we went off in search of dragonflies at various ponds. During our search at one pond, Miles pointed out a "Blandings Turtle" resting on a log - complete news to me in my knowledge of turtles, as well as a salamander (this area is well known for its salamanders).
While we were traversing one well wooded back road Miles wanted to know if I wanted to see a bear-clawed tree and I was all for it. We parked near a foot trail and hiked through an absolutely splendid mixture of trees which included a large stand of hemlock. Along the way various songbirds were singing out to which Miles readily identified the species. He also introduced me to wild ginger and hog peanut, woodland plants I had seen before but didn't know their names. We were on a bend in the trail when Miles told me to cut off to the left. When I reached a proper angle it didn't take me long at all to spot the bear-clawed beech tree. I'd seen these before and this was not a fake produced by someone. Male black bears do this to mark their territory. The claw marks had some time on them, and due to the natural growth of the beech tree, they looked bigger than they originally were.
For a fact a male black bear had been illegally killed in the near vicinity several years ago, and black bears do occasionally venture into the Thumb. There are no fences to keep them in what is commonly referred to as black bear country, and young males are known to do walkabouts to find new territory when larger males drive them away.
Back on the road, Miles guided me to a small kettle lake he called "Spencer Pond" and what a breathtaking sight it was. It was completely covered with water lilies involving both species found in Michigan which are the typical one that is a big white flower and the spatterdock (aka bullhead) that is a yellow round flower the size of a golf ball. The water lilies were matted together so thick I watched red-wing blackbirds walking across them with no fear of getting their feet wet.
Then as if on cue a female spatterdock darner dragonfly flew over our heads and landed down on the stem of a spatterdock water lily just a few feet away, and began making a slit in the stem with the hook on her tail to lay an egg. I was transfixed watching this amazing fact of nature, much like I was when I witnessed a scarlet red dragonfly climbing out of a water bug husk.
While we were ending our unique adventure and driving slowly along, Miles asked me to suddenly stop and back up. He let me know he had heard a male hooded warbler which were very rare to the Thumb and had just been sighted for the first time this spring (it is normally found much further south). Miles got out, and put a small recorder on the ground sending out the same sound I was hearing in the distant treetops. Pretty soon I spotted the bright yellow breast of a small bird flitting through the dense tree branches overhead. It was a male hooded warbler checking out to see what other male had just invaded his territory.
Needless to say folks, this was another first of many firsts for me that day discovering new things entailing the unique fauna and flora of the Murphy Lake State Game area. According to Miles it also is one of the richest mushroom areas in the state and features every variety found in Michigan, and even one usually found only in Florida. There are also a multitude of wild orchid species, some of which are globally threatened. It didnít take me long to figure I hadn't even scratched the surface after only spending a day with naturalist Miles Willard.
Whether or not he realizes it yet, he just may have a frequent "tag along" in the future, who is full of questions. There is nothing boring about making new discoveries in nature and learning all that can be learned. Especially from a great teacher.

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A tiger swallow-tail butterfly getting nectar from a milkweed plant in the
Murphy Lake SGA. Milkweed is a very important plant for butterflies

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   "Spencer Pond" is a kettle Lake completely covered with water lilies,

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   Naqturalist Miles Willard of Mayville explaing the natural virtues of wild

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Naturalist Miles Willard of Mayville with a a bear-clawed beech tree deep
into the Murphy Lake SGA. The claw marks appear bigger than they were
originally due to annual growth of the tree, and they were most likely made
by a young male black bear.



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