A young white oak tree in the woods at Portman Nature Preserve. Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

It is amazing to learn how much the landscape of southwest Michigan has changed since European settlement began in the 1800’s.

Take the case of Portman Nature Preserve.
The slopes on the northern shore of Mud Lake were once part of an open oak savanna, a habitat that typically contains tall grass, prairie flowers, and scattered oak trees.

But the dense forest that currently grows there still offers surprising clues to its past, such as leadplant (Amorpha canescens), a State Special Concern species. The leadplant no longer blooms in the now-shady environment, but botanists have identified it and its presence gives us hope that we might be able to restore some of that previous, historic habitat.

Dr. Steven Kohler of Western Michigan University, introduces his Field Biology students to the project. Photo by Nate Fuller.
Before beginning restoration work, we wanted to have a baseline analysis made of what is currently growing there.

So we asked Dr. Steve Kohler of Western Michigan University to bring his Field Biology students out to do some research. The students conducted two assessments.

In one, they studied the density of the forest canopy by using a small tube with a wire cross mounted to one end. Looking up at the foliage, students could determine whether an area was “open” or “closed”, a distinction that will be useful in planning future restoration work. 

In the second study, students measured the density and type of woody plant species by mapping out transects, then finding the three largest specimens within that area.

The data collected by the students will be invaluable to Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy’s stewardship and conservation team as we determine how best to manage this beautiful part of Portman Nature Preserve.

Many thanks to them for all their good work!

Western Michigan University students measure the diameter of a tree.

Photos of students working in the field are by Nate Fuller, Conservation & Stewardship Director, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy