Field Trip to Big Island Woods (Cooper’s Island) Coming Up

Hackberry, a frequent canopy tree at Big Island Woods. Photograph by Richard Brewer.

Saturday 24 April I’m leading a field trip to the Big Island Woods, also referred to as Cooper’s Island.  It’s a trip for the Kalamazoo Wild Ones chapter.

“Big Island Woods” refers to an “island” of forest in the middle of Prairie Ronde, southwest Michigan’s largest mesic (tall-grass) prairie. The village of Schoolcraft was founded just east of the Island.  Of the Island’s original 300 acres or more, about 20 acres now remain.  The site is probably the natural area in southwest Michigan most worthy of permanent protection, for its combination of ecological, botanical, and historic values.

Historically, Prairie Ronde and the Big Island are interesting because of their connection with the earliest settlers in Kalamazoo County (such as Bazel Harrison), with James Fenimore Cooper (whence “Cooper’s Island”), and with Clarence and Florence Hanes, authors of The Flora of Kalamazoo County.

Ecologically, the remnant of the Big Island that survives is of interest because of its unusual species composition, its similarity to prairie groves of Illinois, and several rare plant species.  The forest could perhaps be called wet mesic and has a diverse canopy, despite a windstorm about ten years ago that blew down many large trees.

Probably the most unusual plant species is the white trout lily, known from only one other site in Kalamazoo County.  Two other rare plants are the trees Ohio buckeye and blue ash.  There are, in addition, many other plants of mesic forest and southern swamp forest, including a relatively rich complement of spring ephemerals.

Red-berried elder in bud, early April, at Big Island Woods. Photograph by Richard Brewer.

Down trunks and woody debris from the wind storm about a decade ago make travel somewhat difficult in some parts of the woods.

Relatively little work has been done on the biota other than plants.  However, as a wooded island surrounded by agricultural fields and village streets, it could be an important stopover site for migratory  birds.  In less than two afternoon hours on 11 May 1996 three observers found 42 bird species including 14 species of warblers.

The trip will leave from the I-94 car-pool parking lot at Oakland Drive, Kalamazoo, at 9:15 AM Saturday.  Because parking at the field trip site is limited to about five cars, car-pooling is essential.  The field trip will conclude about noon.

Later on, after the trip, I’ll try to write something about what we saw and talked about at Cooper’s Island.

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