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GISSS

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

When seeing a family member or friend in a crowd from behind, we can often recognize them based on the general impression perceived. Their size, overall shape, and where they are or what they are doing helps us zero in on who we see. We do not need extensive detail to identify them.

Wildlife can be identified in a similar manner. Under our bird feeder a sleek smooth gray furred mammal popped out of a hole, grabbed a seed and ducked into its tunnel. It was in view for seconds but it was adequate to identify it as a short-tailed shrew. It was about as large as a mouse with solid gray color, short tail, and pointed nose. The masked shrew is smaller with a long tail. Deer mice have tan coats with a white belly and long tail. The meadow vole looks similar to the shrew but has a heavier body without a pointed nose.

Characteristics to take notice of quickly when trying to identify something when we only get a quick look is referred as GISSS (General Impression, Size, Shape, Seasonality).

When we see a deer, we usually do this naturally. I know a person that saw several deer in winter along a road and thought it was a large group of coyotes. He needed to develop his senses to key into important features. First capture a general impression and associate with what you know. When seeing a deer like animal, determine if it horse size like a moose or smaller. Does the shape appear deer-like with long thin legs and no obvious long tail or is it more dog-like with shorter legs and longer tail like a coyote?

Winter is a great time to practice GISSS with birds. Red-breasted Nuthatches recently arrived at our bird feeders. White-breasted Nuthatches are present all year. The general impression helped identify it as a nuthatch by its overall size, long thin bill, and straight alignment of head, body, and tail. Tufted Titmice or Black-capped chickadees have more contour between the three body parts. Generally associate size as sparrow, robin, and crow size. That helps narrow the choices.

Blue Jays, crows, and doves can be quickly dismissed because their size is much too large for consideration when looking at a nuthatch. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is smaller than chickadees, titmice, and the White-breasted Nuthatch. Look at the shape for how the head, body, and tail align and the tail length. Tail length will eliminate many choices. Nuthatches have a short tail. Seasonality is important. Generally, Red-breasted Nuthatches are only seen in our area from fall to spring. They move north in spring similar to how robins generally move south in winter.

It does not matter whether you are trying to identify mammals, birds, butterflies or even plants, the GISSS will help. Plants have a characteristic size, shape, and seasonality. The Fall Frost Aster blooms late into October with small white ray flowers that look like petals on plants about knee high. The New England Aster is about three to five feet tall with long purple ray flowers. Some plants like trilliums seasonally bloom in May.

Butterflies might be large like a monarch or swallowtail, medium sized like a cabbage white butterfly, or small like the little blue flyers that are only about the size of a dime. Use those for size comparisons. Once you have the general impression with size and shape ideas, you can consider unique details. The tiny Spring Azure butterflies fly from April into June. The nearly look-a-like Summer Azure begins flight in June and continues throughout the summer. The more iridescent Eastern Tailed Blue flies summer to fall with increased numbers in fall. As the name indicates it has tiny tails on its hind wings but the tails often break off.

Associate species with their nature niche habitat. Both azures are found near dogwood shrubs while the tailed blue is common in open fields. The small number of bird species at the feeders in winter will help you practice GISSS before spring when over one hundred bird species move through the neighborhood. About 150 species of butterflies make Michigan home. Simply enjoy the vast number of plants and animals and have fun trying to identify them. Visit various plant habitats and notice associated animals found in each. GISSS! Isn’t that fun?

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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