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Monitoring Michigan’s migrating monarchs

A monarch butterfly spreads its wings at Peninsula Point in Delta County. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

By Casey Warner, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

In a quiet, out-of-the-way corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, down a narrow, winding, one-lane road, lies a unique spot whose significance you might not guess from its secluded surroundings.

Peninsula Point lighthouse, at the end of the Stonington Peninsula in Delta County, offers spectacular views of Lake Michigan, a scenic place to enjoy a walk along the beach or a picnic, and excellent birdwatching, with more than 200 species of birds recorded there.

Then there’s the maritime history – the lighthouse, which was built in 1865 and once guided ships carrying iron ore and other products, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

But what Peninsula Point is most known – and visited – for is its connection to the monarch butterfly.

“Just as the Peninsula Point lighthouse guided ships on Lake Michigan, the Stonington Peninsula guides monarch butterflies as they begin their 1,900-mile migration south to their wintering grounds in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico,” reads a sign that greets visitors. “In the fall, thousands of monarchs can be seen here, waiting for favorable conditions before they cross Lake Michigan.”

While the chance to catch the majestic sight of multitudes of monarchs boosts tourism by drawing flocks of visitors to the area, the site is even more important for its contribution to monarch butterfly research and conservation.

“Peninsula Point is one of only a very few places in North America where monarchs can be viewed migrating in great numbers,” says the sign at the lighthouse, part of Hiawatha National Forest and owned by the U.S. Forest Service. “Because it is so unique, the Forest Service, together with Wildlife Unlimited of Delta County and many volunteers, have been conducting research since 1994, making it the oldest data set on the monarch in North America.”

Ivan Brown, left, and his son, Jonnie, 6, of Ripon, Wisconsin, check the undersides of milkweed leaves for monarch butterfly eggs Wednesday at Peninsula Point in Delta County. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Run exclusively by volunteers, the Monarch Research Project at Peninsula Point includes migration census monitoring, during which volunteers also tag butterflies as part of the national Monarch Watch Program. An annual monarch migration census is conducted in only one other location in the U.S., Cape May, New Jersey.

Monarch research at Peninsula Point also includes participation in the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project, coordinated by the University of Minnesota. The protocol developed at Peninsula Point, one of the project’s first sites, has been used at other locations across North America.

“The Monarch Project on the Stonington Peninsula began in 1994, when a Forest Service volunteer noticed that there were a lot of monarch butterflies passing through Peninsula Point during later August and the month of September,” said Sue Jamison, who coordinates the work of the volunteers who collect data on monarch larva and eggs at Peninsula Point for the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

“Each year we try to have volunteers check daily during those weeks to look for increased numbers of monarchs congregating at the lighthouse at the end of the peninsula.”

The project is currently without a volunteer coordinator for the fall migration census and tagging – according to Janet Ekstrum, Forest Service wildlife biologist for Hiawatha National Forest, Rapid River Ranger District – and may not have the capacity to do regularly scheduled migration monitoring this year.

In previous years, as many as 21 monarchs tagged at Peninsula Point have been recovered in El Rosario, Mexico, almost 2,000 miles from the Stonington Peninsula.

Monarchs are unique in that they are the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, similar to birds, because they can’t survive cold winters in northern climates.

“Using environmental cues, the monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter,” according to the U.S. Forest Service website. “Monarchs use a combination of air currents and thermals to travel long distances. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home.”

The eastern population of North America’s monarchs goes south to the same 11 to 12 mountain areas in Mexico from October to late March.

“Monarchs traveling south congregate on peninsulas. The shape of the peninsula funnels the migrating butterflies,” says the Forest Service website. “At its tip, the monarchs find the shortest distance across open water. They congregate along the shore to wait for a gentle breeze to help them across.”

Wind also plays a role in the volunteers’ monitoring efforts.

“We check the winds, as monarchs do not like to fly over water so they will leave with a north wind to fly over to Door County, Wisconsin,” said Jamison. “Peninsula Point is the southernmost point for monarchs in our area to fly over Lake Michigan.”

The Monarch Research Project at Peninsula Point, which depends on financial support from local organizations like Wildlife Unlimited of Delta County and the work of volunteers, collects data that is sent to various universities and has resulted in several research publications.

Those interested in volunteering can contact Janet Ekstrum at jekstrum@fs.fed.us or 906-474-6442, ext. 140.

“It’s a neat thing to do if you’re retired and all you do is golf,” said Rosie Spindler, who has volunteered to monitor larva at Peninsula Point for the past five years. She became interested in monarch conservation after a trip to visit butterfly preserves in Mexico where monarchs winter.

For those who don’t live in the central U.P., there are other opportunities for citizen scientists to get involved in studying monarchs – learn more at https://monarchjointventure.org. Michigan residents also can help inform conservation decisions in the state by reporting monarch sightings at https://www.learner.org/jnorth/monarch/.

The eastern population of monarch butterflies has declined by 80 percent over the last 20 years due mainly to habitat loss.

And this year’s measurement of the eastern monarch overwintering population in Mexico showed a 27 percent decrease compared to last year, likely due to an extreme winter storm.

Efforts to restore and maintain monarch habitat can help monarchs rebound and reverse the population decline.

“Because of the tremendous migration they make, monarchs need a variety of habitats,” said Dan Kennedy, endangered species coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “In the summer, they lay their eggs on milkweed because that’s the only plant their caterpillars will eat.

“Monarchs also need habitat to overwinter in, not to mention habitat where they can stop and refuel along the way. They are very active insects and require a wide variety of flowering plants to provide the food they need to survive and make their long journey.”

Grasslands, vitally important to many species, including monarchs and other pollinators, have become increasingly rare.

“Making sure pollinators have habitat that supports milkweed and other native, flowering plants is important to preserving these key species,” said Kennedy.

Through several habitat enhancement projects, the DNR – along with many partners, organizations and volunteers – is working to increase habitat for monarchs and other pollinators in Michigan.

“Because of the critical role these insects play in the ecosystem, as well as people’s lives, it is up to us to help keep these pollinator populations abundant and healthy,” Kennedy said.

For example, in southern Michigan, the DNR is working to restore and enhance grassland and pollinator habitat at the Shiawassee River State Game Area in Saginaw County and in Barry County’s Barry State Game Area.

In addition to the DNR’s efforts, many other organizations are supporting projects to improve pollinator habitat in Michigan. In June, TransCanada partnered with the Save Our Monarchs Foundation and many volunteers to plant 6,000 native wildflowers around TransCanada’s Woolfolk Gas Plant in Big Rapids, Michigan.

Currently, 4,000 acres already are being utilized as pollinator habitat. As part of their Pollinator Pathway Initiative, the organizations will continue their plan to seed an additional 7,000 acres across other TransCanada rights-of-way with native wildflowers this fall.

“Our existing assets align remarkably well with the monarch migratory route between Mexico and Canada,” said Brad Stermer, environmental specialist, operations and engineering for TransCanada. “Through our environmental partnership with Save Our Monarchs we have an opportunity to play a larger role in directly supporting pollinator health over the long term.”

Even for those who don’t have a large amount of land, there are ways to create habitat that helps pollinators. More information about creating habitat for monarchs and other pollinators is available on the Monarch Joint Venture page at https://monarchjointventure.org.

Other helpful resources include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s steps for building a pollinator garden at https://www.fws.gov/pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html and the Michigan State University Extension’s Pollinators & Pollination page at http://msue.anr.msu.edu/topic/info/pollinators_and_pollination, which also offers information on gardening for pollinators.

Find out more about what ways to help pollinators in Michigan by visiting mi.gov/wildlife and clicking on the Monarchs in Michigan box.

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Knee deep death trap

Rough waves on Lake Michigan. Photo from Wunderground.com by unobtrusive troll10.

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Enjoying the big waves has always been fun but poses life threatening challenges for many species. If you happen to be a duck you are probably safe. Big waves were rolling on shore at Traverse City State Park shortly after mallard ducklings hatched from eggs. The hen led fledglings to water. People concerned for the safety of the little ones approached and caused the mother to move away from young and shore.

She disappeared among the tall waves with most of the ducklings but a couple lost sight of her and became separated. The people that frightened the mother picked up two ducklings and brought them to me at the ranger station. They should have left them to the mother’s care. At the beach, we could not locate the mother or her other young.

One-fourth of a mile away, a stream entered Grant Traverse Bay and provided an inlet where water was calm. We took the two ducklings there and found several adult ducks with young. We released the ducklings with hope the mother was present in the protective cove. If not, the young should be safe and might join another family.

The big waves did not pose a death threat to them but people causing the mother to move away from young did.

When I was a “young duckling” so to speak, I had my own death threat among big waves. Our family was at a beach on a giant wave day. It was exciting and fun in the waves. I waded into the water and stood in knee deep water between waves. When a wave arrived, the water was over my head. I rode up on the wave and came back down when it passed to stand on the bottom again.

All was going well until one time when I rode high on the wave and came back down, the undertow of water returning along the bottom knocked my feet from under me. I thought no big deal and stood up. It happened that I stood up in middle of a tall wave. Almost immediately the undertow knocked my feet from under me again. Quickly I stood and found myself in the middle of another wave. This repeated.

By now I was out of air, frightened, and desperate to inhale.  A breath would flood my lungs with water and begin the drowning process. My folks had no idea I was in danger in knee high water. They hadn’t even noticed I had disappeared. I was only underwater a short time.

It seemed impossible to stand up between waves and I could not get my head into the air. Finally, I managed to get my head out of water but was knocked down by the undertow. A push off the bottom allowed me to ride up and down on a big wave. I discovered the danger of knee deep water between large waves and survived. Many people do not and several times each year, families lose a member to the power of water.

It is not just people whose lives get threatened by water. Fall bird migration season has arrived. Massive avian numbers from songbirds to hawks encounter the Great Lakes migration water barrier. They pile up on the north end of the lakes on their southbound journey and move along the shoreline searching for safe crossing sites. I’ve watched hundreds of Broad-winged Hawks move west along northern Lake Michigan to go around the lake. Others moved east towards Mackinaw Bridge where crossing the straits is shorter. Once there, they wait for proper weather and wind conditions to venture safely over water.

Migration over water is one of many life-threatening challenges for species in nature niches. Not all survive. I have found small birds washed dead to shore after being knocked into the water by storms or winds. People and wildlife lives depend on respect for the power of water. Have fun in turbulent water but remain safety conscious.

Consider a trip to Whitefish Point Bird Observatory north of Paradise on Lake Superior to witness bird migration from Canada to the US this fall. Michigan Audubon staff can assist with species identification.

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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Report fish and wildlife observations

 

Use the Eyes in the Field app 

The Department of Natural Resources invites Michigan residents to contribute to conservation efforts by reporting their fish and wildlife observations with the new Eyes in the Field application. Available at michigan.gov/eyesinthefield, the application replaces 15 separate observation forms the DNR had been using to gather important information about the state’s fish and wildlife populations.

“Observation is a key part of managing Michigan’s diverse natural resources, and we rely on the public as additional eyes in the field to help in our monitoring efforts,” said Tom Weston, the DNR’s chief technology officer. “This new application is a one-stop shop where citizen scientists can report what they observe while spending time outdoors.”

Eyes in the Field includes forms for reporting observations of diseased wildlife, tagged fish, mammals such as cougars and feral swine, fish such as sturgeon, birds such as wild turkeys, and reptiles and amphibians such as eastern massasauga rattlesnakes. Additional observation forms will be added in the future.

The application is mobile-friendly, so it will work well on any device – smartphone, tablet or desktop computer – and is compliant with federal Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility guidelines.

To report their data, users select an observation location point on a map and submit other details, including habitat type and appearance of the animal, depending on the type of observation. Observers also can submit photos, videos and audio files through the application.

It’s important to note that Eyes in the Field does not replace the DNR’s Report All Poaching (RAP) hotline (800-292-7800). The RAP hotline – now accepting text messages, which may include photos, in addition to telephone calls – is a toll-free, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week number that enables the public to report violations of fish and game laws, as well as other natural resource-related laws. The DNR also offers a web-based RAP form, which is available via a link from Eyes in the Field.

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Catch of the Week

Brady Elliott, of Howard City, caught this 11-inch bass on July 27 at Townline Lake in Lakeview.

Brady is the son of RJ Elliott and Jessica Waller.

Congratulations, Brady, you made the Post Catch of the Week!

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We’re still here: what’s happening at Howard Christensen Nature Center

You will see all kinds of wildlife and plant life at Howard Christensen Nature Center. Courtesy photo.

By Kim Gillow

While riding on our float in several parades, I overheard members of the crowd saying, “I thought they closed.” “I remember going there as a kid.” “My sister got married there.” Well, we are still here. Kids still come with their schools and people still get married here. The Cedar Springs Post has been kind enough to list our events in “Hometown Happenings” but that is just part of our story. We are in the midst of a massive renovation and upgrade. Our biggest project is the building of dioramas inside the Interpretive Center to mimic the various ecosystems on the land. We are also planning to restore the planetarium and create an interactive, hands-on area in the former library space. This is all being done through volunteer time, money and energy. As a nonprofit, with no outside funding, we are totally dependent on revenue from our events and donations. We rent the property from KISD but we are responsible for the upkeep and repairs.

Howard Christensen Nature holds many types of events for all ages. Courtesy photo.

Our mission remains the same: To inspire appreciation and respect for the natural world, to increase awareness of environmental concerns and encourage individual’s to maintain earth’s ecology through scientific and educational activities. We have had to institute an admission fee to help with expenses. It is $3 per person for anyone 16 or older. This has led to some disgruntled comments but we do have to keep the lights on. And we want to be able to keep the cost of school trips and other events at a level that isn’t prohibitive.

We are busy staining our tables and benches at the center and are setting up a picnic area near the playground. Volunteers are repairing the boardwalks that have been damaged by weather and vandals. We have a new shed to house our snowshoes and cross country skis, courtesy of  Daniel Mills’ Eagle Scout Project. Fairy doors are appearing along the trails. We dream of paddle boats on the pond and a challenge course.  Plans are in the works for our fall events: Red Pine 5k Run, Fairy Festival, scarecrow and gourd craft day, pumpkin carving and spooky walk, haunted house, pie making, and  wreath making/make and take to name a few. For more information, call (616) 675-3158 or register on our web site: www.howardchristensen.org.

Planning an event? Rent Camp Lily’s, a private retreat center on the north end of the property. There is a large building with meeting space, full kitchen and rest rooms plus a pavilion and camping areas with picnic tables and fire pits. It is the perfect place for a family reunion, graduation party, wedding or corporate retreat. We continue to improve the venue and hope to have an indoor shower by next spring.

Next big thing! We are cleaning out the barn and other nooks and crannies. Mark and Ann Petersen are offering their services for a benefit auction on Sunday, August 27, starting at 3 p.m. The public is welcome to come any time after 1:30 p.m. to get your bid number and preview our wide variety of items that are ready for a new home. And it is a variety: electric clothes dryer, display cases, waders, filing cabinets, fencing, etc. Watch for a complete list on our web site and sale bills around town when we get closer. There will also be raffles of a child’s quilt and baskets of goodies, a bake sale, and hot dogs, popcorn and drinks for sale.

How can you help? Come and see us, become a member, attend an event, volunteer for an individual project or join us to help with an event, rent Camp Lily’s, make a tax deductible donation, wave at us in a parade, let people know—we’re still here!

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Report reptile and amphibian sightings

 

From the Michigan DNR

A Blanding’s turtle, a species of special concern in Michigan. Photo courtesy of Michigan DNR.

As you are out enjoying Michigan’s natural resources this summer, please take a moment to help collect valuable information on Michigan’s reptiles and amphibians.

Anyone can help by reporting sightings of turtles, frogs, toads, snakes, salamanders and lizards online at www.miherpatlas.org.

There is also a mobile app available for download to make field reporting quick and easy. The Mobile Mapper is available for Android and iOS (Apple) devices.

The Michigan Herp Atlas Project is the first statewide inventory of reptiles and amphibians ever conducted in Michigan. The project’s purpose is to document the distribution of Michigan’s reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as herpetofauna or “herps.”

In addition, citizen scientists around North America are being asked to report any possible disease cases in reptiles or amphibians to the new Herpetofauna Disease Alert System. More information about this new reporting tool and how to submit an observation can be found at http://wildlife.org/new-herp-disease-alert-system-relies-on-info-from-public.

Learn more about Michigan’s herpetofauna by visiting mi.gov/wildlife – click on Wildlife Species and look for Amphibians and Reptiles.

You also can find out more about Michigan’s snake species by watching our 60-Second Snakes videos.

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Catch of the Week

Four-year-old Lucas Harington is shown here with his big catch! He caught the tiny fish while camping with his grandparents, Lester and Pamela Cooke, at Merrill Lake Campground. “He caught it by himself and was so excited!” said Pamela. “But of course we talked about it and set it free.”

Congratulations, Lucas, you made the Post Catch of the Week!

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Biting flies

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

At our annual Lehr family reunion in the 1950’s, we gathered at a city park. It was an event for my dad’s mother’s side of the family. I always looked forward to it. One year, I ventured away from family to the large swing sets. The swings sets were tall and we could swing higher than possible on neighborhood swings.

While swinging with pleasure, I suddenly started screaming bloody murder. I was too far from family for anyone to notice. Nearby mothers with their children took notice and came to my rescue but had no idea why I was screaming and in tears. They helped me stop the swing. I was slapping at my leg.

Under the right leg of my trousers was something horrible. A woman pulled up my pant leg to discover a horse fly biting me. It was worse than a bee sting but it did not inject venom. Not all experiences in the outdoors are pleasant and some people avoid outings because they fear the unpleasant. Positive events out number negative ones and hopefully bad events do not prevent time among nature niches.

Deer flies are more common than horse flies. They can drive us inside at certain times of the day and during some weeks of the year. Karen and I hiked in a western cattle grazing area on public land. At Deer Creek in Utah, we found it necessary to leave. The cattle could not. Deer could not. Other mammals could not.

They had to endure the onslaught of biting Tabinid flies. Fortunately, cows have long tails with a hair tuff fly swatter. Deer have shorter tails but one can watch them constantly twitching it back and forth.

Selected behavior helps deer and other mammals avoid painful “bites”. The flies do not actually bite. Their mouth parts are saw-like. They saw into the skin and lap oozing blood to nourish eggs in their abdomen. It is the female that seeks blood much like it is female mosquitoes that poke holes in our skin. Males feed on nectar and pollen at flowers.

Horse flies are much larger than deer flies and cause considerably more pain. Both lay eggs near water on vegetation where hatching young drop into a stream or other water body. The maggots go to the bottom where they feed on other insects and invertebrates. They grow and shed their “outer skin” known as an exoskeleton to reach a size for transforming from maggot to flying adult that leaves the water to mate and produce more flies.

Most of the biting flies do not survive to leave the water. They are eaten by other aquatic organisms from fish to insects. As adult flies, they are eaten by dragonflies and even frogs. Despite us not wanting to share the world with them, they are important for maintaining organisms we want to share time and space with like fish, frogs, and dragonflies. Birds pluck them out of the air for nourishment.

There are tricks that help us enjoy the outdoors despite the presence of biting flies. We can use chemical insect repellents and at times they seem almost essential. Effective repellents are often dangerous if applied to our skin. Most should be applied to clothing instead. I rarely use repellent insect creams or sprays.

Appropriate dress is quite effective. Wear light colored long-sleeved shirts and long pants to keep skin covered. Dark clothes attract flies. The deer flies like to circle around our heads and become a major nuisance. My friend Mary Miller taught me to pick a bracken fern and put the stem in a headband or hat so the leafy frond stands above my head. The flies circle the frond instead of my head.

Choosing where and when to spend time outdoors at certain times of the year helps. During fly season, it is better to hike at a distance from streams. There are many trails in the area, so select one away from deer flies. As August progresses, deer flies become less frequent and areas near water become suitable again. Hiking on breezy days sweeps flies away. Wildlife spend time away from water and in open breezy areas. Learn by watching and enjoying wildlife. Discover ways to keep spending time among nature’s outdoor wonders.

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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Enjoy Meteors & S’mores during Perseid meteor shower

Michigan state parks offer great natural spaces for gathering with friends and family and enjoying a variety of special events, like Meteors & S’mores and other seasonal programming that takes advantage of each park’s natural amenities.

At state parks Aug. 11-12

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources invites visitors and campers to catch a view of the Perseid meteor shower during “Meteors & S’mores” in participating Michigan state parks Aug. 11-12.

Day-use visitors and campers at participating state parks are encouraged to bring blankets, seating, bug spray and snacks and enjoy a night of stargazing.

Participating parks will stay open later than their normal closing times. Complimentary s’mores and campfires are part of the celebration. Designated viewing areas and viewing times will be specified at each park.

“Many consider themselves lucky if they catch a shooting star, but the Perseid meteor shower is one of the best opportunities to see them with the naked eye,” said Elissa Buck, a DNR event coordinator. “We encourage those who want to catch magnificent views with fellow parkgoers take part in one of these Meteors & S’mores events.”

The calendar of events can be found online at michigan.gov/darksky and also is listed below.

South Higgins Lake State Park (Roscommon County) Friday, Aug. 11, 9 to 11 p.m.

Muskegon State Park (Muskegon County) Friday, Aug. 11, 9 to 11:30 p.m.

Lakeport State Park (St. Clair County) Friday, Aug. 11, 9:30 to 10:30 p.m.

Island Lake Recreation Area (Livingston County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 8 to 11 p.m.

Fort Wilkins State Park (Keweenaw County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 8 to 11:45 p.m.

North Higgins Lake State Park (Roscommon County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 to 10:30 p.m.

Leelanau State Park (Leelanau County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 to 10:30 p.m.

Young State Park (Charlevoix County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 to 11 p.m.

Clear Lake State Park (Montmorency County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 to 11:30 p.m.

Wilderness State Park (Emmet County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 to 11:30 p.m.

Van Buren State Park (Van Buren County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 to 11:45 p.m.

Warren Dunes State Park (Berrien County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 p.m. to midnight

Van Riper State Park (Marquette County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9:30 to 10:30 p.m.

Holland State Park (Ottawa County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 10 to 11 p.m.

Indian Lake State Park (Delta County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 10 to 11:30 p.m.

Bald Mountain Recreation Area (Oakland County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 10 to 11:30 p.m.

Seven Lakes State Park (Oakland County) Saturday, Aug. 12, 10 to 11:45 p.m.

Negwegon State Park (Alcona and Alpena counties) Saturday, Aug. 12, 9 to 11 p.m.

About Dark Sky parks in Michigan

Dark Sky Preserves are protected against light pollution and are ideal locations for stargazing. Here in Michigan, six state-designated Dark Sky Preserves are located at Lake Hudson Recreation Area, Negwegon State Park, Port Crescent State Park, Rockport Recreation Area, Thompson’s Harbor State Park and Wilderness State Park. In addition, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offers excellent night sky viewing opportunities across more than 15,000 square miles. Learn more at michigan.gov/darksky.

Camp under the stars

To take full advantage of the meteor showers that are estimated to take place Aug. 9-16, visitors are encouraged to make camping reservations throughout the week and sleep under the stars. To check camping availability in state parks and make a reservation, visit www.midnrreservations.com or call 1-800-44PARKS.

For more information about these events, contact Elissa Buck at bucke@michigan.gov or 989-313-0000.

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Showcasing the DNR 

 

Studying Michigan’s massasaugas, the state’s venomous rattler

By Bob Gwizdz, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The massasauga rattlesnake is Michigan’s only venomous snake. It is protected as a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Photo by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

If any creatures ever needed better public relations, it would be snakes.

They have been vilified since the earliest of Bible tales, and their overall reputation hasn’t improved markedly since.

But there are plenty of people who have more respect for snakes—especially those species not well-regarded.

In fact, Michigan has become an important laboratory for the study and preservation of one of them, the eastern massasauga rattlesnake, the only venomous viper that inhabits the state.

Massasauga rattlesnakes were listed as a federally threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2016 and are thereby protected animals.

By rattlesnake standards, massasauga rattlers are small, averaging about 2 feet long as adults, reaching a maximum of about 30 inches.

The term “massasauga” means “great river mouth” in the Ojibwe language and was likely given to these snakes because of the places the pit vipers are found.

They inhabit wetlands and feed upon small mammals such as mice and voles, frogs, and other snakes. They are ambush predators, remaining motionless and striking when they detect prey through heat, sound, motion or odor. They inject venom that destroys tissue and incapacitates the prey.

Eastern massauagas range from southern Ontario to Missouri and from central New York to eastern Iowa. There are a couple of subspecies found in the American southwest and into Mexico.

“Massasaugas are rare in Michigan, though more common than in most other parts of their range,” said Tom Goniea, a fisheries biologist and herptile expert with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “There are records of their existence in every county of the Lower Peninsula.

“They’ve never been found on the mainland of the Upper Peninsula, though they have been found on Bois Blanc Island, which is in Mackinac County,” Goniea said. “Like all reptiles and amphibians, they were once more widespread and numerous throughout the state than they are today.”

Habitat destruction and persecution have led to their decline.

“They’re really rare; very few people will ever encounter these animals in the wild,” Goniea said. “They’re pretty docile, not a particularly aggressive animal. In my 14 years as herptile specialist with the DNR Fisheries Division, I’ve averaged being notified of less than one bite a year.”

Rattlesnake bites, while rare in Michigan, can and do occur. Many bites are the result of people handling them, though people walking though tall grass in rattlesnake habitat near and around wetlands without adequate footwear or long pants could potentially be bitten.

Snakebites are less likely to occur when following some basic safety precautions (find out more at http://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/emr/safety.cfm). Anyone who has been bitten should seek immediate medical attention.

“They can only strike about one-third to one-half their body length, which for a typical Michigan rattlesnake is 8 to 15 inches, so a person has to get really close to be in any danger,” Goniea said. “They are not going to lunge out and bite you from several feet away.”

There are no records of fatalities in Michigan since the post-World War II era that Goniea knows about.

Other snakes are often misidentified as massasaugas.

“Probably 95 percent of the calls we get from people who are sure they have a massasauga are verified with pictures as something else,” Goniea said.

Much of the focus of massasauga rattlesnake study in Michigan is at the Edward Lowe Foundation property in Cass County, where a viable population of the creatures inhabits the wetlands.

Mike McCuistion, vice president of physical resources at the foundation in Cass County, said staffers have found dead rattlesnakes on the roads of the property over the years, and because “conservation is part of the foundation’s charter,” the foundation decided to investigate them.

The foundation engaged a student studying reptiles to survey the area. He found one.

Later, a graduate student’s research involved studying how fire—such as controlled burns—impacted the snakes. He used the Lowe property as his control (non-burned) area, and he found a number of the rattlesnakes.

That information allowed the foundation to conduct controlled burns without affecting the snakes.

“We know where the snakes are and we know where the hibernacula (hibernation locations) are,” McCuistion said. “We can burn when the snakes are hibernating.”

The presence of the rattlesnakes inspired the foundation to get involved with the snake’s Species Survival Plan. The plan, largely a function of zoos and aquariums, is sort of an insurance policy for species—should they ever disappear.

Zoos that have massasauga rattlesnakes have been selectively breeding them for genetic diversity. These zoos would have a population of the snakes available.

The Lowe foundation agreed to host the annual meeting of the Species Survival Plan nine years ago in exchange for team’s cooperation in surveying the grounds annually for the snakes.

“The nice thing about this population is that it’s centrally located in massasauga range,” McCuistion said.

Over the course of the last seven years, the surveyors have identified more than 800 individual massasaugas on the property, with a stable population of about 150 adults.

Specimens are collected, aged, sexed, measured, weighed and photographed. Adults are implanted with PIT (passive integrated transponder) tags and all are returned to where they were found. The tags identify the snakes individually.

Penny Felski, herptile manager at the Buffalo Zoo and a member of the Special Survival Plan team, has been on every survey at the Lowe property since they started.

“The Buffalo Zoo has been working with this species since the 1960s, but our first successful breeding was in 2012,” Felski said. “It took a while to figure out the husbandry.”

Essentially, when potential mates are selected, the snakes are introduced in the fall and kept together until breeding has been witnessed. Young are born live the next summer. The female at the Buffalo Zoo has produced 13 offspring over the years. All are now at other zoos.

Eric Hileman, who recently earned his doctorate degree from Northern Illinois University for his work on eastern massasaugas and is now a quantitative biologist at Trent University in Ontario, said roughly 70 percent of adult massasaugas survive annually, but only 38 percent of newborns (neonates) survive their first year.

“I think freezing over the winter is the big problem,” Hileman said. “They don’t know how to do it.”

Unlike many other rattlesnakes, massasaugas hibernate alone, often using crayfish burrows for hibernacula.

Hileman said massasaugas have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity, which is up to 30 percent longer than they live in the wild.

For more information on the threatened status of the massasauga or for frequently asked questions about the listing, please visit the US Fish and Wildlife Service massasauga information page at https://www.fws.gov/midwest/Endangered/reptiles/eama/index.html

Identification and life history information, as well as snake safety tips, can be found at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory massasauga rattlesnake information page http://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/emr/index.cfm.

To report sightings and learn more about the massasauga, please visit the Michigan DNR’s page on the species at http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12145_12201-32995–,00.html.
Learn more by about Michigan’s snake species by watching our “60-Second Snakes” videos at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qz5W-co6itw&index=2&list=PLAt8-P23ZJgvCQGGbnCtdUfRYbqiws-F6.

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