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Archive | Outdoors

Sandhill Cranes in your Community

Photo by Beth Olson

Photo by Beth Olson

Photo by Brian Stalter

Photo by Brian Stalter

Breeding season for Sandhill Cranes is well underway in Michigan and chances are you have observed these birds in your community. Standing almost four feet tall cranes are easy to notice and entertaining to observe, but Michigan Audubon wants to remind Michiganders to maintain a safe viewing distance and let wildlife be wild. Here are few tips to help you live comfortably together with the Sandhill Cranes in your community.

Give cranes ample space. Sandhill Cranes are large and require a big area in order to take flight. Many people have seen cranes walking across roads, through neighborhoods, and on golf courses. If you encounter cranes while driving a vehicle, garden tractor, or golf cart, make sure to give the birds a wide berth. Sandhill Cranes may not always take flight, especially if they are escorting juvenile cranes called “colts.” Please slow down and let the cranes get to a safe place.

Do not intentionally feed cranes. Michigan Audubon receives reports of Sandhill Cranes taking advantage of backyard bird feeding stations and even cases where cranes are pecking at patio windows. If cranes become regular visitors at a home feeding station, we encourage property owners to take down feeders for a few days and allow the cranes to find natural food on their own. Bringing cranes to your feeding station can put the birds in contact with more potential predators such as domestic dogs, raccoons, foxes and other urban wildlife.

Learn more about cranes. Sandhill Cranes have made a tremendous comeback in Michigan, thanks to a variety of conservation measures. Cranes are regularly observed during spring migration at places like Whitefish Point and Brockway Mountain in the Upper Peninsula. Breeding cranes and adults with young are widely observed throughout Michigan, and because of their size do not even require binoculars to be fully appreciated. This fall Michigan Audubon encourages Michiganders to visit one of the numerous sites in the southern Lower Peninsula where cranes will be staging for migration. The 20th Annual Sandhill Crane & Art Festival, also known simply as “CraneFest,” will take place October 11 and 12 in Calhoun County and includes crane-viewing, special presentations, 25 Michigan artists, and activities for kids. Visit www.cranefest.org for more information.

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Weekly Fishing Tip

 

Stream trout fishing: a forgotten pastime?

 

It isn’t a secret that Michigan hosts some of the best trout streams in the nation. The surprising thing is how under fished they are.

Anglers can have some fantastic fishing all to themselves on some incredibly beautiful streams if they do their homework. Michigan’s trout streams range in size from jump-across tributaries to the mighty Muskegon, Manistee and Au Sable rivers. While our streams can be busy at times (opening weekend, salmon/steelhead runs, the hex hatch, etc.) they can be utterly devoid of anglers at other times.

Michigan trout streams hold brown, brook and rainbow trout, and they can be caught by all kinds of tackle and techniques, ranging from nightcrawler dunking to spinner tossing or fly fishing. Anglers should check with the Fisheries Division management biologist for the area they wish to fish and the species they wish to target. Give it a try—you’ll be surprised at how good the state’s trout fishing is and how few people are doing it!

For more info visit www.michigan.org/dnr and click on fishing.

This tip was written by Mark Tonello, Fisheries Management Biologist in Cadillac.

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Chickadee Loop Trail

The short Chickadee Loop at the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) is rewarding. From the Welcome Center parking area take a quarter mile walk for exposure to things wild and natural.

Walking directly west from the Welcome Center, the trail leads through an oak forest to a junction where the trail continues north (right). The habitat transitions from oak forest to young oak forest at the junction. The area was maintained as an oak savanna in the 1980’s through the 2008.

A savanna is an open grass and forbs community with scattered trees. Scattered trees allow sunlight to penetrate to ground vegetation. In the savanna, Wild Blue Lupine (a forb) flowers in late May. It adds nitrogen to the soil with the aid to root nodules that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. A variety of plants thrive in a savanna’s lightly filtered sunlight.

Oak savanna is Michigan’s rarest plant/animal community. We often hear how over 70 percent of Michigan’s wetlands have been drained and has led to a great decline in waterfowl and associated wetland species. Groups like Duck’s Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the Audubon Society, and many others have worked for a century to restore essential habitat for nature niche neighbors that depend on wetlands.

Savannas are home for rare and endangered species that require survival help and management if we are to keep nature’s bounty alive and well. There are a few prairies species that can be found at HCNC but the landscape does not contain any prairie habitats. Michigan’s prairies were mostly restricted to SW counties of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Oak savannas contain some prairie species but referring to it as a prairie would be a disservice and teach scientific misconceptions.

Chickadee Loop turns east at the north end of the former savanna. A beautiful shrub known a winged sumac grows at the clearing edge. It has large compound leaves. A compound leaf is a leaf that has many leaflets that appear leaf-like. To recognize a leaflet from a leaf, look at the base of the flat leaf-like blade. If a bud is present, it is a leaf. If one needs to look farther back to find a bud, it is a compound leaf made of several leaflets.

At the next trail junction Chickadee Loop turns south toward the Welcome Center. At the junction one can take a short spur to the left that leads about 100 feet to a vernal pond. I designed a trail around the west side of the pond to the nature center’s service drive. That allowed the east half of the pond to remain wild for nature to carry on without disturbance from human activity. Please recognize you are a guest in nature’s habitats when visiting HCNC and provide proper respect for plant and animal privacy and living condition needs.

On the final stretch to the Welcome Center, you will cross a floating bridge that rises and lowers with water level at the permanent pond. A pond is a body of water where light penetrates to the bottom. Lakes are deep enough to prevent good light penetration. Size is not best measure for separating ponds and lakes biologically.

Before reaching the Welcome Center, you pass the Howard Christensen Memorial Spring. Frank and Rita’s only child died from a brain tumor while a high school senior and graduated posthumously in 1962-63. To honor him, his parents donated land to establish a nature center that would allow youth to experience discovery in the natural world. Frank and Rita were not wealthy people but owned about 100 acres they gave to the community. It was a gift of the heart that founded HCNC in fall 1974. The Grand Rapids Downtown Kiwanis Club provided funds for the construction of the Welcome Center, memorial spring stonework, and the drilling of the flowing well. Visit the office to purchase a HCNC membership.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.

 

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Exclosure Observations

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Helping students and the public understand the nature of science was an important goal for me as director of Howard Christensen Nature Center. Education deals with many misconceptions and the scientific process helps people understand that science, based on verifiable evidence, is self-correcting.

To see science in action we constructed an “exclosure.”  It helped people observe natural changes in nature niches. It was a ten by twenty foot fenced area. Fence posts were five feet apart. In the first section we did not disturb the area during construction and left it untouched for the next twenty years. The other five by ten-foot sections were cleared of vegetation on a rotating three-year cycle.

Sheep sorrel was an early colonizing ground cover. Plants, insects and small animals could enter and colonize without our influence. Large animals like deer were excluded. After the plants were cleared and roots filtered from the soil, we observed colonizing plants and animals. Ants made about 20 small mounds about 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Sheep sorrel, pigweed, and five clumps of grass also took hold within three weeks.

Rather than describe details of what was observed, lets focus attention on nature niche establishment. John Curtis first described the process of plant succession. By documenting the species and the order they colonized sand dunes, he established predictable models. Plants changed the soil and made it more hospitable for different species. It could be predicted how long it would take for particular species to establish.

Plant colonizers were replaced by mosses, perennial grass or other plants when soil conditions improved. Later woody shrubs and trees could establish. With each new plant species various insects, birds, and mammals could make a living.

I mentioned science is self-correcting. Over the years, repeated studies showed a predictable sequence of colonizing plants and animals. It was found the sequence was somewhat variable based on surrounding vegetation and animal populations. Generally species arrived in the same sequence to occupy nature niches. Continued long-term studies corrected initial conclusions.

Using HCNC’s exclosure, students learned the process of collecting and analyzing data. As humans, we are prone to draw conclusions based on how things appear or how we want them to be. Often they are correct but frequently we have not collected adequate data to confirm our conclusions. Scientific process slowly builds valid conclusions that get modified and corrected when studies indicate our conclusions are not perfect.

The process allows us to discard misconceptions and support what is shown to be correct. That is where climate change discussions frustrate many. Some people deny it is greatly influenced by human activities. Most scientists acknowledge climate change is greatly human influenced but qualify the statement with “pending further data collection.” Science process is always open to modification pending further data collection. Many people accept unsupported absolute conclusions because they do not like science being open to modification or not being what they desire to think.

The exclosure experiment at HCNC helped people learn how scientific process works and how new data collection modified our understanding of how nature functions. It would have been nice if the experiment were continued after I left. We could have documented changes in growing season as well as plant and animal composition. Many scientific studies take decades or centuries to make valid predications. We tend to be impatient and want absolute answers now.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.

 

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Muskellunge harvest tag issue

The Department of Natural Resources has found a key error on this year’s muskellunge harvest tag.

The tag is legally required for anglers to be in possession of a muskellunge (including tiger muskellunge) harvested in Michigan waters. The months of April, May and June were omitted from the tags. Anglers are requested to write the date of harvest and harvest location on the line provided on the tag, if they harvest a muskellunge during this time frame. Anglers who harvest muskellunge after June can use the tag as indicated.
The muskellunge harvest tag is free (except for those under 17 years of age and nonresident anglers, who would need to purchase a DNR Sportcard to obtain the tag) and available at all license agents. Those fishing on Michigan-Wisconsin boundary waters using a Wisconsin fishing license are also required to use the tag if they harvest a muskellunge in Michigan waters.

All muskellunge shall be immediately released unless the fish is to be tagged for harvest. If harvested, it should be tagged with a valid muskellunge harvest tag. The possession limit for muskellunge (including tiger muskellunge) is one per angler per fishing season (April 1 through March 31). While registration of muskellunge harvest is not required, registering all harvested fish greatly assists the DNR with management of this important species and is encouraged. For more information or to register a fish, visit www.michigan.gov/muskie.

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Warblers Come and Go

By Ranger Steve Mueller

American Redstart

American Redstart

Most warblers pass through our yards unnoticed during April and May, and again in August and September. Some stay to raise a family. As a group, they are the most colorful of the birds. They work in shrubs and trees feeding on insects. Insects are essential for them to increase weight rapidly to survive their long migration.

A Chestnut-sided Warbler is setting up summer residence in the yard among shrubs near the pond (Picture 1). It is one of the most colorful with a bright yellow cap and wonderful contrasting patterns of white and black throughout the body. Scattered yellow-green is present on the wings and rump. Varying amounts of rich chestnut orange-red patches line it sides. Adult males have extensive chestnut feathers on the sides and younger birds have shorter bands of color.

Chestnut sided Warbler

Chestnut sided Warbler

When looking for warblers, most people locate them by listening for songs and search the branches for their small presence. The warbler described above is only 4 inches long and weighs less than one half ounce. To identify birds remember GISSS. First acquire a general impression (GI). Is it sparrow, robin, or crow size and does it stand tall and upright or more horizontal. Habitat will help with general impression. Expect some birds high in forest trees, others near the ground in shrubs, or some in wetlands. Most people know to think Great Blue Heron along stream or water, robins in lawns, and Red-winged Blackbirds in marshes. Each warbler has a preferred habitat.

After acquiring a general impression, focus on size, color, and shape to help identify it. Behavior will help. A Black-and-white Warbler will climb on tree trunks like a nuthatch; Chestnut-sided Warblers will be among the shrubbery as will American Redstart (Picture 2). Some warblers just pass through so expect them only in spring and fall. Others will stay for the summer. Very few stay during the winter but the Yellow-rumped Warbler is sometimes found in the cold months. The SSS in GISSS refers to the size, shape, and seasonality. Add another S if you use sound like many birders to identify a warbler. I am not good at separating species by sound. I consider myself at best 80 percent proficient so I do not document presence based on song.

Pine Warblers are considered to have a stable population of 13,000,000. This sounds large but when compared to 200,000,000 European Starlings in the US it is not. Even starlings are not a numerous as humans in the US where we number about 350,000,000. Everyone’s yard can be critical habitat in a shrinking natural world. Encourage family and others to return portions of yards to native habitat to help warblers survive.

Compare the difference between the two warblers pictured. The redstart has an all black head with white only on the belly and not mixed among the body feathers. There is bright orange on the sides instead of chestnut and it has orange in the wings and tail. Nature niches are more interesting when we get to know our wild neighbors. Warblers will come when yard habitats include native wild plants for insects and birds. Horticultural and non-native plants usually do not support insect populations needed by warblers.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.

 

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Registration for Rogue River Expedition Closes on May 31

N-rogue_river_pic

This is your last chance to sign up for this 3-day public journey of discovery to experience conditions and opportunities of Michigan’s Rogue River and its watershed. It will be held June 19 through the 21. The Expedition team will travel by land, canoes, and kayaks, and provide demonstrations, interactive displays, and exhibits in communities along the Rogue River.

* Thursday, June 19th: The Expedition will begin with an opening ceremony at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, followed by a land tour of the Rogue River’s Headwaters. The night will conclude back at the Howard Christensen Nature Center with a dinner, owl walk, and camping.

* Friday, June 20:  Participants will gather at Nash Creek in Sparta for the paddling portion of the Expedition. The Rogue River Watershed Partners and the Village of Sparta will be hosting a Watershed Showcase that is free and open to the public with water demonstrations, hands-on activities for kids, and free prizes. Expedition participants will kayak down Nash Creek in to the Rogue River and take out at Camp Rockford right at the mouth of Stegman Creek.  Participants will enjoy dinner in downtown Rockford along with live music and microbrews at Rockford Brewing Company. $1 of every pint sold that evening at Rockford Brewing will be donated to conservation and restoration efforts in the Rogue River watershed.

* Saturday, June 21: Water activities (stream insects, fish, birds) will take place at Camp Rockford and our open and free to the public.  Expedition participants will float down to the City of Rockford and enjoy lunch and a presentation by the Rockford Historical Society. A watershed booth will also be at the Farmers Market so stop by for some free stuff and watershed information.  Expedition participants will finish the last leg of the Rogue and have a wrap-up event and celebration at the park along the Grand River.

Join this journey and learn more about the Rogue River. Cost for the full trip is $75/person. For more information about the Rogue River Expedition and to sign-up please visit the website at www.swmtu.org/rogueriverexpedition.  Thank you to our major sponsors – the City of Rockford, the Rogue River Expedition Planning Committee, Schrems West Michigan Trout Unlimited, and Trout Unlimited.

 

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Birding Without Ears

By Ranger Steve Mueller

An American Woodcock flew over my head this spring and landed 100 feet away. It began its courtship buzz-like pneet. I cupped my hands around my ears to listen. Meanwhile behind me, I heard a distant cow from the Phelps farm. When I turned, I realized the sound was from a woodcock 50 feet away. Many birders would think that is ridiculous. How could one confuse a woodcock and a cow?

I saw nighthawks return earlier than normal in spring 1975. Experts wanted to know if I was confusing woodcocks and nighthawks. This sounds ridiculous unless one knows the two sound similar. My identification was visual and correct.

Tracking bird sounds has become more challenging. As my hearing declines, I still hear birds and look in their direction but have discovered the sound to be closer than I thought. I needed to recalibrate sound to distance measurements. It also became difficult to triangulate the bird’s location. It’s like vision with one eye and not having depth perception.

It has been frustrating but sound never made much sense for me. I have always depended on vision for identification. At best I consider myself 80 percent proficient with sound identification and that is not adequate for documenting species.

High school and church junior choir directors both asked me to mouth singing in concerts. I sat at the piano to match notes but could not. Both directors said I was tone deaf. To sing in the school choir a C average was required. I had a B on written work and D on vocal work. The C average allowed me in concerts but I was asked not to sing.

Breeding bird surveyors stop for three minutes, identify birds by song and move to another location. Its great for covering considerable territory in limited time. That is not where my abilities can contribute. It also is not how I enjoy birding. I prefer watching birds, their behavior, and associating them with habitats. I’m too antsy to sit in observation blinds like photographers or hunters. I miss details they observe.

I could learn more if I observed with the patience of a photographer in a blind. There is a place for different kinds of observers. I seldom bird watch with others so I have not improved auditory skills well. Many improve listening skills with bird tapes. I don’t. When listening to songs in nature, I often do not locate the bird and leave without associating song and bird.

I first discovered the wonder and beauty of bird song as a teenager. A particular bird species became a favorite when I heard it on an annual fishing trip with my brother. We camped, fished, and explored nature niches. It was ten years before I discovered it was a Veery making that most wonderful song. The bird remains a favorite.

Nature education has been by fumbling my way in wild places with limited direction or help. I must qualify that statement. I worked on a field biology degree in college where instructors honed my skills and provided direction. However it was personal time in the field developing skills that allowed me to become a knowledgeable naturalist. I never learned to make sense of sound and it remains a mystery. I love music and bird songs. Perhaps that is because it makes no sense. It is a wonderful mystery. Knowing the maker would be nice. It is great for those able to recognize bird songs.

Empathize with those of us with little sound intelligence or those that lost the physical ability to hear a broad range of sound. I retain sound range but must reduce the distance by 50% or more to hear what younger ears are catching. I seldom know the names of music groups or bird songsters but I love their music. I simply marvel and enjoy the music without understanding or knowing the maker. Having low sound intelligence does not equate with lack of appreciation. Others like me marvel at bird sound with pleasure but little understanding.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Safety first, for fun times on the water

Safe boating week

Did you know there were 22 fatalities in Michigan last year from boating accidents? It’s National Safe Boating Week in America, and the The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is on board with the theme of this year’s campaign: “Ready, Set, Wear It.”

“One of our biggest concerns is making sure people understand the importance of wearing PFDs (personal flotation devices),” said Lt. Andrew Turner, the DNR’s boating law administrator. “The Coast Guard estimates that 80 percent of boating fatalities could be prevented by wearing life jackets.”

Though all boaters are required to have PFDs on board for all boat passengers, generally only those younger than 6 years old are required to actually wear them. “In an emergency, people don’t have time to find them and get them on,” Turner said. “Today’s PFDs are not the old bulky orange vests that everybody remembers as a kid. Now they’re lighter and more comfortable. They’re designed to be worn all the time. There are inflatables available now that are very low-profile, comfortable and suitable for many activities.”

Many, but not all activities, Turner continued. Personal watercraft operators, or people being towed behind vessels, such are skiers, are required by state law to wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFD, but inflatables are not approved for those and some other uses.

Boating is getting safer in Michigan, Turner said. Last year there were 20 fatal accidents—resulting in 22 fatalities—down from 32 fatalities five years earlier.
“I think we can directly link that trend to boating safety training,” Turner said.
A state law, passed in 2012, requires that anyone born after July 1, 1996, is required to attend (and be certified in) safe boating training in order to operate a motorboat. The change in the law, which once required only those younger than 16 years of age to be safety-trained, means that over time everyone who operates a motorboat will have received the training.

“The leading age group for boating accidents is people in their 50s,” Turner said. “We wouldn’t think of letting someone drive a car without driver’s education, but many people simply don’t consider getting boater’s safety training before operating a vessel.”

Boating safety training is available from a number of sources, including the DNR. Training is also available through county sheriffs’ departments (82 of Michigan’s 83 counties offer the training through their marine programs), volunteer groups, and online. The online option makes it easy for anyone, Turner said.

“There are two great programs – boat-ed.com and boaterexam.com – that allow people to earn their safety certification completely online,” Turner said. “Students can print their certificates when they successfully complete the course. There is a fee, but most people don’t mind paying it because of the convenience.”

Turner said boaters should familiarize themselves with safety equipment and make sure they have it and it is in good working order. Boats with a permanently installed fuel tank or enclosed compartments are required to have a fire extinguisher on board, for instance. The DNR also recommends that boaters have a marine radio, or at least a cell phone, to use if their vessel becomes disabled or they otherwise need assistance.

Boating under the influence remains a big issue for Michigan as well as the rest of the country. “It’s a serious concern,” said Turner, noting that about 10 percent of boating accidents list alcohol as a contributing factor. “Just as it is with motor vehicles, it’s dangerous and unlawful to operate a vessel under the influence.”

Turner said boaters should also keep a sharp eye out, and be aware that there are increasingly more personal watercraft (PWC) out on the water. PWCs, which make up only about 8 percent of the registered boats in Michigan, are involved in roughly a third of boating accidents.

“PWCs are fast, very maneuverable and can turn on a dime,” Turner said. “The operational characteristics of PWCs vary a great deal from traditional vessels and this underscores the importance of training,” Turner said.

Michigan is about as big a boating state as there is, Turner said. “We’re second only to Florida in terms of the number of registered vessels. We have tremendous resources. We want people to enjoy those resources but we want them to do it safely.”

For more information on boating safety or to find out about boating safety classes, visit www.michigan.gov/boating.

 

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Vernal Ponds

 

Rich vital habitats known as vernal ponds, burst with music during spring in neighborhoods. Vernal ponds are temporary but contain water into summer. Most lose standing water during the summer months but might keep shallow pools. They are vital habitats for frogs and salamanders because their drying prevents fish survival.

Fish eat eggs and tadpoles in permanent water reducing amphibian survival. Ephemeral ponds contain water long enough for the tadpoles to transform to adult air breathing individuals. Once grown, they leave the pools and return to reproduce in subsequent springs.

In essence, life springs from temporary spring ponds. Frogs and salamanders move to woodland habitats and wild residential yards to feast on insects and worms. In summer, my daughter found daily roosts for Gray Tree Frogs in nooks at corners of the house siding. At night they come out to feed. American Toads dig holes in the garden under footpath stones or rocks for daytime hiding. At night they sits like a stone statues waiting for insects or worms.

The first songs of spring come from Wood Frogs that are an obligate vernal pond species. That means they cannot survive without temporary ponds. Their singing starts when some ice remains. Loud and abundant songs come from Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs during April and May. These tiny frogs have bodies the size of an adult’s thumbnail. When you walk by a pond, they quiet but if you stop and sit a few minutes the choral group resumes its serenade. First one brave individual starts and quickly others join.

Egg masses are laid and males fertilize them. Eggs develop in two to three weeks depending on temperature and tadpoles hatch. They breathe with gills while feeding on plant material. Tails absorb and disappear as legs grow. By the time the pond is drying, breathing transforms from external gills to internal lungs. They also breathe through a thin moist skin that must stay moist to function.

When the frogs leave the ponds to take up summer residence in forest and shrublands, they usually stay within 700 hundred feet of breeding pools. Having many small vernal ponds throughout the woodlands is important. Temporary ponds frequently get filled during construction of housing developments. If you are fortunate, you might have a vernal pond near you.

A neighbor advertised he wanted free clean fill for a vernal pond on his property. Contractors looking to dispose of material obliged and after several years filled this pond. The owner now has high dry ground posted for sale. It is temping to destroy nature niches to increase family income. I encourage people to value the lives and the benefits provided by wild neighbors by allowing their home to exist.

Allowing wild places in your yard is a way for nature to thrive among our growing human urban/suburban population land development. Nature’s life forms are a gift trying to share living space with us. We can be stewards of the natural world by allowing life’s places to abound.

Many wildlife species depend on amphibians. Even if you do not see frogs, they are important members of the food chain. I appreciate frogs for song, as agents of natural insect control, and appreciate they share our residence. Sparingly use fertilizers and pesticides. A well-manicured garden and lawn looks beautiful but usually spells death to most life. I prefer abundance of life instead of a picture perfect yard. Organizations schedule outings to Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary to experience life where over 100 bird species, 24 mammal species, 11 amphibians, and 51 butterfly species enrich our lives. We’ve documented about 250 plant species. A trout fisherman was hopeful at creek side recently.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.

 

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