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Archive | Outdoors

Let the snow and sawdust fly

By Nick Sanchez, CCF

Conservation District Forester for Kent, Montcalm & Ionia, Michigan Forestry Assistance Program

With sharpened saws, heavy boots, and hot coffee in tote, they’ll set out to cut down 30 million trees in the US this season. They’ll laugh, take selfies, and even jokingly yell out “timber.” For many families it’s time to select the perfect Christmas tree but the debate is still on—what’s greener, real or artificial? Michigan happens to be one of the top Christmas tree producing states in the US. Purchasing a real tree can help you support Michigan agriculture and local businesses. If you are concerned about the environmental impact of your Christmas tree selection and want to “keep it real,” encourage your local Christmas tree farmers to get MAEAP verified. The Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) is an innovative, proactive program that helps farms of all sizes and all commodities voluntarily prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks. Through this program, farmers and forest landowners can earn recognition as top stewards in the community, obtain regulatory assurances, gain increased access to cost share and technical assistance, and pass on an enduring sense of accomplishment and pride. Special incentives are also available to farm and forest landowners in Northern Kent County to help improve fish and wildlife habitat and prevent erosion through the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program. For more information contact the Kent Conservation District at 616.222.5846. Find us on facebook @KentCDGRMI

Mark your calendar to attend a free workshop on March 26th at the Community Cabin in Rockford from 6:30-8pm to learn more about invasive species that threaten your trees and financial incentives that can help you manage and enjoy your forest. 

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Kent County Christmas Bird Count

The Grand Rapids Audubon Club has maintained bird count records dating back to 1953. I began placing the data on an Excel spreadsheet in 1986 when I became count co- ordinator and added the historic data sometime during the 1990’s. That is 64 years of data tabulated. I use the data when summarizing the current year’s count by looking for interesting comparisons and include a couple notes for the published summary report.

It would be helpful for someone to proof the data entries and help get the tabulated data in order so it can be made available for distribution or printing. Let me know if you are interested in such a project. You can come to Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary and we can plan the project.

Join bird count participants at 7:30 a.m. on December 29, 2018 at Wittenbach/Wege Agriscience and Environmental Center (WWC), 11715 Vergennes Rd. in Lowell, Michigan 49331. Field teams are organized and depart by 8:00 a.m. They return around noon for lunch. Joan Heuvelhorst will prepare a lunch. Lunch cost is $5.00 or you can bring yourown. At 5 PM, section ndings are collected. Participatepart or all day. Participation is free with donations sent to support the National Audubon Program.

This citizen science project is great for introducing fami- lies to bird discovery and is fun data collection. It is a way for families to do meaningful things together outdoors with help from experienced birders.

Have a great time enjoying birds, birders, and gathering data useful for tracking bird locations and species abun- dance. Individual teams see about 25 to 30 species and when all teams’ data are compiled, we total around 55 to 60 species sighted.

I hope you are enjoying your domestic Thanksgiving tur- key dinner today. Wild Turkeys were mostly killed by over hunting and disappeared completely from Michigan and from most of North America. There were about ten million in the North American in the early 1800’s. By the early 1900’s they had been killed to near extinction. Only about 2 percent survived in widely scattered areas and were unable to rebuild their population.

People became aware of the disappearance and tried to remedy the problem. Hunting regulations were enacted but failed attempts to capture wild turkeys for reintroduction to suitable habitat nature niches were problematic. By the 1950’s an effective method for capturing turkeys was de- veloped using a cannon net.

In the 1980’s I participated with the Michigan DNR in a release of wild turkeys in the Rogue River State Game Area. Later a DNR wildlife biologist called me to learn if I could provide information about the success of reintroduc- tion from the small number released.

By serendipity, the night before I saw 97 turkeys cross the road in front of my vehicle as I went home from the Howard Christensen Nature Center where I was director. Ten years ago, at Ody Brook on Thanksgiving when our relatives were gathered and eating domestic turkey, 21 wild turkeys paraded through the front yard.

Species are declining for a variety of reasons while many politicians work to weaken or dismantle the Endangered Species Act. Vigilance is needed to protect species and nat- ural resources for our present and future wellbeing.

For more information about the bird count and citizen science, direct inquiries to count coordinators:

Tom Leggett: (616) 249-3382 E-mail; tomleggett@hot- mail.com or

Ranger Steve(Mueller) odybrook@chartermi.net 616- 696-1753.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be di- rected 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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DNR investigating elk poaching incident

Michigan conservation of cers in the northern LowerPeninsula are investigating the illegal killing of two bull elk, north of Atlanta.

The carcasses of the two animals were discovered Saturday off Montmorency County Road 622, near Roth Road. The location is about 7 miles north of Atlanta, just south of Clear Lake State Park.

“Both elk were shot, likely sometime around Nov. 15,” said Lt. James Gorno, a district law supervisor with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in Gaylord. “If anyone saw anything or has any information that would as- sist with the investigation, we’d like to hear from them.”

Tips may be left anonymously, and monetary rewards of- ten are offered for information that leads to the arrest of violators.

To contact investigators, please call the DNR Law En- forcement Division at the Gaylord Operations Center at 989-732-3541 or call or text the 24-hour Report All Poaching line at 800-292-7800.

Michigan conservation of cers are fully commissioned state peace of cers who provide natural resources protec- tion, ensure recreational safety and protect citizens by pro- viding general law enforcement duties and lifesaving oper- ations in the communities they serve.

Learn more about Michigan conservation of cers at michigan.gov/conservationof cers.

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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche Different Kinds of Birding

By Ranger Steve

Are you a window watcher? That means most of your bird watching is done through a window. Much of my birding is casual with glances out the window. I used to leave for work before sun up and arrive home after dark. I still fed the birds all winter for their benefit even though I was not present to enjoy them. 

On occasion, a friend and I travel to interesting locations in West Michigan to see birds that are not found in our yards. Lake Michigan shoreline is a great place to see winter waterfowl. Binoculars are needed. A closer view in the open water where rivers like the Grand and Muskegon empty into the big lake provide good views. 

During the winter, my friend and I pick a January or February weekend when we can make a trip to the Upper Peninsula to enjoy the snowy scenic beauty and birds that do not come this far south in winter. The Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Northern Hawk Owl, and Sharp-tailed Grouse require us to visit their winter range to see them. This is referred to as “target birding” where people go somewhere to see a specific species. 

Birds end up in places where they are not expected. Some have been seen only a few times in our region. Why they are there is a mystery. Perhaps their navigation system has been confused. Their survival can be precarious. We observed a Rufous Hummingbird visiting a sugar water feeder the last week of December one year. The home owner saw a hummingbird and promptly put out a feeder to help it survive. It stayed for a couple weeks before disappearing. It was never known if it made the trip south or died in the stark cold winter weather. The Rufous Hummingbird is a western species that winters in the extreme southeastern states or farther south. 

I find exploring bird nature niches an exciting and rewarding endeavor that can shed new information for understanding bird behavior, ecological adaptations, and normal daily habits. Forging my way into difficult areas people tend to avoid is fun and challenging but reveals things not generally observed. 

The American Woodcock has a wonderful ground dance followed by an aerial spiral flight, plunges toward the earth, levels before crashing and resumes the ground foot stomping and spinning display at dawn and dusk. This can be observed during the late March and April breeding season at Luton Park and many area locations. We manage habitat for the bird at Ody Brook and always enjoy its performance. I occasionally keep records of the vocal calls called peents during the ground dance between aerial flights. They vary from a few to more than fifty. Peents increase in number as dark settles in. I note where they land and what they do on the ground. 

A different kind of birding is to discover woodcock activity before their breeding displays begin. I have tried to determine how early they arrive north. In late February and early March, I have forced my way through thick swamp shrubbery in hopes of flushing one when thick snow still covers the landscape. Trudging in such habitat is not easy and I have never encountered another person on such adventures. To my joy, I have come upon a woodcock feeding along a tiny rivulet of open water where it can probe its long bill in to mud in one of the few places where food can be found at that time of year. My observations indicate the species returns earlier than most people expect but they remain hidden and focus on feeding and shelter until breeding time. 

Another different kind of birding is documenting where nests are constructed, how many eggs are typically laid, the height of nests, plant species used for nest placement, and behavioral interactions with their own species and others. I waded in a marsh from nest to nest during a Red-winged Blackbird nesting season. Attached is an abbreviated table of observations from that venture into the wild wet world of blackbird nesting territory. Some data fields were deleted for space limitations and to prevent losing your interest with too much information. I keep bird nest records annually as shown in the accompanying sample table. That year I had records for 65 nests. This year, I have records for 49 nests. 

A different kind of birding is the life blood for sustaining a naturalist. I also keep records for plants, insects, weather, and more so we can best manage Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary to “Enhance Biodiversity.”

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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Hunters reminded of “Do Not Eat” deer advisory

For five miles around Clark’s Marsh, Oscoda Township

LANSING, Mich. – With firearm hunting season kicking off on Nov. 15, the Michigan departments of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and Natural Resources (DNR) are reminding hunters of the “Do Not Eat” advisory for deer taken within approximately five miles of Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda Township. The advisory is due to high levels of PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid) found in a single deer taken about two miles from Clark’s Marsh, which borders the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB). PFOS is one type of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemical.

The State of Michigan took samples from 128 deer across Michigan to test for PFAS. One of those deer, taken near Clark’s Marsh, came back with elevated levels of PFOS, which resulted in the “Do Not Eat” deer advisory. The advisory encircles the five-mile radius around the Wurtsmith base property and covers what the DNR has estimated to be the expected travel range of deer living in or near the Marsh. The area covered by the deer consumption advisory issued can be described as:

From Lake Huron west along Aster Street, west on Davison Road, north on Brooks Road, east on Esmond Road, north on Old US 23, north on Wells Road, west on River Road, north on Federal Forest Road 2240, north on Lenard Road, north on Indian Road, and East on E. Kings Corner Road (along the county line) toward Lake to Lake Road, to Lake Huron (map attached).

Michigan residents should not eat any deer that came from within five miles of Clark’s Marsh. In addition to the Clark’s Marsh deer advisory, MDHHS continues to recommend not eating kidneys or liver from any deer because many chemicals including PFAS can accumulate in their organs. The advisory does not apply to cattle, chickens, or other livestock raised in the area. It is not expected livestock are drinking water from Clark’s Marsh.

While PFAS testing is not possible locally, the State of Michigan did confirm three labs that will analyze PFAS samples from deer tissue at the individual’s expense. The State does not endorse or recommend any lab. Contact the following labs for information on the cost and how to send deer tissue: 

• Vista Analytical Laboratory, 916-673-1520, www.vista-analytical.com 

• Battelle, 781-681-5565, www.battelle.org 

• GEL Laboratories, LLC, 843-556-8171, www.gel.com

On Oct. 19, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued the U.S. Air Force with a violation notice for PFAS contamination in the waters of Clark’s Marsh near Oscoda, the second violation notice issued to the U.S. Air Force this year for this site.

The DEQ has found the Air Force to be in violation of Part 31 under the water resources protection section of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. Under the violation notice, the DEQ is requiring the Air Force to increase pumping and treatment of contaminated groundwater at the base and to increase the size of the capture zone of the PFAS plume coming from the WAFB. In January, the DEQ issued the Air Force with a violation notice for failing to meet a 2017 deadline to start-up a second granular activated carbon filtration system at the WAFB to address discharges of PFAS-containing groundwater to the Au Sable River and Van Etten Creek.

PFAS are chemicals that are in Class B fire-fighting foam that was used at the Air Force base near Wurtsmith and other sites in Michigan. These chemicals are also found in stain and water repellants, personal care products, and many other consumer goods. Some health studies have linked PFAS to health issues such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels, impaired immune system function, reproductive issues, high blood pressure in pregnant women, and increased chance of kidney and testicular cancers.

A deer that has been exposed to PFAS may not show any signs or symptoms of being sick. If you see a deer that appears to be sick, contact the DNR hotline at 800-292-7800. If you have health related questions contact MDHHS at 1-800-648-6942.

In Michigan, to date, only fish and deer have been sampled for PFAS. The State of Michigan is creating a plan to sample more deer for PFAS, as well as further exploring contamination in other wildlife such as turkey and waterfowl.

For more information about PFAS in wild game and fish, visit Michigan.gov/pfasresponse and go to the Fish and Wildlife button. For more information about wild game consumption, visit Michigan.gov/eatsafegame and go to the Eat Safe Wild Game button.

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Showcasing the DNR: Saving Michigan’s bats

Red bats are one of the nine species of bats found in Michigan. Photo by Michigan DNR.

By Hannah Schauer, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

 

Maybe you’ve noticed fewer bats active during those warm, buggy summer evenings and wondered why?

This situation is not unique to Michigan. In fact, many places throughout North America have seen declines in bat numbers.

The reason for the reduction in numbers for many species of bats is a fungus named Pseudogymnoascus destructans—responsible for a disease called white-nose syndrome that is killing bats in parts of America and Canada.

Many insect-eating bats survive winter by going into hibernation, during which they lower their body temperature and fat deposits accumulated during autumn months are used to sustain them.  

Places where bats hibernate, such as caves or underground mines (known as hibernacula), are ideal environments for this fungus, as it thrives in cold, damp conditions.

The fungus disrupts hibernation, causing bats to prematurely and repeatedly awaken, quickly depleting their fat reserves and diminishing their body condition.

“Bats weakened by the loss of fat reserves are unable to replenish themselves due to lack of insects to eat in winter and die before spring,” said Dan O’Brien, veterinarian at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Disease Laboratory. “Infected bats often exhibit abnormal behavior such as flying during daylight hours or gathering outside of caves in cold weather.” 

The disease is called white-nose syndrome because of a white powdery appearance on exposed skin, like the muzzle and wings, of affected bats.

White-nose syndrome was first documented during the winter of 2006-2007 in New York. It was confirmed in Michigan in early 2014.

Transmission of the fungus associated with white-nose syndrome primarily occurs through bat-to-bat contact but can also be transmitted by humans visiting infected caves and mines without decontaminating their shoes and equipment.

While there is no evidence that white-nose syndrome is infectious to humans, the loss of large numbers of bats may have an indirect impact on people.

Bats are a primary predator of nighttime insects and large-scale losses of bats may lead to an increase in insect populations, some of which cause crop damage or spread diseases. 

Efforts to help Michigan’s bats

“The DNR has been on the leading edge of bat conservation and research for a long time,” Bill Scullon, DNR Wildlife Division field operations supervisor, said. “Working with partners and researchers is as critical as ever in the battle to save our bat species from white-nose syndrome.”

One such effort is the gating of entrances to important bat hibernacula to minimize human disturbance to hibernating bats. Custom steel structures are designed and put up to ensure public safety while allowing the bats to come and go freely from the hibernacula. 

“These gates have been built on both public and private lands,” said DNR wildlife biologist John DePue. “Some of these gated sites house large populations of bats in the winter and are important locations to protect.”

Michigan is also one of the few states that participates in field trials of potential treatments to combat white-nose syndrome.

Researchers and students from Western Michigan and Ball State universities, working with the DNR, have been applying an organic compound—derived  from shellfish, called chitosan—to bats and the inside of hibernacula. This chitosan compound appears to help bats combat the effects of white-nose syndrome.

Additionally, in some of Michigan’s hibernacula, University of California, Santa Cruz researchers have been treating sites with chlorine dioxide. Treatment is applied to the site when bats are not present to reduce the number of spores that cause white-nose syndrome.

“Chlorine dioxide is used to kill all the fungal spores throughout a mine during the summer, before bats return for the winter,” said DePue. “This will disinfect the site and reduce infection rates and mortality rates.”

DNR staffers, along with researchers from Eastern Michigan University, also conduct annual bat monitoring. Hibernation sites are visited during the winter to learn about places where bats are experiencing higher survival rates, and to monitor population trends.  

Status of bats in Michigan

Nine species of bats are found in Michigan. Little brown and big brown bats are the species most often seen by people. Silver-haired, red and hoary bats are also found in Michigan. 

The tri-colored bat (or eastern pipistrelle) is a species of special concern in Michigan and the evening bat is listed as a threatened species. 

Indiana bats have been under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act since 1967. The northern long-eared bat was added to the List of Threatened and Endangered Species as a threatened species in recent years.

“Due to the severity of the decline in population from white-nose syndrome, the northern long-eared bat was listed as a threatened species by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April of 2015,” said Dan Kennedy, DNR endangered species coordinator. 

Allen Kurta, a professor of biology at Eastern Michigan University, said recent surveys of hibernacula in Michigan indicate an 83-percent decline in bats at those survey sites, compared to data from surveys conducted before white-nose syndrome’s arrival.

“The data indicate a 77-percent decline in little brown bats, a 93-percent fall in eastern pipistrelles, and a 96-percent decrease in northern long-eared bats,” Kurta said. “It is getting very difficult to find a northern long-eared bat anywhere in the state.”

Although these numbers are dire, not all bats seem to be as heavily impacted by white-nose syndrome.  

In addition to caves and mines, some bats may use man-made structures, like buildings, as hibernacula. These places may not provide appropriate conditions for the growth of the white-nose syndrome fungus, allowing for higher bat survival rates.

“Big brown bats and silver-haired bats do not seem to be experiencing major declines,” Kurta said.

For now, we will continue to see fewer bats dotting the night’s sky in Michigan, but the DNR and its partners are working hard to ensure those numbers increase and that bats will not be eliminated from the landscape.

How to help bats

Installing bat houses can be helpful for bats. Various factors are important when putting up a bat house, including location, color and height. Bat houses should not be in areas frequented by people or domestic animals. To learn tips and tricks for bat houses, check out Bat Conservation International’s website, batcon.org, filled with bat house resources.

Maintaining bat habitat is another way to help bats. Some bats like to roost in trees that have loose bark. Maintaining these types of trees can provide additional roosting locations. Many bats prefer forested areas near a water source, as these places are often abundant with insects.

Those exploring caves or mines should be sure to abide by closures and follow decontamination guidelines (see whitenosesyndrome.org) to reduce the spread of white-nose syndrome. Avoid visiting these locations during the winter months when bats may be hibernating.

Other ways to help bats:

Minimize the use of insecticides as these can impact a variety of animal species, including bats.

Do not attempt to help injured bats. Because of concerns for disease transmission, rehabilitation of bats is illegal in Michigan. 

Donate to the DNR’s Nongame Fish and Wildlife Fund and talk to others about how to help bats.

Learn more about Michigan’s bats by visiting michigan.gov/bats.

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Zygodactyl

 

Downy woodpecker using its specially adapted feet to hang onto the tree, even upside-down. Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant William Osterloh.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flickers are common woodpeckers present at Ody Brook and in many wooded neighborhoods throughout the area. Some are seen more frequently than others.

Downies are seen daily when visiting suet and black oil sunflower seed feeders. The males have a red spot on the back of the head, females do not, and young males have red on top of the head. Watching for color and feather patterns from the comfort of your home is easy. I combine watching with breakfast and lunch. 

Feeder watching is a casual activity. On the windowsill is a pair of binoculars within reach so I can quick get a better view. Some details are difficult to observe without aid. The white spots on black wings of the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers helps narrow identification quickly to those two species. Body size and bill length further help distinguish the two that have nearly identical patterns. 

Somewhat hidden is black flecking on the underside of white tail feathers of Downies. The under tail feathers are pure white on the Hairy. From a top view, the tail is black on both species except for white outer tail feathers that might show black spotting on Downies but it is sometimes obscure. Binoculars help get a look at the under tail. The black flecks are a definitive identification feature. The birds are not always cooperative in how they stand on the feeders for me get the view I desire. 

Other features helpful for separating the two species is their bill and body lengths. Downies are smaller and shorter than the Hairy. Bills on Downies are less than half the length of the head. The Hairy Woodpecker bill is large and greater than half the length of the head. This feature can be difficult to assess so using the black or lack of black spotting on the under tail is more reliable. 

The Red-bellied Woodpeckers have white markings on a dark back but theirs appear more like white irregular lines running crosswise. These birds are much larger than the Downy or Hairy. Some people confuse them with Red-headed Woodpeckers that have completely redheads while the Red-bellies only have red on the back of the head in females and on the top and back of the head on males. When they fly, a muted white can be seen on the rump. 

A more obvious white rump is distinctive on the Northern Flicker. Flickers in our region are the yellow-shafted subspecies that display flashes of yellow on wing feather shafts in flight. If large trees compliment the neighborhood, you might get to enjoy the crow sized Pileated Woodpecker. It is mostly black but flashes white in flight and it stands on the sides of trees. Crows need branches for standing.

A zygodactyl toe helps all woodpeckers stand on the side of trees. It is an important nature niche adaptation. Nearly all bird species have three toes facing forward and one backwards. Woodpeckers also have three toes pointing forward but one of those is flexible enough to rotate so it can be pointed backwards. 

When toes are positioned with two forward and two backwards, it provides a better anchor for gripping the tree trunk when the birds bang their beaks against the bark. The flexible zygodactyl toe is a significant adaptation aiding woodpecker survival. 

The exceptional toe is not unique to woodpeckers. Owls have one that helps them with the capture and holding of prey. Parrots share this unique feature but we will not see those birds in this cold climate. 

Seeing the toe adaptation in action is difficult but a pair of close focusing binoculars will make it easier to observe when birds perch on the side of trees or at feeders near the window. Something special is always waiting to be discovered in the yard by those observing the wondrous creatures that abound. 

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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DNR game camera records cougar in Gogebic County

This mountain lion was caught on a Michigan Department of Natural Resources game camera Oct. 1 in Gogebic County. Photo by Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

A game camera set up as part of an ongoing state deer movement study has captured images of a cougar in the Upper Peninsula’s Gogebic County, about 9 miles north of Ironwood.

The images were reviewed and verified by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources cougar team.

Since 2008, the DNR has confirmed 38 cougar reports, with all but one of those occurring in the Upper Peninsula. These reports include multiple sightings of the same cougar, not 38 individual animals.

So far, there remains no conclusive evidence of a Michigan breeding population of mountain lions. Cougars are an endangered species in Michigan protected by law.

“This latest confirmed report illustrates just how rare cougars are in the Upper Peninsula,” said Brian Roell, a DNR wildlife biologist in Marquette. “This is the first time we’ve ever caught a cougar on more than three million game camera images we’ve collected in our studies since 2009.”

DNR researchers use game cameras in their Quantifying Upper Peninsula Deer Movements and Abundance, predator-prey and bear studies. The deer movement study alone uses 50 game cameras in the western U.P., including the one in Ironwood Township that caught the images of the cougar at 7:15 p.m. on Oct. 1.

A graph shows the number of confirmed Michigan cougar reports in recent years.

The three daylight photos on the game camera show the mountain lion walking past, from right to left. Biologists noted there was no tracking collar on the cougar. No identification of whether the animal was a male or female was possible.

Michigan cougar confirmations have been derived from trail camera video, photographs, tracks, scat, or in the case of two male cats poached, carcasses.

Previous genetic testing on tissue samples from those two cougars poached in the U.P. showed the two animals likely came from a population found generally in South Dakota, Wyoming and northwest Nebraska.

“This genetic research lines up with what we’ve presumed previously, that cougars found in the Upper Peninsula are males dispersing from this population east of the Rocky Mountains,” said Kevin Swanson, a DNR wildlife management specialist with the department’s Bear and Wolf Program. “These males dispersed from the main population are looking to establish new territories.”

Researchers investigated the potential population of origin for the two cougars using a database that includes samples from cougar populations in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Oregon and Florida.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cougars were once the most widely distributed land animal in the Western Hemisphere but have been eliminated from about two-thirds of their historic range.

At one time, cougars lived in every eastern state in a variety of habitats, including coastal marshes, mountains and forests. They were native to Michigan, but were trapped and hunted from the state around the turn of the 20th century.

To learn more about cougars in Michigan, visit michigan.gov/cougars.

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Hidden towhee beauty

 

Eastern towhee. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Two male Eastern Towhees stopped by for a visit at Ody Brook. We offer special treats but that is not why they come. They do not make secretive stops to play tricks on us either—well, maybe one that I will discuss in the conclusion. Perhaps they simply discovered other bird species and too many squirrels find the yard inviting. Now with trick or treat over, I can contemplate a nature niche reason they visit on their journey south. 

Some will rarely be found in the region during the winter months. It can be hazardous for males that stay here where winters are more moderate than farther north. There are benefits and hazards. As much as we would like to think they could predict the severity of winter, they are not fortune tellers and cannot. If severe winter conditions occur, their survival is challenged. An advantage of staying farther north than those wintering to the south is it provides a head start in spring for securing the best breeding sites before rivals arrive. 

Those leaving our area to claim choice breeding habitat farther north arrive earlier than males that departed from farther south. Once a male claims a territory, it is likely it will be able protect it from intruding males that arrive later. From secluded and even exposed tree branches during breeding season, it will sing a phrase referred to as “drink your teeeeeee.” The phrase is frequently repeated so we can follow the sound to discover the bird’s stunning beauty. Rarely do they make themselves obvious in the yard like robins.

Wintering farther south where snow does not persist on the ground enhances winter survival. A primary feeding strategy is to scratch through fallen leaves and they particularly like to hunt under shrubs and branches that conceal them. They prefer the seclusion of evergreen trees and shrub thickets. 

We get to observe their amazing beauty when they show themselves. We planted a balsam fir when the girls were young. The tree is about their age and now stands 30 feet tall. The girls did not keep pace with tree growth and we are pleased. It is difficult enough to raise children without having to deal with giants. The purpose for planting the evergreen tree was to provide a location where birds can hide when coming for a feeder meal. 

The towhees are appreciative and spend time when traveling to stop in or under that tree. They scratch through the deciduous leaves blown under the fir to look for choice food. Sometimes one will be seen under the bird feeder throwing seeds in every direction while looking for tasty morsels other birds ignore.

I watched one preen on a fir tree branch and ready itself for the continued journey south. It used its beak to clean and straighten feathers. It wears a sleek black hood that trails black on the back all the way to the tip of its tail. Under its chin, the black hood extends midway on the chest and stops abruptly at a clear line where white contrasting feathers grow. The belly is white with robin orange feathers that cover its sides and somewhat obscure the white underside. One could mistake a towhee for an American Robin at a glance. Robins are gray on top instead brilliant black and their orange covers the entire belly. 

The towhees have white markings accenting its black back and white on tail feathers that can be seen when the bird spreads its feathers or most easily when it flies. You might rarely have the opportunity to see one during winter. If evergreens are part of the landscape, viewing chances are improved when leaves are allowed to remain under them so don’t over rake. Even better are thickets of shrubs where they hide among clustered branches during the winter. Wet lowlands are often wild, not mowed or cleared so towhees find them good dinning accommodations. Allow unmanicured areas to establish in the yard and more wildlife will treat your eyes during the trick or treat season and throughout the growing season. Landscape to support bird biodiversity. 

In old bird guides, the bird was listed as Rufous-sided Towhee. It was discovered that instead of being one species, the bird played a trick on us and hid two species with nearly identical appearances. The towhees have now been separated into two species. The different western birds are named Spotted Towhees. Plan a trip west next summer to enjoy the similar species that has more white spotting on its back than the Eastern Towhee. 

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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Palmate, Pinnate, Toothed, Entire

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Look at your palm to notice your hand bones radiate from one basal area at your wrist outward to finger tips. Spread your fingers to make it more obvious. This pattern is called palmate. Think of the ribs branching from your spine and how they wrap around your chest in vertical rows. This pattern is like leaflets branching outward from a central shaft called the rachis on plants with compound leaves like roses, walnut trees, or sumac shrubs. 

Palmate, pinnate, toothed, entire, simple, and compound are few easy leaf characteristics to use to identify trees, shrubs, and other plants. Now is great time pick up leaves from the ground to enjoy the beauty of colors and to notice a variety of characteristics. Maybe you will want to pile leaves while raking, bury the kids, or even flop into the pile yourself. Take time to have fun with family and do things the kids or grandkids might not expect.

Imagine their surprise if grandpa gets into a pile of leaves with the kids. It will probably be even more surprising to grandpa’s kids than to the grandkids. When in the pile, have each family member pick a leaf and see how many colors can be found. Don’t miss the shades of tan, brown, yellow in addition to red, orange, green, and even black. 

If you are raking maples, the leaf veins will be palmate like the bones in your hand. Apple leaf veins will be pinnate and branch from a straight midrib that runs up the center of the leaf. On the abundant dogwood shrubs or dogwood trees, pinnate veins will branch from the central midrib, but veins curve toward the leaf tip. It is best to look at the underside of leaves where veins are more evident.

Beginning with a few leaf characteristics will make it easier to distinguish different plants. It is not even necessary to learn the names of the various plants. Simply enjoy different patterns and recognize how to separate them. 

Leaves might have teeth along the edge of the leaf blade. Teeth are sharp pointed projections along the edge. Some teeth are straight but cherries have curved teeth. There are plants with doubly serrate teeth. They are alternating teeth with one being large followed by a smaller one in a repeating pattern. The leaf blade might have a smooth untoothed edge from its base to the tip and is referred to as having an entire edge. 

Fallen leaves can be a bit tricky. Those with compound leaves tend to fall in pieces. Look at plants that have not dropped their leaves. The sumac shrubs still retain bright red compound leaves making them easy to find even when they are on the ground. To recognize if a leaf is compound, one needs to locate the leaf bud at the base of the leaf. Leaflets do not have a bud at the base of the leaflet.

On the sumac or walnut, there is a main leaf shaft called the rachis with pinnate leaflets branching from it. Look closely to notice there are no buds at the base of the leaflets. One needs to follow farther back to discover the bud at the base of the compound leaf where it attaches to the shrub branch. 

Bitternut hickory trees have compound leaves with fewer pinnate leaflets branching from their rachis than the sumac shrubs or walnut trees. The hickory drops leaflets individually while the walnut drops the leaf as a whole unit. Bitternut leaves become yellow while walnuts leaves fall green. 

The difference between simple and compound leaves is based on whether there is a bud at the base of the single leaf blade or whether the bud is at the base of a leaf having many leaflets. Spend time enjoying leaf characteristics in nature niches this fall and help family members experience the variety growing around the yard. 

Make raking leaves more than work. Make it an adventure into the mysteries of the living space you share with plants. There is more to enjoy in fall than the color change. 

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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