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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Minks, otters, skunks, weasels, fishers, and martens

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

It is a favorite to watch mink and otters in what appears to be fun-filled lives. Like all animals, they need to meet the needs of finding food, water, shelter, and living space. The more time we spend outdoors in wild places, the better the opportunity to encounter these sleek active animals. Mink seldom stray far from streams or lake edges. They use other animal burrows or hollow logs for dens. 

Mink are generally secretive and stay out of view among dense wetland vegetation near water’s edge. I observed one investigating a shoreline in search of food. It was looking for aquatic life. They are in the Mustelidae weasel family that includes otters, weasels, skunks, fishers, and pine martins. They are predators that feed almost entirely on animal matter. 

The mink diet is varied. Bird eggs, frogs, and fish are frequent food. They capture live animals such as birds, chipmunks, mice, amphibians, snakes, worms, crayfish, and insects. Larger prey like ducks, squirrels, and rabbits are a jackpot feast. They will take leftovers to their den for later eating.  

The mink searching the shoreline approached a Common Loon sitting on her nest. We wondered if it would kill the loon or if the loon would successfully protect its nest. Mink kill prey by biting it behind the head on the neck. Before the mink got close enough to find the loon nest, it diverted into the forest. We did not see the drama play out as life or death for the loon family. Though it would have been interesting, I was happy for the loon.

American river otters. 
Photo by Dmitry Azovtsev. http://www.daphoto.info

Otters are more elusive and when seen, they are usually swimming in rivers. Their muscular tail is used as a rudder. Large feet with webbing between toes provide strong swimming paddles that propel them well when pursing prey. Like all carnivores, they have canine teeth used for capturing and tearing prey. 

A family of three half grown otters were jostling in field near a wetland. They were having great fun and were oblivious to surrounding activity. When one saw me, it ended their jovial fun and they ran for cover. The open area was harvested for timber and tree top branches were piled. The otters ran for cover in the brush pile. 

I approached and saw them peering at me with wide eyes. My presence made them nervous and they contemplated what they should do. Two stayed in the brush pile but the third felt it needed to escape. It left the pile and ran across the logged clearing for more secure safety. Had I been wolf, coyote, or bobcat that might have spelled death for the young otter. This time the otter escaped with only fear and no injury or death. 

Encounters with mink, otters, and weasels have been infrequent. Skunks make their presence known by the odor that follows them. Even without spraying, the scent lingers in areas they traverse. They are predators with a diet heavily weighted toward insects. Amazingly, they dig up yellow jacket nests at night to feed heavily on pupae. It seems they would be stung to death but apparently not. 

Two members of the weasel family rarely encountered are the American pine marten and fisher. Both inhabit areas with more wilderness character where they depend on extensive forest. I have seen each species once in the wild. 

Though the marten is a predator, it also feeds on nuts, berries, and fruit to meet its metabolic needs. It is known primarily for capturing squirrels and chipmunks but its diet is broader to include mice, voles, insects, and fish. The one I saw ran across a trail I was hiking in the backcountry at Seney National Wildlife Refuge. 

My encounter with a fisher was in northern Minnesota when it ran across the road at dawn. My personal experience about its nature niche is basically nonexistent. I need to spend more time exploring outdoors.

Weasel family members have their own predators like owls, hawks, bobcats, wolves, coyotes, and even snakes.

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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Befriending the harvester

By Ranger Steve

Meeting a harvester on daily walks allows my friendship to strengthen with it. He works daily along my travel route and sometimes meets other harvesters. His encounter with them is not always agreeable. His focus is on meeting the girl of his dreams. If another harvester arrived, he’d determine if it was a rival or a potential mate.

My friend aggressively flies from his perch on a gray dogwood leaf to drive another male from his territory. The two males tumble through the air in sunlight and shade until one leaves. The established territory gives the advantage to the resident male. The traveling male departs to a nearby forest opening.

If the visitor is a female, the two also tumble around each other and disappear to a secluded area to mate. I witnessed a mated pair once this summer but only after they had already joined in copula. 

The two butterflies look similar but the female has an abdomen swollen with eggs. The two join abdomen ends and face opposite directions on a leaf. One can observe the male pumping his abdomen to deliver a spermatophore packet to the female. The packet contains both sperm and protein nutrients for her eggs.

The spermatophore is about 10 percent of the male’s weight and is energetically expensive for him to produce. Female butterfly species can determine the quality of male spermatophores by various means and that determines mating receptivity. How female harvesters determine male sperm packet quality is still unknown.

The spermatophore has a hard-outer covering that encloses sperm and proteins. Once delivered to the female, sperm exit and enter a storage pouch. Harvester eggs are laid individually among a colony of wooly aphids the butterfly finds on various plant species. The egg hatches and begins feeding on the aphids. The wooly aphids cover their bodies with a waxy covering that the caterpillar also uses to cover and conceal its body.

Ants protect the aphids that secrete a sugar solution food supply. They do not notice the caterpillar predator eating their food source. The Harvester quickly matures among the aphids. Unlike most butterflies that have five larval caterpillar stages called instars, the Harvester has four. Its “meaty” diet allows it to mature to the pupa stage quickly. 

After the sperms leave, the remaining proteins in the spermatophore are absorbed by the female and help her produce healthy robust nutrient filled eggs. As each egg passes through the reproductive tract for laying among aphids, a sperm fertilizes the egg by entering through a tiny opening in the eggshell called the micropyle. Adequate sperm is stored in the sperm pocket to fertilize the many eggs the female produces. 

On my daily walks through an area I call “Woodcock Circle,” I look for harvesters. Usually I see one but sometimes three. One day I saw three and proceeded to a trail called Julianne’s Wildflower Trail where I saw two more harvesters. How many harvesters live in the neighborhood is not known. I sometimes see a harvester along the forest edge in corners of the big field. Rich wild habitat is maintained for the harvesters.

This species is generally considered uncommon but is probably more common than we expect. Their nature niche is tied to various plant species that are fed on by wooly aphids that in turn are protected by ants. Hidden among the mass of aphids there is likely a Harvester caterpillar eating its fill. This butterfly species is the only predatory butterfly in the United States. All other butterfly caterpillars feed on plants.

It has an interesting and unique life cycle. For me, I enjoy the daily friendship encounter that is one sided. Though I like to think we are friends, it considers me an unknown passerby as it goes about its business. To support its preferred lifestyle and habitat, I maintain the forest clearing called “Woodcock Circle” where it resides. It might not know it, but we are friends because I maintain habitat for it.

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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Endangered Species

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The Endangered Species Act is one of our greatest conservation success stories. 

League of Conservation Voters, The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), National Audubon, and other organizations have been providing information about the Trump administration’s effort to dramatically weaken the Endangered Species Act. 

He is working to undermine biodiversity protections for a healthy future that support us, the environment and our livelihoods. This is a devastating blow for wildlife and the natural heritage we inherited. Rebecca Riley, Legal Director of NRDC’s Nature Program, says Trump’s move is unprecedented and no administration has ever attacked wildlife this aggressively. She attests that the Endangered Species Act is our nation’s most important law for protecting biodiversity. For over 46 years, it has been responsible for saving 99 percent of the species it protects from extinction.

Joseph Wood Krutch wrote in 1957, “The world grows more crowded year by year and at an ever-increasing rate. Men push farther and farther in their search for ‘resources’ to be exploited, even for more space to occupy. Increasingly they think of the terrestrial globe as their earth. They never doubt their right to deal with it as they think fit-and what they think fit usually involves the destruction of what nature has thought fit during many millions of years.” 

He continued, “What men and what needs? How natural should a natural area be kept? How much should it be ‘developed’ when every development or improvement makes it just that much less natural and unspoiled.”

His writing preceded the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

Riley from the NRDC stated she has never witnessed such an aggressive effort to weaken this vital law. She comments the Trump rollbacks will devastate vulnerable and iconic creatures that don’t have a voice to fight back. The NRDC and other organizations plan to go to court to block the attack on endangered species. The time to act is now: with 1 million species facing extinction, the Endangered Species Act is more important than ever. Contact Congressional Representatives and Senators with your opinions.

NRDC and other conservation organizations work to stay politically neutral. Environmental protection for human welfare and for a sustainable environment was bipartisan but has become politicized. Parties worked together to create the Endangered Species, Wilderness, Clean Air and Water Acts in the 1960’s. The Trump administration is working to undermine the protections of the Acts and he has the support of many.  

Science is being dismissed by this administration and his supporters. Laws to protect streams, soil, air and wilderness are bypassed by Administrative order. People with anti-environment protection agendas have been appointed to head environmental protection. It is important citizens contact Congressional representatives to voice their views. 

It grieves my soul that a sustainable future for us and future generations is being sacrificed for resource exploitation. We talk about the “balance of nature” but we do not understand the intricacies involved that sustain us. The ecology of nature niches is tremendously complex. Much of the natural heritage we inherited should survive and continue vital functions without destructive activities. 

Whether one approaches sustainability from religious, scientific, or philosophical views, we can share a common goal for a healthy future that sustains the economy, society and environment for generations of all species. 

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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Grand Sweep View


By Ranger Steve Mueller

Silhouettes, sunsets, waves, lakes, and forests are part of the big picture. Details slip past us but we should take pleasure in the grand sweep view. 

Canoeing area rivers allows ample opportunity to soak in the surroundings. We float with casual steering from the stern. Karen paddles when she prefers but relaxes while keeping a keen watch from shore to shore. Most paddling is reserved for effort to bypass rocks, submerged trees, or shallow water. One learns to read the waterscape and anticipate best routes. 

Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers are frequent sightings that add details to the riverscape. Kingfishers stand on branches along the shore where they hunt the right sized fish for a healthy meal. They keep moving downstream ahead of us. I feel like I am displacing them from favorite haunts. They move several times to stay ahead of us instead of flying overhead to perch upstream where we will not roust them again.

When a canoe or kayak livery transports us to a departure location, we are quick to put in for the journey. Others departing are often in groups that take considerable time getting on the water and travel as a noisy bunch. Their attention concentrates on friends having a swell time relaxing on the water as they drift this way and that. Laughter is frequent as travel takes them into obstacles or shore where they bounce off and slowly continue. Some bind canoes together in pairs or triplets to raft. It is a day of great fun and comradery. 

Karen and I seek more solitude to enjoy sandy beach edges with shorebirds, masses of turtles on logs, swooping swallows, and sometimes a swimming muskrat or beaver. That is a reason we make a quick start downstream before other groups. Details within the grand view are often missed but it provides enjoyment for the outdoor experience and keeps drawing us to water.

It is nice when our daughters’ families participate in the experience. Karen and I enjoy floating and she lets me steer. She is the scout alerting me to obstacles. Depending on the river of choice, it becomes necessary for her to paddle frequently when we are in swift water. Our adult kids choose kayaks. We notice some families use inflatable tubes. We prefer to delay canoeing to late summer when water has warmed and high water has subsided.

Take time with family to explore rivers with kids or grandkids. Childhood memories created with them will persist a life time and improve with frequency. As we drift, we see anglers wading in hip boots to enjoy the riverscape in a different manner. When I fish, I prefer lakes with a river inlet and outlet where I explore by casting near logs and vegetation. Deep-water fishing in lakes offers different fish and all provide an opportunity for a good meal.

Waterskiing is exciting but not my choice activity. For that reason, we select small lakes where we become part of the quiet shoreline solitude. Loons, ducks, and geese distance from the shore sprinkle life on the water in a backdrop of forest and sky. There is always extra pleasure when we see a loon chick riding on a parent’s back. 

Dabbling ducks dip their head and shoulders underwater to seek shallow water vegetation or chase surface insects. Diving ducks spend time in deep water where they submerge completely to feed. Dabbling ducks fill different nature niches than diving ducks. At a distance, it might be difficult to identify duck species but time on the water allows us to soak in the grand sweep view. 

Details edify desires but a primary goal can be cloud watching, feeling the breeze, hearing the sounds of water, birds, fish splashes, or even the canoe scraping the shallow bottom. Take time to enjoy the grand sweep view with first hand experiences while exercising muscles, eyes, and mind.

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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Mid and late summer flowers

RBy Ranger Steve Mueller

The progression of flower blooms advances faster than I can keep record or even identify. Grasses and sedges bloom with cryptic flowers. Many are fairly easy to identify but it takes practice. I should have taken a course to become more proficient. Biodiversity is massive and more than any one person can master. 

I recently presented study results on the moths and butterflies of the Bryce Canyon Ecosystem – Utah at the U of California Davis campus for scientists from around the world. I identified myself as “competently incompetent.” Scientists focus their life’s work on a narrow group of species to become competent with details of anatomy, physiology, DNA/RNA, and ecology of a particular group. 

College professors encouraged me to focus work on a small group if I hoped to make significant scientific contributions and become employable. I remained focused on broad spectrum biodiversity. It was beneficial for the career I selected as a nature center naturalist. I was able to assist visitors with discovery of species and ecological niches for most taxonomic groups. I did not become proficient with any one group, including plants. 

As spring burst upon us, many showy flowers captured our attention and enthusiasm. We became anxious to spend time outdoors in refreshingly warm weather. Some collect spring morels, others seeks edible leaves, flowers, and fruits, while many focus enjoyment on the pageant of beauty. Early summer flowers replace spring’s large flowers with smaller yet still showy flowers. 

We become engrossed in yard maintenance, summer family activities, and focus drifts away from the plants living in our yards. We could become enthralled with the insects that visit flowers for nectar. Any one plant has a cadre of insects that visit for preferred nectar. Predatory insects and spiders take residence among flowers where they wait for a meal to come to them. Some insects and predators focus lives among the vegetation. 

Ecological niche adaptations require a narrow focus of activities for survival and reproduction. Set a portable stool by early summer flowers to see what insects utilize particular plants. Some have strict use behaviors for a species or plant family while others will visit a variety of blooms. By observing areas with several species blooming, one can note different insects associated with plants. Adult insects are often generalists when seeking nectar but are specific when selecting host plants for egg laying and young development.

Some flowers have a shape that limits access to particular insects and it enhances pollination success. When insects visit many species of plants, they spread the incorrect pollen to the pistil and ovary. Plants with structures that require a specific insect increases reproductive success. Massive flowering increases success.

Flower timing is seasonal and so are attending insect species. Relax near early summer flowers to see what insects visit. Do the same with late summer flowers and insects. You will notice some insects are present during both flowering periods and some are restricted to one or the other. 

Some flowers attract a broad variety of pollinators. Many ornamental garden flowers have been bred for beautiful appearance but have lost the ability to serve insect pollinators. Use of native plants helps preserve local biodiversity. Another advantage for using native plants in gardens is it will save money. They have adaptations to local climate and require less watering, fertilizer, and pesticides. Chemicals reduce biodiversity.

Late summer blooms replace mid-summer blooms and different beautiful insects grace our yards. You might not recognize insects by name but that is not important. Enjoy their variety along with the variety of flowers. If you are like me, many flowers evade identification but that does not stop us enjoying them.

I have been seeing about 15 species of butterflies daily as mid and late summer flowers bloom at Ody Brook. Enhancing biodiversity for native plants enhances insect, bird, mammal and other organism survival.

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 49319of  or call 616-696-1753.

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Feelings, details, and data

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Nature Niche articles are a mix of stories expressing feelings, observations, and occasional quantitative data.

Recently an article by Rockford SusCom in the Rockford Squire detailed information about recycling to help readers understand the importance for recycling and sorting to keep the Rockford Transfer Station operational. I thought for a moment that my articles should provide more useful specifics. Then I reconsidered. 

Specific information about gardening is provided by Melinda Myers. She provides information with which I mostly agree. I was pleased her recent writing encouraged use of native plants, inclusion of wild landscape areas in the yard like I regularly encourage, and to minimizing use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides to allow native species to thrive. Limited print space allotment prevents me from such detailed elaboration. My word limit has the desired intent of being brief enough so readers will finish reading the article. 

It is good other articles relate details, data, and content that support my column. Pictures and associated stories submitted by readers make the Outdoor Page enticing. It would be nice if the articles drew a larger audience but I suspect there is a large segment of the community that skips the Outdoor Pages. 

By focusing on stories based on feelings without too much scientific data, I try to appeal to a reader segment that does not want to get overwhelmed with details. Encourage others to read Nature Niche articles.

Detailed articles are important. People need information to guide behavior to sustain society economically, socially, and environmentally. An article by the DNR, detailed the history of the Pigeon River State Forest and the DNR is provided more print space than the niche. It included a picture of young Ernest Hemmingway soon after he returned from war. He was slim, holding his fishing pole, and had an energetic smile. It provided a wonderful feeling of the young man with a youthful spirit at a time when he wrote moving pieces many of us have read. 

I have intimately experienced areas like the Big Two Hearted River, the Pigeon River and other areas he visited. His writings evoked feelings for places to encourage others to experience the outdoors. Last week’s nature niche described a canoeing venture into wilderness and unexpected toil. It expressed family feelings. 

Some of my articles include data details with tables like the butterfly count results or the Red-winged Blackbird nesting survey with nest placement heights, selected plant species for nesting, and egg counts. Hopefully they found interested readers. Expanded data is regularly part of professional scientific journals serving a smaller audience of scientists. 

My articles extract statements from scientific papers but lack the supportive research data. They are meant to serve an audience that likely does not desire to spend extensive time analyzing data, comparing statistic relationships, graphs, and tables. The danger is that niche articles do not provide essential scientific evidence needed to support conclusions. Readers need to glean those details from scientific research papers. I share conclusions based on physical evidence presented in the research papers. The benefit for niche readers is they receive the message in a palpable form that hopefully keeps them reading. Too much detail can end reading.

This spring and summer, I frequently focused on personal outdoor experiences that shaped my feelings as a child and adult. Articles like “Fishing Rod Cast Away” convey the importance of time exploring outdoors with children, family members, and friends. An underlying hope is readers will spend more time exploring outside and share the joys and wonders of nature with others. 

Many places for exploring with guided activities are available like the local Howard Christensen Nature Center. 

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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Paddling in the wind

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Camping at the edge of a Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness was a summer activity. Various campgrounds have access points. This camping trip was planned as a day trip with our two young daughters.

BWCA facebook photo

On a previous trip when it was just Karen and I, she walked out of the campsite and encountered a bear that rapidly departed. She called me but the frightened bear was gone by the time I joined her. 

In the interior wilderness after carrying the canoe over several portages from lake to lake, I was swimming in warm summer water under a bright sunny sky. Two Common Loons were swimming in the lake where they ventured in my direction to get a close look me. Wilderness solitude recharges one’s soul.

On a long portage of 1.5 miles, we came upon giant moose tracks in the mud. The moose was walking the portage trail but without a canoe on its shoulders. Maybe he had a rack that weighed as much. His tracks were tremendous. When we step in a light fresh snow, we find our foot print blast a larger boot track impression. The moose stepping in mud caused the imprint to become larger. Once while canoeing near shore, a moose resting at the forest edge jumped to its feet and crashed through the woods away from us. All involved were startled and we were glad the moose left instead of coming to pummel and capsize our canoe.

On the trip with our girls, we camped at wilderness edge with plans to canoe several lakes and return to our campsite at day’s end. It was a cloudy windy day. We stayed near the shore where water was shallow. If we dumped there would be no life-threatening danger. It was a warm day and getting wet would be harmless. 

With a west wind pushing from behind, we paddled the south shore of lakes. The wind helped move us and I figured the wind would relax by the time we returned. Generally, Karen paddles when she desires but always helps when needed. On rivers her assistance is more essential at times and she is the scout watching for shallow submerged rocks or logs. Her sharp eyes provide advance notice so I can steer around objects and her paddling provides essential power. 

Lake paddling is easier because water is deep enough to avoid submerged objects but large waves can be a challenge. On this exploratory trip through lakes that we had never canoed, it began to rain and wind velocity increased. We were fine getting wet while we enjoyed life along the shore. Waves were coming from behind and did not pose danger from hitting us broadside and potentially tipping the canoe. 

At our destination lake, we reversed direction to travel along the north side of long narrow lakes. Not only did I figure the wind would subside but I thought the north side was more protected from the wind’s full force. The wind speed held or even increased during the day. It was coming straight down the lakes.

I paddled with all my strength but I could not move the canoe forward. The girls were unaware of the difficulty. It was necessary for Karen to paddle continuously if we were going to make progress toward our camp. It was exhausting for both of us and when one rested the canoe stopped moving.

Forward momentum seemed negligible with both of us working hard. Rain from the west pelted our faces as we struggled in silence. My plan to travel along the north side of the lakes protected from the wind’s strength proved wrong. The wind velocity was mighty. At least the air and rain were warm. Wildlife had retreated to secretive protected nature niche alcoves while they weathered the storm. 

After tiring hours of work, we reached the campsite. Karen struggled from the canoe where she flopped on the ground exhausted and slept in the rain. I got the girls to our tent where we dried and rested. It was an adventure to enjoy more in retrospect but canoeing in difficult situations was not new. Life for the voyageurs was a hard life. We look upon their lives with nostalgia but it is a life not meant for me.

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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Rogue River Butterfly Count

R

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A wetter, cloudier, and colder spring impacted butterflies causing suppressed numbers with later than expected adult emergence. A heat wave settled over the region the week prior to the July 3, 2019 butterfly count. We began searching for butterflies at the Howard Christensen Nature Center at 9 a.m. and concluded at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary at 5 p.m. with a half hour lunch break.

Many locations in north Kent County and southern Newaygo County provided varied habitats. Twenty-one species were sighted and was almost as low as our lowest species number during the 33 years we have conducted the butterfly count. During 1993 we experienced 18 species sighted. Butterfly numbers were low that year despite ideal weather. It was also a wet year and plant blooming dates were late like they were this year. 

The high species count was 43 in 1991. We annually anticipate species to number in the 30’s. The heat was sweltering this year with high humidity and an 85ºF temperature high. Heavy rain occurred the day prior with almost one inch soaking the area. The morning vegetation was wet and slowed butterfly activity until midday when the sun dried vegetation and butterflies. 

In addition to spotting adults on the wing, we search vegetation looking for larvae. Viceroys, Baltimore Checkerspots, and Monarch caterpillars were found on aspen, penstamen, and milkweeds plants. A Viceroy was observed laying an egg. 

Both Canadian Tiger Swallowtails and Eastern Tiger Swallowtails were observed. Our count area straddles an intense transition zone from Muskegon to Midland where plant and animal species distribution changes. For the swallowtails the Canadian is usually found north of the line and Eastern Tigers south of the line. Hybrids are sometimes found. The pattern differences are subtle and require careful observation to separate species. The Canadian Tigers were seen in Newaygo County and the Eastern Tigers at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. 

It was disappointing hairstreaks were not flying. Baltimore Checkerspots, Red Admirals, and Little Wood Satyrs were moderately abundant. European Skippers were the most abundant and Silver-spotted Skippers made a good showing. 

Table 1 lists individuals for each species. Consider participating in the Rogue River, Allegan, and Muskegon State Game Area Counts, and the Manistee National Forest Count next year. It is an excellent way to learn butterfly identification and to associate species with their nature niche habitats. 

After careful compilation and review, this year’s count reports should be posted on the West Michigan Butterfly Association web site in August. (graud.org/wmba.html)

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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Air Cooled or Air-Conditioned?

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Chipmunks, thirteen-lined squirrels, woodchucks, and many other mammals spend hot weather time underground where the air in their dens is cooler. They also use tree cavities and other places that not only offer a cool reprieve but provide protection from predators, and biting flies. 

We enter our homes relatively free from mosquitoes and deer flies because we have screened windows. Many keep windows closed to prevent hot humid air from making the house uncomfortably damp and sticky. 

Air conditioners cool the air and reduce the humidity to make it more comfortable for working inside. They also increase utility bills. Having an air-cooled home will save money and can be effective for comfort. 

When people visit our home, they think the house is air-conditioned but ours is air-cooled. Designing with nature is effective. A sugar maple tree stands on the south side of the house and one shades the west side. They help keep the house from being heated by intense sunlight radiation during hot afternoons. 

I like a bright yard, sun, and active butterflies with a well-lit garden and field. The open area on the east side provides morning sun that dries the area but does not excessively heat the house. At midday we can sit on the shaded side of the house to enjoy the open area teaming with active butterflies and bird life. We mow a strip by the back porch where we sit comfortably mostly free from mosquitoes because it is sunlit. The backyard was mowed for the first time on June 30. Grass, catsclaw yellow flowers, maiden pink, oxeye daisies, and other flowers dominate the yard. Plants cool the ground where rabbits and millions of insects thrive to feed birds. Few insects are bothersome to people. The yard is a sea of flower blooms that attract an abundance of life. 

Mowed trails provide easy access for daily walks through the sanctuary where we are not likely to twist an ankle, get soaked pant legs, or stir up mosquitoes. 

When I was chief naturalist at Morningside Nature Center in Gainesville Florida, my office and location for meeting visitors was a 19th century farmstead. It was designed with nature’s air-cooling comfort. The front door was opposite the rear door to allow air movement. Windows were placed in a manner to enhance air exchange with outside air. Interior walls were minimal so they did not impede airflow.

Florida is humid in the summer where daily rains keep humidity high. In the 1800s, air conditioners were not an option and people learned to design home construction for maximum comfort. One learns to accept surrounding atmospheric conditions like high humidity, daily rain, and sultry conditions. One can also learn to minimize unpleasantries by designing home placement and surrounding vegetation for optimum effect. 

The naturalist office in the farmstead was used for visitor programming and was comfortable without an air conditioner. The air-cooled building was shaded by trees but was open enough for free air movement. Close to the home was a fenced area for farm animals. The pine fence was designed for easy assembly and disassembly so it could be moved to allow animals to be housed where they could graze on fresh vegetation. The farmyard allowed open space for air movement to reach the home and for sunlight to dry nearby air. 

Current home construction often does not consider “design with nature.” Take a lesson from nature niche residents that live nearby and learn how you can capitalize on cooling effects nature can provide to make your home most comfortable without increasing your utility bill or adding carbon to the atmosphere. 

We open windows at night and shut them in the morning. With the aid of shade trees, our home remains comfortable. We live comfortably in an air-cooled home without air conditioning. Fans suffice during prolonged heat waves. Learn from early settlers that lived comfortably 150 years ago by designing with nature.

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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Fishing rod cast away

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Rod and Katie were neighbors that lived next door in Mrs. Hoag’s upstairs apartment. A singing mouse lived in her basement and she would allow kids to stand at the top of basement stairs and listen to the mouse sing. My brothers and I still talk about the singing mouse. 

Rod worked with my dad as a lineman for Bell Telephone. Rod’s dream was to become a barber up north where he could enjoy outdoor nature niches.

At some point in my young life, Rod and Katie moved to Tawas City where he opened a barbershop. Our family was invited to visit and we made the great trip. We stayed at their home where Katie made the best waffles and hot chocolate I can remember having. I am sure the best waffles had more to do with the experience than the food. My kids have often heard about the breakfast Katie prepared. 

The weather was great and we fished from Tawas pier. Dad had bought my brothers and me fishing poles. Details escape my memory but I expect we visited a bait shop and headed out for an exciting day. Once on the pier, we readied to catch many fish. 

Perhaps I was taught how to bait a hook and thread the fishing line though the rod eyelet guides. I was still too young for the art of tying the leader with hook to my line. I learned about leaders, bait, and lures. How to use a reel, cast, and release a lure was part of the day’s events. When to release one’s thumb from the casting release that allowed the line and lure to sail into Lake Huron was new for me. 

We spaced ourselves along the pier to begin the art of fishing. I casted, and when I released my thumb, the pole jerked and sprang from my hand. I watched it disappear into clear Lake Huron water. It sank in ten to fifteen  feet of water. I called my dad and we looked at the pole that settled on the lake bottom. 

Perhaps my dad was angry but I do not recall. Dad, Rod, and my brothers gathered in dismay to look at the lost pole. Rather than angle for fish, the task was now to snag the pole and pull it from the depths of the Great Lake. With a lure or hook on another pole, a line was lowered with plans to retrieve my pole. It looked simple enough but repeated effort proved evasive. 

After continued effort, we finally departed without my pole. That was one of my first fishing experiences. Fortunately, I have not lost another pole but I have lost a great many fish. I wonder how many anglers have lost poles. I was probably about six years old. The visit to Tawas City and the fishing pier remains vivid as does Katie’s waffles and hot chocolate. 

Another experience I recall my dad telling was when he hooked a gull. It might have been on that trip when dad casted a lure and a gull grabbed it from the air. The hook embedded in the gull’s beak. Dad needed to reel in the gull. Since then I have learned of this happening to another angler. 

I probably was not present when the gull was caught or I think my memory would be clearer. After reeling in the gull, the hook was removed and the bird released. 

Somewhere at the bottom of Lake Huron is a rod and reel lost about 1956 but vibrant memories are not lost. Fourth of July memories are waiting to be made. Celebrate our nation’s founding by enjoying its natural wonders. The outdoors is beckoning your presence. 

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Fishing rod cast away

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