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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Tree on stilts

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


A gray bark tinged with yellow helps identify the yellow birch that grows scattered in mixed hardwood and conifer forest. Hardwoods, broad leaved trees that shed their leaves dominate with some conifer needled trees mixed throughout the forest. It is easier to find the yellow birches by looking for trees on root stilts. 

The birches often get started on white pine stumps. Over the course of many years and the pine decays much slower than other tree stumps. As the birch ages, its moderate to large trunk is left standing on roots that wrapped around the pine stump and penetrate into the ground where they spread horizontally. 

Yellow birch by Joseph OBrien [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)]

The trunks do not attain the size of oaks or other large trees but may have a diameter of one to two feet. Larger trees are known. The spreading roots make it less secure and prone to wind toss but they have the advantage of growing in the interior of the forest where they are protected from strong winds by surrounding trees. 

Visit the Howard Christensen Nature Center on Red Pine Drive three miles north of M-46 (17-mile road) to walk the trails and scan the forest for root-stilted yellow gray barked trees. They grow most abundantly in the lowland wet swamp forest. Red Pine Drive is about six miles west of US-131.

New twigs are greenish with a light pubescence but become light orange to gray and lose the fuzzy pubescence. Somewhat unique are the lenticels that persist through much of the tree’s life. They are large celled light-colored horizontal stripes on twigs, stems, and trunks. Their function aids oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange. Their presence on trunks helps identify the tree. Most trees have lenticels that do not remain obvious on large trunks. 

Narrow horizontally strips of bark with curled ends peel away from the trunk. It is not good to peel the strips because the attached portion is living tissue. One benefit of taking some peeling dead bark is to use as fire starter. It contains oil that burns easily even when wet. 

The paper birch, also known as white birch or canoe birch, will grow in large pure stands. They especially grow in large stands after a fire creates openings. Yellow birches germinate in most soils including mineral soils but does best in mossy moist soils. They grow on moss covered logs or old stumps in moderate moist locations. The farther one travels north in Michigan, the birches become more abundant. We are on the distribution border between habitats where the birch will thrive on moist lowland soils southerly instead of drier soils.

A reason I think the trees are frequently found growing on pine stumps is because they are not good competitors with other tree seedlings. Other trees struggle in the acid conditions on pine stumps. That is something I have not seen stated by forestry professors that study the trees but it my perception. 

The leaves are doubly serrate which means they have teeth along the leaf margins that alternate from a larger tooth to a smaller tooth and back to larger tooth. Pick up a leaf under the tree at this time of year to examine it. Feel the straight veins that served as fluid transport vessels during life. The leaf shape is oval and pointed.

At this time of year, next year’s new growth tissue is already formed and contained ready for expansion with spring’s fluid swelling. The new growth tissue is comprised of tiny dehydrated cells that will not burst their delicate membranes in freezing temperatures. The new tissues are concealed under protective bud scales in a false terminal bud. Examine the bud and notice it does project straight outward from the end of the twig. Like elm buds it buds grows at a slight angle from twig’s end. 

The wind pollinated spring flowers are formed in catkins with wind-blown seeds dispersed in fall and winter.

This tree has unique features to enjoy as you walk nature center trails. Continue enjoying the outdoors this fall.

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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Compost or Burn?

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Burning leaves in the fall was a part of my growing up in the 1950s and has fortunately declined for several reasons. Composting colorful leaves, creating compost piles for mulch, or curbside pick up is available. Some communities ban burning. I recall enjoying the aroma of burning leaves as a five-year old. I did not realize the health risks that are greatest for children and people with lung or heart issues or additional pollution.

Chris Baer advised that using leaves as mulch around garden plants is better than woodchips. She reserves the woodchips for trees and shrubs. The withering of summer vegetation in fall is beautiful and provides resources ideal for gardens. 

Mulched leaves around plants two to three inches thick suppresses weeds, conserves soil moisture, and moderates soil temperature. Summer’s green has turned yellow, crimson, or brown and fallen on lawns. They can be diced with a lawn mower and left on the lawn if not too thick as a soil conditioner. 

Leaves used from a compost pile add nutrients to the soil. Worms and insects live in the compost and hasten recycling. Occasionally turn compost to enrich the air supply to help beneficial fungus and bacteria that fill a decomposition nature niche. 

In the woods, fall leaves will mostly disappear by early summer of the following year. Eastern Towhees among other birds flip woodland leaves when searching for insects. Towhees somewhat resemble robins. Their sides are orange but their central belly is white. They have black hoods and backs with some white flashes instead of a robin’s gray. Birds searching for food adds beauty to yards and forest but many migrate as fall advances.

Some leaves decompose more rapidly and provide better soil conditioner. Maple, ash, and apple leaves make better mulch than oak leaves. 

I allow a layer of leaves to remain under the sugar maple where grass does not thrive in deep shade. In the spring a carpet of violets make their way through dead leaves to green the ground three inches tall. Near the maple is a balsam fir that provides an evergreen shelter for birds all winter. Maple leaves have blown under the fir branches that hug the ground. There a towhee actively feeds during spring, summer and fall. 

Beyond the reaches of the maple tree’s canopy, leaves fall on the lawn and are moved to a compost pile. Some are mulched with the mower to feed the lawn before they get too thick. Small pieces do not smother grass. 

Green material like corn husks, apple cores, grape stems, and other kitchen vegetative waste promote compost decomposition. Create sections for a compost pile so one area is more decomposed and ready for use sooner. 

Compost used in vegetable and flower gardens improves soil nutrients, soil moisture, and maintains healthier soil temperature that reduces plant stress. It creates habitat for beneficial fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, and small wildlife. Compost does not release air pollutants hazardous to our health like burning leaves that reach deep into lung tissue, cause coughing, wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath and sometimes long-term respiratory problems. 

At Ody Brook we work to maintain open field areas for sun-loving field plants, butterflies, and field birds. Removed shrub and tree stems are used to create carefully designed brush piles used by rabbits, birds, and other animals. For slow decomposition about 15 brush piles are scattered in the forest near cleared field areas. 

Burning leaves is not a best practice for our health or nutrient recycling. It is faster than allowing nature to go about its recycling business but it rapidly releases pollutants. Make a compost pile instead to benefit you, your gardens, and a healthy environment. 

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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Migration starvation

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Recent migrants passing through Ody Brook include Hermit Thrush, Common Raven, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Two Dark-eyed Juncos (Slate-colored) arrived on October 16 and they might stay for the winter. I have been looking for species that migrate here from northern areas to claim the sanctuary as a winter residence. 

Many birds that spend the breeding season here have left for southern areas where food will be available to sustain them until next year’s breeding season. Some require active insects for their diet. Recently I saw an American Robin in the Big Field that appeared to have difficulty flying. Its right wing appeared to have a problem. As I walked on Ody Brook Trail, it flew about 50 feet at a time and worked its way into the big woods. 

Other robins migrated and left this one behind. Unless it finds a swamp rich with berries, it will likely perish unless it recovers from its wing problem. I found a Rusty Blackbird by one of our ponds with a broken wing. It was able to hop about and feed during the fall but once winter set in, I am sure it starved. The flock of Rusty Blackbirds continued migration without the bird. 

Witnessing isolated problems for birds occurs but we do not see those that starve during long migration flights. Frequently published are bird deaths caused by things we can prevent but starvation hazards birds encounter in route to a winter residence are seldom mentioned. 

A major cause of bird deaths is a result of domestic cat predators, collision with windows, and genetically modified seeds with herbicide tolerance. The genetically modified seeds can grow in fields where herbicide use is increased. Wild plants in crop fields and surrounding edges are killed. Fewer wild plants reduces insect populations. Bird populations depending on insects are more likely to starve on migration.

The use of neonicotinoids have raised concerns regarding adverse ecological effects, including honey-bee colony collapse disorder and of loss of birds due to a reduction in insect populations. Studies indicate there has been a nearly 50 percent reduction in insect populations since 1976. There are many causes for the reduction and it is not responsible to place the reduction completely on crop ready herbicides or the use of neonicotinoids. 

I mentioned in last week’s article that manicured lawn proliferation and wild habitat reduction for agriculture are likely major sources for insect and bird deaths. We can do some things that help birds by allowing portions of our yards to support native plants. This will support native insects that support migrating birds. 

Think beyond wildflowers. Without changing ordinances in some communities, people are not allowed to grow fields of native flowers. Some regulations do not allow tall plants and require yards to be cut short. Neighbors often consider wildflowers weeds. My brother allows milkweeds to grow in his backyard to help Monarch butterflies. His neighbor wants them cut because he thinks they look ugly. He says the name indicates it is a weed. The neighbor does not want my brother helping Monarchs survive. Removing milkweeds will cause Monarchs to starve during the summer and result in a reduced population for the fall migration to Mexico. 

Planting native shrubs and trees is one way to help insect and bird populations increase. Some people think all insects bite people, spread diseases, or destroy desired plants. The dangerous Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) frightened many of us. It was a real life-threatening concern but such diseases are unusual. The few insects that cause such problems are the ones we notice. Most insects that inhabit native shrubs and trees go unnoticed by us but are food for insect and bird predators. They help prevent migration starvation.

I have seen 132 bird species at Ody Brook. Depending on the size of your yard and how many native species you allow, will determine the number of birds that will share your property with you. Help reduce migration starvation by having a nature niche friendly landscape. Many ornamental plants do not support insects and birds. They are often quite beautiful, so plant some, but also maintain native plants to enrich your yard health. 

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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Bird and Insect Reductions

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller


An article in last week’s Rockford Squire stated there has been a massive reduction in bird populations since 1970. We have witnessed a 25 percent reduction for most bird populations. Studies indicate insect populations have declined by 46 since 1976. The bird study stated the largest factor causing declines is likely widespread loss and degradation of habitat due to agricultural intensification and urbanization. 

It avoided stating the continuous growth of the human population from 3 billion to more than 7 billion since 1970 drives agricultural intensification and urbanization. Increasing human numbers drive increased agricultural use of land and the elimination of critical habitat essential for other life forms to survive.   

I previously wrote we could reduce the human population by 40 percent by waiting to bear children until we are about 33 years old. That would result in three generations being alive at once instead of five generations when we start families at age 20. That strategy does not include other population control methods. 

My sister-in-law finds it humorous that I advocate having two child families because I am a third child. If we use modern science to extend lives, we should also use acceptable methods that result in smaller family sizes to prevent excessive population growth. There was a time when families having 7 kids lost many before they reached adulthood. With vaccines and other life prolonging procedures, most of our children survive. That is good. The drawback is that we have not adjusted our procreation behavior to limit family size.

My sister-in-law also finds it interesting that I question whether I should be kept alive. Without modern medicine, it is likely I would have died by age 50 from multiple myeloma cancer. When diagnosed with the cancer at age 47, survival statistics indicated one to three years survival. I am now working on surviving year 22 with weekly cancer control advances. If we do not limit family size that pushes other life forms off the planet, should medicines be used to keep me alive? Balancing natality and mortality is important.

I am pleased to live to help other life forms. I tithe about 85 percent of Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary to enhance biodiversity to help insects, birds, plants, and a multitude of life. Groomed lawns do not support a large variety life. The yard around our home supports wildflowers and I mow infrequently to enhance biodiversity.

I frequently encourage nature niche readers to reduce lawns and maximize native plants that support insect populations so they can recover from the 46 percent reduction since I was 20 years old. Increased insect populations are essential for helping bird species recoup their population numbers. Such activities are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable best practices that protect future human generations.

President Trump gutting the Clean Water, Clear Air, and Endangered Species Acts is partly an effort to make it easier to eliminate natural habitats for human use. It makes sense if the goal is to continue to increase the human population for a short period rather than support a smaller sustainable population for thousands of years. 

I have a relative that thinks humans will not survive more than another 50 years. I think he is wrong. I encourage people to live in a manner that will support our species survival for tens of thousands of years. That demands “Creation Care” to maintain other life forms that ensure healthy ecosystems support our needs. 

I advocate a minimum of ten percent of all habitats be preserved as wilderness to allow species to maintain healthy populations and continue their vital functions. A way we can set aside 10 percent of all habitats to maintain global biodiversity is to limit our population size. Resource utilization is a function of population size. 

The fundamental question is, should I be kept alive or let the cancer take me if we are not willing to limit our population growth? Such questions and discussions are side stepped in articles like printed in last week’s Squire about bird population size reductions. Act now to return portions of our yards to native 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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Aspen Clones

Ranger Steve’s Nature NicheBy Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Aspen tree clumps growing close to others change color at slightly different times. Within a single tree clump, the leaves often harmoniously change color at the same time. Weather and micro-climate might exert influence but so will the genetic makeup of the plants. 

Aspen trees are individuals much like each person is an individual with unique characteristics. You might look at an aspen tree and assume all trees are the same. That is like looking at a person and assuming all people are the same as every other individual. 

In the case of aspens, you might not be in complete error. A human family with identical twins has two individuals with the same genetic composition. Well almost. After egg fertilization, cells reproduce to develop the individual. In the process, some slight changes are likely to occur with gene inversion, duplication, or gene exchange on a DNA strand. These are minor but can bring about slight variation between the twins.

Aspens produce seeds but few survive. Growing conditions with proper moisture, temperature, and soil conditions must be present during seed dispersal. Mature seeds are abundant and easily blown in the wind. Most seeds land in locations that are not adequate to allow them to remain viable. Seeds sprout immediately and if conditions are not ideal they die. Most seeds become food for insects, fungi or some other organism.

Cloning from roots is the aspen tree’s primary means of reproduction. New stem shoots grow from long lateral roots and can rise quite a distance from the parent tree. They have the same genetic constitution as the original stem that sprouted from a seed. Characters like leaf shape, branching structure, disease resistance, pigment production, and timing for seasonal change are the same for each shoot in a clone. 

Environmental conditions like sun exposure, soil moisture, and nutrient supply affect various shoots of the same plant causing some variation as they respond to growing conditions. 

Two plants near each other that developed from different seeds will have unique characteristics like our family siblings. When they leaf out in the spring or change color in the fall, color intensity may vary. Fall colors might be different from one clump to another. This is evident when two clones are viewed during the spectacular fall color pageant. We can recognize identical clone individuals from neighboring clones at this time of year. 

Aspens are in the willow family and have male and female flowers on separate trees. All of the flowers in a clone will be of the same sex because members of the clone are genetically identical. 

When a seed establishes, it requires adequate moisture. Too much will facilitate fungal growth or drowning. Too little can cause desiccation. A surviving seedling will spread by cloning in a well-lighted habitat. New shoots are “sun loving” and cannot tolerate shade. An original stem can produce a mega-organism with hundreds of stems from root suckers having the same unique genetics. Stems in an identical clone will have slightly different nature niche adaptations from neighboring clones. 

Fire sweeping through and removing above ground stems creates sunny habitat for new stem sprouts. It is a fire adapted tree species that survives fire catastrophe and clear-cut logging. 

Aspens are thought to be among the largest individuals of living creatures. A particular stem is not as large as a redwood tree but its extensive number of stems from a single root creates more biomass than the redwood. 

Aspens might also be the oldest creatures on Earth attaining an age of more than 8,000 years. The tree stems do not normally live two centuries but the roots persist and continue to produce new stems. 

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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Consolidating Opposing Views

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche. By Ranger Steve Mueller

One would think scientific physical evidence would be a used to protect the family. Science cannot provide absolute definitive conclusions. Science is under constant review, testing, and modification. Concerns like human caused climate change has massive evidence indicating our activities since the mid 1800’s threatens a healthy future. That is a conclusion supported by 97 percent of climatologists using empirical evidence.

Ranger Steve Mueller

About 3 percent of scientists question if evidence is adequate. Money supporting those views is used to sway public opinion to benefit businesses with fossil fuel interests. Published scientific study evidence overwhelming supports climate change is exasperated by human activities. Most people do not read scientific articles but studies are presented in newspapers and on TV news without analytical methods described. 

How people interpret the bible determines whether “Creation Care” is addressed as our responsibility. Some people think 30 million species were taken on the ark, cared for, fed, and housed until land reappeared. Others think is it is a parable designed to illustrate or teach a truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. 

Scientists present opposing views in journals. Religions have opposing views in religious writings. Those views should be considered in their respective writings. Science and religion can complement each other. The greatest difficulty arises when we dismiss one worldview because it is not the one we want to embrace. Faith is meant to explain “why” and science is meant to explain “how.” Together they might help us understand our existence.

Currently, at the forefront of Creation Care are PFAS, lead in drinking water, and genetically modified crops with neonaticides. It appears most people do not address issues directly but leave decisions to chemical industries or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA funding and use of science is being limited and dismissed by presidential order. 

The EPA’s job was to protect our health and protect water bodies from misuse that jeopardizes community health. President Trump’s announcement to gut clean water safeguards strips away vital protections for streams and wetlands, threatens floodplain homes, endangers drinking water supplies and impairs important habitats for species aquatic nature niches that support birds, fish, ducks, and other wildlife. 

Some think when vulnerable floodplains are converted to cultivation that results in crops being destroyed and soil washed into streams, farm loss subsidies should be appropriated to help farmers. Others think when homes downstream are flooded as a result of eliminating floodplain protections that hold floodwaters and release water slowly, homeowner subsidies should help them recover losses created by upstream farming practices. 

Following the 1930’s “Dust Bowl”, practices were implemented to alleviate farming problems that resulted in soil loss from economically devastating farming. As a society, our memory is short. Conservation methods designed to help farmers are now being abandoned for those known to harm farmers and communities. 

Some Americans do not want wetlands protected on land they own or manage even if the activities harm neighbors’ and livelihoods downstream. Such issues are always difficult. People should ask themselves if they should concern themselves with “me first” verses “present and future generations first.” It is not either/or!

The landmark Clean Water Act has protected drinking water supplies, swimming spots, homes, and fishing holes from dangerous practices for nearly 50 years. Under this Act, the Clean Water Rule was established to clearly define which bodies of water are covered under this protection and they include wetlands that filter pollution, curb flooding, and streams that feed drinking water supplies. 

President Trump’s EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers finalized its repeal of the Clean Water Rule, jeopardizing groundwater drinking supplies for millions of Americans, streams, wetlands and homes.

The question should be whether it is morally correct and legal to damage the health and wellbeing of neighbors  for personal benefit. We should each debate in our minds our moral values and elect officials that make laws according to our conclusions. Your answer can use both religious and scientific views rather than an either/or. That is the consolidated philosophical worldview I suggest.

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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Fungus among us


By Ranger Steve Mueller

BFall is a beautiful time when most of us enjoy the splash of forest color before sullen bare branches on trees leave us anxious for the first snow to brighten the world. Whiteness brings energy and joy. I will conclude with a fun experience about Fungi lesterii.

White coral fungi explode from the ground over night during warm wet fall weather. “But wait that is not all” like we so often hear on those infomercials. Orange and purple coral fungi are also common. Fungi live hidden lives under ground, under bark, in leaves, and even on animals. They are industrious workers allowing us life.

Their important nature niche is to recycle nutrients. As saprophytes they decompose dead organic matter and make minerals available for plants. As parasites they are found eating living tissue and sometimes become problems on our skin or in our bodies. Many have mutualistic symbiotic relationships with living organisms where both individuals benefit. Symbiosis is a relationship between two unrelated species. 

Mycorrhizal fungi live on and in plant root tips where they provide essential health benefits. The fungi assist plants with nutrient and water absorption. In return they get sugars that the plant produces through photosynthesis. Trees often grow poorly or do not survive without mycorrhizae. 

Benefits of the fungi associating with plants include; reducing the need or quantity for crop fertilizers, enriching soil quality, suppressing disease and pathogens, improving crop growth survival, reducing drought severity that causes crop losses, and increasing flowering and fruit production abundance. 

Aside from their essential importance for our personal survival, they bring flavor and joy to lives. Many people enjoy collecting and eating the fruiting bodies that seem to pop from the ground overnight when conditions are favorable. 

The fungi connect roots of different plants facilitating transfer of nutrients between individuals of the same species. This improves forest and plant community health as well as our own. We depend on the hidden lives of fungi associating with nearly all plants. 

Many of us enjoy fungal beauty. When I was leading a group of 4th grade students on an exploratory hike at the Howard Christensen Nature Center a couple decades ago, we experienced a wet warm fall when fungi fruiting bodies were abundant. One of the students discovered a bright purple fungus growing from the ground. It looked like a coral that should be on a coral reef in a shallow ocean. 

Its branching arms were soft to the touch and almost glowed in the shaded forest. We gathered around Lester who first noticed the fungus. He wanted to know its name. I couldn’t help. Though I know many organism names, there are about 30 million species on Earth. I am sure this common fungus has been named and we could find it in one of the mushroom field guides.

Instead, I told the group it was something that perhaps had not been named and we could name it ourselves. It was clearly a fungus and Lester had discovered it so the group decided to name it Fungi lesterii. At the end of the day when groups gathered to conclude the day’s activities, each group shared a significant event. Our group told the others about the fungus discovery. “But wait that is not all.”

A year later the students returned as 5th graders. As they approached the Red Pine Interpretive Center where I daily greeted students at the entrance, students were pointing at a student and shouting, “Remember Lester?” Fortunately, Lester is not the most common name and I immediately recalled the Fungi lesterii discovery. The experience stuck with students and probably still does after 20 years. The point is we should all spend time outside exploring the natural world. I suspect we each have a special experience tucked away in our memory.

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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White Pine and its offspring

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A large white pine stood in the forest at the NE corner of the Big Field in 1979 when we moved to Ody Brook. I could not resist the urge to climb the tree. The pine stood above other trees in the maturing deciduous forest. 

A 5-acre field at that time was cultivated for field corn. Along the east border were many small spruce trees the height of a person or shorter. Hawthorn trees mingled among the spruce. At the west end of the field were young quaking aspen trees that were about twenty feet tall. 

The lone white pine stood as sentinel over creek, floodplain, upland forest, and farm field. As years progressed, seeds from its cones established new young trees. In the shaded forest, the young pines grew straight, gained height and diameter. 

The farmer stopped cultivating the farm field in the late 1980’s because it was difficult to access and it was necessary to drive farm equipment though the headwaters of Little Cedar Creek. Some white pines began to grow in the fallow field. There they received full light and one would expect them to grow well. 

The Eastern White Pine Shoot Borer is a tiny moth that lays its eggs in May. The larvae burrow into the terminal shoot and feed causing the leader shoot to die. The infested trees become bushy round balls instead of growing straight and tall. Young white pines in the forest did not suffer the same fate as moth infested trees in the well-lighted field. The moths did not venture into the shaded forest. 

Now 40 years later, the pines in the forest are as tall as the parent tree but those in the field are a third as tall and are round balls. They are not killed by the moth but they have no logging value. When visitors stroll Ody Brook trails in field and forest, the difference in growth form is obvious.

The White pine weevil is another serious pest. It does not kill the tree but causes it to become a deformed ball. The weevil feeds on terminal tree shoots in open sunny fields. The shaded forest is cooler and avoided. I think the beetles are light sensitive and avoid the darkened forest but I do not have evidence for that conclusion. 

There are several other forest insect and fungal pests challenging the wellbeing of our state tree. The state’s logging history produced more profit than the California gold rush of the same era. Today, commercial value is limited by both native and exotic species impacting the forest. Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates more than 4 billion dollars damage to the pine industry annually. 

The White Pine Blister Rust is a fungus disease that requires two plant hosts for its life cycle. Currant is the second plant host. There was an effort to eliminate currants from the forest to interrupt the fungus life cycle. The effort had limited success. 

People often dismiss the importance for maintaining native ecosystem health and do not realize the impact on communities. The recent devastation of ash trees by the emerald ash borer has gained peoples’ attention but most do not realize the economic cost to communities and private landowners. The loss of yard trees and valuable timber in forests somehow slips past one’s attention. Similar devastation occurred in the 1960’s when the Dutch Elm Disease decimated elm trees. Elms survive but are killed by the fungus as young trees mature.  

The nature niches of insects, birds, mammals and other species depend on healthy forests. Private, state, and national forests depend on good management to maintain economic, social, and environmental sustainability. Climate change challenges the health of ecosystems. We need to address sustainable alternative energy production instead of continuing support for the use of fossil fuels. Actions of people living today will shape the future for coming generations. The best gift for grandkids is a healthy future environment.

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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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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Befriending the harvester

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