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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Rogue River Butterfly Count

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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.

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Native plants

RBy Ranger Steve Mueller

National Wild Ones native plant organization president Janice Hand wrote, “Consider that as a Wild One, you are not only enjoying the good feelings that comes from helping the world’s environment, but you also know that you are doing your part to leave a better world for the next generations. In turn for that satisfaction, I think Wild Ones members get more years of life added.” Consider joining Wild Ones – River City Chapter.

She added information from studies that indicate spending time tending native plantings in gardens lowers blood pressure, heart rate, stress and strengthens the immunity system. These are not new ideas and researchers have been looking for physical evidence to support healthy life styles for decades. 

In my case, with the on-going challenge of non-curable terminal cancer (multiple myeloma), oncologists have told me no more gardening because my weak immune system does not protect me from soil fungus. Wild Ones tend Ody Brooks garden. Living deliberately is a personal effort and I continue outdoor activities.

New myeloma cancer treatment advances have extended life to an average of 7 to 8 years. I have lost friends to this cancer in years 7, 8, and 10. I am in year 22 since diagnosis. I think extended time outdoors is medicine contributing to my continued survival. I planned to be on the long end of survival since first diagnosis.

Two bone marrow transplants and the most recent five years in a clinical trial has slowed the cancer activity. Treatments are temporary and the clinical trial is no longer effective. A new treatment has begun that will hopefully reduce cancer activity. I am struggling with adjustment to the new chemo and spend too much time sleeping, weak, tiring fast, short of breath and need to greatly limit activity working in the sanctuary. 

You and I have another health aid mentioned by Janice. Studies show being outdoors improves physical well-being and adds 2.81 years to life, improves short-term memory adding 1.26 years, and doing things to improve the world for wild things adds 1.75 years to our life. We can and should stay active outdoors.

I continually encourage spending time outdoors enjoying nature niche exploration. My work outside is significantly more limited than last year and I am moving slower. It is frustrating but I keep heading outside. When diagnosed at age 47, the oncologist said there is no way to predict if I will survive less than a year or have extended time. I will turn 69 this summer and strive to reach age 75 with reasonable functional health. 

Wild Ones promotes native plantings to reduce water use, store carbon in trees and perennials, and to provide habitat for life tiny and large. Wild Ones promotes reducing the United States’ 40-million acres of lawn and its resultant pollution, pesticides, herbicides and wasted water. It is tough because groomed lawns are beautiful.

My efforts and newspaper columns might help others live healthier chemical free lives that support mammals, birds, insects, and plants if readers so choose. I was pleased to see a piece next to my column in one of the papers a few weeks ago about the importance of planting native plants. In the 1980’s and 90’s, I was commissioned to coordinate an extended tree planting over ten years. The funders gave 100,000 ten-foot trees to 5th graders over the ten years in Kent County. 

Norway Maples were one of the trees and my objections fell on deaf ears. Norway maples are a non-native species that does not support native insects and birds. I requested native species given. I was told “a tree is a tree.” More recently Doug Tallamy’s popular book “Bringing Nature Home” discusses the number of insects and associated life that are supported when native species are planted in our yards. Change the world locally.

Doug Tallamy has met with me twice and requested I provide him plant lists for Michigan to aid him in the effort to maintain Michigan’s biodiversity. The “Big Idea” is reduce lawn size and plant native species for a healthy future to sustain the good life for wildlife, ourselves and society. Live deliberately with a small lawn.

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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Join 2019 Butterfly Counts

RBy Ranger Steve Mueller


Discover butterflies in a variety of local habitats with people knowledgeable about butterfly identification. It is a great way to begin learning some of the 170 species known to Michigan. Join with the West Michigan Butterfly Association on a count for fun and learning. 

Counts are sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) and cost $3 for each participant. The money is sent to NABA to create a publication documenting butterfly abundance, distribution, and trends throughout North America. Scientists make use of citizen science data. About 17 counts are held in Michigan annually. Bring families. Contact Ranger Steve for more information about Michigan counts. Your help spotting butterflies is desired. Knowledge of butterflies is not required. 

We carpool to various sites in the 15-mile diameter designated count circle. You can have a good time discovering in the outdoors, learn species identification, habitat associations, behavior, and nature niche needs. Participate to your comfort level for part of the day or stay all day. 

Bring a bag lunch, plenty to drink, snacks, and dress with lightweight long sleeves and pants to protect from any biting insects or raspberry thorns. Some exploration is off trail when searching for butterflies. 

Mark calendar dates and meeting locations: 

June 29, 2019 (Sat) 9:00 AM Allegan Butterfly Count – Allegan Co. Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller) Meet at the Allegan State Game Area, Fennville Farm Unit, 6013 118th Ave, Fennville odybrook@chartermi.net 

July 3, 2019 (Wed) 9:00 AM Rogue River Butterfly Count – Kent Co. Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller) (Kent, Newaygo, Montcalm Counties) Meet at Howard Christensen Nature Center Welcome Center 16160 Red Pine Drive Kent City odybrook@chartermi.net 

July 5, 2019 (Fri) 9:00 AM Newaygo County Butterfly Count – Newaygo Co. Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller) Meet at Leppink’s grocery parking lot at the corner of M 82 & M 37 in Newaygo. odybrook@chartermi.net 

July 18, 2019 (Thur) 9:00 AM Greater Muskegon Butterfly Ct – Muskegon Co. Leader: Dennis Dunlap. Meet on Mill Iron Road from M-46 (Apple Ave.) east of Muskegon at second set of power lines that cross the road north of MacArthur Road. dunlapmd@charter.net. Date changed from original posting.

Rain day alternates will be the next day. Sign up with Ranger Steve so unexpected changes can be shared. Note the date for the Muskegon count was changed from 17 July to 18 July. 

WMBA President contact info: 

Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753. 

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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Whip-poor-will’s Magic Song

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The repeating call of the Whip-poor-will throughout the night is a joy and disturbance. More than one friend has told me they could not sleep when camping because the bird was incessant and loud. One said it stood on his tent. Many people look forward to hearing it but it is an uncommon treat for most. 

One flushed from under a shrub at Ody Brook where I only got a glimpse. A couple days later, it flushed from the same area and landed facing the tree trunk on an oak branch. They sit lengthwise on branches unlike most birds that stand crosswise on branches. I called a friend that wanted to see one and he arrived later in the afternoon. We flushed it again and it flew to a white pine where it landed on the branch facing the trunk. 

We were pleased with good views. They usually sleep on the ground under shrubs during the day. I have encountered them on tree branches in daylight but perhaps they had been disturbed from sleeping abodes. 

Weather was great for migration the night I last saw the one at Ody Brook. It probably departed for better breeding grounds because it has not been seen or heard since. I seldom find the mysterious treasure or hear its hidden magic song emanating from the mature forest. During migration, they are usually silent in feeding and stopover sites. Hearing their call is a good indication they have reached a suitable nesting area.

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) and in the surrounding Rogue River State Game Area, there is better opportunity for hearing them. The preferred habitat nature niche is a large forest tract with scattered openings and sparse forest understory. Heavy shrub vegetation on the forest floor seems to be a deterrent. They feed on large insects that are possibly most abundant below the forest canopy or in forest ecotone edges. 

They have a short beak but a mouth when opened is as wide as the head and used to scoop flying insects from the air. Insect abundance has declined for many reasons and so have Eastern Whip-poor-wills. Their population might be increasing in some areas due to reforestation and associated insect abundance. Forests along Lake Michigan have recorded higher occurrence and that might be a result of large forest tracts with scattered open areas. The dune country often has an open understory with scattered clearings throughout the forest. 

Increasing use of insecticides and herbicides to meet the needs of our growing human population is considered a hazard that eliminates essential food needed for bird and wildlife survival. Reforestation and habitat management for hunting on public lands has been helpful for the whip-poor-wills. Their population might be increasing in some areas and declining in others. 

Consider an after-dusk drive to the Rogue River State Game Area and stop at one of the North Country Trail parking areas along Red Pine Drive between 18 and 20-Mile Roads, near the Rogue River, or HCNC. Extensive deciduous oak forest or mixed hardwood/pine forest are places to hear their call. Seeing them is not likely. 

A few years ago, I heard a stuttering individual in a mesic forest near a marsh where it repeatedly called whip-whip-whip-poor-will. I returned in succeeding years but have not heard that particular bird. 

Some year I might flush a parent from its two-egg nest. That will require time afield during late May to mid-June. The nests are reported to be on the ground under low shrub branches but are not next to the trunk. Unlike most birds, they do not use material to construct a nest. Eggs are laid on existing dead leaves with no bowl or cavity shaping. After about three weeks of incubation, young hatch and are fed by parents for three weeks until fledging. 

A well-camouflaged adult will sit tight on the nest as I walk past unless I come too close. Perhaps I have passed within feet while the secretive bird watches me obliviously wandering though the forest. Maybe my grandchild will discover a bird on the nest and alert me. Spend time with kids discovering. 

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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First arrival

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

My lifetime’s journey of place for a book is Bryce Breaks and surrounding areas. The essays are meant to draw others to experiences for a place essential for their lives. The characters and supporting geology are meant to help people find the essence of a special place they call home so they might pass it unimpaired to the future generations.

The following introduction is a draft for a book I began planning 45 years ago but did not plan to write until retirement. Most of my writing efforts for area publications have focused on the Great Lakes Ecosystem but I should find time to complete the book I planned. 

The Colorado Plateau of Southern Utah is a place too sacred to stay and too compelling to leave. It is a place where soul, spirit, and body intertwine with intensity that melds the senses beyond conveyance of words. My escapade has joy, sorrow, love, hate, patience, anxiety, intrigue, defiance, peace, praise, noise, silence, solemn human emotion and logic contained in stories of time in a wonderous place surrounding Bryce Canyon.  

Mined from within Grand Staircase’s rock layers and sealed deep within for millions of years we gather knowledge to decipher with logic. Animal bloodlines and plant sap pumped through eons of animal and plant veins help us unravel mysteries of past and present. Emotion instills love for plateau canyons to share with species nature has not yet conceived. The future provides hope for us to temper with responsibility and pass on to all that follow. The past holds our track record for what we have maintained for coming generations. Will we preserve nature’s integrity for our children’s children of what nature bestowed upon us?

Our inheritance from eons of nature should guide a course to preserve ecosystems for more than just us. Instead we could take an irreverent ride that meanders aimlessly disrupting the integrity of place. My naturalist experiences open pathways to secrets of place and knowledge. They are meant to instill emotional love supported with science and reason. Emotional passion allows reason to succeed in preserving the future from myopic plunder. Reason by itself does not convince. Emotions without roots in experience are easily dismissed. Experiencing place is essential. Words are merely an attraction to superficial beauty and lack the essence of personality. Every place has depth of personality comprised by the stories of its natural inhabitants. Inhabitants of nature niches stitch the fabric of place into a cohesive entity that will unravel without ecosystem care. 

On first arrival I met a life’s destination and for 45 years since I have been enraptured in paradise. Anyone who has fallen in love knows that yesterday is fresh and recent regardless of how many tomorrows come and go. Yesterday’s true love stays fresh and does not recede.  

I first came with tender feet and stepped out of the van as a knowledgeable innocent, but I was still an inexperienced student. Prince’s Plume and Globe Mallow flowers were held high on plant stems floating in a background of deep blue sky over red sand that drew me to their side. The flowers had not been etched in my brain’s wrinkles. Neither was the sudden sensation that bare feet were not meant for this landscape. Tiny barbs scattered from cacti were a sensation transcribed into their own brain wrinkle. It took several patient minutes to extract minute cacti spines from the soles of my feet. 

My first excited encounter on the plateau taught me I needed to the learn beauty and hazards of this land on its terms. Reckless abandon was not the way to explore so shoes became part of my anatomy. Throughout the day it was necessary to remove missed jabbing spines from my feet. The brain wrinkle of flowers and cactus spines remains a vivid memory. Flowers and scattered cactus fragments are part of my first discovery for learning how to become a community member. 

Butterflies are essential for my life and the Becker’s White was a new encounter to complete my introduction to canyon country.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve at odybrook@chartermi.net – or call 616-696-1753.

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Spring progression

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

I entered into the evening sunset among the last whistles of birds before the calm of dusk darkened the day. A final glow of orange receded from the horizon under a blue gray cloud. Blue tint remained high in the sky lighted by jetting sun rays from below the curve of Earth that also lighted drifting cloud underbellies with a white glow.

Fresh green growth of spring leaves emerged muffling the superfluous noise from peoples’ distant activities as night settled and daily outside activities were completed. 

A day with friends took us through large patches of large flowered trilliums in the upland forest. Larger masses of nodding trilliums filled the lowland wet soil with many plants straying to higher ground where we saw their small white flowers hiding under three parted leaves. Unlike the large flowered trilliums that nearly tackled us with beauty, the nodding trilliums remain secretive hiding blooms under leaves from obvious view. 

Wood anemones showed their buttercup family flowers with stamens clustered around central pistils. Just below the floodplain ridge, three parted leaves subtended the white anemone flowers. A different buttercup splashed color on the lowland stream border with shiny wax laden yellow petal-like sepals of marsh marigolds. 

Inconspicuous jack-in-the-pulpits stood high and dry with their feet in wet mud. Its spathe wraps around a flower spike and a hood covers internal flowers. A slit down the front of the spathe allows it to be carefully opened and one can examine the inner flowers. The plant chooses from year to year whether to be a male or female but never both in one year. The choice of sex is determined by the amount of energy stored underground during the previous year.

As mid-season spring flowers begin dominating, early carpets of flowers that brightened the forest floor begin to wane. The spring beauties have white petals with pink lines that open in sun and close under clouds or shade. The emergence of leaves on trees and shrubs is a signal for spring beauties to end their growing season. Developing shade from surrounding plants announces it is time for spring beauties and trout lilies to senesce.

Spring beauties might look like pink flowers until one bends near to touch them with close vision. White petals have pink lines of varying widths that make them appear to have variable pink intensity from a distance. Trout lilies scattered in dense clumps have green leaves mottled with brown to reddish speckles that generate the name “trout” lily. Its yellow flowers are like small lanterns glowing on the forest floor.

During a few short weeks, both spring beauties and trout lilies photosynthesize on the bright forest floor where trees and shrubs have not produced shade with new leaf growth. By the time woody plants release leaves from winter’s tightly packed buds, the lilies and beauties begin completion of the year’s appearance. Spreading flower petals of spring beauties provide landing platforms and are pollinated by early flying spring azure butterflies. Small insects that enter trout lilies might fertilize them but most reproduction for the species is by the spread of stolons that sprout new plants. 

When shade darkens the forest floor, the leaves of beauties and trout lilies will have completed their year’s work of producing and storing energy and will soon decay. The plants disappear from view in June and will not reappear until April of next year. They sit quietly biding their time in the darkened underground like the birds whistling goodnight at sunset that will sleep quietly through the blackness of night. 

Birds, however, will not disappear into the dark until next spring. They resume song in the morning and embark on nest building among the new leaves to fill their nature niche requirements. Our ears continue to hear their joy, work, and energetic spirit throughout spring until most quiet by midsummer. Preserving wild experiences is essential for the human spirit to thrive and depends on us conserving life in wild places.

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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Spring and Summer Azures

Ranger Steve’s Nature NicheBy Ranger Steve Mueller

An azure sky captivates us on clear sunny warm days. Tiny pieces of sky flit nearby as we tend the garden, walk the woods, and field edges. Notice the tiny blue wings carry the Spring Azure butterfly on what might seems like an aimless journey. 

Their multifaceted eyes capture color drawing them to other blue butterflies and to flowers where they feed on nectar. They are able to locate plants essential to feed their offspring. Dogwood and viburnums shrubs are important. Adults lay eggs on developing flowerheads where the eggs hatch to feed. 

Eggs are laid singly and scattered throughout the habitat on host plants. The adult blue is about size of a dime when wings are folded over its back. The underwing appears light gray with black spotting. When it opens it wings, the upper sky azure flashes blue beauty. Males are brighter blue than females. Notice the female has a wider dark band along wing’s edge. 

As June approaches, the spring azure become less abundant and summer azures emerge. Summer azures gray underwing spots are not dark or bold. Spring Azures have a more distinctive zig zag line along the hind wing border. The differences between the two species are minor and make it difficult to distinguish them apart. 

For decades the nearly identical butterflies were thought to be the same species with slightly differing appearing spring and summer forms. Many butterflies have variable spring and summer color forms that differ depending on temperature during development. It was discovered the “spring azure form” did not produce a summer form as a second brood. Instead it stayed in the chrysalis until the following spring. Scientists studying anatomy of wing scales discovered unique wing scale structures differed between the two species. 

Mysteries of inhabitants of our yards abound. We might expect there are just two species of the tiny blue azures but not so. There are additional azures including one in our area called the cherry gall azure. Biodiversity of species with specialized nature niches continue to demonstrate amazing adaptations. 

Beyond the azure complex, the Silvery Blue butterfly has more iridescent deep blue upper wings with tan underwings. Instead of scattered dark spots on the underwing, it has a single row of black spots circled with white that arc across the underside. The Silvery Blues like other blues have a short adult life of about one week. During that time, they seek legumes where they lay eggs. We only get to see these iridescent blues when adults are on the wing during a few weeks of the year. Males emerge first.

The Federally Endangered Karner Blue butterfly resides in our area and has a deep blue upper wing with an orange underwing band along wing’s edge that is absent on Silvery Blues, Spring and Summer Azures. Its larval host plant is restricted to one species—Wild Blue Lupine.

As summer solstice arrives, another blue butterfly appears. The Eastern Tailed Blue has a gray underwing with similar black dotted pattern like azures but bears a small orange patch and a tiny tail projecting from the hind wing. When viewed from above, tiny black dots appear along the hind edge of the wing near the tail. 

It might seem like few butterfly species share habitat with us but about 50 species live at Ody Brook and perhaps dozens share your residence. By encouraging native plants to thrive, you can enhance opportunities for butterfly biodiversity during a time when wildlife are having difficulty surviving. How we behave and promote healthy living conditions around our homes is critical to a healthy environment for life on Earth. 

Manicured lawns are a sight to behold but are sterile for supporting native butterflies struggling to survive where native host plants are excluded. Make the effort to support native plants and animals. Enjoy the beauty and life found in wild habitats by allowing native species to share your yard. Be a force helping wildlife.

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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Seek the common

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve Mueller

Venture to a willow thicket and enjoy its rich beauty of sights and sounds. Pussy willows already came and went this year. Willow species enchant the wet hollow in the middle of the old field. A large willow tree stood sentinel in the field when the rest was farmed. The field was not easily accessible and in the late 1980’s was abandoned.

Field corn was grown but now the isolated field has reverted to the wild. A half-mile long tractor trail through the woods is filled with encroaching vegetation. On high ground, a mature oak woods provided nesting habitat for the Ovenbird that calls “teacher, teacher, teacher” well into summer and persists calling throughout the day. It is a small warbler that builds a unique nest that looks like a Dutch oven. The well-hidden domed nest on the ground has a small entrance opening from the side. Only once have I found a nest. 

The bird, though common in mature forests, avoids being seen. Its voice is loud but not many people get to enjoy its subtle beauty that blends with forest floor where it walks to feed. An olive back casts a hint of green but its head boasts the brightest markings. It has a white ring surrounding a piercing black eye. Two black lines streak from the bill over the top of the head bordering orange feathers between them. It is necessary to look carefully to see details on the tiny bird about the size of an egg with a tail. Binoculars help capture details.

Feathers that blend well with forest floor contrast with its white underside. Scattered black stripes on the chest break up the white-feathered underbelly when viewed from beneath. I have taken people bird watching that have never seen the ovenbird despite decades of searching. Books report that the bird sings from the forest floor and I am sure they do but that is not where I usually encounter them. 

During a previous Memorial Day weekend exploration, I advised viewers to look on branches about ten feet above ground for the songster. Leaves had already expanded making it a bit more challenging to locate the bird but we succeeded. Its teacher, teacher, teacher song echoed through the forest. The loud call appeared to come from the ground and trees. Difficulty locating the mysterious location helps protect the bird from predators.

I have lead guide tours for decades to help others locate the singing bird. Guidebooks advise looking on the ground and I have found them there but less frequently than above. A woman on my walk was elated to finally see one after years of seeking it but never locating one. She discovered the common bird was in a different location from the search image she had been taught to seek. She thanked me profusely. 

One should never get locked into narrow focus even when the experts tell us where to look. The joy for me has always been exploring to discover animal behavior on my own. Head out using advice from books to help you but do not become overly dependent on them. Realize books do not always relate the most accurate information. Many skilled hunting friends are sharper than me but not always. We keep learning from new experiences in the wild and find what we thought we knew is not always how things work in nature niches. 

After exiting the old tractor trail through the woods and entering what was a cultivated field, a willow and alder thicket now traverses its low wet center. The Common Yellowthroat claims the habitat for its singing, mating, and nesting. Now that willows have mostly completed flowering, seeds are forming, and leaves hide branches, the yellowthroat announces its presence. Like the ovenbird, it is one of the louder warblers.

It is willing to show itself and will investigate you. Its song is a loud “Witchity, Witchity, Witchity”. A bright yellow breast helps us locate it among shrubs. It has a bold black mask that wraps around the face over the bill. The yellow chin and throat below offer great visual contrast. Above the dark mask is a white band. Though the rest of the bird’s pattern is a subdued olive like the ovenbird’s, its bright front is obvious and easy to locate. It is not shy and can be located in most willow thickets. Seek the common in woods and thickets. Do not let spring pass you by. For many of us, the outdoors is more enticing than phones, television, or electronics games.

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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