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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

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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Cowbirds stand, watch, and lay

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche | By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

By chance I discovered a Horned Lark nest in a prairie. The location was not distinctive but I memorized vegetative stems nearby so I could watch from a distance. I obscured myself as best I could and waited.

I first found the nest when I almost stepped on it and the lark flew off. I was able to return to the nest area for several days to determine if the young would survive to fledge. The second day a couple inches of snow covered the area but the young were protected and kept warm by the mother. 

Many hazards such as cold, wind, precipitation, insect parasites, predators, and vertebrate parasites make nest survival difficult. Brown-headed Cowbirds are non-native vertebrate parasites in our region that moved in after forest clearing. Perhaps they thrived in southwestern Michigan where some open prairies existed. 

Male Brown-headed Cowbirds have beautiful shiny feathers covering the body that provides iridescence. In contrast the head is a rich chestnut brown and the bill is fairly thick that serves well for crushing prairie seeds and insects. The females are dull gray with a behavior unique from most birds.

They stand, watch, and lay. The cowbirds followed bison in the prairie and fed heavily on insects stirred by the large mammals. Nomadic bison moved great distances. This behavior presented a problem for birds staying in one place while the animals stirring up food kept moving. 

Cowbirds developed an adaptation to stay with moving mammals but it prevented them from incubating eggs in a stationary nest. Moving a nest is not an option. The nomadic adaptation cowbirds developed allowed them to watch other birds to determine their nests locations. 

If you tried to find a bird nest during breeding season, you have discovered your success rate is low compared to the number of nests produced. If nests were easily found there would be few birds in existence. 

When I watched for the lark to feed her young, I usually did not see her return. I observed her leaving. She would land 25 feet or more away and sneak through the dead mat of winter vegetative stems to the nest, feed her young and fly away. She was adept at not revealing the nest location on approach. 

Cowbirds staying with roaming mammals found success by laying an egg in other birds’ nests and abandoning them. The new foster parent most often will incubate and rear the new sibling. Interestingly, baby cowbirds sometimes push nest young from their nest or because cowbirds are larger other young do not get adequate food and starve. This can be disastrous for the species parasitized. 

When following a mammal herd, the cowbird stands watching birds approach their nests. After a bird leaves its nest, the cowbird quickly flies in, lays an egg and departs. Like other birds, it takes about 24 hours for the bird to produce an egg. To survive the new egg must be fertilized before the shell develops. 

During the breeding the season, a cowbird can produce more than 30 eggs that might survive to fledge. The species being parasitized will usually have a clutch of 5 or fewer eggs. Several species will have two clutches a year so they might produce 8 to 10 young. It is unusual for more than one or two young to survive to the next breeding season. If more successful, bird populations increase but when less successful they decline. 

Cowbirds moved into altered Michigan nature niche habitats after forest clearing and nesting success for native birds declined for many species. This trend continues and is a reason many people do not appreciate cowbirds. Many prairie species have adaptations that help them survive nest parasitism that forest birds have not developed. Forest bird survival often depends on large contiguous forest stands because cowbirds do not enter to the deep interior. They thrive near forest edges and in open areas.

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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Left Unsaid

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We did yard work in the spring as the grass greened and our planted flowers began blooming. We anticipated the flowering crab apple blooming around Mother’s Day. Dad lamented kids cutting through the backyard in spring because it killed the grass. They cut through our yard to pick me up on the way to school. 

The grass on wet ground during spring could not withstand the trampling like it could in summer or fall. We had a dog that was on a rope during the day while we were gone. He defecated in the corner by the back of the garage and it required considerable pick up in the spring. We buried it by the fence at the back of the yard.

The neighbor living behind us was a police officer and his daughter was my age. He made a greenhouse covered with plastic sheeting to start plants early so he could plant them in his yard. His greenhouse was about three feet tall and large enough to supply the plants wanted for vegetables and beauty. 

A couple houses down the street, an elder neighbor had the most beautiful yard of flowering plants and neighborhood kids were not allowed to cut through his yard. Most yards were fairly small and provided enough space for general play but were not large enough for baseball. 

The wonderful large five-acre wetland across the street from our home was where we waded to find frogs, crayfish and many wonders. It was tiled and drained between our church and the parsonage. I was saddened with the loss. I recall John Scott cutting through the wetland and losing his shoe in the mud.

Not only was his shoe lost forever but so was the multitude of life that serenaded us with frog songs, noisy dragonfly wings, calling swallows and I am sure buzzing mosquitoes. The drained field became a haven for activity where our church installed a ball field. We flew kites and played frisbee there. Mr. Schlutz, who attended our church, did the tiling construction work, dug up a large glacial erratic rock that was placed by the church drive entrance. It was directly across the street from our house. We enjoyed the rock for climbing and viewing for the entire time we lived there. The rock still persists. He also made a hill in the field that became a sledding hill for many years before being leveled. 

Memories from childhood are good and bad. Perhaps most people enjoyed the flat grassy field with a ball field more than the wetland but I missed the piece of wild that disappeared. There were small fields between homes where we explored nature but they disappeared as new homes were added to our neighborhood. Now the neighborhood has no wild lots for children to discover life’s nature niches. 

By the time I was in upper elementary, it was necessary to walk two blocks to the city limit where fallow farm fields were wild. They quickly became residential developments. I could not understand how that could happen because they were outside the city limit in the country where I thought it had to remain farmland or wild fields. So began my education about urban sprawl that engulfs life for our ever-growing human population. 

By the time I was in high in school, I decided a two-child family was my limit in order to share creation with the abundance of life we inherited rather than crowd life off the planet. On Friday nights, I watched Walt Disney nature shows and the Flintstones on our new color TV with dad and brothers. I marveled at the wildlife depicted and decided on a career connected to helping wildlife survive with us. 

Those were pleasant evenings with dad while mom went bowling with her team after we ate a fish dinner. Dad is gone and I wish I could tell him how much I enjoyed those evenings. I recall telling him that I am sure I would have things to share with him after he was gone and it would be sad not to able to tell him. He told me not to leave things left unsaid because we never know if he might hear them. Dad, I miss the nature niche across the street and the time with you. Thank you for taking to me to national parks, boy scout camp, and 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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Ranger Steve’s Nature NicheBy Ranger Steve Mueller

Little ponds that dry by mid-summer exude great volume to deafen you at night. One of my great joys is to approach one these ponds in spring. One hears a great cacophony but the pond suddenly becomes silent when approached. If the pond is large enough, the noise continues from the far side. 

Adult Spring Peeper.

Walk slowly around the pond and the noise will cease. If you are moving slow enough, the noise will begin again behind you. Sit and listen. Frogs will quiet with your approach but after a short time of sitting, one frog will sing and others will join. It is breeding season for frogs and they gather from surrounding areas to mate and lay egg masses in temporary vernal ponds. Vernal ponds dry or almost dry by midsummer. 

They are the most important breeding areas for most frogs because egg predators like fish do not survive in ponds that dry. Frogs call with songs unique to their species. Species that deafen us are only the size of your little finger tip. So many gather in the small pond that their joint volume hurts our ears. 

The smallest frogs are spring peepers that spend the summer away from the pond feeding on insects. Their song is a single peep repeated over and over throughout the night. When calling males get hold of a female, they squeeze eggs from her tiny body. His sperm is released on the emerging eggs that are in a jelly mass. The jelly encasing the eggs absorbs water and swells to become as large as the frog or bigger. 

Inside the jelly mass, eggs are two-toned. They have counter-shading with dark tops and light undersides. If they are laid in locations like permanent ponds and this occurs, they are somewhat invisible to fish from underneath because the light color blends with the light sky. From above the dark color blends with the dark pond bottom hiding them from predators. The jelly masses are attached to vegetation holding them in place. 

By the time the developing embryos hatch, the jelly encasing them has become green with cyanobacteria that digests the jelly. The tadpole coming from the egg can break free from the jelly without being stuck and killed. As a polliwog, some nutrition is absorbed from the tail. It feeds on floating aquatic vegetation as an herbivore unlike its adult parents that are predators on insects. The adult and kids do not compete for food. As the tadpole grows legs, its tail shrinks and the diet changes from vegetation to animal matter like insects or other invertebrates. By the time the pond dries, tadpoles become frogs and move into the woods. 

Another small frog that shares the vernal pond is the chorus frog. It is as tiny as spring peepers but can be recognized from the peepers by having three stripes on its back from head to rear. Spring peepers have an X on their back. A chorus frog song can be imitated by rubbing a thumb over the teeth of a comb. Ten thousand of these singing with ten thousand spring peepers is painful to our ears at close range. 

A frog found in breeding ponds that is several times larger is the wood frog. It is brown and has a dark Lone Ranger mask over its eyes. Their song sounds like ducks quacking. Their abundance in ponds is great but I think they are fewer than the smaller frogs. They too can be found throughout the forest in summer. 

Green and bull frogs need permanent ponds for egg laying because most young take two summers to mature. They breed in temporary ponds but survival for their offspring is precarious. Survival will be touch and go depending on how long water remains in the pond. Some vernal ponds persist all year but shrink greatly in size. If fortunate the large frogs might survive the winter in small fish-free pools. American toads breed in almost any water they find. Young develop quickly but mortality is high because tiny breeding pools often dry quickly.

The little frogs lay eggs in permanent ponds and bogs where some survive. If they are away from open water with fish they might be protected for development. Few tadpoles survive to become breeding adults. Populations are declining for several reasons but a big one is the filling or draining of temporary ponds. We can share the world with them by allowing vernal ponds to exist and by using few or no pesticides in nature niches.

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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Slow start

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

Delays test our patience. Waiting challenges us to get outside in search of hidden treasures. We plant early flowering species like crocuses and daffodils to greet us with cheer before native species bloom. Dwarf daffodils are blooming though they have an inch of new snow covering. Tall daffodils are about to open. 

A few native species have bloomed and will shed accessory flower parts except for the fertilized ovary that contains the developing seed. Red and silver maples will litter the yard with expended red flower parts and soon will follow with seeds attached to a helicopter wing. Seeds will spiral though the air to germination sites and some will be picked up by us to use as whistles with kids or grandkids. Placing the flat seed wing between our tongue and mouth roof for blowing will make a loud whistle and is a traditional sign of spring. What kid would miss announcing spring with this whistle? It is as important as the town’s noon whistle but parents or friends must teach them how the whistle works. Do not miss experiencing spring excitement with children. 

Hazel nut flowers have already shed pollen and speckled alders are still in the process. 

At ground level trout lilies or adder’s tongues and spring beauties are among the first ephemerals to carpet the woods with yellow and pink. Emerging maroon pyramidal growth breaks ground with some already having expanded into leaves with trout-like spots. April’s fresh snow does not disturb them. A few spring beauties show tiny leaves and flower buds but they wait for warmer days to open blooms.

Birds that spent the winter elsewhere are making their comeback to neighborhoods. Eastern Towhees, Chipping Sparrows, American Robins, Eastern Phoebes, and Red-winged Blackbirds are filling spaces that have been devoid of apparent life for too long. Their calls and songs give us hope that spring is really underway. 

Where are the butterflies? A few that overwinter as adults have come out on warm sunny days. Sun warmth penetrates cavities where Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas, and a few other anglewings have been holed up for months. My first sighting of the year was a Mourning Cloak on March 28. That is later than I expected but not unusual. Two more were seen on the 70ºF day along with an Eastern Comma during the first week of April. 

The following day a Cabbage White actively searched the backyard for signs of life to suit its interests. That species does not overwinter as an adult. It spent the cold season in a chrysalis and emerged with fresh wings. Viceroy butterfly caterpillars overwintered as tiny 1/8-inch-long larva wrapped in a tiny willow leaf that it tied to the stem with silk. When leaf buds open the young viceroy will begin feeding on delicate soft leaves. 

With additional warm weather, large swallowtails will emerge from chrysalises to grace us with their presence when serviceberry shrubs display white flowers that provide nectar. The slow start of life’s spring activity is about to cease and a mad race to complete nature niche growing activity will overwhelm us with too much to absorb.

It is time for us to mark calendars for mid-summer butterfly counts when butterfly activity is abundant. Visit the West Michigan Butterfly Association web site (http://graud.org/wmba.html) for details about regional counts in our area that include the Allegan (June 29), Rogue River (July 3), Muskegon State Game Areas (July 18) and the Manistee National Forest (July 5). For now, mark your calendar and plan to participate part or all day. If needed, contact Ranger Steve for additional information. 

Butterfly counts are wonderful for discovering a variety of habitats, learning butterfly identification, and enjoying the outdoors. 

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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Bill and Gator’s squirrels

RBy Ranger Steve Mueller

Bill Caldwell received three young flying squirrels from a logger that cut a tree. The mother was killed when the tree fell. Bill was able to secure a permit from the MI-DNR to keep and raise the squirrels in his high school classroom. It is illegal to rescue “orphaned” wildlife. A primary reason is because keeping them alive frequently fails. If successful, the wildlife has not learned essentials for living on their own and death likely results when released. When a person desires to keep the animal, it often becomes a problem in a variety of ways.

When the young animal’s eyes have not opened, success for rearing the “rescued” wildlife is particularly difficult. Licensed rehabilitators have learned the most effective skills for success but still many animals do not survive. Rehabilitators will not accept some species. It is illegal for them to accept some or they might not be able to care for the quantity people find and “rescue.” In most cases the “orphaned” wildlife are not orphaned. Animals like rabbits and deer are left for hours with the adults infrequently returning to nurse them. 

Ray Gates, best known as “Gator,” teaches biology at Cornerstone University. The first time I met Gator, I was leading my college class on a field trip at the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC). That was before I made the career change from college instructor to become director at HCNC. My class encountered his college class from Cornerstone that was exploring the exciting wild natural world with Gator. 

He reached into his shirt pocket and displayed a bugged-eye Southern Flying Squirrel with soft fur and skin that stretched from front legs to hind legs that allows it to parachute through the air. Though the squirrels are called “flying” it is better to describe them as gliders. They are capable of directing their travel by how they manipulate skin flaps. An adult flying squirrel is smaller than a chipmunk and is perhaps one of the most truly nocturnal mammals. Gator provided an excellent impromptu lesson on the flying squirrel’s nature niche.

It is a rare opportunity to see one in the wild even though they are common provided adequate nesting cavities are available. I had not seen one at Ody Brook until one night my daughter Jenny Jo and I were leaving the house after dark. She asked, “What is making that sound?” I did not know. We listened and determined the sound was coming from inside one of bird feeders. I lifted the cover and four flying squirrels leaped from the feeder and glided to a nearby sugar maple tree.

One time at HCNC, I was inspecting bluebird houses. One was becoming surrounded by shrubs at the edge of the field. Natural plant succession was changing the habitat making it unsuitable for bluebirds. When I peered inside, I discovered the nest box was being used to rear a litter of flying squirrels. I departed with joy that the nest box was remaining valuable for wildlife. 

Many of us have squirrel stories to share. I could continue with stories about Gray, Fox, and Kaibab squirrels and other squirrel species. This week I received a call regarding young squirrels “rescued” from a tree that was cut down. The logger felt badly and wanted to help them. I was called. My best advice was to return the three squirrels to the location so the mother could rescue them and take them to a new cavity. That might seem like a long shot but the chances for their survival are better there than trying to care for them. 

Once I asked the custodian at HCNC to replace a bluebird nest box that was in poor condition. He placed the old one in the garage. The next morning, I heard noise from the box in the garage. Inside were young bluebirds. I immediately returned the box to the post and the parent returned to successfully fledge the birds. Perhaps the mother squirrel will return to carry the blind, naked, baby squirrels to a new nest cavity. We can be hopeful. 

Wildlife biologists with MI-DNR annually instruct people that want to help wildlife to leave them where they are found. They remind us it is illegal to rescue them and chances for successful rearing and release are poor. To offer the greatest help one should harvest live trees and leave dead hollow ones in the forest for wildlife. Harvesting live trees thins the forest and allows neighboring trees to grow faster with more vigor.

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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Colors of Spring

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve Mueller

We wait. It is coming. When? Anticipation of green leaves, first garden flowers, butterfly wings, and changing bird feathers from dull winter hues to spring’s festive brightness are all on the way. We can’t wait but we must. 

Unlike many birds who lose their color during the winter, Northern Cardinals retain their bright red feathers. Photo by Hari Krishnan (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

American Goldfinches are displaying patches of yellow that will replace the olive feathers from last fall’s molt. A black cap on males will become prominent. Black wing feathers with white markings will contrast with the sunshine yellow of summer body feathers. Male Northern Cardinals have maintained a bright red all winter. Blue Jays display crystal blues. White-breasted Nuthatches show a splash of orange on the belly under the tail.

Bird colors are often ephemeral pigments that serve survival and breeding functions. The genetic bases of color is sometimes structural instead of pigmental. Diet can cause color variation. House Finch males typically have red feathers but yellow develops instead if they do not eat adequate carotenoids in their diet during feather development. They need a mother to remind them to eat their carrots. Plants and insects often contain the needed carotenoids. 

Melanin is responsible for black, brown, and earth tones. Carotenes provide yellow, orange, and red that please our eyes. Joyful blues on Eastern Bluebirds, Indigo Buntings, and Blue Jays are structural colors instead of pigments. 

Colors provide a variety of functions in bird nature niches. During the non-breeding season, the bright displays used in breeding season to court females or to claim territory could draw the attention of predators when trees are bare. Having bright colors is not as dangerous during breeding season when birds can hide among tree foliage. Birds advertise their presence with songs to females and other males from secluded perches where they can show off bright colors to her or use them to threaten other males in territorial disputes. Some colorful birds sing from exposed perches but many, like warblers and vireos, sing more secretively in the thick tree canopy. 

Why Northern Cardinals stay bright red all year remains a mystery to me. It would seem changing to the rusty color of females during the fall molt would be advantageous. People feeding birds ask me why predators, like the Cooper’s Hawks, always have to take their cardinals? They wish they would pick on duller colored birds. I am sure they take both but we notice the bright red feathers scattered on the ground. 

Blue color appears when feather structure splits short light waves from longer reds and yellow light waves. The blue is reflected outward while reds and yellows are absorbed by melanin and remain hidden to our eyes.

White feathers lack pigments and strength. We notice the new black feathers in fall on European Starlings have white edges creating a spotted appearance. During the winter the white tips wear off and the birds become shiny black by spring. Pigment gives feathers greater strength and durability.

Feather pigments aid important ornamental breeding displays, territory establishment, protective camouflage, and help with heat absorption.

Perhaps your heart has been momentarily stopped when a Ruffed Grouse burst into the air from vegetation near your feet. How often have we walked past birds that remained hidden with stillness? They have many essential behaviors for survival aided by color. 

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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Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

It is time to break free from our restrictive indoor dens to explore the lengthening days outside. Twelve hours of light and darkness signal lengthening daylight and we recognized March 17 as the time to adjust schedules for an extra hour for outdoor evening exploring. Daylight saving time provides opportunity to hit golf eggs in hopes of finding an adult “golf” to retrieve the egg and take it to safety. Golfers have not succeeded.

Beside the ribbons of fairways, shrub and forest woodland animals anxiously explore nature niche habitats for food after long winter nights secluded in den darkness. Like many mammals, we feel hostage to the confines of walls for months. Snow maintained a foot of cover to peoples joy or dismay depending on whether we chose to explore or be confined to indoor safety. Many went north to snowmobile the UP’s deep snow and beauty.

We maintain warm temperature and light in our home dens during winter’s cold darkness. Wild mammals hole up underground in dark seclusion, waiting. As warming spring weather approached, we found ourselves cast into a burrowing winter mammal’s lifestyle when sleet coated tree branches with glazing beauty. Nearly 100,000 people in our region experienced isolation and darkness that skunks, chipmunks, and opossums experience daily. Trees and shrubs snapped breaking power lines that maintain summer-like indoor conditions for us. Lights out and heat off for a day to a week disrupted routines and let us know we are part of nature’s whims.

During March, we smelled a skunk exploring the neighborhood as it searched to discover if spring arrived. Opossum tracks indicated inspection of our compost pile for morsels of nourishment but it found cottontails that remained active all winter scarfed usable vegetables. Mice, vole, and weasel tracks traverse the snow surface leading from tunnel exit to entrance along regularly traveled runways. Occasional coyote and fox tracks traverse wide ranging routes and become more frequent as spring approaches. Hairy black stringy scat identifies that canine predators protect young trees from bark girdling rabbits that would kill trees if left in abundance to gnaw succulent tissues where sap has begun to flow. 

Sap flow is evident by the formation of sapsickles where they drip from sun-warmed branches that cracked or snapped during the ice storm. Dripping sap exposed to cold air freezes and I cannot resist enjoying the sweet taste of spring. Sapsickles are shared with squirrels, chickadees, titmice, and a variety of birds seeking early spring treats when snow still lies deep. Trees have awakened even though they continue a dead appearance until April, when buds swell and early flowers bloom on silver and red maples proving spring has arrived.

To see the earliest blooms of the year, one must explore inside the spathes of skunk cabbage, where minute yellow flowers pepper the club-like spadix on these floodplain plants. Skunk cabbage produces heat that prevents freezing of its flowers. Tiny insects find the maroon spathes and take shelter during cold nights until winter conditions wane. If you happen to step on one while exploring, the odor clues to the source of its name.

Red-tailed hawks have paired and nest near forest edges. Nest 2019-1 is the first active nest noticed this year. Adults sit on tree branches along open fields and flash crimson tail feathers when circling grassland hunting grounds. Similar appearing Rough-legged hawks have a white band at the base of a dark tail, a broader dark band across the belly, whiter head, and longer wings lacking the dark ribbon along the leading wing edge. Roughlegs winter here but depart with spring’s approach to find the best breeding sites in the far north. 

We seldom view Barred, Great Horned, or Eastern Screech Owls that work winter night shifts but we hear them when most mammals venture forth in the cover and safety of darkness. When fortunate, we see a screech owl peering from a nest cavity at dusk while waiting for the safety of darkness to hunt with less chance of being eaten if it ventures out too early. It might become evening dinner for a Cooper’s Hawk when it is still light. 

Night activity is the rule for most mammals. Rising hormone levels, longer daylight hours, diminished fat, and warm weather work together to drive denning animals to explore the countryside. You are a mammal. Explore.

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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Distance disappears

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche.  By Ranger Steve Mueller

John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Picture by Jim Markham.

The Great Lake Restoration Fund is hitched to the border wall funding. The federal budget President Trump proposed plans to significantly cut environmental protection funding. Farmland protection is hitched to the border wall and protections are waived. Eagle protection is hitched to the border wall and waived. Many environmental protection laws Congress established from 1899 to present are being waived without due process. Eight billion dollars is proposed to continue funding the border wall by taking money largely from two areas of the Federal budget. Environmental Protection is one of the two.

The nature niche column focuses on environmental concerns having direct effect on our lives locally. PFAS’s are hitched to the border wall. Safe drinking water is hitched to the wall. The Kent ISD superintendent told me in 2005 that environmental education was no longer a priority in America when they closed the Howard Christensen Nature Center. He said that does not mean it is not important. It means it is no longer a priority. HCNC is now a 501.c3 primarily operated independently by volunteers. 

Hopefully you will voice to legislators your view regarding environmental protection funding priority. The Great Lakes Restoration fund is critical for our regional economy, health, and future. Perhaps people do not make the connection between eagle protections discussed in last week’s nature niche and our own health. The current issue of PFAS in drinking water should provide awareness to the importance of environmental monitoring and protection. Defunding the Environmental Protection Agency and other environmental programs to build a wall does not provide sound ecological or economic reasoning. 

$77 million dollars’ worth of cocaine was recently confiscated coming through a border check point. Authorities maintain that is how most drugs and undocumented immigrants access the United States. A border wall will direct money away from environmental health protection in our local community without effectively addressing the immigration and drug trafficking problem where it is most prevalent. Drug trafficking and illegal immigration are hitched to Great Lakes ecosystem health and sustainability making distance disappear.

Budgeting money for a fence will have minimal desired effect compared to enhancing security at entry check points as a priority. The shift in priority is waiving laws protecting communities throughout America. 

Laws Waived for The Border Wall (See photograph provided by Jim Markham):

The National Environmental Policy Act; The Endangered Species Act; The Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly referred to as the Clean Water Act); The National Historic Preservation Act; The Migratory Bird Treaty Act; The Archeological Resources Protection Act; The Paleontological Resources Preservation Act; The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988; The Safe Drinking Water Act; The Noise Control Act; The Solid Waste Disposal Act; The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; The Archeological and Historic Preservation Act; The Historical Sites, Buildings, and Antiquities Act; The Farmland Protection Policy Act; The Coastal Zone Management Act; The Federal Land Policy and Management Act; The National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956; The Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act; The Administrative Procedure Act; The River and Harbors Act of 1899; The Eagle Protection Act; The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act; and the American Religious Freedom Act.

It is a preferred joy to write about the beauty and nature niche intricacies found in yards, neighborhoods, and region. I am sure that is most pleasant to read. For beauty and niche intricacies to thrive, it is important to share your views regarding environmental protection and our natural heritage with Congressional Representatives and Senators. Distance disappears because you are hitched to everything in the universe. Keep healthy nature close whether near or far and your great grandchildren will thank you.

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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