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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Passenger Pigeon Extinction

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It has been 100 years since the last Passenger Pigeon on Earth died and joined the dinosaurs in extinction. It was on September 1, 1914, that the last remaining individual of its kind died, in the Cincinnati Zoo. We mourn the death of the last individual. Society experienced greater sorrow with loss of an entire species on that day. Gone were its contributions toward sustaining biodiversity in ecosystems.

The pigeon was the most abundant bird species, with a population that might have exceeded the number of all ducks combined. Its feeding activities likely controlled diseases like Lyme disease. Pigeon populations in the millions moved through the eastern deciduous forest feeding on acorns, American chestnuts, seeds and nuts. More than a billion total pigeons thrived. Their abundance removed food that would have supported deer and mice. This limited excessive deer and mice reproduction and resulted in fewer fleas. That reduced the spread of Lyme disease. Nature niche connections are often not obvious.

No Passenger Pigeons were left to pass on their genetic legacy into the coming millennia. An important thread in the fabric of life was stripped from ecosystems. It may seem the death of a species 100 years ago has no or little impact on people in the present. The increase in Lyme disease is just one impact that might have caused disability or even death for some people. Making absolute connections is not likely. Other connections relate to forest reproduction, abundance and composition of tree species. Pigeon feeding activity directed forest developed and numbers of other plants. In turn, it impacted the abundance and composition of animal populations present today.

Current scientific evidence suggests human activities are pushing many species toward extinction. The monarch butterfly population has declined due to land use practices. It numbered in the billions but last year’s winter population was only about 37 million. The Passenger Pigeon dropped below a threshold for survival and disappeared. There is concern the same might occur with the migratory monarch population. Several things limit monarch survival but one is human use of genetically modified crops that can tolerate herbicides so we can support an ever-growing human population. Crops growers increase the amount of chemicals on crops to eliminate wild plants like milkweed that are in or near croplands. With only a few milkweeds, monarchs cannot find food plants to lay their eggs as they migrate from Texas to Michigan.

All species strive to increase their kind but limiting factors keep them from continuous population growth. That is the case with the introduced exotic emerald ash borer that has largely eliminated ash trees in the landscape. In regions where they kill ashes, the beetles run out of food and their populations’ crash. It is a boom and bust population. People have found ways to delay human starvation for some regions. We have not responded by working to keep our population at or below the environment’s carrying capacity that would sustain our population for the centuries. Instead we are moving toward a boom number that will bust and crash. A continuous growing population will result in massive human death at some point. Human behavior today is not maintaining sustainable conditions to support future generations. Instead we focus on immediate personal interests and desires with boom and bust lifestyles.

Extinctions caused by human misuse of the Earth’s natural resources threaten other life forms but also threatens our own species long-term survival. Our population can sustain itself for millennia if we live within Earth’s carrying capacity. If not, we create a boom and bust that will cause massive deaths. Our behavior in the present is critically important for future human generations.

Many people choose to ignore evidence supporting the human influence on climate change or our impacts on species survival. Society’s behavior acted toward the Passenger Pigeon like society behaves toward climate change and species extinction threats. If we were interested in creation care and our offspring 20 generations hence, we would strive for sustainable lifestyles that do not squeeze other species off the planet. It depends on personal choices we make at home.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Lunar Eclipse

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It was one of those rare occasions when the Earth Sun and Moon aligned in a straight line. This does not occur every month so we do not experience eclipses often. If astronauts were on the moon, they would have witnessed a total solar eclipse while we watched the lunar eclipse. Earth cast its shadow on the moon when it was directly between Sun and Moon.

The Earth hides the moon rapidly unless one is too hurried to watch. Our patience is tried with the hurried business of our lives. I look forward to vacations when time is taken to contemplate the world and nature niches. It takes three days to slow down and shift my focus from work and home obligations.

One visitor joined me to see the eclipsing moon. He was having difficulty locating it and thanked me for being present. His arrival came when the upper right moon was just already starting to whiten. He thought it would was to be a blood moon. I commented that had already come and gone.

Watching the entire drama offers more than the great moments captured with a camera. The news showed pictures through amateur telescopes that were better than seen with the naked eye or binoculars but watching the progression exceeds the best still images.

Darkness began at the lower moon a gradually swept upward to the right until the Earth was centered between Sun and Moon. During the darkest phase the “blood red” hue was apparent. It amazes me how quickly the event comes and goes. Observers have a couple hours to enjoy an uncommon celestial event.

It has only been hundreds of years since Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for explaining the science behind celestial objects and described that Earth is not the center of the universe. A great number of people do not accept scientific process or scientific findings because it does not align with what they “know” or want to believe. Scientists mathematically predict events like the lunar eclipse and it occurs rapidly enough for people to watch from beginning to end. Events like extinctions and global climate change are not easily observed and many people dismiss the evidence as too elusive to accept. In some ways we are no different from people of the 16th century.

One beauty of the eclipse is that we watch phases of the moon come and go in a couple hours instead of over one month. The events simulate the new moon, quarter moons, and full moon. Unlike the new moon, the arc of darkness is in the opposite direction at the beginning, but when the lighted portion begins to show, it appears like the new moon. The quarter moons are not divided with half dark and half light. Instead we see the arc of Earth’s shadow on the moon. Always watch for subtleness in nature.

The use of binoculars allows us to see ridges and craters along the edges of the moon. Toward the center we can see light and dark portions but the mountainous relief is only apparent near the edges.

Decades ago about 40 people joined me at Kent County’s highest elevation at Fisk Knob County Park to observe Haley’s comet. The Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) is too wooded for good viewing of the horizon just before sunrise. I set up a telescope and many people from the Grand Rapids area arrived to witness the once in a lifetime event. Some expected a comet to be the size of the moon. Instead it was star-sized with a faint tail. I searched the dark sky unsuccessfully. Finally as the darkness of night began to fade, Haley’s comet came into view. I described the location for those using binoculars and hurriedly encouraged all to look through the telescope. They viewed the comet and saw its tail. The tail was not easily visible. People said they would not have seen it without help.

Check the HCNC web site for program details or better yet visit. Real experiences in nature exceed the ease of the internet’s vicarious exposure. Individuals and families getting into nature remind us we are a part of nature instead of merely being observers from a distance. When immersed in nature, at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary or HCNC, nature comes alive.

To cap the enjoyment of another fine day, a yellow-rumped warbler was gathering breakfast among dimly lit tree leaves, as the dawn arrived at the eclipse conclusion.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

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Colors In the Wind

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Red Maples in swamplands are the first to show fall color. It is typical for stressed plants or weak dying plants to change color earlier. Difficult growing conditions in swamps are demonstrated by the red appearing first on the maples in standing wet conditions.

Sassafras trees show red or yellow depending on the amount of sugar, anthocyanin, and carotenes present in the leaves. Sumacs change early to become a beautiful crimson. At the equinox, color change picks up speed. Green still dominates the landscape.

Uppermost tree leaves change color first. Treetop leaves are exposed to chilling cold before more protected inner leaves. This results in color changes at the top first and is usually followed by leaf color at the tree canopy edge.

Fall breezes rustle leaves and we get to see the first colors in the wind drifting to the ground, as leaves break free. A few fall until a gust of wind fills the air with a couple hundred leaves. Cherries begin shedding leaves before many other species. Their leaves are not cherry red like the fruits but are yellow.

Aspen colors draw our attention as green and amber leaves quake in the slightest air movement. The leaves have a flat petiole that holds the blade to the stem. The flat petiole makes them quake easily. The movement captures our eyes and the sound of wind among the leaves draws attention. As fall progresses, aspens become beacons of reflected amber light in the setting sun. Amber aspens are like massive streetlights beginning to glow in the dimming evening woods.

Closer to the ground, dogwood shrubs are a deep dark maroon and raspberries are a rich red. Among the most brilliant fall colors are the Virginia creeper vines clinging to trunks of dead trees. They are exposed to full sun and have more sugar in the leaves. The exposure to sun aids pigment richness. The creepers that are more shaded from full sun are usually yellow.

Watch trees in various nature niche situations to discover subtle variations occurring where individual plants work to survive in their unique location. Discover trees of the same species with one growing in less ideal conditions and notice it changes color before others of it kind growing in better conditions.

Plants shed leaves in preparation for winter by producing an abscission layer between the petiole (leave stem) and the branch. This is a layer of large cells that seals fluid movement from leave to stem or stem to leave. If weather conditions prevent leaves from shipping sugars from the leaves before the abscission layer forms, sugar gets trapped and fall colors become more beautiful.

Large cells of the abscission layer create a weak area where the leaves separate from the tree to create colors in the wind when they fall.

Sugar maples hold leaves well and then suddenly drop them in a few days. Karen’s parents often visit for her October 20th birthday. When they arrive, the two maples by the house still have many leaves. Her parents are always amazed by the time they leave three days later that most of the leaves have been shed.

Oak trees do not form a good abscission layer. The result is many of the leaves remain on the tree into winter or even spring when new growth pushes the old leaf off. Sometimes oak leaves turn red but it is usual for them to simply brown. Enjoy the flitting and fluttering of colors in the wind, while taking notice of individual trees.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net

 

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Rare Bear

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

A black bear was reported to have crossed Northland Drive near 15 Mile Road a few years ago. I wondered if it had followed the Rogue River to Cedar Creek, made its way to Little Cedar Creek, and possibly wandered through Ody Brook before getting to 15 Mile Road. A visitor told me he saw a bear track here a few years ago but I personally never saw evidence of the bear. The track was seen about the time bear crossed Northland. Many people may also recall the sow bear that wintered near Ada and emerged from her winter sleep with young.

Michigan’s regeneration of forest and wild land vegetation has made it possible for bears to re-inhabit areas where they lived prior to forest clearing and large human population settlement. Living near bears may present some problems. Generally, we can co-exist, but not always.

One September I was camping at Yellowstone National Park, at the edge of the campground. A ranger drove through the campground with a loudspeaker warning people to put coolers away and to clean camp well after eating because a bear was coming into the campground for easy food. The park service set a live trap to capture the bear for relocation but had not been successful yet.

My tent was set up with one side over me but I folded one side open so I could view the forest. At about 11 p.m. I was lying in the sleeping bag and saw the bear walking directly towards me. I was deciding if I should get out of the bag and into my vehicle but it was too late. The bear walked past my tent ignoring me. I heard it beat a food cooler on the picnic table that the campers next to me had not properly stored. After breaking it, the bear proceeded to bear proof garbage cans where it pounded them and walked on.

I went to sleep until 3 a.m., when I woke to the noise and breath of a bear. It had walked around my tent and was peering in at me. Our noses were inches apart. In the moonlight, I could see its silhouette. I experienced some fear. Bears are powerful and can be unpredictable. If the bear was getting used to people it might be more likely to injure me in some way.

I have encountered bears in the Upper Peninsula and other locations. In each instance the bear has immediately turned and ran in fear. Their escapes were noisy as they ran through brush, making stems push apart and slap back together.

This bear was inches from my head and a startle might cause it strike out with a powerful paw, break my neck or otherwise injure me. Maybe it would take a quick defensive bite before leaving. Fortunately, I did not have any food in my tent.

For a brief moment the bear and I looked each other in the eye. Almost instinctively I quietly said under my breath “hello.” The bear realized it was where it did not want to be. It turned and started trotting into the forest. I said “hello, hello, hello” a little louder with each word as it left. It picked up speed with each hello. My purpose at that point was to make noise that would keep the bear moving away.

The bear was not interested in me and probably feared me. It was looking for easy food. The neighbor campers were endangering the bear by leaving a cooler accessible. If the bear was captured, moved to a new location and later returned to the campground, it would probably be killed. People can learn to live with bears in nature niches but we need to act intelligently in their presence.

If I shouted at the bear when I first saw it nose to nose, it might have been more defensively aggressive and swipe me with a paw or bite me. Instead, a quiet hello alerted it and it departed quickly. It remains a pleasant memorable experience for me instead of tragic for either of us.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary expansion

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

 

Walk Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary with the Michigan Botanical Club on September 13 at 2 p.m. or with the River City Wild Ones on Sept 20 at 1:30. The local conservation clubs will explore the sanctuary in search for plants, animals, and their ecological requirements while enjoying the company of nature enthusiasts.

This will be a great introduction to a couple different nature clubs and great people where many will share their knowledge and excitement for things natural and wild.

Ody Brook is managed to enhance nature’s biodiversity to support a healthy and sustainable human community. The sanctuary is located in the headwaters for Little Cedar Creek south of Cedar Springs on Northland Drive across the road from V&V Nursery. Come explore nature and meet nature enthusiasts from local conservation groups.

Meet and park at V&V Nursery. Spend some time at the nursery considering fall selection specials on plants prior to winter dormancy. V&V Nursery helps area residents beautify yards and lives. We will start the field trips from the nursery parking area. We appreciate V&V’s willingness to allow parking. Parking space is not available at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary.

Over 116 bird species, 24 mammals, 11 herps and 52 butterfly species have been documented along with 250 species of plants. Dragonflies dart with beauty as they feed on aerial insects. They lay eggs in Little Cedar Creek where naiads spend months to years growing to the adult stage. Trout feed and utilize the headwaters in spring.

We will encounter other beautiful insects that are active in the fall. Snowy Tree Crickets, katydids, beetles, colorful flies, and various true bugs are expected. This is an opportunity to view a variety of life and to receive help with identification.

Fall flowers provide nutrition for wildlife while plants focus on seed production for their own species survival. Come learn to recognize plant families and species common to our neighborhoods. Both field trips will be fun enriching afternoons for families. Come for a short stay or for an hour and a half.

Trails lead around a pond, through the floodplain, over bridges crossing the creek and through upland field and forest. Wear long sleeved shirts and pants to protect legs. Good footwear is recommended. If it rains prior to field trip days, the floodplain may be wet and somewhat muddy.

The sanctuary recently expanded to 54 acres and protects the creek headwaters leading to Cedar Creek, Rogue River, Grand River, and Lake Michigan. This is a great open house opportunity to explore Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary’s expansion. The privately owned and managed sanctuary accepts donation support and welcomes scheduled visits.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Special everyday sightings

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

 

Celebrate special opportunities. Today I was sitting on the back porch, when I would rather walk trails and explore Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary nature niches.

It was a comfortable 77 F. The sunshine felt too hot. A flycatcher landed on a dead tree branch and it was difficult to identify the species. I thought it was in the Empidonax flycatcher group that has several look-a-like species. To separate species vocal calls or songs are required.

I narrowed the choices to Alder Flycatcher or Least Flycatcher but finally decided I was still wrong. It was most likely not an Empidonax species but an Eastern Wood-Peewee. It did not have an obvious white eye-ring. Wing bars were faint. Its behavior of perching, flitting out to prey on insects, and then return to the perch is typical for peewees. I usually expect the peewees to be in the dense forest but this one found the forest opening good for hunting.

While contemplating the flycatcher identification, a Cooper’s Hawk flew through the backyard about six feet above ground. It was in view for only a few seconds. Its size was too big for the look-a-like Sharp-shinned Hawk and it had a rounded tail instead of being squared off. I enjoy a visit to the yard by the bird eating hawks. They are seldom successful in capturing a meal.

I rejoice with them when they succeed in filling their stomach or get food to feed their young. They are a natural and healthy component in nature niches. Predators prevent other species from over abundance whether they are insect predators, bird predators, or mammal predators. I take sorrow in the death of birds, butterflies, or creatures I work to support with food, water, and shelter. Life is not easy for any creature but each has it place. Predators are welcome.

Despite my sorrow in one creature’s death, I celebrate the continued life of another. Unfortunately, several species native to other parts of the world have established in our area and are disrupting ecosystems, causing the death of species, and causing millions of dollars in damage to crops, landscapes, and species we cherish.

A Pileated Woodpecker flew over, brightened my day and was quickly followed by another that called as it passed. It was my birthday and I pretended it was wishing me a fine day. I am pleased my efforts over 35 years have created conditions for life. I reap benefits and joys of nature in the yard daily.

Closer to the ground level Giant Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple butterfly, Cabbage White, and Clouded Sulphur butterflies traversed yard openings. A Pearl Crescent landed on the dog. I spend the most time watching birds and butterflies, but in late summer, dragonflies like meadowhawks are abundant. Grasshopper populations are peaking and provide energy for birds getting ready to migrate.

Many people do not approve of Cooper’s Hawks filling their stomach with birds, but the same people have no objection to insect eating birds killing and eating their prey. If managed ideally, our yards will provide healthy conditions for a balanced biodiversity that supports life forms including all predators.

Sit, observe and celebrate occurrences of minute to large wildlife in your neighborhood.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Missing feathers

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Finding pretty feathers in the yard is something most of us have collected when we were children. It has been fun and challenging to identify who lost them. Blue Jay feathers are quite distinctive as are robin breast feathers. Many feathers can be quite challenging.

At this time of year I notice crows flying over with noticeable gaps in their wings. Two Mourning Doves passed without their long tail feathers. Some birds are looking rather beat up because they are missing feathers. It is molting season.

Most birds experience a complete molt where they lose all feathers after breeding season and before migration. It requires a lot of energy to change wardrobes but it occurs twice a year. The spring molt prior to migration or breeding is a partial molt where only some feathers are replaced.

When birds fly over missing noticeable feathers, it is the flight feathers we notice missing. If birds lost all there their flight feathers at once they would be grounded. That would spell death for many. They would starve before they could replace them. They also would not be protected from the weather. Feathers are important for flight and body feathers for insulation to maintain proper temperature.

Molting is orderly starting with primary feathers. Theses are the largest and most noticeable flight feathers. They are lost in succession from wingtip inward. As one is lost and replaced, the next one in succession is lost and replaced. When the primary feathers have been replaced, secondary feathers are replaced in the opposite direction. Secondaries are smaller flight feathers closer to the body. They are lost from close to the body outward toward the primaries.

It is ecologically important that most birds lose feathers in succession so they do not become flightless. They depend on flight for feeding mobility. Some birds lose all their flight feathers at once and cannot fly for weeks. One might think this would surely cause starvation or vulnerability to predators.

Ducks, geese, swans, grebes, and loons lose their flight feather at one time. They feed by diving or tipping bottom up to feed on the bottom in shallow water. Tipping end up to feed is known as dabbling. There are dabbing ducks like the mallard and diving ducks like the bufflehead and scaup that dive deep to feed. They become flightless for several weeks when molting but are able to continue feeding. When threatened they run across the water but do not become airborne.

It requires tremendous energy to molt. When birds migrate there energy needs increase 7 to 15 times over resting energy levels. They cannot afford to molt, migrate, or raise young at the same time. Each must be done separately and they have adaptations to survive in their unique nature niche. Loons molt after migration and ducks before migration. Some birds have a partial molt before migration, stop molting for migration and complete molting afterwards. It is typical for most land birds to complete molting before the fall migration.

Details of life are uniquely special and worth observing near our homes.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

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Quiet—not Absent

By Ranger Steve Mueller

I am not one to sit. I like moving. Outdoor activity is either walking, working on trail maintenance, pruning trees and shrubs, pursing butterflies, birds, or other animals. Three days ago, I broke my leg while walking in uneven ground, in search of wetland butterflies. I fell in a hidden hole. Yesterday the surgeon installed a metal plate in my leg and said I cannot put any weight on my leg for six weeks.

I have been sitting on the back porch and noticing things that are missed daily because I move about too much. For two days I have been seeing Baltimore Orioles moving among the tree branches. A Great Flycatcher quietly landed in a tree in good view. A flock of Cedar Waxwings has been flitting about the conifer branches and I haven’t been noticing them. I have not seen any of these species lately.

Now that breeding season is mostly over, males are not singing to claim territory. It is easy not to notice the birds as they search for food. This evening a Ruby-throated hummingbird visited flowers in the butterfly garden in preference to the sugar water feeder that hangs in the garden. The hummer was actively feeding on minute insects that were flying just above treetops. I could not see the insects but the bird was clearly picking things out of sky as it hovered and darted back and forth.

Family flocks of American Robins have been feeding on creatures in the mowed lawn. Mourning Doves are one of the few birds still vocalizing with their owl-like coo-coo call. They are a bird that may still breed and produce young this late in the year.

Chickadees are not singing their two note song but like me they are contently on the move and do vocalize their chickadee-dee-dee call. I answer with my own version of their call and they come to see who is talking to them. House wrens sing continuously in spring and early summer but now only make a twittering chat.

Eastern Towhees are secretive and spend time under trees and shrubs scratching among the ground vegetation in search of tasty insects morsels. They have not completely given up their song of “drink your teaeeeee.” I still here the “your teaeeee” coming from hidden locations.

Most birds are busy in their specialized nature niches fattening for the long journey south, teaching young by demonstration, or working hard in preparation to survive locally for the winter.

The House Finches have males with red feathers on the head and body but females are brown. At the feeder this week there is a male House Finch with yellow instead of red feathers. I see a few of these annually. Studies indicate that those birds are lacking adequate carotene in their diet to provide the red in feathers. The birds are apparently healthy but display the abnormal coloring. The carotene generally comes from insects that are fed upon.

Now that I am required to sit and watch, I see things I normally miss by being too antsy to quietly sit and observe. I miss being on the move constantly but enjoy getting to see backyard wildlife activity that is quietly going about business in abundance. Don’t break a leg but sit to observe activity in the yard.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.

616-696-1753

 

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Squirrel watching

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

 

When in middle school, we had open lunch period. That meant we could leave campus, venture outside and return for afternoon classes. I usually headed outside with a sandwich. Sometimes the break was spent with friends behind the school or, during other lunch periods, I quietly spent it with squirrels a block from school.

The school was in a city of 100,000 people where many nature niches provided for wild creature needs. Gray and Fox squirrels did well in people’s forested yards. Fox squirrels have reddish hairs mixed among their tail hairs and their bellies are reddish/orange giving them the name “Fox.” Gray squirrels have white bellies with gray hairs dominating their body and tails.

Recently, readers have provided squirrel images with white tails or white patches on the head. I suspect these are natural genetic variations. Black squirrels are less common than normal colored gray and fox squirrels. The black is a recessive genetic trait that requires a black hair color gene from each parent for it to be expressed in young.

In people brown eyes dominant over blue so if one parent provides a brown gene and the other a blue gene, the child’s eye color would be brown. A blue gene is required from both parents to have a blue-eyed child. A brown-eyed person often carries a hidden blue-eyed gene. Eye color inheritance is not as simple as stated above because there are many color and shade options that are inherited.

In squirrels the expressed hair color is simpler than eye color but has genetic variability. Black squirrels became common in the Traverse City area in part because gray squirrels were shot and black squirrels were allowed to reproduce. A squirrel parent can produce both gray and black phase young in the same litter. It is much like a person having children with different hair color. An abundance of black recessive genes in that population allowed the black phase gray squirrels to become common because gray genes were deliberately removed from the population.

Black squirrels have become increasing common in our area. I am not sure why. Black phase is more common among gray squirrels than it is in Fox squirrels but they also have a black phase. Black fox squirrels are more frequent in the southern United States than in Michigan. Again I am not sure why. Perhaps some scientists have addressed the question but I have not encountered explanations.

I have enjoyed squirrels and have been frustrated with how much birdseed they eat. The numbers of squirrels in yards sometimes seems endless. When I lived in Minnesota, a neighbor and his son shot 24 squirrels in their yard during one day. Across the street from our homes was a cemetery with an oak forest. The cemetery provided adequate food, water, shelter, and appropriate living space for squirrels. The squirrels found it easy to visit the neighbor’s feeders for food. They also probably ate many bird eggs. Too many individuals of any species create ecosystem problems.

My fascination with squirrels and their behavior began when I was in junior high during quiet lunch periods watching them busily go about squirrel business in yards that people thought were human yards. Like humans, squirrels stake claims on territories. They do not recognize our property lines but set up their own according to the amount of space necessary to meet survival needs.

Encourage children to spend time observing, connecting, and understanding wild creatures in “our yards.”

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

 

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Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

*OUT-Nature niche Ruby throat hummer65By Ranger Steve Mueller

 
A Ruby-throated Hummingbird claimed the backyard, sugar water feeder, garden, and surrounding woodland for the summer. It is a joy to sit on the back porch and watch it hover at the feeder and to sometimes see it perch for a drink. Soon it will head south for wintering grounds in Central America. They return to breeding grounds starting in April and begin leaving during August. Place feeders out early and keep them filled through September or into October. Migrating hummers may stop for lunch.

Hummingbirds are unable to walk. Their short legs are only good for perching on branches. Other movement is by amazing wing power. It is reported by Michigan Audubon that they beat wings 53 times a second. It is only a blur to my eyes.

In the backyard I planted an ash tree about 30 years ago. It has provided a good perching for many birds. Its open canopy allows filtered light to pass and does not create deep shade. Birds have found it good for gleaning insects from among the foliage. Unfortunately the exotic Emerald Ash Borer beetle grubs are killing it. It is making a valiant effort to stay alive but the canopy is sparse with branches almost bare.

The hummingbird chooses perches high in the tree and darts to the feeder. It flies in an arc when departing for unknown places in the woods. I glance into the tree every time I venture outside and often see the bird. Hummingbirds are not tolerant of others wanting to visit a feeder. Males especially dive toward other hummers that come to drink sugar water.

The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird has what appears to be a black throat until sunlight turns it to glistening ruby. Even its green back shines with brilliance in sunlight. Its tiny body is about the size of the large grasshopper or cicada. The long slightly down curved bill is nearly as long as the body.

One time I was able to watch a mother incubate two tiny miniature jellybean sized eggs. Other times when young were present, the parent feed them frequently. I watched the long thin bill enter the baby mouths and penetrated all the way to the stomach. It seemed as if the mother was going to pierce a hole in her young. She knows how to feed and care for young. My help with care giving is not welcome but I provide healthy habitat where they find wildflowers, sugar water, and have nesting trees. Food, water, shelter, with appropriate living space are my contribution.

The yard is a mix of open sunny areas with wildflowers, shrubland, and mature trees. Somewhere among tree branches, a nest is woven from spider silk, dandelion or thistle down, and lichens that camouflage the nest. The tiny nest is placed on top of an outer branch. Usually the nest is toward the end of the branch and is only as wide as the branch or slightly wider. Two eggs are laid in the tiny cup and fill its minute space. Hummingbirds have let me know when I am near a nest. When walking, a mother has come and hovered near me and it alerted me to look about. Their irritation with my presence helped me find and observe nests on several occasions.

No nests have been seen at Ody Brook. I suspect the nests are constructed high in a tree. Hummingbirds have a special nature niche that brings joy to my life.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433. 616-696-1753.

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