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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Christmas Bird Count Numbers 2019

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Forty-eight species were seen (Table 1) by 39 field observers and three bird feeder watchers on 28 Dec 2019. 

Total individuals sighted was 6,376 compared with 14,442 in 2015; 9,342 in 2016; 6,161 in 2017; and 6,909 in 2018. The number of individual birds sighted was down compared with 3 of the last 4 years. The fewer number this year might be a result of warm weather conditions causing birds to disperse more. Water birds were not restricted to small areas of open water by ice. Terrestrial birds could search large areas instead of concentrating around bird feeders. 

The day was cloudy with the temperature between 28º and 40ºF. There was no snow coverage. Still water had a thin ice covering and flowing waters were open.

We totaled 59 hours traveling in vehicles for 533 miles. 10.75 hours was spent on foot covering 17.5 miles and 6 hours was watching feeders. A combined total of 550.5 miles was on foot and driving. Groups totaled 69 hours of daytime birding. There were 15 birding parties in the morning, 4 in the afternoon and 3 feeder watchers. 

In the predawn, 20 miles was traveled in one hour where owling found two Eastern Screech Owls and one Great Horned Owl. 

Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center (WWC) co-hosted the count with Grand Rapids Audubon Club. WWC facility use is appreciated for our base station. Visit and enjoy the WWC trails that are open 24/7.

Mark your calendars for Jan. 2, 2021 to participate in the 2020 Christmas Bird Count. 

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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Mouse in the House

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

My preference is for mice to construct their “house” or shelter in natural habitats. Like snow that I wish would fall everywhere except the roads, sidewalks and drives, I hope mice stay in natural areas. Our wishes are not heeded. In fields, the meadow voles build grass shelters of woven grass. Depending on the habitat quality in fields, the number of shelters vary. There can be five territories for voles in an acre. Under ideal conditions, a vole can produce a litter every 21 days. This is good news for hawks, owls, and foxes that hunt fields. Voles tend to be abundant along treeless freeway shoulders where Red-tailed Hawks set up hunting areas.

Mousing hawks stand on nearby trees, shrubs, and highway signs to watch for movement. They soar overhead and stand near farm fields. So to speak, they are our friends by helping reduce the rodent population. Weasels move through fields and shrublands to meet their high metabolism need for frequent meals. 

Less than 10 species of mice share Michigan yards, natural habitats and our houses. Over 100 species of what people generally refer to as mice inhabit the United States and Canada. 

The Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) also called a meadow mouse is dark brown, has a tail half body length and its small ear pinnae are almost hidden in its fur. Though it is possibly the most abundant mouse in the region, it is not the most abundant to move into our houses. The Woodland vole might also be present.

The prairie deermouse, woodland deermouse, and white-footed mouse are likely to take residence in our houses. It is difficult to separate them but nature niche preferences and anatomical features help. The two deermice in our area are considered subspecies in the process of developing new species. When to separate or lump them as species is difficult. More than fifty subspecies are distinguished across the continent and are a choice group for scientists studying evolution in progress. Many species of plants and animals are midway in species development but mice are easy to rear. Difficulty arises because speciation studies typically require centuries. 

The prairie deermouse has smaller ears and shorter tail than the woodland subspecies. The tails on both are bicolored with sharply separated brown on top and white beneath. The white-footed mouse’s tail is not sharply bicolored and ear length is midway between that of the two deermice. White-footed mice brown fur lightens on their sides. The prairie deermouse survives best in open grasslands. I think woodland deermice enter our house. To be sure, it is necessary to clean meat from mice bones and examine skull details. I prioritize other projects. 

The white-footed mice frequently use bird nest boxes and hollow trees in winter but so do deermice. In March, I clean birdhouses to ready them for the return of bird migrants. 

Mice that might be encountered during family northern vacations or on hunting trips could be the red-backed vole and woodland jumping mouse. The similar meadow jumping mouse can is found in southern Michigan but unlike other mice during winter it hibernates. Another infrequently encountered species is the southern bog lemming that thrives in swamps. We have seen them along the boardwalk in the swampy bog habitat to Chrishaven Lake at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. Though called “southern” they live mostly north of the region and are southern compared to the northern bog lemming that is not found south of Canada in the east.

Exotic species include the house mouse and Norway rat. Only once have I encountered a Norway rat at Ody Brook but they can be common in farm buildings and grain mills. Fortunately, the house mouse that also came from Europe has not been found in our home. 

Deermice have little economic significance. They and white-footed mice are valuable as prey for foxes, hawks, owls, and snakes. Mice can be a nuisance. We trap mice in the house because we do want mouse turd leavings or hanta virus. Typically the only mice you will encounter in your house are deermice, white-footed mice, and occasional meadow voles. Depending on neighborhood habitats, others can be expected.

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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Where is the Red Belly?


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve MuellerW

The suet feeder attracts many bird species including the Red-bellied Woodpecker. One would expect a name to indicate a prominent feature but for this woodpecker it does not. Instead people tell me they have the uncommon Red-headed woodpeckers.

The head on the adult Red-headed Woodpecker is a distinctive feature on both sexes and they have a striking wing characteristic that cinches identification. This species’ head is completely red on front, back, sides, and top in the adult birds. The young have brown heads during their first year that gradually change to red. 

Red-headed woodpecker. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

The wings have large white patches on what are called the secondary feathers. This makes the lower back look white even on young birds perched on a tree. The adult’s white is pure but the young have some brown barring through the white. In flight the white on the wings flashes brightly making identification easy. 

The bright red head is not always as obvious as the white on the wings. Dim light in cloudy weather subdues the red color but the large white patches on wings remain obvious. The belly on this species is white.

Red-bellied woodpecker. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

Where’s the red on the Red-bellied Woodpecker? Their breast is gray or brownish with a slight tinge of red on the lower belly near the tail. The red is barely visible and not the good feature for identification. The head pattern is more helpful. Both sexes have significant red on the back of their heads but the sides and front are gray. The male has a red cap that continues over the top of the head that is lacking in the female. 

Lack of solid color on the head helps distinguish the Red-bellied from the Red-headed. When the red color is subdued in dim light, the solid pattern verses dark and light contrast can be seen. In flight the Red-bellied has a white patch on the upper rump but it does not extend across the lower wings like it does on the Red-headed. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker wings are flecked with white spots overlaying black throughout the wing. There is a sharp division of black and white on the Red-headed’s wings with the upper back black and lower white. 

Less obvious features help with identification. The bill on the Red-bellied is dark but is silvery gray on the Red-headed. The nine species of woodpeckers in Michigan have dark upper tail feathers but some have white outer feathers. Both the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers outer tail feathers are white with a helpful difference for separating the two. There are black flecks on the underside across the white feathers on the Downy and the Hairy’s is pure white. When the Downy spreads its tail feathers while standing on a suet feeder or tree, some black flecking can be seen on the outer most upper tail feathers. The Hairy is larger than a Downy.

Five of the nine Michigan woodpeckers are common in our region. The approximate order from most common is Downy, Red-bellied, Hairy, Northern Flicker (yellow-shafted), and Pileated. Depending on the neighborhood habitat, that order might differ. Flickers are not frequently seen in winter and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is usually only noticed during spring and fall migrations. The crow sized Pileated is present all year where there are larger trees and they often frequent large upland forest or extensively forested lowland floodplains. 

Behavior in nature niches is important for recognizing species. With considerable practice varied calls help separate species even when not seen. Most helpful is the rhythm of head-banging on a tree, house, or sound resonating surface. Speed and loudness of woodpecker pounding helps. It also varies with the work being done. Territorial tree pounding sounds different from that of birds searching for insects hidden under tree bark. 

Downy Woodpeckers are more likely on smaller branches than Hairy Woodpeckers that choose larger branches when working. Northern Flickers and Red-bellied woodpeckers, that are about the same size, choose different habitats. Flickers are often found in open areas feeding on ants while the Red-bellied almost always feeds in forests. Michigan woodpeckers nest in hollow trees. Take notice of details to hone your observation skills.

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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Trip from Andromeda

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Riding on a light beam for 2.5 million years at the speed of light. my friend Bob Raver and I traveled to Earth to investigate its ecosphere. Well this story needs further explanation. 

I was director for the Environmental Education School at Bryce Canyon National Park for a few years in the 1970’s. Student teachers from Southern Utah State College spent their summer teaching at the environmental school. Children were dropped at the school so parents could enjoy extensive hikes on canyon trails. Children explored the park wonders by perusing their interests with teachers. It was wonderful for parents and children.

I regularly stopped at the school to see if things were going well, if teachers needed assistance, and to review programming. Bob and I had told the teachers we came from the Andromeda Galaxy and they didn’t believe us. 

One day we arrived at the school before heading to our assigned 16-mile Fairyland Trail roving patrol to greet hikers in the backcountry. The teachers asked us to put pins on the world map at our home location. I put mine in Michigan and Bob put his in California. They said, “See, we knew you weren’t from Andromeda,” and showed us where they had written the galaxy name at map’s edge. We moved our pins to our galaxy home. 

Within the week a newspaper reporter arrived to do a story on the environmental school. In the subsequent article she listed locations where children came from. They included places like London, , Germany, Anchorage, Alaska, and Andromeda. Ever since, I have said, it must be true because it was in the paper. 

Hopefully people that listen to TV news, read newspapers, or look up Internet information, work to verify the accuracy of what is reported. Many things reported are short sound bites that are not fully supported with physical evidence. Fortunately, science requires multiple studies to verify conclusions before being accepted.

I make an effort to write things in niche articles that are supported with overwhelming physical empirical evidence. Hopefully, my errors are few and preferably zero. Scientific studies are sometimes not as well supported as thought but more frequently they are dismissed because they are not what people desire to believe. What we believe and what empirical evidence supports sometimes have different conclusions. 

Back to my “home” galaxy of Andromeda. It has about one trillion stars where it is statistically possible that some might have planets supporting life. The galaxy is similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy in several ways. It is a spiral galaxy. Elliptical and irregular galaxies are two other types that have been identified. 

Winter is a great time on a dark moonless night to observe Andromeda without the aid of a telescope or binoculars. During a recent dark clear night, I went out and looked “home.” To view it one needs to know where to look and how to see it. If one looks directly at it, the galaxy is invisible because eye cones are not sensitive to dim light. They are responsible for color vision and are concentrated toward the center of the eye. 

Rods are found numerously in high concentration farther from the pupil. When looking at Andromeda, it is necessary to look off to the side for our eyes to bring it into dim view. To find it, locate the Little Dipper constellation with the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia constellations on opposite sides of the Little Dipper. Cassiopeia looks like a lopsided W with five prominent stars. From the middle W star look to the lower right star. Allow your eye to travel about 2.5 times the distance between the two stars in Cassiopeia. The galaxy is not in straight alignment with the two stars. It is a little to one side of the straight line. 

For those wanting to see this dim closest galaxy, I will set up an observation night at Ody Brook for people to join at 9:30 p.m. It will require a clear night and if I cannot help you see it, we can enjoy stars, constellations, and discuss how early cultures used the sky for crop planting, travel, and other things. Contact me to sign up for night sky enjoyment. I will select a night for Earthlings to come and will have a telescope for our viewing.

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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Irregular migration

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Male white-winged crossbill. Photo by Garth McElroy/VIREO via Audubon.org

Various birds, mammals, insects, and even plants migrate. Irregular migration is one type of migration that can be observed. Rough-legged Hawks, Snowy Owls, White-winged and Red Crossbill might show up as a result of irregular migration in winter. I refer to their eruptive appearance in our region as a type of irregular migration. 

When food supplies are scarce in northern wintering grounds, they move south in search of food and survival. When lemmings in the arctic that Snowy Owl depend on are low, it requires them to migrate or starve. Many predators starve with young being most vulnerable. During years of low food supply, these predators frequently have small broods or might lay no eggs. Their efforts concentrate on their own precarious survival. 

Prey populations fluctuate for many reasons and they control predator population numbers. It was thought that predators control prey species numbers but evidence indicates prey numbers often control predator numbers. 

Insect numbers control bird populations for swallows, flycatchers, phoebes, nuthatches, and many other species. Insectivorous birds feed heavily on insects with minimal effect on eliminating insect populations. If you have been in the far north, you might have experienced trillions of mosquitoes. Exposed areas of skin like your face and hands make it a nearly unbearable experience because of biting insects. 

At times I wiped my face with one hand and then the other to remove mosquitoes and then wiped each hand. Immediately I needed to wipe my face and hands again because they were already covered with insects. Head nets and effective insect repellent were necessary. A cold spell after bird arrival in spring reduces insects and can cause tens of thousands of birds to starve. Swallows and longspurs sometimes experience massive death. 

During the breeding season, birds and insect eating mammals gorge themselves on food that appears endless. Some species, like caribou, find it essential to migrate to cold areas near the arctic ocean to get reprieve from insects that dangerously reduce their blood. Breeding and calving grounds near the cold ocean are important to aid caribou health and survival. Migration from inland to coastal areas is a normal and important migration. 

Some species like Monarchs have unique migrations while other butterflies may have irregular migrations. Painted Ladies make two-way migrations that are regular but many have one-way eruptive movements. Several butterflies have one-way immigrations when they their leave normal geographic breeding ranges. Populations of Orange Sulphurs become abundant and move north in late summer as do Variegated Fritillaries and Little Yellows. As fall conditions arrive, they do not return to sites of origin. They live and die here.

Duckweed is a small plant that floats on the surface of ponds and becomes so numerous it hides the visible water it covers. When fall cold takes over, duckweed sinks to the bottom of ponds and will resurface in spring when warming sunlight allows it to increase photosynthesis that produces oxygen and buoyancy. It has its own annual vertical migration. A different migration process occurred for plants during the advance and retreat of glaciers. Individual trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants did not move. During the slow advance of ice, seeds spread by adult plants allowed new individuals to establish in front of the ice front. As glaciers advanced south or retreated north, plant seeds moved species hundreds of miles to where they colonized newly exposed habitat. 

Unique irregular eruptive migration nature niches occur for White-winged and Red Crossbills. These northern conifer inhabiting bird species feed on cone seeds. The sharp tips on the upper and lower bills overlap. They partially open the beak to insert the tips between spruce or pinecone scales and then close the bill to push scales apart. They reach between the scales to retrieve edible seeds with their tongue. Trees regularly have high cone production years followed by years with few. To survive, the crossbills must move to areas where seeds are available. During lean years in the north, we are treated with their irregular eruptive presence here. 

This only breeches the beginning of migration phenomena. Amphibians migrate and more await future sharing.

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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Look Up, Down, and Outward

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Reproductive structures color dead twigs with festive December red. Hidden fungi within dead twigs decompose them and slowly release nutrients that enrich and fertilize the soil. Scattered on the surface of twigs in fall are the red, yellow, black, or white fungus fruiting bodies. Throughout the forest and fields enjoyable sights wait our attention when we look up, down, and outward. 

Everywhere we look organism nature niches bring evidence of species busy at work. We can be oblivious to what surrounds us or we can soak in entertainment that life provides. Don’t miss a late season walk as fall comes to a close on Dec. 22 and the joy as winter settles around us later that day. Daylight will begin lengthening after the winter solstice but the cold and snow will just be getting started. 

With each snowfall a downward glance brings small mammal tracks into view. Imprints can be seen on the snow and small holes penetrate into the insulating snow cover. Tracks inform us of activity that goes on during the night. Upwardly observe chickadees, nuthatches, or goldfinches flitting among tree branches. Maybe a Ruby-crowned Kinglet with a white eye ring will be active. Looking outward may bring a deer into view as it stands watching you. The only movement could be the twitching of an ear before it slowly slips into a thicket.

Sounds of waving branches sliding against others will redirect attention upwards. Squirrels running from tree to tree on extended branches mark aerial highway routes. Leaf shelters scattered throughout the forest mark home range boundaries. Some squirrels draw attention to the ground where they are burying nuts, digging those stored, or simply eating a midday snack. Stop and take time to observe.

Animals are engrossed in the moment as they focus on meeting today’s food and shelter needs. During fall, instinct leads activities in unique directions that help each species survive winter. Some, like squirrels, store food to meet active winter lives. Bumble bees and wasps die except for the queen that will survive in some secluded location with fertilized eggs. If she survives, she will begin a new colony after the harshness of winter. 

Woolly bear caterpillars laden with fat wander among leaf litter seeking hiding places to hold up for months of dormancy. Black fuzzy bodies bearing a middle orange band of varying widths become obvious to even nonobservant people. We are most familiar with the caterpillar but the drab adult moth often escapes our notice.

Fall raindrops bead on brown and tan leaves lying on the ground. Depending on the angle of sun rays, they change from a nearly invisible translucence to sparkling diamonds beautifully spaced on the impenetrable leaf surface. Water on the ground soaks into soil and invisibly works its way to streams. Heavy rain that comes when the ground is frozen runs off the land’s surface quickly as gravity draws it downslope. 

Floodwater from rains or rapid snow melt rises in streams to cover the surrounding lowlands. Already in December skunk cabbage breaks the soft unfrozen floodplain soil with pointed green leaf growth curled tightly together where they will hold fast with little change until February when its flowering spathe and spadix break through snow as the first flowering plant of the year. For now we can take pleasure in the plant peaking above ground as it readies for spring.

Leaves, lacking the brilliant yellows, reds, greens, or multi-hued colors of early fall, explicitly display shapes and sizes often overlooked when bright autumn colors dominate. Barren tree branches overhead are the norm but oaks and young beech trees often hold leaves into winter. The skeleton branches of dormant treetops allow blue sky or shades of gray from clouds to bring apparent life to non-living things drifting across the heavens. 

It does not matter if we look down, up, or outward, something special waits viewing as fall concludes and winter begins. Dehydrated winter buds of varied shapes are nestled snuggly for winter’s cold. Bundle snuggly and enjoy the endless wonders waiting your explorations. 

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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Birds to see at year’s end

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Seeing a Northern Shrike during the Christmas Bird Count would be a great find. Photo from Wikipedia.

Join with others to see birds you might not have seen during the 2019 year. Participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 28, 2019 to help add to 64 years of data collection. We meet at 7:30 a.m. at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Center (WWC), 11715 Vergennes Rd. in Lowell, Michigan 49331. 

This year’s data will be our 65th year for tabulating data. Be a part of the legacy for documenting species and numbers that could not happen without teams of observers. Our predecessors would be proud of our continued efforts. This is a great opportunity to engage families in the longest citizen science data collection in history. We team observers with experienced “birders’ for fun observing many species and collecting valuable data. It is a wonderful outdoor experience in Michigan’s Winter-Water-Wonderland. 

Expect to see a variety of winter ducks such as Wood Ducks, American Black Duck, Redhead, and Common Goldeneye among others. Fish eating Common Mergansers are seen as are Pied-billed Grebes. 

People often think Great Blue Herons are gone in winter but some usually continue feeding in small streams throughout the area.

Seeing raptors is common. Depending on weather conditions, Rough-legged Hawks might have come from the far north to set up winter residence. Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks are usually present. 

It is a great find when Northern Shrikes are discovered in open country where they feed on small birds. The Shrikes are robin sized and capture birds that they frequently impale on hawthorns. They return to feed on the stored food. This might be a “lifer.” That means it is a species you have never seen previously. 

The attractive Carolina Wrens, with a broad eye stripe, have expanded their range into our area where they are now regularly seen. 

If we are fortunate, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks might be present. A variety of sparrows including the American Tree Sparrow makes its winter appearance while the similar Chipping Sparrow has left for a warmer climate.

Joan Heuvelhorst will provide a hot lunch for $5.00 or you can brown bag your own. Be sure to thank her for her support. We will be in the field by 8 a.m. Participant involvement varies from morning to all day. All are welcome to participate at their comfort level. 

Direct inquiries to count coordinators:

Tom Leggett: (616) 249-3382 E-mail tomleggett@hotmail.com or

Ranger Steve (Mueller) odybrook@chartermi.net 616-696-1753.

See the Grand Rapids Audubon Club website for maps and our newsletter for Christmas Count details. www.GRAC.org. 

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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Give thanks for environmental protections

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Environmental protections are insurance for people, our economy, and a sustainable healthy future for present and coming generations. Michigan Audubon’s mission is dedicated to connecting birds and people for the benefit of both. They do this through conservation, education, and research. Their work is not done in a vacuum. When I was a board member, we realized ecosystem nature niches depend on living and nonliving environmental components.

During mid 1800’s and 1900’s, many human activities imperiled the health of US ecosystems supporting our livelihood and imposed life-threatening community conditions. By the 1970’s hard gained protections were implemented. As we close the year, many of those protections are being eliminated by the current US president.

Significant recovery actions for Canada Geese headed for extinction in the early 1900’s resulted in recovery. Bald Eagle recovery is a great success story on two fronts. The Bald Eagle Protection Act established in 1940 prevented indiscriminate shooting of the species. Later protections were established for hawks and other species that eat meat. Laws already protected people from indiscriminate shooting but of course some people ignore the law. People are still shot and eagles are still shot like the recent shooting of a Bald Eagle with the excuse they thought they were shooting a Canada Goose. 

The second event allowing eagle recovery was banning use of DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides in the US. Most eagles stay in the US and recovery of nesting pairs increased from 40 to 800. 

The President has removed restrictions on lead shot. Chocolay Raptor Center near Marquette reported lead poisoning cases have doubled. Environmental protection elimination puts eagles at risk and endangers our families. 

Lead has been a known toxin for 2000 years and historians conclude that lead-lined water ducts contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. President Trump overturned the US lead ban in 2017. People have told me the Flint lead issue is political to benefit nonwhite races and it should not be the responsibility of the community that switched the water source to save money. The result increased community costs and human health decreased. The idea has its supporters and some think it should include eliminating protections from PFAS, air and water pollution. The president is gutting environmental laws that protect people and wildlife despite more than 80 percent of Americans thinking his environmental directives are moving in the wrong direction.

He has overturned protections preventing the dumping of mined mountain tops directly into rivers to make coal mining more economically competitive with alternative energy sources and ignores the dire climate change threat. He is ignoring the drinking water treatment costs, lost fishing opportunities and aquatic life needs.

Removing pollution protection by gutting Air and Water pollution Acts might result in short term financial savings for home heating but will increase long term economic and health costs for people, wildlife, and plants similar to switching the water sources in Flint. I wrote about my first job as an urban forester assigned to revegetate Midland after Dow Chemical killed trees with air pollution. 1970’s air pollution laws required smokestacks have pollution controls. I was commissioned to select trees on Dow property for transfer to replace killed trees. The law reduced air related human health problems, extended lives, and reduced medical expenses.

300 million plus tons of heavy metals, solvents, and toxic sludge are dumped in waters annually. 75% of the planet’s land area has been severely altered by human activity. Ten times more plastic floats in oceans than did in 1980. An estimate states 1 in 8 species are threatened by extinction. 500,000 species do not have adequate land-based habitat for sustainable survival. An important cause is the increase in human population and excessive resource consumption resulting from 3.7 billion people in 1970 increasing to 7.6 billion in 2019. The human population is expected to double rapidly again. Solutions depend on voluntary population control and continued air and water protections from being gutted by the Trump administration.

An oil spill resulted in 11 people being killed and three months of uncontrolled oil release into the Gulf of Mexico with devastating costs to coastal businesses plus untold damage to aquatic life that continues. Public outcry demanded better safety valves to prevent similar events. The decades old Exxon oil spill in Alaska is still killing aquatic life and harming the fishing industry. Trump appointed a former oil industry lobbyist to head interior department environment protection. The result is a plan to roll back oil drilling safety requirements. Trump is committed to erasing Obama presidency protections. 

Our collective memory of past pollution devastation will be relived unless Americans demand staying engaged in the Climate Accord, continued strong bipartisan Air and Water Protection Acts, protection of Federal lands that the current administration wants to sell to private interests with different missions that do not include sustainable protection for national parks, BLM lands or national forests. He does not think US citizens should collectively own public lands and opposes Teddy Roosevelt’s establishment of such. 

Our future and that of children depends on us demanding representatives, senators, and the president work for public benefit. Your actions are important to support your views regarding your future, that of coming human generations and that of wildlife ecosystems we all share. Wildlife survival is a reflection on our own future. We can live like bacteria in a Petri dish consuming food and natural resources in a boom and bust or maintain a sustainable environment and ecosystems that we depend on for survival. 

Today is Thanksgiving. Give thanks for the foresight of bipartisan environmental protections during the last century and expect the same from all current political parties.

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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Musclewood Wings

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Flying and landing on the snow, musclewood seeds (Carpinus caroliniana) sailed on wings to potential germination sites. The winged seeds were released from matured flower clusters that turned tan at the ends of branch shoots. The seed clusters remained after leaves fell. 

From fruit clusters, seeds break free and drift propelled by wind gusts. The small seed nut is attached to what we might think is a tiny aborted maple leaf. Instead it is a “leaf-like” bract providing buoyancy in the breeze that aids the spread of a seed from the parent. The nuts only drift a distance about 1.5 times the tree’s height.

The bract has two small pointed side lobes with a larger central pointed lobe. On the snow, bracts with their nutlet lay exposed and later seem to blend with leaf litter when snow melts. The small nuts not noticed by most of us during the winter will be found by mammals or birds and eaten for their rich protein. We might sit in front of the TV eating peanuts but wildlife search the landscape for scattered morsels. 

The tree is also known as ironwood, blue beech, and American or hop hornbeam.

Leaves and fruits have high nutritional value as wildlife food but it is not a preferred food by deer. Deer will use small stems that are about one to two inches in diameter during rut to scrape dying velvet from itching antler coverings. Many small stemmed tree or shrub species are used for that purpose but musclewood has a dense hard wood that does not give easily. The bark is thin and easily damaged by deer in rut or by fire.

Warblers and finches feed on the nuts and transport seeds farther than wind. Wood ducks and ruffed grouse seek the nuts. Squirrels, rodents, and rabbits eat the nuts and aid dispersal. The trees are used as a nest site for one of the most melodious birds of the woods–the Wood Thrush. Cavity nesting birds like the Black-capped Chickadee nest in the small trees. I have found a chickadee nest in a tree about three inches in diameter. 

The musclewood tree does not become large so it is ideal for small yards. They can be pruned to encourage a single trunk or a multi-stemmed hedge border. 

As an Lepidopterist, I find the tree a joyous neighbor supporting many desirable butterflies and moths like the io moth, striped hairstreak, a variety of inchworm moths, beautiful hooktip moths, and blinded sphinx moths. If I get to the trees before foraging birds have eaten their fill, I find insects like plant bugs, leaf hoppers, aphids, metallic and long-horned woodboring beetles. 

An amazing diversity of life can be supported by planting a native tree like the musclewood. Some people know it as an ironwood because its dense small celled wood grain is used to make tool handles. Another common tree in our area is the hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and is also called ironwood. Both are in the birch family but have distinct appearance differences. I do not refer to either as ironwood to avoid confusion.

The musclewood has thin smooth gray bark with a rippling muscle appearance (like my biceps–well I wish). The hop hornbeam has bark with narrow vertical parallel strips of bark. Where branches died and fell, unique bulges pepper the tree trunk. Both trees are small shade tolerant understory trees that grow under large trees. 

Exploratory attention to leaf details make tree separation easy even without the presence of the rest of the tree. The musclewood has leaves with veins that do not branch as they approach the leaf margin, Hop hornbeam leaf veins branch near the edge of the leaf. 

Look for musclewoods in well drained moist soils where they do well in partial shade. They grow under and around maples, oaks, or a variety of other trees. Attract abundant life to your yard by planting a musclewood. Make arrangements to visit Ody Brook to collect some nuts. 

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

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Musclewood Wings

Tree on stilts

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Tree on stilts

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