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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Shooting Stars

 

By Ranger Steve

 

There is joy in the quiet solitude of the night sky. It has taken millions of years for light from some stars to reach Earth. We see light that has been traveling for an extended time and enjoy it during our short presence. Travel time of light is immense while our own lives are brief. 

A shooting star’s existence persists for only seconds. August is the time to lean back to enjoy the sky slowly moving. Stars appear locked in position relative to others. We rely on them to be in the same arrangement nightly. Ancient cultures mapped them and gave names to clusters called constellations. Familiar are the Big and Little Dippers, and the zodiac. Twelve zodiac constellations lie in the plane of the sun’s apparent movement. 

This is the month my sign is said to be “in the sun.” The constellation Leo the lion cannot be seen because it is “in the sun.” Well, not really. It is behind the sun. The stars nightly rise four minutes earlier and creep closer toward the sun. We can observe zodiac constellations a few months prior to them working their way to the sun. 

It will take a year for each Zodiac constellation to make the circuit from being “in the sun” to return to be “in the sun” again. There is a peace and reliability in the sky compared to the frenetic world surrounding us daily. Year after year, expect old friends from billions of miles and light years away to signal all is well. A distant star might burn out millions of years before we discover it is no longer sending light our way. 

Light beams sent before a star burns-out continue the journey long after the star’s life extinguishes. Camp by a dark wilderness lake to experience the brilliance of darkness and contemplate. Will our own existence extend long after we depart? Are we like a distant star that provides stability and reliability that will transcend us?

In the quiet night solitude find life’s meaning and joy while watching stars advance. Pick a star near the edge of a tree’s dark nighttime canopy to the east and one to west. Relax in a comfortable location and gaze into the skies blackness perforated by a couple thousand pricks of light. After several minutes try to locate the selected stars. The one to east will have moved away from the tree. The one to the west will have drifted behind the tree. 

At this time of year, the Milky Way can be seen extending from the constellation Cassiopeia in the northeast toward the southwest. It looks like a ribbon of dim light draped across the sky. The haze of light is comprised of stars but most are too distant to distinguish individually. The galaxy’s flattened arms create a spiral disk. 

When looking at the Milky Way, it is like looking across the broad expanse of a pancake with curved fan blades. Imagine yourself in the flapjack looking up or down through the thin portion from top to bottom. Stars we see above or below are comparable to those we see outside the Milky Way. 

We live in a tiny section of the plate-like galaxy toward its outer edge. Comets orbit the sun and leave behind scattered debris in space. A comet crossed the Earth’s path thousands of years ago. Each August where the two crossroads intersect, the Earth collides with fragments left by the comet. 

The bits of rubble are mostly sand sized. When the atmosphere comes in contact with them, they are drawn by gravity and glow as they heat. Briefly, they produce light as they “fall” toward Earth. They are not shooting or falling stars but that is how they appear. Depending on the size of the object, some glow brighter.  

The peak Perseid meteor shower display concluded on my birthday this week but continues. Its “shooting stars” can be seen nightly. I consider the annual fireworks a birthday celebration. The quiet solitude of night with flashing streams of light brings peace like the rhythmic lapping of waves to our campsite shoreline.

Shooting stars can be seen any night of year but more are seen where a comet left debris drifting in Earth’s orbital path around the sun. It is all part of our nature niche to enjoy.

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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Cloud jumping

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Jumping from a plane into a puffy cumulus cloud was a sensation I wanted. My fear was how would I return to the ground. Would I be stuck forever drifting over the surface of Earth with no way home?

I was at age of discovery but do not recall my age. The story of Jack and he Bean Stalk most likely aroused my interest in cloud jumping. I wondered what was really in clouds? How could I discover nature niche secretes in those moving works of art without jumping into the cottony fluffs? 

Laying in the lawn, I watched clouds come and go. Each comprised uniquely shaped creatures and objects. One was a passing whale followed by an elephant, and then a dragon breathing fire. They weren’t all animals. An ice cream cone was leaning to its side. Warm sunshine caused the ice cream to vaporize and disappear. At some point, I would learn clouds were water droplets that condensed from a gas to liquid on a speck of dust. Later liquid water would evaporate again as the sun’s rays energized molecules back to an invisible gas. 

A smaller group of passing clouds comprised of three birds with wings outstretched were making their way toward a larger cloud that must have been a tree canopy where they could take shelter and find rest. They were not gaining on the tree as they flew. Their wing feathers were vaporizing and disintegrated before my eyes. Each of the cloud birds disappeared one by one and never reached the shelter they sought. 

If I jumped into a cloud, I feared not being able to get back to the Earth’s surface. Had I managed to actually jump into a cloud, I would have discovered too late that I would pass through quickly and end my journey as a splat on terra ferma. I would vanish as surely as the three vaporizing birds.

Using imagination to ponder the world while lying flat ones back develops a healthy mind. Our girls and I discussed creatures overhead. They would point out bears, penguins, houses, clumps of grapes, smiling faces, and dogs. Summer days on family vacations included skipping stones on still water lake surfaces, paddling a canoe across a lake to “turtle bay” where turtles quietly slid off logs, and watching the passing cloud parade.

Peace away from the hustle of life at home allowed us to become an element of nature. We replenished our spirits and souls. Wonderment surrounded us. Later in life, the nature of clouds would be transformed from imaginary creatures to water droplets and our fascination could dangerously evaporate like the three birds. 

The enchantment of drifting clouds from my childhood has not vanished like vaporizing clouds before my eyes. Time with my kids allowed me to relive the passing parade many times over on vacations or on day outings. The girls have grown, moved away and begun families. They can relax and enjoy cloud discovery with their spouses and kids. New clouds and creatures arrive to greet every new generation. Don’t miss them.

Cloud creatures still enrapture my solitude adventures to wilderness locations where time stands still and my mind peacefully wanders. Despite an aging body, my consciousness retains the excitement revealed early in life. We all get lost among responsibilities of everyday demands. Time away from the routine of human-centered activities and technological inventions allows us opportunity to develop a real-world relationship.

I learned stratus clouds quietly drop rain for hours, high cirrus clouds are icy, and noisy cumulus thunderheads startle us with loud claps after jagged bolts of lightning cut the sky wide open. Understanding the science of clouds is important for a number reasons. One of those reasons is so we do not jump into them thinking we will get to explore a hidden world only to discover it will be our last living experience. 

Savor the parading creatures. Take time to recline in wilderness areas alone, with family members or friends. Let your mind drift with the clouds. Rejuvenate your soul and spirit. It happens naturally in wild places away from the distractions imposed by daily demands. The values of wilderness are immense. 

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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Monarch champion and icon dies

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Lincoln Brower, who was considered one of the foremost experts on the iconic monarch butterfly and a scientist who advocated for protection for the declining species, died on July 17 at his home in Roseland, Virginia at age 86, with complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was a key researcher demonstrating that blue jays become ill eating monarchs and learned birds avoid eating them. His research helped build scientific evidence supporting that birds learn to avoid toxic insects in their diet. The orange color is a warning “don’t eat me.” 

Through scholarly papers, articles, and interviews, Dr. Brower illuminated the story of the monarch. Working with groups in Mexico and with the Mexican government in the 1980s, he helped establish sanctuaries to protect crucial fir forests from logging where the butterflies gather in the millions. In later years he said illegal cutting continued. I recall discussing the plight of monarch migration phenomena with him. 

He stated the monarch species has non-migratory populations that live in sedentary populations in the Caribbean islands, Trinidad, Bermuda and South America. Those are not likely to go extinct. Most of the Northern American population gathers in Mexico by the millions for a two-way multiple generation migration unique in the world. He said that would likely disappear in the early 21st century. Fortunately, that has not occurred. In part, the migratory population might still exist because of his tireless efforts to protect it. 

Biodiversity that supports humans and other life on Earth is disappearing piece by piece. Dr. Dave Warners recently stated we are losing 50,000 species worldwide annually. I have seen habitat sampling evidence that supports higher and lower estimates. We do not know the long-term impacts this will have on humans or ecosystems that support us. Lincoln focused research on monarchs but he held a broader view for protecting biodiversity essential for our species’ economic, social, and environmental health.

I write about such things in my nature niche column. They are not my original ideas. Most were generated in previous centuries with additional scientific evidence support being added in recent decades. Dr. Brower was a scientist whose work and evidence helped protect human interests. I hope voters consider the importance of scientific evidence and do not dismiss it because it does not agree with their desires. Most scientists are unwilling to voice political advocacy when their work is referred to as fake news. Lincoln used scientific evidence to advocate protection for the monarch. He said, “We’re too pragmatic in this country, and I think we need to realize that biological treasures such as the monarch are just as valuable as the Mona Lisa.” 

Brower charted the butterflies’ stark decline. Its overall population has fallen by about 80 percent over the last two decades, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. In 2014, Brower placed his name alongside conservation groups to petition the federal government to protect the monarch under the Endangered Species Act. “He was the only scientist who joined the petition–it’s a gigantic deal,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “A lot of scientists shy away from advocacy.” The Endangered Species, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Wilderness Acts are under grave threat by the Trump administration. I encourage readers to voice their opinions to Congressional representatives now. 

Dr. Brower recognized many people relate to human created treasures. Many species comprising Earth’s diversity are not equally valued and are considered expendable. Regarding protection of endangered species, Congress is not protecting the value of Grand Staircase National Monument in Utah where protections were removed by Executive Order last year. By who voters elected, we support the unlawful taking of private property along the Mexican border without due process. I am part owner of North American Butterfly Association property there where the Endangered Species Act has been exempted as a matter of national security. Dr. Brower objected to such taking and recognized personal rights and environmental protection are essential to national security and sustainability. 

I am honored to have known Lincoln and to have been mentored by him personally and through his published works. “Google” Lincoln Brower to discover the authors I used to cull information shared and to read details about his amazing life. Sadly, we have lost a monarch champion and icon. Will you champion monarchs? 

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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Genes and inheritance

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Some male and female organisms look nearly identical. It is not easy to recognize a male and female robin apart. Is it a boy or girl cottontail hopping through the yard? Plants like wild strawberries have both sexes in one flower while others like willows are either male or female plants.

Male and female American Goldfinches look very different in summer but by winter look quite similar. It is the outward appearance we notice. What is hidden from view is the genetics. We can observe the results but the secrets for how genes and inheritance help species survive in nature niches is an ongoing discovery process. 

DNA sequencing has become popular for tracing personal family origins and is a tool for solving cold case crimes. As an ecological tool, molecular analysis aids understanding the evolution of species. 

DNA and RNA analysis has provided great advances toward understanding origins of species. It has also revealed new difficulties to decipher. When I first encountered the Northern Blue butterfly in Michigan, I confused it with Karner Blue butterfly. The two are nearly identical twins in appearance. 

Mo Nielsen immediately told me I did not make a Karner Blue discovery in the Upper Peninsula when I reported one. He said there is no wild blue lupine there that the Karner Blue requires. He instructed me to look closely at the wing pattern to see if it was a Northern Blue. I was unfamiliar with the Northern Blue but that is what I found. It was a breeding colony that confirmed the species as a Michigan resident. The Michigan DNR nongame program provided a grant for me to conduct life history research for this new Michigan species. 

I was not involved with the molecular analysis, but it was found the Northern Blue showed a closer relationship with the Karner Blues genetically than with the Northern Blues of western North America. Outwardly, Michigan Northern Blues look more like Karner Blues than they look like western Northern Blues. 

As scientific abilities become more advanced, we find separation between species is more difficult to assess. We like to think species are distinct entities that are clearly separated. They are not. A key feature that helps define species separations is ecological nature niche adaptations. Species adapt to utilize different food plants and micro-habitats that result to speciation. 

Many species are cryptic. Physically they look alike but are ecologically and reproductively separated. They share habitat but have developed isolating survival strategies that are different from the parent species. Specific isolating adaptations create new species but interbreeding during the process complicates analysis. 

Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Flickers (woodpeckers) were considered separate species. We planted trees across the Great Plains and the two got together. They mate and produce fertile offspring. The two are now lumped as one species called the Northern Flicker. Interestingly where they live together, the yellow and red do not readily interbreed. This has caused some ecologists to think they should be considered separate sibling species. Others think they are one species with two color forms that reduces interbreeding based on appearance. 

We experience the same difficulty among humans where Danes, Germans, French, Hispanics, and other races live together. Our genes are fully compatible. There was a time when people thought each race was a separate species but DNA sequencing indicates our genetic differences are superficial and too minor to separate humans as different species. The differences are primarily cultural. We are one species that developed different physical adaptations that helped us survive in various climatic conditions. Cultural isolation helped define our races.

Science is supported by physical evidence. It often conflicts with what we want or choose to believe. Our cultural background helps define our behavior. Like flickers, some people like Karen (Norwegian) and me (German) intermixed our genes while others choose to limit relationships to their race and cultural history. 

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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Waxy Bloom

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Hopefully all have enjoyed the beauty of Colorado Blue Spruce trees that are planted in Michigan to enhance yards and businesses. Blue spruces have a white wax secretion on new green needle growth that creates the blue we enjoy. It is not unique to blue spruces but the wax abundance is.

Waxy bloom secretion is common on plants and prevents evaporation desiccation on new growth. It is particularly important for blue spruces in their native western North America’s dry nature niche with low humidity. Needles exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through the needle surfaces to survive. Pores called stomata, where gas exchange occurs, are concentrated on needle undersurfaces in tiny pits. These pitted micro-humidity chambers help prevent excessive drying in the tree’s arid habitat. 

Native plants and animals support healthy Great Lakes Ecosystem functioning. I am not a purist. Nonnative plants are used in gardens and along the road but are kept to a minimum. We enjoy non-natives as do a small number of insects, birds, and other taxa. By limiting non-natives, native species can support large populations of native animal populations. Non-native plants support few native animals and mowed lawns almost none.

Enjoy some non-natives and touch them. Rub your fingers on blue spruce needles to notice the blue changes to green. The wax rubs off allowing green to show without being modified by light passing through the white waxy bloom. Become friendly with trees, shrubs, and other plants you invited to live with you on your property. You hug your kids so don’t neglect the plants you adopted. 

We help, shape and guide the development of our children and grandchildren. Do the same for plants. Prune, shape, and water so they thrive. Non-native plants usually need extra attention, time, support, and work so keep them to a minimum. Plant native species because they do not need fertilizers or much work to survive.

Plants are not the only species with a waxy bloom. Common Whitetail Dragonflies will search your yard for lunch if you allow native plant growth in portions of your home habitat. Keep as much native landscape as possible and mow minimally. Field areas provide a large variety of spring and summer wildflowers that support biodiversity and beauty. They require less maintenance and expense. Mow wild areas once or a few times a year to prevent unwanted woody growth. Dragonflies will stop in for lunch. The “teenager” whitetail dragonflies will find good meals. Colorful species will rapidly zip about and occasionally land where you can view them well. 

As whitetails mature, they will secrete a white waxy bloom that turns the abdomen brilliant white. They are seen in yards but when mature, concentrate in wetlands protecting the best breeding habitat from other males. It is valuable to allow native wild vegetation to grow along stream and lake edges, and by wetlands where they support dragonflies, fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife we enjoy seeing. Weasels turn white in fall and the color helps them blend with winter’s snow. They do not produce a white waxy bloom but enjoy them anyway by providing wild places to thrive in your yard where they will eat mice, voles, and moles.

Explore the feel of leaves. Notice some have a thick waxy surface that is heaviest on the sun exposed surface and thin on the shaded lower surface where microscopic stomata concentrate. The thick wax coating is referred to as a cuticle instead of a bloom. It does not rub off and helps protect plants from being eaten. Many insect feeders chew or suck plant juices from young leaves or needles before they develop a thick cuticle.

The waxy bloom is thin and temporary on new growth. Take time to compare with older needles from previous years that are green with a thick cuticle. Summer’s new blue spruce growth has the bloom that entices us to plant this tree. As fun as it is, do not get carried away with rubbing off the bloom. Make sure you spend time with kids and grandkids that will enjoy the activity. They will remember it better than you. Simple activities in nature develop appreciation and love for the natural world that needs support to prevent habitat loss as our human population continues to grow. Our yards are critical for maintaining biodiversity for future generations.

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

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Bird eggs and shells

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Reminder Note: The Rouge River Butterfly Count is July 7 at 9 a.m. If you missed the nature niche article, e-mail me for details. Participants will receive Mo Nielsen’s Michigan Butterflies and Skippers Field Guide. 

Bird eggs taste good to us and other creatures like birds, snakes, and mammals. Successful egg hatching is a difficult challenge. 

This year, an American Robin built a nest in a precarious location at Ody Brook and by the time its second egg was laid, I saw the nest on the ground. The first egg lay unbroken. A second egg was laid on the remaining nest platform base but was abandoned. 

Size of eggs correlates with bird size but variation occurs. Precocial birds whose young develop adequately to leave the nest promptly like ducks, have larger eggs with more nutritional content. That allows the chick to grow more inside the egg before hatching. It readies the young for rapid nest departure.

Altricial birds like chickadees that hatch small, naked and featherless develop in smaller eggs. The parent feeds the helpless babies and needs to continue incubating to keep young from dying of hypothermia. 

Egg shape is important for survival in nature niches. Round eggs can role like a marble. Oblong eggs that are narrow at one end and wide at the other will roll in circles. Cliff dwelling birds use little nest material and the oblong egg shape prevents them from rolling off the cliff. They roll in circles. Screech owls have nearly round eggs placed in a cavity nest where they cannot roll away. 

More tapered eggs that are somewhat pointed are characteristic for birds with cup nests like those of thrushes and sparrows. It allows eggs to fit better for incubation. The adult bird forms a brood patch on her breast that is featherless and filled with blood vessels during breeding season. She cools her breast by sitting on cool eggs. The heat is transferred to the developing embryos in the eggs. When the egg warms against her breast, she rolls the egg to a cooler portion of the shell. The activity evenly heats the eggs. 

Eggs exposed in view would be targets for predators if they were white against the modeled gray brown ground location like where killdeer and many other shorebirds have nests. Eggs shells become colored as the shell is developed in the oviduct. They frequently have spots that develop when the egg is temporarily stationary and are streaked with movement. A ring may be present at the wide end as the egg is pushed along the oviduct. 

Birds tend to lay one egg a day until they complete their clutch. During the 24-hour egg development process, the egg is fertilized by a male and the embryo moves through the oviduct where the shell encases the lifegiving material for chick development. 

The embryo is small with a large yolk attached to nourish development. As the chick grows, the yolk becomes smaller as nutrition is transferred to the young bird. Egg white acts as a shock absorber, provides protein, water, and insulation. Under the shell surface are two membranes that protect from bacterial infection. 

Between the two membranes an air sac is located at the large end of the egg. The air pocket facilitates movement of oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of the egg. The shell might appear solid and impervious but the embryo would suffocate without constant diffusion of vital gases through the shell.

Eggs are laid wide end first. As the egg shell is developing, muscles in the oviduct contract to push the egg along. The pressure narrows the end where contractions force movement. Calcium is added along the way making the egg ridged by the time it is laid. When preparing your next egg meal, examine the shell, membranes, egg white and yolk. Then enjoy good nutrition and taste. 

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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Parasites and parasitoids

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

We are familiar with parasites like mosquitoes that suck blood essential for egg development. Females are parasitic and males are not. Males seek nectar and so do females for general energy requirements. The female needs blood proteins for egg development. After sucking blood, she takes a few days to digest blood protein that serves egg yolk development. 

If a female survives the effort of sucking blood, she might lay 100 to 200 eggs on water surfaces after she has processed blood proteins to adequately nourished eggs. Only two of her eggs survive to reproduce if the mosquito population remains stable from one generation to the next. That is the norm. Some species lay eggs in unique ways to meet specialized nature niche adaptations. Population abundance has seasonal peaks.

Most mosquito parasitism occurs at dawn and dusk. We avoid harassment by selecting outdoor activity times and locations. Instead of using yard pesticides, we mechanically manage vegetation. Near the house we mow a 20-foot wide area that is avoided by most mosquitoes. Beyond the mowed area is a lush display of maiden pink and Cat’s-ear flowers (see photo) that please our eyes in June and house insect predators that help control parasites and parasitoids. Learning to live with nature has rewards. Sterilizing the yards diminishes the wonders of life that enrich our lives. It prevents bird habitation and beneficial insect predators important to landscape ecology.

Parasites do not normally kill their host. Mosquitoes carry parasites like the malaria amoeba that kills a half million people annually. There is a middle ground between the impacts of parasites and parasitoids. Most things exist on a gradation. To be most effective a parasite captures needed substances from a host without killing it.

Parasitoids kill their host. If parasitoids were completely effective, the host species would become extinct. Host species have structural and behavioral adaptations that help them complete their life cycle and reproduce. Parasitoids are more effective at controlling pests than predators and they are more susceptible to pesticides.

The adaptations of a parasitoid are for an adult to find a suitable host and lay eggs on or in the animal. Sphinx moths and large silk moths are sought by tiny specialized Braconid and Ichneumonid wasps. They sting the caterpillar to lay eggs. Tachinid flies lay eggs on the caterpillar. When hatched, larvae burrow in. 

The host larva often jerks and waves its body to prevent parasitoid egg laying. Some caterpillars like the Federally Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly are ant tended. The butterfly secretes honey dew, a sugar solution, that ants eat. Ants protect the caterpillars from both parasites and parasitoids. Perhaps you have had ants jump off plants and bite you if you got too close to a caterpillar they protect. The Edwards Hairstreak butterflies are ant protected. Ants herd the caterpillars from oak leaves where they feed at night to the ground in the morning and back to leaves at dusk. Ant behavior is similar to farmers herding cows to and from barns. 

Once the parasitoid larvae of wasps or flies hatch from the egg, they feed on the least essential body tissues like caterpillar fat. The caterpillar goes about daily feeding to meet its energy needs for pupal development to transform to an adult. As it nears the pupal forming stage, it often has inadequate stored nutrition to complete pupal formation. Finally, vital organs are consumed by the parasitoid. Parasitoid and parasite activity exist in other organism groups. The few examples presented are simply representative to introduce their roles. 

When you explore wild areas of your yard or neighborhood, you might find a shriveled desiccated caterpillar skin or one with obvious white pupae on the surface of a living individual. It is common for 100 or more parasitoids to emerge from the caterpillar’s body. If the parasitoid killed the caterpillar quickly, it would not survive to adulthood and its own species would parish. 

Ask plant nurseries to sell native plant genotypes, buy cultivars minimally, and use minimal pesticides to enjoy life’s abundance. Such practices will maintain Earth’s biodiversity and enhance your life’s enjoyment.

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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Arrowhead Spiketail Life Cycle

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Flying rapidly close to the surface of shallow water in Little Cedar Creek headwaters, an Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly guards a territory. Males fly back and forth over a section of stream protecting areas where water flows over a muck bottom. A female lays her eggs in the muck where water is shallow enough for her to reach her long abdomen into the soft bottom. She needs seeping springs that feed streams in forested habitat. 

The Arrowhead Spiketail has not been collected extensively in Michigan. It lives in eastern North America. The Michigan Odonata Survey documents distribution evidence with specimens in the University of Michigan research museum. Interestingly, no specimens are vouchered to document its presence for our area of the state. 

I have only noticed it when hiking in Porcupine Mountains State Park and at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. 

It is a beautiful dragonfly with a black abdomen and bright yellow arrowhead spots on the top of the abdomen.

Many species of dragonflies appear in abundance during summer. A walk through a field will provide a glimpse at fast-moving young adults. Many remain on the wing making it difficult to recognize identification details. They are busy removing flying insects. Thank them for making your walk more pleasant by eating insects that might eat part of you. Some dragonflies eat their weight in mosquitos in one hour. 

Young adults are often found far from water. When sexually ready to mate, they head to a species-specific water type of lake, pond, river, bog, swamp, stream, or seep where young develop. Each species experiences a similar development with variations that help it thrive in its specialized nature niche. 

The mating process for dragonflies is unique. Insects have three body parts–head, thorax, and abdomen. The male transfers sperm from the end of his abdomen to a pocket near the attachment of his abdomen and thorax. Using claspers at the end of his abdomen, the male grabs the female by the head. When the female is held firmly by the head, she bends her abdomen in a loop to where the sperm packet is stored. A penis in the pocket on the male scoops out any sperm packets or pushes them aside to ensure his sperm sires offspring. Some dragonflies stay attached while females lay eggs and some release them but fly nearby to keep other males away. I do not know spiketail methods for protecting females from being mated by other males. Does he stay attached or fly nearby?

Female dragonflies lay eggs in appropriate habitat. Some species skim the water surface dropping eggs that sink to the bottom. Others lay eggs in vegetation that drop into water when hatched. Some lay eggs on land that will be carried into water during flooding. Each species has different egg laying techniques. 

When the egg hatches, a small naiad begins its life feeding on other stream life. Some crawl on the stream bottom while others remain stationary and buried in bottom sediments waiting for food to drift to them. They are predators eating aquatic organisms. If found, the dragonfly becomes prey for fish and other organisms. 

To survive, they are camouflaged and remain hidden. Their gills are tucked inside their rear end so they suck oxygen rich water in their butt to pass over the gills. On the underside of the head is the deadly flat feeding structure that unfolds with great speed. At its end are pinchers that grab prey and the flap folds to bring the prey to chewing mouth parts where the food is dismembered and swallowed. Some naiad larvae develop into adults in one year while other species take many years.  

Dragonflies have three developmental stages; egg, naiad, and adult. They have incomplete metamorphosis as opposed to complete like butterflies that have egg, caterpillar, pupa, and adult. The naiad sheds its exoskeleton many times as it grows and finally when developed enough, it will climb from the water on vegetation where it emerges from its final naiad skeleton. It squeezes from the exoskeleton by arching backward from the shell-like covering. Its adult legs grasp the plant to hold tightly while it pumps fluid into expanding wings. When wings dry, it begins flight, feeds, and mates to complete the life cycle that begins a new generation of dragonflies.

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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Tent Caterpillars

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Tent caterpillars become abundant and then seem to disappear for years. During the recent Memorial Day weekend, I led ecological interaction walks in the Jordan River Valley for the Michigan Botanical Club Spring Foray. Members gathered from the state to explore the advance of spring ephemeral flowers, trees, shrubs and associations with insects, birds, fungi and other organisms. Organisms were busy at work in their nature niches. 

Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) on bark. Image from U.S. forest Service.

Driving to the natural areas from home, many foray attendees noticed eastern tent caterpillar webs on cherry trees along freeways, highways, and back roads. The roads act like threads of silk to get us from where we work to places we rest in shelters at night. The tent caterpillars create their own highway with silk threads used to mark the way from where they feed to their nightly tent residence where they sleep protected and safe.

Many hazards prevent safe return as they go about work and travel. At times they reproduce in excessive abundance. Over 30 years ago, I interviewed Suzy for a position as interpretive naturalist at Howard Christensen Nature Center. We walked the trails discussing natural history and the work. Eastern tent caterpillars were abundantly feeding on cherries and had stripped most cherry leaves from trees. 

She asked if that would kill the trees. I suggested she conduct a scientific study to determine the answer. I told her to select a tree of her choice and report back to me whether it survived longer than her. She selected a particularly heavily infested cherry that was 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It was nearly nude from having its leaves almost entirely eaten. By mid-June the tree was looking much like it did in winter. Silk tents were woven among branches throughout the tree. 

The caterpillars had removed the organs responsible for providing life giving sustenance and seriously threatened its health. The tree had adequate stored energy to survive that summer and photosynthesis provided some added daily food to meet energy requirements. After the spring population eruption, the caterpillars spun cocoons that emerged as drab brown moths. The moths laid masses of 100 to 300 eggs glued to cherry branches. 

The next spring when new delicate leaves filled with water and sugars carried from roots through stems to buds, the leaves expanded for work capturing sunlight energy to produce more sugars and plant tissues. Caterpillars hatched from the egg masses and ate the soft new tissues. For a second year, the tree was stripped naked during May and June. By mid to late summer the tree produced more leaves while the moths were hidden in cocoons. 

During the third summer, tree branches were filled with caterpillar tents despite birds, ants and many predators eating their share and using them to feed young. Predators were not abundant enough to reduce the tent caterpillar population. Along came a virus that had been building its own population yearly. During this third year, it became abundant enough to kill the majority of caterpillars. The virus had its survival job and was doing to caterpillars what the caterpillars were doing to the trees—killing them—or were caterpillars killing trees? 

Back to Suzy. After 30 years, I asked Suzy if her selected tree was still alive and asked if she was still alive. She said both were living and both appeared healthy. After that third year the caterpillar population crashed and so did the virus. Every decade or so the tent caterpillar population builds and crashes with the virus life cycle conducting its ecological role. Some cherries already weak from over-crowding or other reasons, die during the moth eruption. It thins the forest providing more growing space, nutrients and health for remaining trees. 

In the natural areas where we hiked with botanical club members, forest tent caterpillars were abundantly feeding on sugar maple leaves. This species does not build tents like the eastern tent caterpillars but their life cycles resemble each other’s. We stood quietly and listened to their frass (poop) falling from tree tops. It sounded like a gentle rain on the 88ºF clear summer afternoon. I suggested participates return to see whether they or their selected trees lives longer.

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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Hues of Green

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Hues of green with splashes of white and red. Early summer provides its own color extravaganza. Each tree species has a unique nature niche adaptation timing for leafing out that expresses a shade of green color. 

Many trees flower before their leaves emerge. This aids trees that are wind pollinated. Early flowering helps maples that are both insect and wind pollinated. Flowering prior to leaf out makes it easier for insects to find flowers for the nectar reward. Insects carry pollen to flowers of the same tree species for cross-fertilization. 

Insects seek a nectar reward and are unaware they are enlisted as a third party to a sexual transaction for delivering pollen to an egg. Insects see plant colors differently. Their eyes capture ultraviolet color our eyes do not. Our eyes see reds insects do not. Birds, humans with other mammals, and insects see the world differently. 

Scientists use ultraviolet photography to discover how insects perceive flowers. What looks like a white flower to us might have vivid color for an insect. Splashes of white tree flowers in the spring woods like serviceberry and cherry might look different to a bee, butterfly, or fly. 

As brown branches suddenly transform with flowers followed by leaves, we experience shades of green that rival fall colors. It is joy when driving the highway to witness the multitude of greens. Each species contributes its own hue to the mosaic of forest color. Leaves released from buds usually have red anthocyanin sun block in expanding embryonic leaves that protects new delicate leaves from being sunburned. 

Green chloroplasts absorb most sunlight colors in the leaves but reflect green. The concentration of chloroplasts varies to create varying light to dark shades of green in trees. Notice of the subtle color pageant that could easily be missed. Though it is not as obvious as the fall color spectacular, it is remarkable. 

When leaves emerge from buds, they expand faster than they can grow. Leaf cells formed last summer and their growth waited in buds all winter. The cold spring delayed leaf emergence this year. When conditions allow, embryonic leaves fill like water balloons and leaves take weeks growing additional cellular substance. Feel the delicate nature of a newly expanded leaf and then the sturdy strength of an older leaf a few weeks later. 

We experienced what I call a Minnesota spring. When we lived in northern Minnesota, winter hung on until late April. Then suddenly, conditions changed and spring transitioned to summer in a few short weeks. In “normal” years, spring lasts about twice as long here. We get to enjoy ephemeral flowers like hepatica, trout lilies, and trilliums longer. Tree flowering sequence is also expanded over a longer period. 

This year plants had a narrower flowering time span. It was necessary to look quickly or miss the beauty. We can still witness the varied hues of green that will disappear among trees by the official beginning of summer on the 21 June solstice when the sun appears to make an about-face and begin its journey southward.

Though summer officially begins when the sun reaches its northmost point, I consider that too nebulous and difficult to observe. For me, summer begins at a different time with phenological progression. Phenology is the sequence of plant flowering, bird migration or other biological occurrences associated with climate. 

Most bird migration waves have come and gone and spring flowers wane by the time the last tree species leaves emerge. Summer resident birds are on nests. Spring beauty, hepatics, and trout lilies give way to summer flowering plants. I consider that to be the beginning of summer. 

Leaves appear latest on oaks trees marking an easily observed beginning to summer. Depending on the year, summer begins on slightly different dates when tree phenology settles to a common hue of green for the coming months. 

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 (0)

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