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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

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.

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Graduation Day 2018

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It is high school graduation day and science has saved me for this day. Twenty years ago, on Mother’s Day 1998, my family doctor called that Sunday saying my blood work showed a multiple myeloma cancer marker (MM). He was going on vacation and said I needed to immediately see an oncologist.

I checked my medical reference and read there is no cure and life expectancy is one year. Newer scientific references indicated survival to be 1 to 3 years. My MM appeared to be smoldering and meant developing slowly. Practice is for doctors to watch and wait to start treatment until the cancer becomes active. 

For ten years, I was observed with blood work and X-rays to determine progression. I showed no progression. Suddenly in 2008, I experienced severe pain that prevented normal functioning. I was examined and MM had not appeared to have progressed. An MRI was done and found I was a mess with seven bone fractures. 

I asked why MRI’s were not done annually. I was told it was too much. That meant too much expense. The cancer progression could have been found earlier but the scientific testing was too expensive. The survival average was still one to three years but a new discovery with thalidomide appeared to be changing longevity. 

My oncologist said I might survive a year or possibly longer. It was not predicable because every patient differs. I had seven fractures in my back and needed a walker to move. There are holes in my skull. Getting out of bed can break bones. Treatment began to bring the cancer under control for me to have a bone marrow transplant. 

I visited Karen’s second grade class to give a science talk but we also addressed my health and MM. It was obvious I was in poor health. I told the class that I would attend their high school graduation in ten years despite the prediction of three or less years survival. I stated my goal was to productively serve others to age 75.

The cancer is not curable but is somewhat manageable. Treatments improved my health enough for the bone marrow transplant. Later the cancer took control again and a final bone marrow transplant followed using my stem cells. Scientific stem cell research has prolonged my life and allowed me continued productively to serve the community. I continue writing nature niche articles and each year I wonder if I will survive to complete another year’s articles. I manage Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary for enhancing biodiversity and share its wonders of life with others. Management is personally financed but donations are welcome. I have distributed my insect research specimens to major museums across the nation and still present programs. 

As expected the cancer began advancing again and my oncologist suggested I participate in a clinical trial at the U of Chicago. I was accepted and four years later I am functioning. I have frustrating limitations. I received a call the last week of May informing me the cancer is advancing and a new survival plan will be tried.

I move extremely slowly, tire easily, have weakness, experience short term memory loss from chemo brain, and have a list of 20 chemo side effects. Some are minor and some significant. Despite mean survival indicating I would not reach age 50, I continue. I was 47 at first diagnosis. At age 57, I was severely crippled but have rebounded with treatment. Now ten years later at age 67 it appears I will see my 68th birthday. 

I told the 2nd graders ten years ago I would attend their graduation. Karen and I have cried at different times. Now we can cry with joy that I will be able to attend her students’ graduation. My goal of living productively to age 75 remains possible. Experimental science, clinical trials, personal determination, and prayer all help. 

Karen hosted a three-year survival party when I reached what was thought the long end of survival. Now special treatment has a survival longevity of 7 to 8 years. I am in year ten the way doctors count. They count from when treatment begins. I count from diagnosis and that is twenty years. I thank everyone that has been supportive. The 2nd graders lives have progressed and they have likely forgotten me but I remember my promise to them.

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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Science and Emotion

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

 

I am told as a biologist I cannot be emotional. Yet everything I live for, strive for, and believe in is in the dirt outside my door. The dirt outside my door is being carried away and someone says I have not the right to be emotional because I’m a scientist?—Ranger Steve Mueller 7 October 1974

In May 1973 I fell completely in love with Bryce Canyon Nat’l Park and was fortunate to become employed as a ranger there in 1974. My daughter was born there in 1980, my career and family took us in new directions but my heart and soul remained scientifically and emotionally true to that remnant of Eden.

I began working for the creation of Grand Staircase wilderness that lies between Bryce Canyon NP and Grand Canyon NP. The fragile desolate area stretches 80 miles north to south and 150 miles east to west. People recognized the uniqueness and fragility of the area. Focus groups worked for suitable protection.

Competing interests differed. Since the 1920’s, compromises developed. In the 1990’s President Clinton used the Antiquities Act to established Grand Staircase National Monument on public land. It did not meet some of my desires for protecting part of Eden that remains on Earth. It did not meet the desires of others wanting to exploit its cultural and natural resources for short term personal gain. Difficult compromises developed. 

States are granted school land sections as a process of deeding when States are established. Utah wanted compensation for state lands within what became Grand Staircase Nat’l Monument. The federal government deeded other federal lands richer in oil, natural gas, and coal to compensate Utah. 

The establishment of Grand Staircase NM became a long term economic boost for small towns. Recreation increased along with rapid growth of sustainable businesses during the past twenty years. Mining, pollution, and landscape destruction are not compatible with fragility of the arid environment and unique ecosystem species. 

Dr. Dave Warners, Calvin College biologist stated, we’re not heading in a good direction on our current path with the relationship between global temperature, CO2 levels, human population and the prevalence of species extinction that approximates 50,000 species going extinct annually. He suggests:

Preservation—setting aside natural, protected areas, such as national parks

Conservation Biology—Managing those preserved areas

Restoration ecology—Improving degraded areas

Reconciliation—the process of deliberately sharing our habitats with other species.

Compromises developed for establishing Grand Staircase NM. Congress has sole authority to make adjustments. President Trump does not agree with our laws and claims he can dictatorially exempt designated laws protecting the monuments, environment, and private property like those along the Mexican border. He is taking public and private land without due process of law.

Wilderness Society president said, “The Trump administration is ignoring local communities and undoing the thoughtful participation of countless individuals that led to the creation of these national monuments.” She added the Wilderness Society will stand up against the Trump Administration’s illegal actions in court where the facts are on our side. Allies in eight national conservation groups, the $887 billion outdoor recreation industry, and five Native American Nations have sued to restore the protections of Grand Staircase and Bears Ears National Monuments that were established through public involvement and compromise. 

Bill Spalding, business owner by Grand Staircase said, “Without the monument, our business wouldn’t exist.”

I continue scientific nature niche research in the region and emotionally recognize remnants of Eden need protection. I encourage influencing your representative and senators to protect Grand Staircase and due process of law from illegal dictatorial exemption. Rep. Amash has not been favorable toward monument protection.

I have spent scientific and emotional energy for over 40 years with the specific mission to protect the Grand Staircase ecological integrity. Compromise was reached. An illegal dictatorial decision by the Trump administration has negated my life’s work and a reader in January told me I do not have the right to be emotional – stick to science. Other readers have applauded my efforts in defense of creation care. 

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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Butterfly counts

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Mark your calendars. Butterfly count participants will receive Mo Nielsen’s book Michigan Butterflies and Skippers as a bonus. Discover butterflies in a variety of local habitats with people knowledgeable in butterfly identification. It is a great way to begin learning some of the 170 species known to Michigan. Join with the West Michigan Butterfly Association on a count for fun and learning.

Counts are sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) and cost $3 for each participant. The money is used by NABA to create a publication documenting butterfly abundance, distribution, and trends throughout North America. Scientists make use of citizen science data. About 17 counts are held in Michigan annually. Make it a family event. Contact Ranger Steve for more information about Michigan counts. He is the regional editor for all Michigan counts and can help connect with any Michigan count leader. Your help spotting butterflies is desired. Knowledge of butterflies is not required.

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

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

Local count dates and meeting locations:

June 30, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Allegan Butterfly Count – Allegan Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meet at the Fennville Allegan State Game Area headquarters, 6013 118th Ave, Fennville. odybrook@chartermi.net

 

July 5, 2018 (Wed) 9:00 a.m.

Newaygo County Butterfly Count – Newaygo Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meeting at the grocery parking lot at the corner of M82 & M 37 in Newaygo. odybrook@chartermi.net

 

July 7, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Rogue River Butterfly Count – Kent Co.

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

(Kent, Newaygo, Montcalm Counties)

Meet at Howard Christensen Nature Center Welcome Center 16160 Red Pine Dr. Kent City. odybrook@chartermi.net

 

July 14, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Greater Muskegon Butterfly Ct – Muskegon Co.

Leader: Dennis Dunlap 

Meet on Mill Iron Road from M-46 (Apple Ave.) east of Muskegon at second set of power lines that cross the road north of MacArthur Road. dunlapmd@charter.net

Rain day alternates will be the next day. Sign up with Ranger Steve so unexpected changes can be shared.  

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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Seeing Spring wildflowers

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Bloodroot flower by Steve Mueller.

Wildflowers abound in and around our yards. Adder’s tongue, also known at trout lily, has spotted leaves like a trout’s body. Their yellow drooping flowers burst forth with color during the opening of trout season at the end of April. By June, not only will the flowers be gone but the leaves die, decay, and release nutrients back into the soil. Those nutrients will nourish other plants just getting started on their annual cycle. 

Spring beauties carpet the forest floor in late April and early May but will disappear from view by June. Like trout lilies, they complete their annual appearance in weeks. Both species remain alive under the soil surface. They are not like annual plants that thrive during the summer months and die completely except for seeds that carry their species to next year. 

Species have unique mechanisms for passing germ plasm forward. If the environment is adequately stable, the species will not become threatened or endangered. It will thrive for millennia. Our lives are short but we can observe and see the beautiful stream of life continue by providing healthy living conditions in our yards.

Bloodroot flowers have already come and gone. Their stunning white flower petals and yellow stamens persist only a few days. The roots have a red pigment that is used as a dye. Unless the plant is dug up, the root’s pigment remains hidden to our interested eyes. Rarely, do I dig one up. I have seen their bloody beauty. I love the plant and flower so I do not desire to disrupt its life just to see at its inner fluids any more than I desire to cut a friend to see the color of her blood. 

Marsh marigolds have yellow petals coated with shiny wax. They are in the buttercup family with other species that have similar flowers. An identifying character for buttercups is the massive number of male stamens clustered in the middle of the flower. Those that flowered first were in open wet areas with others from more shaded areas flowering later. We clear some areas to maintain best habitat conditions to meet their nature niche needs. Too much clearing along Little Cedar Creek would allow excessive sun radiation on the creek and warm the cold-water habitat brook trout require for survival. Maintaining shrubby vegetation along the south side of the creek is important to aid life giving physical conditions for the fish. 

Small-flowered buttercups and swamp buttercups have yellow flowers resembling marsh marigold flowers but the leaves and growth forms differ. The marsh marigold’s large rounded leaves hug the ground. Common buttercups have deeply dissected leaves on a tall stem. The small-flowered buttercups with tiny flower petals have kidney shaped basal leaves. All have a large number of stamens at the center of the five petalled flowers. The stamens release pollen at a different time from when the pistil is receptive preventing self-pollination.

Spring cress flowers are early bloomers included with the white flowers in field guides. This makes identifying a bit more challenging. When they first flower the petals are pink but soon become white. Unlike buttercups that have five petals, spring cresses are mustards with four petals. Yellow rocket is a non-native exotic mustard that proliferates in disturbed areas. It will carpet a farm field with its yellow blooms each spring. A close look will reveal each flower has four petals. 

Native violets are spring wildflowers with difficult identification challenges. The common blue violet is one of the easier ones to recognize. It has a dark blue flower on a stalk that comes from the ground. Its leaves are stemless also coming directly from the ground. Other blue violets have a small erect stem with leaves and flowers diverging from the stem. Yellow violets are leafy stemmed. Violet petals are fused together. 

What flower details will you see this spring? There are over 300 species of plants at Ody Brook. We have barely begun to consider the diversity and beauty that shares our living space. Your yard can be amazing. Enhance biodiversity conditions for native plants that best serve insect, bird, and mammal ecology. 

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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Vernal Cacophony

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Sit by a vernal pond that will dry by late summer to experience joyous ear pain during April. Listen to the massive cacophony of thousands of frogs vying for the chance to mate. Each species has a unique mating call.

Spring peepers make enough noise in the spring to cause ear pain.

Spring peepers have a single peep but when in mass with other peepers, the sound will generate enough volume to cause ear pain. When you are somewhat distant from a pond, the noise is a pleasant sign of spring. Western chorus frogs make a sound compared with running your thumb across the teeth of a comb. For some reason chorus frogs and their calls have become less abundant. Wood frogs are the third early spring species. They generate a duck-like quack. It seems wood frogs have the shortest period for making mating calls. 

The three early callers actively seek mates as soon as ice melt begins on ponds. They often do not wait for ice to clear the entire pond. If a warm rain arrives, the activity and volume maximize. 

The greatest activity is at night, but daytime choruses abound. Walk to a pond and, as you approach, all will become quiet. Sit quietly and remain still for a few minutes. Soon a brave peeper will venture its call. Another will follow with many soon joining. Continue to be quiet and move your hands slowly so you do not alarm the frogs. Cup your hands in front of your ears with palms facing back. Notice how greatly the sound is diminished when your hands block the sound. Rotate your cupped hands behind your ears. You will not be able to tolerate the volume for long. Cupped hands behind your ears catch the sound and direct too much volume to your ears. It will be necessary to remove your artificially enlarged ear pinnae because of physical pain.

Frogs instinctively grab a nearby frog and begin squeezing to force egg laying. As eggs come out, the males milt filled with sperm fertilizes an egg cluster. A jelly mass containing eggs soaks up water and will become larger than the frog that laid it. Anxious males often grab a nearby male by mistake. The grabbed male will protest with a unique trill that means let go. Listen and you should be able to recognize this sound. 

The egg masses are attached to twigs, vegetation, or debris in temporary spring ponds. Survival is extremely difficult for amphibian eggs. Best survival is in the temporary vernal ponds that dry by midsummer because fish are absent. This allows for eggs to develop without being eaten. Many insects will eat the eggs as well as some birds. Small vernal ponds are often filled or drained by people, but they are essential for frogs.

Counter shading helps hide the eggs. Find a cluster of eggs and lift it from the water. Notice the eggs are surrounded by jelly that protects the eggs. The top of each egg is dark. When a predator is peering into the pond, the dark blends with the bottom and helps camouflage the developing embryo. From beneath they are hidden from underwater predators by having a light or white coloration that blends with the sky above. Algae and cyanobacteria grow in the jelly making it green and they gradually digest it. By the time the polliwogs are ready to escape their protective gel, it is adequately decomposed to allow the young frogs to break loose and swim freely into the water. 

As water warms, larger frogs begin calling and mating activity. Gray tree frogs have a short loud trill that stops abruptly. They continue their calling well into summer even after they leave ponds. Leopard and pickerel frogs have a ratchet-like call that is compared with snoring. When the air temperature reaches 70ºF, American toads and bull frogs begin their calling. The American toad has a trill somewhat like the gray tree frog, but it continues for an excessively long time. 

Make a trilling sound yourself by vibrating your tongue behind your teeth and try to continue until you are out of breath. That will be about how long the toad sings. Frogs pass air back and forth between their lungs and mouth when calling and do not expel air like we do when making sounds. Each frog species call is unique for its mating nature niche. Most depend on temporary ponds. Green frog and bull frog tadpoles require more than one year to develop so they require permanent ponds. Spend time enjoying the vernal cacophony.

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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Only You Can

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Many of us recall the US Forest Service billboards stating, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” That changed a couple decades ago when the forest service began promoting “Only you can prevent wildfires.” In the 1930’s, scientific study demonstrated the importance of periodic forest fires to promote healthier forest ecosystem niches, prevent the spread of devastating pestilence, thin forest, provide essential nutrients for tree growth, increase the tree growth rate, and enhance wildlife reproductive success, among other benefits. 

Most Midwest forest fires are understory fires that burn near the ground rather than through the canopy. Canopy fires burn haphazardly and skip through the forest leaving a checkerboard appearance with unburned sections. 

The 1988 Yellowstone crown fire that swept the park and national forest improved the forest health and its wildlife populations. Immediately, it left black desolated areas that were unpalatable for many that were taught forest fires are “bad.” They claimed the fire ruined the park. I hiked Yellowstone in 1996 where lodge pole pines dominate. The pine is a fire dependent species that reseeds itself with the aid of fire. Like local jack pines, lodge pole pines depend on fires to open areas to full sunlight and to release seeds.

In 1996, eight years after the fire, crowded young trees were three to six feet tall. They continue to struggle for light, space, and nutrients as they grow and self-thin the forest. I do not understand why the park service spent time and money replanting trees when the tree’s adaptation is fire adapted to reseed itself. 

A couple reasons might be that efforts to prevent fires for decades caused ground duff to become thick and it burned hot destroying released seeds or bowing to political pressure to plant trees demonstrated humans were doing something. Some areas might not have had an adequate seed source to establish a forest rapidly. 

When I fought fires at Bryce Canyon National Park in the 1970’s, the policy was to quickly extinguish them. Fires I fought were caused by lightning. We hiked to them carrying heavy loads of firefighting equipment on our backs. Fire breaks were built to contain fire spread and they were allowed to burn out. We camped by them as needed to prevent spreading. During later decades park policy changed to have “controlled burns” to provide healthier conditions for trees, wildlife, and people. It also helps prevent large uncontrollable fires. 

We have seen news broadcasts that share the devastation of uncontrollable fires that sweep large areas. Frequent controlled burns during carefully selected times and weather conditions allow “safe” burning that does not burn homes, create conditions for deadly and destructive mudslides or cause massive wildlife destruction. It is important to call to get a burn permit from your township fire warden who will verify conditions are safe for you to burn brush. At Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, we cut and haul to a burn area or create wildlife brush piles. 

During the Yellowstone fires, large animals like elk were frequently seen grazing in areas where fires jumped through the forest. Ungulates laid and chewed their cud. There were elk, bears, and many animals that did not escape flames and died. New regrowth, allowed remaining animals to have more successful reproduction with improved conditions of greater and more accessible food availability for grazing. Predators found more prey. 

Human attitudes have been slowly changing during the past 90 years since we began to understand the valuable role of fire in ecosystems. Our knowledge remains inadequate. When to burn, how frequently, and how large an area to burn is different for survival of various species. What works well for plants might be too frequent for insect herbivores that support bird and mammal populations.

This same conundrum causes many people to reject what is known regarding the effects of climate change for our lives and health. Hopefully it will not require 90 years for us to embrace corrective actions. Studies indicate human carbon release increases climate change that increases fire frequency and intensity. Variables prevent complete understanding. “Only you can” support policies that shift us from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

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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Prepare for Earth Day April 22

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Celebrate Earth Day and be active in nature to renew your spirit and strengthen family relationships. Having healthy nature niches for wildlife and us to live protects our families and future. Recognize the importance of science-based evidence to protect the fish and wildlife we eat, water we drink from home water taps, and crops that come from farm fields to sustain our physical and mental health. They provide a sustainable future.

Conservation organizations are appalled with current efforts to undo or weaken environmental protections that protect groundwater from things like PFAS, mining practices that allow waste to again be dumped directly into rivers where it was stopped, and the release of air pollutants because protections are thought to be unnecessary. The President is championing deregulation of environmental protection and has elected supporters in Congress. Many elected leaders do not understand the relevance of John Muir’s journal entry from July 27, 1869. Muir wrote “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” 

Dave Straus states and asks: “My Nature Conservancy colleagues and I believe we have a responsibility to stand up for just how critical science is at this make-or-break moment for our Earth. With our 600 scientists on the ground around the world, now is the time to champion cutting edge, evidence-based conservation.

Science matters—especially at this critical time for nature. On April 14, The Nature Conservancy will participate in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., to join with concerned people from across the country in speaking out for the importance of science.

That’s why I’m marching. And it’s why I hope you’ll be with us in spirit—even if you can’t be there in person. As someone who’s shown your commitment to protecting nature, you know that we have a shrinking window of time left to put our planet on the path to a more hopeful future.

Show that you agree that science is key to safeguarding the air we breathe, the water we drink, the safety of the places we love and the places we call home.” The Nature Conservancy web site is www.nature.org.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, President, Defenders of Wildlife sent me this message. “If the Trump administration gets its wall built, it will leave wildlife and communities broken apart at the border. The biologically rich lands and waters that make up our southern border with Mexico would be irretrievably damaged.

This nightmare is quickly getting closer to reality. In fact, Congress just approved more than $1 billion for the wall that could forever divide species and tear apart wolf packs as well as human families. Ultimately, it could be the end of the road for critically endangered species like Mexican gray wolves, jaguars and ocelots. 

But Defenders won’t let the administration or Congress steamroll wildlife without a fight. We have already filed a lawsuit challenging the wall’s construction and Defenders’ of Wildlife legal team is preparing to take this battle all the way to the Supreme Court.” Defenders Of Wildlife web site is: defenders.org.

It was stated the entire wall will cost $20 billion and this does not include the cost of the National Guard standing at the border. It is my thought, $20 billion could be used to protect our nation’s economy, physical/social health, and environmental sustainability more effectively. It would not divide and isolate critical habitat and prevent access to water of the Rio Grande for wildlife or prevent movement essential for population maintenance. 

I am a member of the North American Butterfly Association. We own property adjacent to the border that is being taken without due process of law under orders from the President. Our property ranks with areas having the highest butterfly biodiversity in the United States. It is being taken and wall construction has begun. NABA has filed suit to protect our private property. This administration exempted our property rights from due process of law and has begun illegal construction on our property. Trump and supporters do not want the Endangered Species Act or pollution regulations to interfere with their desires. This is a critical Earth Day for action.

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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Nesting records

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Many species are nesting though it might seem early because it looks wintery brown. Rabbits, mice, shrews, and other mammals are producing families despite the cold, dreary brown pre-spring appearance of neighborhoods. Bald Eagles, hawks, and owls have eggs or young in nests. The timing for predatory birds to have young in the nest is linked with the other species young leaving nests. February eggs in the nest is normal.

It is important adults find enough food to supply rapidly growing young with nutrition. A young owl or hawk that hatches first gets a head start on growth. If the first hatched is satisfied with a full stomach, other birds in the nest might get to eat. When this is not the case, others go hungry or might be pushed out of the nest by the larger sibling. When predators are searching for prey it is good when many of the prey’s young are just out of the nest. They are easier to capture and can be abundant. 

Population replenishment is better when one owl or hawk survives than for two or three to die of starvation. When prey populations are doing well the predator population can do well and produce more than one young. 

I have observed a Great Horned Owl fledge three young. Bravo! Normally, I encounter nests haphazardly by chance. Birds have a good knack for hiding nests. One March I flushed a Horned Lark and noticed it left a nest. I sat nearby waiting for its return. When it came back, it landed a distance away and sneaked through the vegetation on foot to the nest where it continued incubating. I noted behavior and other interesting details.

The next day, three inches of snow covered the landscape. The adult bird kept the eggs in its well-hidden nest warm. I returned to observe the nest until the two young ventured into the world on their own. I numbered that nest 1971-2 in my journal. It was the second nest I found that year. When I encounter a nest and note it in my field journal, it receives a number that follows the year. If I observe the nest repeatedly to monitor development and nesting success, the nest number remains the same, but the new date and activity are documented. For 1971, I had 65 separate nest discoveries. 

Interesting observations are recorded that hopefully will add to our understanding of bird ecology. Last year I found a Yellow Warbler nest with six eggs. At Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Center, I found a Wood Thrush nest with five eggs but one was not a thrush egg. It was a Brown-headed Cowbird egg. 

Cowbirds have a nature niche adaptation to follow bison that were constantly on the move grazing prairies. By laying eggs in other birds’ nests, cowbirds can continue to follow bison eating insects stirred by the bovines. Cowbirds were not a natural part of Michigan’s European pre-settlement wildlife communities. When we reduced the forest cover, cowbirds expanded their range. The adventive establishment of cowbirds to new habitat created survival risks for many bird species. 

Young cowbirds are raised by the parasitized species adult. Often the baby cowbird pushes the parent’s eggs or young out of the nest and will be the only bird to fledge. I removed the cowbird egg from the thrush nest and set it on the ground for a chipmunk or other small mammal to discover and eat. Hopefully a cowbird adult did not return to lay another egg in the thrush nest. 

It is good to avoid nests for a number of reasons. A mallard cracked an egg when it rapidly flushed from a nest when people approached. Eggs left unattended might be preyed upon or lose heat needed for development. Walking to nests can create a scent path that predators like raccoons or opossums use to find nests with eggs or young. Rarely do I monitor nests. I note what I discover and hope the bird successfully raises a family.

I note the species, habitat, nest location, tree species used, height of nest among other details such as behavior. Nests records are entered to ebird and will be available for others to review the what, when and where for bird nesting well after I am dead. You can become a part of citizen science data gathering and add it to ebird. 

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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