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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Fish and cooler fall overturn

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Chilly fall air settles upon lakes and cools surface water. As water cools, it becomes denser and the heavier water sinks. Water is unique in that after reaching 39 degrees F its molecules begin to expand again making them lighter. This is extremely important for wildlife survival for lake nature niches.

Water molecules can hold the greatest quantity of oxygen at 39 degrees F.

The weight of water molecules and its ability to hold oxygen is a life and death process for fish and other aquatic organisms. During warmer months, the sun warms the upper lake. Warm water allows fish to become more active and their oxygen consumption increases. Warm water with less oxygen passing over gills might cause fish to suffer from lack of oxygen.

Fortunately, algae and other aquatic plants replenish oxygen during the day and this aids fish survival. At night the plants consume oxygen and over abundant vegetation might deplete oxygen during the night killing fish or other gill feeding organisms.

In the depths of lakes below the sun lighted portion, water remains cold but oxygen becomes depleted during the summer months. Colder water at depths does not mix with the upper warm water and in effect two lakes are created in one. Deep-water oxygen gets consumed by bacteria and other organisms.

Fish find it necessary to move to the upper warm lake layer. Variation in oxygen content in the upper layer allows fish to move, creating interesting challenges for people trying to find them. The warmer upper lake is called epilimnion and the lower colder lake is called hypolimnion. Epi for above lake, and hypo for below lake. The dividing point between upper and lower lake is known as a thermocline, separating a lake into two bodies of water that do not mix easily during warmer months.

Fish can cool their bodies by entering the hypolimnion but might suffocate if oxygen has been depleted too much during the summer. They can swim high in the epilimnion but their warmed bodies might require more oxygen than is available because warm water holds less oxygen. Some fish can survive in lower oxygenated water and others like trout need more oxygen available.

By hanging out near the thermocline, they can cool their bodies and reduce oxygen needs.

In fall, cold air settling on the lake surfaces cools water that captures the greatest amount of oxygen before sinking to the bottom of the lake. The sinking water destroys the thermocline that separated upper and lower lake bodies during summer. It replenishes oxygen to a maximum level throughout the lake. It also creates a phenomenon known as lake overturn.

If you are fortunate, you might get to see a lake full of churned up gunk when overturn occurs. Lakes with mucky bottoms show this best. Visit Chrishaven Lake at the Howard Christensen Nature Center on Red Pine Drive between Kent City and Cedar Springs to witness the event. Invite friends to come promptly to see it because the murky water will only last a few days. Nutrients will have been stirred, spread throughout the lake and will provide floating plant nutrient needs. While visiting HCNC, visit the interpretive center to purchase a membership and to learn about the activities for all family members.

Growth of plants and animals will be slowed during winter months but life persists in wait of the next year’s warm season. When spring arrives, a spring overturn will occur after ice out and before a new epilimnion and hypolimnion are separated by a thermocline. Fish go where they want but it is determined in part by food availability, temperature, water oxygen content, and sheltered hiding locations.

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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Flames in the tree tops

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Flames are in the tree tops and red reflections are on the clouds. It is fall with color beginning to abound. Red maples are among the first to redden. Tree top leaves are exposed to greater temperature extremes and are among the first to show color. Red maples in swamps begin color change in August. Life there is more difficult but the red maples seem to survive. Those experience a shorter growing season than those in upland but manage to live.

In the upland forest surrounded by many other trees, temperature is more stable in the lower canopy. A multitude of insects find refuge in the more protected thicket of leaves and branches as they continue their work late into fall. Trees are busy moving sugar and nutrients from leaves to roots for winter storage. Birds and predatory insects glean insects as the last days of the season approach.

All species are in preparation for a long winter’s hiatus. Some insects will overwinter as hibernating adults, pupae, larvae, or eggs. Each species has its own unique nature niche adaptations to survive the cold season. Many birds will migrate south or in the case of many waterfowl they will migrate east to the Atlantic Coast. Others will stay for the winter. Birds like Black-capped Chickadees that were here all summer might shift southward and be replaced by some from northern Michigan to spend the next many months in our yards.

Mammals will vary in how they respond to shortening days, longer nights, and colder weather. The woodchucks will hibernate, chipmunks will spend long periods in their burrows with a large food cache and only make an occasional appearance above ground during warm spells. Squirrels will stay active smelling locations where they stashed morsels of food for harsh season recovery.

Plants unable to move have their own methods to help them survive to spring. Some will overwinter as seeds and the rest of the plant will die. Some die back to the ground and will sprout new growth from underground when conditions are suitable.

The woody plants must have a way to keep the above ground stems alive through the harsh conditions. The evergreens drain much of the fluid from needles but will be able to continue photosynthesis late into fall provided tissue temperatures are above 40 F and they will be able to become active earlier in spring than deciduous plants.

The deciduous plants like the red maple are completing activity in late September and October. Now is the time we take pleasure in the demise of this year’s leaves as they become red in their final days of life. As the sun was nearing sunset and peaked through breaks in the clouds, it shined its spotlight on tree tops making them burst flame red above green leaves below. Cloud bottoms shined red and orange glowed, making the evening a pleasure to spend outside. Life will appear to drain from trees as leaves fall leaving a dead appearing skeleton but spring will demonstrate a resurgence to life.

Soon other trees in fall will change to yellow, brown, red, and mixtures of color. A spectacular few weeks of change will progress in a manner determined by adaptations suitable for each species survival. Pay attention to which trees change first and the species sequence as each prepares for winter. Notice those struggling to live. We had a Black Cherry that became red weeks earlier than other cherries for a few years and died. Its skeleton stood at the edge of the backyard where birds found a wonderful perching location for about 25 years. Last year it finally blew down. Birds found a new viewing perch next to it in an ash tree that was killed by the Emerald Ash Borer. Life and death provide a dynamic of constant change in our yards.

The seasonal flame of color reoccurs annually around us. Do not let it pass without notice.

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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Small Sparks


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”—Margaret Mead Cultural Anthropologist

In the 1960’s when in college, I subscribed to American Museum of Natural History Magazine and first encountered Mead. The quote above has been a main stay and guide in my life. I frequently encounter small committed groups that effect change for the betterment of the community.

I remain active in many local, state, and national organizations and often wonder if my activities are too broad to be truly effective. Balance has always been a struggle but I work with small committed groups locally for success. Activities of others in the community accomplish wonderful feats beyond what I contribute.

My career as environmental education consultant for the Kent Intermediate School District’s 20 public school districts, private schools, charter schools plus being director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) kept me spread far, wide, and thin. Detractors thought education that integrates community social, environmental and economic sustainability lacked value and wanted HCNC closed and me gone.

Recently, I read about a small committed group of 25 people in a Michigan Audubon Chapter in the Oscoda area. They work with the US forest service, DNR, Chamber of Commerce, and schools. They affect community change to maintain a healthy environment and have a natural area that supports community health.

I have presented many programs in schools in the Oscoda, Mio, Roscommon, West Branch area and for Kirtland Community College as well as in other regions of Michigan. My contributions seem minor and I wonder if they effect positive change like that committed group’s or those in Cedar Springs and Rockford.

Then Margaret Mead comes to mind again with a quote: Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. She reminds us there is a place for each of our contributions. Each of us can offer greatness for our community and its environmental health if we receive a spark and the right bit of knowledge.

I see the obvious greats in our local community like Sue Harrison, Red Flannel Grand Marshal (and Librarian) Donna Clark, recently deceased Jack Clark, and school superintendent Laura VanDuyn. Recognize how each is building a better community for adults and children through unique positive efforts. I support and commend them for the challenges they face trying to meet everyone’s expectations despite detractors. My employment was to bring about energy conservation in schools, healthy farm sustainability, ecosystem health, improved water quality, student appreciation and excitement about the natural world and the list goes on but detractors opposed the efforts.

It all seemed so overwhelming but “unique” individuals saved the day. A fifth grader grew, acquired his Ph.D. in botany and works for the MI Natural Features Inventory. He was the keynote speaker at a statewide meeting of the Michigan Botanical Club and told the program organizer I was the reason he went into the profession. I did not know him and asked him how I was responsible for his career. He said his dad brought him to Ody Brook for a 5th grade school assignment and he was impressed with my insect research activities and collection. That was the spark that guided him. Until then he was unaware scientific natural history research like that existed.

Recently, I commended Denny Brooks from Midland for his Michigan efforts with Monarch Watch and how he guides people to help Monarch butterflies survive. He responded by telling me that a couple decades ago I presented a program in Jackson at the Dahlem Environmental Education Center and that was the spark that got him started with Monarchs. My efforts often seem superficial and ineffective but my role is unique and effective in its own way. Your role with children, grandkids, and neighbors is unique and will help community environmental health thrive in ways you might never know. Be the committed spark for natural history and encourage teachers to take their classes to HCNC to learn and discover.

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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Insect or wind pollinated

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Showy attractive flowers tend to be insect pollinated. Flowers that do not capture our attention are typically wind pollinated. The size of pollen is a critical factor between the wind and insect pollinated flowers. Large pollen weight causes it to fall to ground near the parent plant when dislodged. An insect or bird is needed to carry heavy pollen from flower to flower in order for the plant to have successful fertilization. Tiny pollen is easily carried long distances by wind to improve chances for pollination.

When a bee, butterfly, beetle, other insect, or hummingbird carries pollen from one flower to another, the pollen sticks to the top of a pistil if it is ripe and receptive. Male pollen is equivalent to sperm in animals. When it is released from a flower’s anther, an animal carries it to another flower. Animals that carry pollen improve the chances for pollination because pollen on their bodies has the best chance of reaching a flower of the same species. Wind carried pollen rides the wind wherever it goes.

We notice yellow pollen on a honeybee’s body. Showy flower petals attract the attention of insects. When insects approach a flower, they see “lighted runway” landing strips. They are not as noticeable to our eyes because petals reflect ultraviolet light we do not see. Insects see a broader visible spectrum. We might see dark or light lines on the petals that lead toward the center of the flower.

Those lines are runways that direct the travel of insects like airport runway lights help a plane’s pilot on the landing strip. As the insect walks toward the center of a flower to probe for nectar, it brushes against an anther that sits atop a thin string-like filament that bends when bumped. If the anther is ripe, pollen will be released onto the body of an insect and sticks to its “hairy body.”

The female part of the flower usually ripens later than its flower’s anthers and is not receptive when the pollen is released. This helps prevent inbreeding. The part of the flower pistil that captures pollen has a sticky top called the stigma. Pollen on it digests its way through a long neck called the style and when it reaches the ovule (egg) in the ovary it will fertilize it. The fertilized ovule becomes a seed.

The same process occurs in wind-pollinated flowers like corn, grass, sedges, and ragweed. Ragweed blooms at the same time as showy yellow goldenrod flowers in a field. The pollen on goldenrod is large and fewer in number than minute pollen cells released from ragweed. Goldenrod pollen will not be carried far by wind and falls to the ground. It is insect dependent for pollination. Ragweed pollen, like corn pollen, can float in a gentle light breeze. It will go wherever the wind goes and is less efficient at reaching a flower of its own species. More pollen is produced by wind-pollinated plants and compensates for the lower efficiency.

Pollen from the nondescript green ragweed flowers makes it to our nose and sinuses where it causes an allergic reaction we call “hay fever.” People unjustly blame goldenrod for “hay fever.” Goldenrod pollen is unlikely to get in our noses unless a bee enters our nose. If that occurs, the bee will be of greater concern than the pollen.

Some insect pollinated flowers are green but the insects find them. I wonder if they reflect ultraviolet light. Some flowers can utilize both wind and insect pollination. How I wish I knew more about the secret workings in nature niches. There is always something new to discover outside. Do not blame the insect-pollinated goldenrod for “hay fever.”

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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Rare butterflies make news

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Human health is aided by rare butterfly protection. Long term human economic interests are protected by aiding endangered butterflies. There are short term economic expenses that create concerns whether effort should maintain healthy habitats that serve people, butterflies and other organisms. Maintaining components of an ecosystem does not make sense to some people.

Paul Ehrlich described the importance well. He said if you are flying on a jet and a rivet pops off, it is not too concerning. When additional rivets holding the plane together come off, passenger concern increases. When enough rivets disappear the plane will dismember and crash, killing all on board.

Species in habitats are like rivets on a plane. There is little concern when one species disappears. As more disappear, our human economy and health falters when ecological services fail. Many cases document ecosystem simplification that caused human economic loss and death. The famous potato famine is just one example causing massive human death and a country’s economic collapse.

In 2000, a West Michigan Butterfly Association member, Kathy Bowler, discovered a population of the federally endangered Karner Blue Butterfly along the White Pine Trail in Algoma Township. Kent County was not known to have this species. Mo Nielsen and I verified the identification. Successful efforts by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan established the Maas Preserve to protect the habitat.

The Grand Rapids Press interviewed Leon Uplinger and me. Leon was Algoma township supervisor at the time. The press reported Leon thought all the fuss over a few butterflies is a waste of time and he did not expect the township to join any preservation efforts. He further stated, “I take the position that I would rather help a human life rather than another creature.”

I was invited to address community members in the Berrien Springs area regarding a different endangered species back then. The least expensive highway construction would likely impact the survival of the Mitchell’s Satyr butterfly and possibly push it to extinction. An alternative that protected the environment costed more money but protected the environment, sustaining human community health. Some people felt like Leon did about the Karner Blue and some thought the habitat needed protection.

When our focus is narrow, we do not recognize how other creatures and the environment maintain economic, social, and environmental health for us, our kids, and future generations. The Karner Blue and Mitchell Satyr are rivets in the local ecosystem. Losing them is like losing two rivets from a jet. Environmental components needed by butterflies are also needed by humans. Nature Niches are connected in ways that are not obvious but they serve humans and other creatures.

The Mitchell Satyr depends on groundwater instead of surface water to support its habitat. The water picks up minerals and carries them to surface wetlands that support a unique variety of fen organisms that would not otherwise survive. The fen water feeds surface streams maintaining water quality. The wetlands serve human uses beyond simply saving a few butterflies. The least expensive highway proposed would damage surface habitat and groundwater with negative impact on human communities.

The short view was that greater expense to protect the environment and butterfly hurt people economically. The long view was that a greater expense protected the butterfly, community groundwater supplies, filtered pollutants from getting into surface water, enhanced fishing and hunting habitat, protected farmland, maintained pristine habitat for human enjoyment and maintained essential ecological functions provided by many species. Do you support the short or long view? Protection of the Endangered Species Act takes the long view. Efforts continue to undermine and eliminate the Endangered Species Act. Political parties are now separated by short and long view efforts.

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

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Neighborhood Nature Niche

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


How far must you travel for basic food, water, and shelter needs? Are they readily available in the neighborhood? Who fills your specialized nature niche to provide essentials that keep you healthy?

I reminisced about my early childhood with such thoughts. I grew up in a city of 100,000 people that provided many of our neighborhood family needs within a half-mile home range. Ecologically a “home range” is the area an organism roams in pursuit of basic needs. In addition to food, water, and shelter those needs must be arranged into an appropriate living space.

Until I was two, we lived in an upstairs apartment at my grandparent’s house. My dad built a house across the street from Grandpa and Grandma’s. My older brothers recall the move but I was too young. I remember going to my grandparent’s. A friend of my dad’s moved his family into the apartment we vacated. I played with his daughters Kris and Lynn. With those girls and other neighborhood kids, we learned social and life skills that supported life in our small neighborhood community nature niche.

Two houses to the south of ours, brothers Paul and Gus Herm had their home. Paul owned the Texico gas/service station located at the corner to the north where several businesses supplied our needs. I do not know where Paul’s employee’s lived but I expect they lived nearby. Three houses to the north from ours was Dr. McCarty’s dentist office where he lived in half and had the office in the other half. Across the street from that office lived Mr. Art Persale, who had a remnant small farm.

The farm was near the Texico service station at the intersection of State and Bay Streets in Saginaw. A privately owned Strand Drive-in restaurant, comparable to an A&W, was on one corner, our barbershop on another, and Granger Nitz Pharmacy on the fourth. Rupprecht’s Meat Market was next to the pharmacy, followed by Miller Bakery. The bakery smell was the best smell in the neighborhood. People would line up for the fresh baked bread in the morning. Mr. Miller would not cut it until it cooled, otherwise it would crush in the slicer. I still cannot find pineapple or cinnamon rolls as good as he made. An appliance, furniture sales and repair shop was near the bakery.

Across the street was the Daniel Theater that showed double feature movies preceded with the “News of the World and two cartoons. Between the movies when film reels were changed people bought popcorn and candy. I liked the Chuckles candy in its five-piece packet or a box of Milk Duds. White’s Bar, owned by my friend Bill’s dad, was next to the theater. Whites lived near Fuerbringer Elementary School that was a half-mile walk from my home. There were other neighborhood businesses that I do not remember that supplied things I did not use like a women’s beauty parlor and tax service. Not every person used all the services available. Specialized services met the needs for different people similar to services provided to organisms in natural wild habitats.

Behind our house was an extensive field that had been a farm field before my memory. We could see the row homes across the field on Avon Street where the Filiatrauts lived. My dad went to school with Mrs. Filiatraut and I went to school with her daughter Jane. The field was our playground full of rabbits, insects, excavated holes and forts we constructed.

Some essential products came and went from greater distances like city water and city sewage removal.

Neighborhood raspberry, strawberry, corn, potato, and tomato gardens supplied personal needs. A local farmer with his horse drawn fresh produce wagon visited weekly. The milkman came often to deliver milk and it was necessary to bring it in from the milk box before it froze on cold winter mornings.

Utilize the local farm markets, support local producers and neighborhood suppliers for basic needs. In turn become the supplier that maintains healthy wild nature niche needs for native plants and animals in your yard.

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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Weigh less under a full moon

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller


If you desire to weigh less, weigh yourself when the moon is overhead or even better when it is a New Moon. When the sun and moon are both on the same side of the Earth during a new moon, they exert greater gravitational pull together and make you weigh less. Tides are highest when the gravity from both pulls toward them. You will weigh your least when the sun and moon are directly in line. The opposite side of the Earth experiences high tides at the same time. This results in high tides every twelve hours. Unfortunately, our bathroom scales do not measure fine enough to actually show how much less you weigh. It is only a fraction of a pound.

The Perseus Meteor shower article two weeks ago took precedence over the moon’s gravity because it only occurs once annually. We experience moon cycles monthly. The Perseid meteor shower peaks about August 11-13 but we can observe increased meteors for a greater time about a week before and after peak.

I have read the moon’s gravity is not great enough to create tides in the Great Lakes because the size of the lakes is too small but my observations do not agree. It is well known that tides in oceans raise and lower water by several feet daily. In the open ocean it is not observable, but along the shore, water retreats great distances when the sea floor slope is gentle. If the coast drops abruptly, it is still noticeable but one must look at the nearly vertical cliff walls. Sea wall life becomes visible for several hours before the water rises again.

I observed a tide in Lake Michigan near Manistique in the Upper Peninsula. We lived there for a couple years when the girls were little. We would frequently walk the mile to the lakeshore with wagon in tow just in case the girls became too tired.

The lake surface was as smooth as glass on a warm summer night. A full moon worked its way to zenith. Dolomitic limestone slabs of flat rock peppered the shallow water near the swimming beach. Some of the flat slabs barely protruded above still water. Rocks made an inviting stepping-stone trail to a large rock that rose several feet above lake level. We walked on the dry slabs to the big rock and sat to enjoy the evening. It was a movie quality evening. We had the lake, quiet, beauty, and the distance sounds of nature from the shore all to ourselves. It was a choice family evening.

We sat on the rock as the moon moved overhead. A Great Blue Heron fed in the shallows to the west. Ring-billed and Herring Gulls walked the beach gathering food morsels in the dimming light as day became night. The moon was bright enough to create shallows of our silhouettes. Aquatic insects skimmed the shiny water surface. We looked for fish but I do not recall if we saw any. I guess it is good reason to pull my daughters away from their busy lives and take them back to look for the abundance of life and see if we can observe fish. Life thrives in the water, on the surface, and above it. I know fish must be present or the heron would not have been wading and hunting.

When we decided it was time to walk home, we planned to walk on flat rocks used to reach our high rock perch. Most were now under water. Moon’s gravity had drawn Lake Michigan closer. The surface of the lake was higher but unlike large ocean tides, Lake Michigan had risen about a half inch. It was enough to submerge several of our stepping-stones. I did not have a millimeter ruler to measure the change. I should have gotten a dried grass stem to determine the vertical lake level change. It is another reason to return so I can measure how high a rock protrudes at low tide twelve hours earlier and then measure how much it is submerged when the moon pulls Lake Michigan closer. Take your family outdoors to observe and experience wonderful everyday nature phenomena.

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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Pileated Woodpecker

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Many people refer to Pileated Woodpeckers as flying dinosaurs. They have a unique appearance and life history. Every species fills a unique nature niche separating it from other species. Adaptations allowing a species to survive might cause it to become extinct if its habitat changes and its needs are too specialized.

This photo shows two Pileated Woodpeckers eating at a feeder at the home of David Marin, of Nelson Township, in 2013. The male is on the lower left. Photo by David Marin.

This photo shows two Pileated Woodpeckers eating at a feeder at the home of David Marin, of Nelson Township, in 2013. The male is on the lower left. Photo by David Marin.

Pileateds declined significantly in Michigan as a result of unregulated logging in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Trees were cut and the remaining branches were deliberately burned to clear regions. Fires spread to burn towns, kill people, and destroyed habitat that many species required.

Following deforestation, areas were cleared for farming and settlement. Much of Lower Peninsula was no longer suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers and in the Upper Peninsula the species was relegated to restricted areas. Second growth forest expanded in the Upper Peninsula creating large stands of maturing forest where the bird expanded its population. Few remained in lower Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio because of deforested habitat. Southern Ohio and Indiana landscape prevented complete clearing. Pileated Woodpeckers remained more prevalent southward into Kentucky and Tennessee.

For most of the past 100 years it was special to see this woodpecker between the Upper Peninsula and Southern States. Now it is quite common. They are regularly seen at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary where adequately large habitat exists. The sanctuary is not large enough by itself to support the species. Fortunately, neighbors have allowed maturing forest to remain along Little Cedar Creek where it creates a ribbon of habitat containing essential food, water, and shelter in appropriate living space.

Habitat space is critical but it does not need to be shaped in squares, rectangles, or ribbons.  It needs to be large enough to contain adequate food of the correct type and shelter for nest sites. The pileated normally drills a fresh nest cavity in a tree annually and requires large trees. Minimal habitat to supply food and shelter is thought to be about 150 to 200 acres. Food includes many insects, acorns, and fruit.

They feed heavily on carpenter ants by using their long sharp beak for chipping large pieces of wood from a tree. The trees are usually partially hollowed by ants. The woodpecker can hear the hollowness when it pounds its head against the tree. A solid healthier tree will not provide a smorgasbord of food inside. Trees hollowed by ants are easier to drill into.

Woodpeckers have cartilage in the skull that helps absorb shock and protect the brain. When the bird creates a hole in the bark, it can reach deep into an ant tunnel with its long tongue to retrieve many ants. There are barbs on the end of the tongue to help capture prey. When not feeding, the tongue must be stored somewhere besides hanging out of the mouth. It draws it into a cavity between the skin and skull, wraps it around the back of the skull for storage until needed.

I have State and Federal permits to salvage dead birds for educational use and have stuffed a pileated woodpecker. I retained the long tongue to show people its adaptation. The feet are also uniquely adapted for anchoring the bird to a tree while it works. It has a zygodactal toe on each foot. It can move its outer toe forward so it has three pointing forward or move it backward so two are forward and two back. When drilling the two backward toes provide greater grip. It uses its tail feathers that have stiff central veins to prop and hold the bird in place. This is the only woodpecker in the US to make long rectangular cavities in trees. Even without seeing the bird you can recognized the presence by cavity shape.

Males have a red crest that reaches the bill. Females are gray from the bill to the top of the head. Males have a red mustache along the side of the head while females have a black one. White can be seen in the wing of this crow-sized bird when it is in flight. Enjoy seeing this increasingly common bird as forests regenerate in our region.

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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Perseus Meteor Shower

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche


“Shooting stars” create fire in a black sky. To celebrate my birthday, the Perseid meteor shower reoccurs annually with a peak fire performance from August 11-13. I pretend the fireworks are a personal birthday celebration but I know scientifically we all share this annual nature niche event equally.

Why does the Perseus meteor shower gain prominence as my birthday approaches and diminish afterward?

Most of us are aware the sun is the center of our solar system with planets that revolve around it and are held by its gravity. It takes the Earth about 365 days for a trip around the sun and we call it a year. The time it takes planets to go around the sun is their year but it is easier to compare their orbits to our year. It takes Jupiter nearly 12 Earth years to go around the sun once and only 88 days for Mercury.

Earth’s path around the sun brings the planet into contact with space debris that becomes “shooting stars” (meteors) nightly. During mid-August, the Perseid meteor shower light show might have 200 shooting stars an hour because there is massive debris in Earth’s orbit at that location. A comet likely passed through Earth’s path and left billions of rock, iron, or nickel bits floating in space.

Comets orbit the sun making large oval loops. We can predict return dates for some but adequate data is not present for others. Some may not return. Little is known about the source of debris for the Perseus meteor shower. Perhaps a comet passed through Earth’s path and it may or may not return.

Think of Earth’s path as a tube that the planet is in as it travels around the sun. When debris drifts into the tube, it gets caught by Earth’s gravity and is pulled to the surface. As the material within the tube is drawn toward Earth, it heats, glows, and vaporizes. Material farther outside the tube continues to float in space and next year it might drift close enough to be caught by gravity.

Material left by a passing comet is called a meteor swarm. It is a mass of material that is mostly very small. The average size of a meteor is .0005 (5 ten thousands) of an ounce. That is the size of sand grain. When the Earth passes, it draws particles that heat, glow, and vaporize. Some larger pieces glow very bright and may even survive to land on Earth as a meteorite.

My friend Bob and I went to see the “Old Woman” that is kept hidden away in recesses of the Smithsonian National Museum. We received permission to have someone escort us to see her because she is not in a public access area. The Old Woman is the largest meteorite found in California and the second largest found in the United States. It was named for the location it was found (The Old Woman Mountains).

This week spend time watching the sky for meteors. It is best to look between midnight and dawn when Earth faces the direction of travel and collides with more debris. Before midnight, we can see many but it is like backing into debris instead of hitting it face on. Think of it like driving a car forward into insects or backing into them. You will notice most when looking and driving forward as you hit them. The front windshield gets splattered and the back does not.

Shooting stars are usually about 50 to 75 miles over head but emit bright light for a tiny sand-sized particle. Meteor showers are named for the constellation where they appear to originate. The constellation Perseus can be found in the northeast sky and moves west during the night. Perseus stars are light years away and have no relationship to the meteor shower that originates in Earth’s orbit. Look before the moon rises or after it sets because the sky will be darkest. Get away from lights that impair the ability to enjoy a dark night sky. You have a couple weeks for watching the Perseid Meteor shower.

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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Turtle encounters


By Ranger Steve Mueller


Seeing turtles sunning on logs is a joy. At times, a dozen line up on a log. When climbing onto a log, one often climbs on the turtle in front of it creating a row of several turtles propped on the backs of others. They appear like a row of fallen dominos as they warm in the sun.

When Karen and I canoe, turtles pay little attention to us unless we approach too closely. Maintaining a distance allows them to stay on their sun perch. Last week, we drove Chicago’s I-94’s ribbon of pavement that meanders through the city like a river. Turtles often cross ribbons of payment to reach wetlands or to find leg laying areas.

Finding a location for egg survival has become increasingly challenging. The increase in raccoons, skunks, and opossums has had negative impact on turtle egg survival. The increase of roads to serve our growing human population is a deadly challenge for turtle survival.

On I-94, three eastbound lanes were full and bottle-necked at a speed of 20 mph. A cement barrier was present to prevent vehicles from crossing into the on-coming west bound lanes. Traffic flow eastward improved and gained speed to 50 mph as we passed an on-ramp where cars were merging.

A large painted turtle with a shell about 10 inches from front to back was standing where the on-ramp joined with the traffic lane. Its legs and head were retracted into its shell. It faced the three travel lanes. If it proceeded across the three lanes, it is doubtful it would survive to reach the impassible cement center barrier.

I wanted to stop and rescue the turtle from certain death. If I returned it to the roadside vegetation, it might survive. There would be a good chance I would become roadkill if I tried to rescue the turtle so we drove on. Traffic was too heavy for even a large creature like me to enter the traffic lane. There have been many times I could safely rescue a turtle but this was not one of those times.

I made the decision to protect my life instead of the saving the turtles. I asked Karen if we should call 911. We thought the police would not respond so we did not. Perhaps I should have have made the call anyway. Saving a fellow denizen of nature niches is important during this era of turtle decline due to human population growth that is eliminating wetland habitats and requires more road building.

A study was conducted where rubber turtles were placed on a road shoulder. The researcher watched driver behavior. Six in 1000 drove onto the shoulder to deliberately kill the turtle. Some drivers stopped to rescue the turtle. Some people have what I refer to as a “reverence for life” and others do not.

Hunting and fishing licenses help maintain wildlife habitat and turtle survival. People kill turtles for food and laws regulate the take just like fishing and mammal take limits designed to maintain sustainable populations. I find great dismay in roadkill loss, whether it is people killed that we read about weekly or wildlife roadkill. It is such a wasteful death. The DNR attempts to maintain turtle populations from long term decline but it is an enormous, tenuous challenge. I have personally watched people go out their way to kill turtles just because they are present.

Encourage young children to appreciate turtles so they learn when it is appropriate to take turtles like fish or deer and to avoid killing roadside turtles just because they are present. Encourage a reverence for life. Help a turtle that is crossing the road but make sure you do not become roadkill.

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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