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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Slip off Slope

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Rivers slip off slopes and create cut banks. Rivers, streams and brooks move from side to side to create cut banks and slip-off-slopes that become important habitats for wildlife and plants. The movement of stream channels creates unique nature niche environments.

Belted Kingfishers use cut banks for excavating deep tunnels where they nests. Marsh marigolds flower on slip-off-slopes. Slip-off-slopes floodplains retain water that reduces flooding of homes downstream.

A stream or river channel is the trough filled with flowing water. It cuts deeper every season, decade, century, and millennium. The work is slow but not steady. In spring after heavy rains or snowmelt, channel cutting increases. Once the river valley did not exist and the land was nearly level with the surrounding landscape. Following glacial retreat, water flowed to lower areas and began moving particles. Continued flow cut deeper into the landscape creating river valleys.

When water meets an obstacle like a tree or rock, it is diverted sideways and cuts into the opposite bank of the channel creating a cut bank. What was a straight flowing stream forms a meander. Bank undercutting creates hidden hollows where fish hide. Meanders become larger loops but the stream channel width normally remains about the same size. If it was 3-foot wide or 30-foot wide, the size does not change significantly.

Where the stream cuts into a bank along the outer edge of a meander, water flows faster with greater force. On the inside of the channel’s meander, water moves more slowly and drops sediment. It creates shallower water in the process of filling the channel on that side. As the cut bank is eroded on one side, a new wetland known as a slip-off-slope floodplain is formed on the other. The slip-off-slope is named because the river channel is actually slipping off the streambed as it creates new land. The opposite shore can have a nearly vertical bank. It might only be a foot or two high or almost 100 feet. Over time the river moves back and forth across the river valley.

This can be observed along the Grand River, Rogue River, and even Little Cedar Creek. At Ody Brook, the stream valley is about as wide as a football field is long. In Grand Rapids, roads climb slopes of the Grand River’s cut bank toward the Medical Mile to the east and to the west on I-196 west from US 131. Where the Grand River channel flows through town, we have worked to stop the sideway meandering by constructing concrete walls.

To protect businesses and homes on the slip-off-slope floodplain, it was necessary to prevent stream movement back and forth. One can observe more natural slip-off-slope wetland communities at places like Millennium Park. Ody Brook is a headwater for Little Cedar Creek that feeds Cedar Creek, Rogue River, and Grand River. Upstream from Ody Brook, the channel is dry in August but water flows year around at Ody Brook because springs seep from the cut bank maintaining continuous flow.

Even this small watercourse channel that is 4 to 5 feet wide and usually a few inches deep has cut a valley about 12 feet deep and about 300 feet wide. During flooding as water flows through the wetland forest, the current is slowed and drops rich fertile sediment nourishing floodplain communities.

Mouse “houses” and low bird nests get washed away during high water and minks visit more frequently. Failed nests require adults to rebuild, bare new young or lay replacement eggs. Mice trapped on floodplain islands swim to higher ground. It is not just people that construct homes in locations prone to flooding.

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

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Sanctuary vs. Nature Center

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

A nature sanctuary has a primary purpose for preserving the native species that inhabit ecosystems evolved in a particular environment. A nature center’s focus provides education and human experiences in nature to help people understand the intricate workings of the natural world communities.

Sanctuaries and nature centers can serve both purposes to some degree. I receive calls and e-mails from people interested in exploring Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. Visitors are welcome even though the sanctuary is a privately owned sanctuary. We appreciate groups and people to call or e-mail to request permission so we know when to anticipate use or schedule guided activities. Donations are welcome to support management. The trail system traverses native communities in various stages of plant and animal habitat succession.

We manage the oak upland forest ecosystem to include early succession field, shrub, and pioneer forest stages that attract and maintain the greatest variety of species as habitat communities develop to the mature forest. Similar management in the wetland forest community maintains areas in early stages of community development for more sun-loving wetland plants and animals within the forest.

The management helps more than 250 plant species, 24 mammal, 11 herps, 51 butterflies, and over 100 bird species thrive. We have not surveyed dragonflies, fungi, fish, or other taxonomic groups well but are in the process. Management focus provides suitable living conditions for the greatest biodiversity of native species. Part of the sanctuary focus is to help people learn about native communities so we welcome visitors to come and learn even though primary focus is ecosystem biodiversity preservation. Hopefully people will gain ideas for managing a portion of their property to enhance biodiversity.

Visitors should support safe survival of species that make Ody Brook their home. Create minimal disturbance when hiking Ody Brook. During the 20 years I was director at Howard Christensen Nature Center, our focus was experiential education for Kent Intermediate School District groups where we taught science, social studies, language arts, and mathematics core curriculum to support classroom education with real world experiential education. This was accomplished in native communities and their associated habitats. To teach in native habitats it was necessary to manage the nature center in a manner that preserves natural communities while providing exploratory activities. Both preservation and education were part of the vision for the nature center.

Guided hikes to explore nature niches at Ody Brook can be organized for fee-based programs tailored to personal or group needs. This spring consider an evening watching the woodcock mating display, wildflowers walk, tree identification, bird watching, or other ecological explorations.

Mickey Shortt Jr., a fellow naturalist from North Carolina, recently shared the vision for the role of naturalists and interpreters of our natural and cultural heritage. He said: “At our sites, we are the voice: of the place, of the life within our site, and for conservation and preservation of our natural and historic areas.” I encourage each of us take responsibility for our personal home sites to ensure healthy nature niches greet future generations.

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

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Limits of Cold Tolerance

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Mike’s water line burst in the crawl space at -23 F, Charlie and Julianne had the main water line to the house freeze at -16 F, and we had a kitchen waterline freeze. Mike replaced a 6-inch section of piping and the others, with quick attention, were thawed with no damage.

Significant below zero temperatures in the area have not occurred in 20 years. Cold air settles in the lowland at Ody Brook. During a recent week, two days experienced -15 F and another -16 F.

For wildlife the cold can be more than an inconvenience. Locally millions of animals, mostly insects, likely froze during February’s cold snap. Some survivors were probably maimed. Such events are hidden from our view. Opossums have established more northerly and we can expect frostbit, stub-tailed animals this spring unless the naked tailed animals had well protected shelters. Many opossums likely froze because they do not have a well-developed under fur and protective guard hairs like mammals better adapted to this climate.

Insect species inhabit areas with suitable climate and expand populations northward when milder climatic conditions allow. Each year Painted Lady butterflies immigrate northward, reproduce, and late season offspring succumb during winter. Other species have partial success until an extreme winter ends range expansion. Life expands, from best survival conditions in core habitat areas, to outlying fringe areas, where generations over time might develop survival adaptations to new conditions. The new local genotype adaptations get passed on to offspring.

Flowering Dogwood trees from Georgia, sold at plant nurseries in Michigan, will not be as hardy as those with local genotypes developed in a northern climate. Nursery purchasing agents probably buy appropriate plant stock but ask for stock origin when buying.

Over-wintering Giant Swallowtail butterflies spend the winter in pupae and are thought to die during Michigan winters. Most probably do but there might be exceptions. I’ve found them in some habitats year after year and not in suitable neighboring habitats. That indicates that some populations have succeeded in isolated areas. In the mid 1990’s, -30 F eliminated the Giant Swallowtail from even those limited areas. It was several years before immigrants established colonies in those areas again.

Eastern Bluebirds used nest boxes at Ody Brook but the -30 F froze a bird during the night. In the morning a survivor sharing the nest box tried to leave but its wing feathers were frozen to the dead bird and it could not break free. It was found hanging dead outside the nest box hole. I wonder if more birds had huddled in the box and survived.

Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, chickadees and many other birds spend the winter picking millions of hibernating insects from vegetation. Even one failed food-finding day could spell death and successive day failures result in starvation. Fortunately the Black-capped Chickadee has a hibernation-like torpor during the night to help it save energy and survive. Once I saw a chickadee eating a dead chickadee and it insured existence through another winter’s day.

A multitude of insects undoubtedly perished in recent cold but their bodies continue as food for other animals, fungi, bacteria, and Protozoans. Those that selected winter hibernation sites that became buried in snow have a better chance for survival. Deep snow is fortunate. The Viceroy butterfly winters as a tiny 1/8-inch long caterpillar in a curled willow leaf tied with silk to the twig. Will its nature niche adaptations developed over millennia ensure survival this year? Interestingly, Florida Viceroy genotypes have developed unique genotype adaptations to that climate and its predators.

Local aspens might not be adapted to -20 F and many could experience tree bark splitting injuries in extended cold, while those in northern Canada have adaptations to survive to -40 F. Take a walk to look for fresh splits in tree trunks and branches. They are good places to watch birds and squirrels eating sap-sickles when tree juices flow. Yes, its time for us to taste sugary sap-sickles. Any season is good for nature exploration.

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

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North and South Facing Slopes

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The sun is rising higher in sky, moving farther north and shines in our east facing bedroom window. I speak of appearances instead of accurate occurrences. For most of human history, it was thought that appearances were how things worked in nature niches. We thought the sun rose instead of the Earth rotating to make it appear the sun rises. In the 16th century, Copernicus shared that Earth was not center of universe, and he was placed on house arrest for life unless he recanted and stated his scientific discovery was false. He did not recant his scientific discovery.

An event of great significance for plants and animals is the angle the sun strikes the landscape. Though it is easily observable, many of us have not consciously noticed or considered its importance. Our noses may have noticed skunks begin venturing out in February when days are longer. Day light has been lengthening for two months, even though we receive some of our coldest air at this time of year. We experienced -15 F in mid February.

Cold arctic air masses alternate with warmer southerly air masses sweeping over the region. When clouds are not blocking the sun, higher angle sunrays make more direct contact with the landscape. They warm south facing slopes, melt its snow, and warm the ground to kick-start spring growing conditions earlier than occurs on north facing slopes, where sunlight skims over the slope. Sunray energy concentrates in a smaller area when it strikes south facing slopes perpendicularly. On north-facing slopes, the same amount of energy is obliquely spread widely over a larger area and results in less warming of ground, plants, over wintering insects and other creatures.

Growing seasons on north and south-facing slopes vary depending on the amount of energy they absorb and it creates unique plant and animal microhabitats. As March approaches, notice the variations. The north side of Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary’s big field has exposed bare ground earliest when warm rays reflect infrared heat off forest trees. The middle of the field is slower to lose snow and frozen ground. The south edge of the field is slowest to warm and lose snow because naked winter tree trunks and branches filter light energy and prevent some rays from reaching that edge of the field.

Energy captured by dormant winter trees warms the bark and begins sap flow in February. Look closely at tree buds to notice they swell in advance of spring. It is easier to see changes in trees and shrubs than changes in field plants on north and south-facing slopes. Herbaceous plants have dead vegetation above ground but the warming Earth stimulates unobserved root activity. When spring growth emerges, plants on south-facing slopes bloom earlier than the same species growing on north-facing slopes.

Unfortunately, people often reject science evidence for political or religious reasons as happened with Copernicus. Concerns might stem from human fear of the unknown when we consider changing how to use Earth’s resources. Some people are willing to change behavior to sustain future generations, in addition to caring for our present population, while others focus only on the present. When asked, it appears people are interested in our children’s, grandchildren’s, and succeeding generations sustainability. However, actions are more important than talk, when addressing how we live and strive to sustain a healthy Earth for present and future human generations. It is important that we do not ignore accumulating scientific evidence for how things like the Keystone pipeline or human-caused climate change impact the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Present and future generations depend on healthy functioning ecosystems. In present day society many are unwilling to accept scientific evidence, much like political and religious leaders were unwilling to accept Copernicus’s discoveries.

Go beyond appearances to discover and understand the importance of evidence-based occurrences.

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

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Spruce branch tips

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Pounding front feet, a flicking tail, and loud chatter from a red squirrel demonstrates its defiance, as it scolds me in his woods. I do not view the woods as his, mine, or yours. We live and share a space for a short time on Earth and hopefully leave it healthy for those that follow us. We all impact those around us and red squirrels bring benefit and harm to spruces. Gray and fox squirrels seem more tolerant of my presence. All three species give me space but the red squirrel is feistier.

Gray squirrels are most comfortable in extensive, unbroken forest dominated by oaks. Fox squirrels prefer a deciduous forest with openings. The red squirrels claim dominance in the coniferous forest where they let intruders know they are trespassing.

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center, a plantation of Norway spruce referred to as the Enchanted Forest is home to red squirrels. In the forest’s youthful days, green boughs were in contact with the ground and there was more open space among the trees. Younger aspen trees grew in the surrounding area. As the spruce plantation grew, more shade was cast upon the ground. When I first arrived in 1979, the trees were tall and sunlight reached the ground in few locations. Those locations bore luminescent bright green moss. Though it was reflected light, one would think the light was shining directly from within the moss—hence the name “Enchanted Forest.”

In winter, the forest is quiet unless one passes too close to a red squirrel. Often we do not see or hear the squirrel but other evidence of its presence is abundant. It took some time for me to link the evidence to the red squirrel. Six-inch green spruce branch tips regularly cover the ground in winter. I wondered why. It does not seem that they would break free from the tree in mass. A strong windstorm or ice covering should not cause branch tips to break.

Finally I realized red squirrels venture toward branch tips to eat lateral buds along the branch. Buds swell most toward branch tips and their succulence is preferred. The bud at the branch tip would taste even better but the branch becomes too flimsy for easy access.

When the squirrel eats the two buds along the side, the remaining tip falls to the ground. If it does not fall immediately, wind will break the weak gnawed area causing it to fall in short order. On the ground, the red squirrel could enjoy the terminal bud that it could not reach when it was in the tree. I do not find evidence that it eats those buds but I have not really inspected the new and growing green carpet that thickens under spruces as winter progresses. Mice or other ground animals might find good nutrition just laying around for their taking. It does not cross their minds to thank the squirrel for making food accessible. The squirrel’s action might even be compared to us putting out birdseed. Actions of one animal in nature niches often have positive effects for other animals.

One would think biting branch tips off would only cause harm. The squirrel activity also has some positive impacts for the tree. We prune Christmas trees to cause them to form shorter bushier thick growth. The squirrels do the same for Norway spruce. It encourages the tree to put more energy into vertical growth and helps prevent growing branches into a neighbor’s space. It forces the tree to spend energy for upward growth that keeps its head in sunlight. That helps the tree live instead of being shaded to death by neighboring trees.

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

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Family hiking exploration (part 2)

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Five Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) trails were described last week and five more follow.

Trail signs have word names, picture icons, and color codes to involve all family members.

Spring Creek Loop (light blue lettered signs with frog icon)

Begins at the Welcome Center parking area and follows east past Chrishaven Lake and lake’s floating dock. It connects with Nature’s Habitats Trail (NHT) for a short distance and then continues eastward to Spring Lake where it loops south to follow the ridge above Spring Creek westward. It joins with NHT along the south side the enchanted Norway Spruce forest at the Spring Creek access spur and continues west until it spurs north to complete a loop near Chrishaven Lake.

Arboretum Paths (Red lettered signs with oak leaf icon)

It is a two-part trail. The East Arboretum Loop contains many species originally planted for ornamental transplant. The West Arboretum Loop is a Spruce/Pine plantation. The East Arboretum Loop is .4 kilometers (.25 miles) long.  The West Arboretum Loop is .5 kilometers (.3 miles).

Boardwalk to Chrishaven Lake (Dark blue lettered signs with sensitive fern frond icon)

A boardwalk leads through an old lake that has been largely replaced with vegetation to create a swampy/bog. A floating dock is present on the remnant of a once much larger lake and the boardwalk leads north to connect with Nature Habitats Trail. Its length is .27 kilometers (.2 miles).

Swamp Ridge Trail (Brown lettered signs with turtle icon)

Begins at the amphitheater fire circle between the Welcome Center parking area and the Red Pine Interpreting Building. It follows the south edge of the swamp eastward to Chrishaven Lake and continues east along the ridge.  At the open area south of the lake it raises from the lowland trail to upland but continues to follow the swamp ridge until meets Nature’s Habitats trail.

Thunderwood Trail (Green lettered signs with woodpecker icon)

Trail departs from Nature’s Habitats Trail, loops through upland forest to a boardwalk through what has become mostly swamp from what was once a marsh. Before entering an upland forest, hikers encounter large hemlock trees on their way to joining Arrowhead Trail. Length is .44 kilometers (.27 miles).

Some unnamed trails are meant for limited activity to allow wildlife privacy but are used during special programs. HCNC’s trail plan provides human access to nature niches balanced with providing plants and animals with needed sanctuary isolation for survival. Design incorporates three-use activity levels: High Activity, Passive Activity, and Limited Activity areas.

Constructed features along the trails enhance family hiking experiences. They include two interpretive buildings, Howard Christensen Memorial Spring, floating docks on the north and south side of Chrishaven Lake, Floating Bridge on Tadpole Pond, Swamp Shelter and Swamp decks on NHT, amphitheater, Swamp Tower, Tadpole Tower, Legend Circle, and Serenity Circle. A Welcome Center with restrooms is located at the south parking area.

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

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Family Hiking Exploration (Part 1)

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) has great diversity of habitats and a variety of trails to entice family hikers. Anticipate articles highlighting individual trails to interest family members during coming months. In the meantime, explore the trails to make your own discoveries. Plant communities influence the animals that can be found along trails.

Hikers will notice trail signs at trail junctions have three different marker codes. Most obvious are the printed trail names on signs. Each trail also has a unique picture and color code. Along the trails blue trail markers have been painted on trees but these have not been color coded to match trails at this time.

Five trails are described this week and five more next week.

Nature’s Habitats Trail (white lettered sign with butterfly icon)

The longest and widest trail at HCNC. It’s route leads through the major ecological communities found at the nature center. The trail traverses oak upland, skirts swampy/bog, crosses a small stream outlet from the lake, cuts through the Enchanted Norway Spruce forest, Red Pine plantation, accesses Spring Creek, meanders through mature aspen forest, transects the arboretum, Scotch Pine plantation, and concludes by Tadpole Pond where it began. Parts of the trail are located in the Rogue River State Game Area. Length is 2.1 kilometers (1.5 miles).

Deer Hollow Trail (black lettered signs with deer icon)

Located in the southwest corner of HCNC’s property, it loops through an upland oak, aspen forest, Scotch Pine plantation and traverses a swamp boardwalk. The trail connects with the arboretum loop trails and Chickadee Circle. Oak savanna habitat management area and owl roost forest are found along the trail. It is about 1.2 kilometers (.75 miles).

Chickadee Loop (yellow lettered signs with chickadee icon)

Trail loops from the Welcome Center westward and north around tadpole pond, past vernal pond, over a floating bridge past Howard Christensen Memorial Spring, and returns to the Welcome Center. It is comprised of oak forest, oak savanna, a vernal pond and permanent pond. Its length is about .4 kilometers (.25 miles).

Arrowhead Trail (orange lettered signs with arrowhead icon)

An ecological succession trail leads through an old fallow farm field, shrubland, developing pioneer forest, a pine plantation, and sub climax forest.  HCNC’s highest point is on this trail. Length is 1.5 kilometers (.9 miles).

Succession Loop (Gray lettered signs with rabbit icon)

Begins along the south side of the field north of Red Pine Interpretive Center and progresses east until it loops south to join Arrowhead Loop for a return to the handicap parking area near the interpretive building.

A “designed with nature” concept was used in planning parking and building placement to maintain the nature center’s natural ambiance and provide visitors with nature exposure before they encounter the interpretive center building. By using the Welcome Center parking lot, it keeps the Red Pine Interpretive from view and offers a nature walk before encountering the human constructed environment. A special needs parking area was designed for direct access to the building by use of the north driveway.

The second interpretive building is located off 20 Mile Road with a similar “design with nature” construction. A loop parking area keeps vehicles away from the building to provide a quiet, calming, access walk to the building hidden in the woods. A drive for direct handicap parking access is available from loop parking area.

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

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Great Blue

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

How cheery and uplifting a bright blue sky is for the soul in mid winter. It draws me to break trail in fresh snow. The experience is most beautiful when scattered white clouds parade in front of the sun creating an alternating blue-gray snow blanket when clouds temporary block the glistening sparkles of sunrays on snow crystals that soon reappear once clouds have passed. I want to bundle everyone in warm winter clothes to join on the Courier and Ives experience among the natural wonders beyond our confining doors.

It is easy to dream about the beauty of times past when viewing Courier and Ives pictures or watching winter scene screen-savers cascade across the computer. Stick your head out the window and yell “I’m Excited” to alert your neighbors. Bundle up and show others it is time to explore the Great Blue.

With unrestrained excitement I started the morning. The dog was anxious to head into the great blue yonder. I carried a camera to concentrate on the snow covered tree branches with the blue and white backdrop created by the crisp winter sky. A 20-degree temperature was comfortably warm but cold enough to preserve snow snakes on stark winter branches. Some of the snow was slipping from branches but was cohesive enough to hang in loops creating the appearance of long white snakes resting in the winter sun. Just as I was ready to snap a picture the loop broke and fell. I’ll wait for another day to capture an intact winter snow snake.

Meanwhile the dog was searching the snow with nose buried deep in rabbit and deer tracks. His nose was to the ground while my eyes were raised to the sky. We finished our joint walk and I ventured out to explore on my own.

I walked toward Peninsula Bridge at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. As I approached the footbridge over the creek, another Great Blue leaped from the shallow water, stretched large wings and flew upstream. Each winter I occasionally see a Great Blue Heron frozen statue-like in the creek’s shallow water waiting to spear a passing fish for lunch.

When it flew, I was unprepared to raise the camera to capture the departing Great Blue. I expected I might see it again when walking the pond loop trail. Quietly I traversed the narrow isthmus between the two frozen ponds and crossed high ground separating the west pond from the flowing creek. The hidden heron flew from the creek and landed on a branch long enough for me to capture a picture.

Today was this year’s first heron sighting. Its Great Blue added to the Great Blue sky above and the Great Blue reflecting from shadowed snow. Cottontail tracks and droppings were telltale signs of where the rabbit has nightly explorations. Deer trails provided evidence for preferred travel routes. Snow was deep enough to show drag marks where hooves scraped the surface between tracks.

All are beautiful art in the snow. They are not snow angels we make but are natural artifacts made by animal winter activities. Deer and rabbits remain hidden by day but squirrels are seen nosing the snow for hidden treasures buried months ago. Some large areas have been cleared of snow by deer searching for the squirrels buried treasures. Deer beds were melted in snow where deer rested. One group of beds was along the forest south edge where it meets field. Deer were taking advantage of the sun’s low winter angle warmth while remaining protected among shrubs. The snow has allowed me to locate two other bedding areas that would be hard in find without snow.

I approached the creek near the road and discovered the Great Blue Heron standing in the stream waiting patiently for food to pass within reach. I snapped a distance picture, got the mail and left without disturbing it. As long as there is open water, these long legged Great Blue wading birds stay the winter and brighten my days in nature niches, as do the other exciting Great Blues provided in nature’s winter world.

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

 

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2014 Christmas bird count results

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The Canada Goose totaled 1671

The Canada Goose totaled 1671

There were 47 traveling observers and 12 stationary watching at bird feeders that observed 60 species of birds (Table 1) for the 2014 Kent County Bird Count period on held January 3, 2015. No additional bird species were reported during count week. Total individuals sighted were 8,763.

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was reported. We are waiting for a verification description before the species is counted for the official report submitted to National and Michigan Audubon. The female grosbeak and the female Purple Finch have somewhat similar appearances. The grosbeak species should have migrated to South America for the winter but it is possible one remained Michigan. One is occasionally seen on a Michigan Christmas Count. A rare bird report with convincing detailed description must be submitted for birds that are rarely found in the state during the winter count period.

Bird counts held across the continent document population numbers and distribution trends. The large data set helps provide reliable information regarding southward or northward population changes over several decades. Individual year population movements to the north or south do not indicate habitat or climate change but long-term changes provide evidence that the environment is changing. Citizen science projects like the annual bird count provide useful data for scientists studying environmental quality, habitat, and climate change. The information helps business and government analyst predict economic impacts of environmental change for society. This year’s count was the 115 Christmas bird count and is the longest running citizen science project.

Weather conditions were 100 percent cloudy with snow falling and temperatures were between 26 and 38 F. A light breeze blew east-northeast.Snow depth on the ground was between 0 to 1 inches.Moving water was open and still water was 80 percent frozen.

We totaled 82.25 hours in vehicles traveling 649 miles. Fourteen hours were spent on foot covering 21 miles. A combined total of 670 miles were on foot and driving. Groups totaled 106.5 hours of daytime birding. Night owling occurred during 1 hour and six miles of driving. There were 19 morning birding groups and 13 in the afternoon.

We are grateful for essential section coordination by group leaders and the many people that offered help to make the count a success.

OUT-Nature niche Christmas bird count table Sheet1

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

 

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Cedars of Cedar Springs

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Two cedars are common in West Michigan but neither is actually considered a true cedar (Cedrus sp.). The true cedars do not grow naturally in North America. Perhaps the best-known true cedar is the over harvested Cedar of Lebanon whose removal caused flooding and other environmental problems.

Locally two cedars grow in different habitats filling different nature niches.

The White Cedar, also known as Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), is a wetland species, for which the town of Cedar Springs gains its name. In our area, it is most common in cold swamps or along streams, where moving water prevents acidic stagnant conditions. Cedars require neutral to basic nutrient rich soil conditions, with a pH of 7 or greater. This is more important than keeping their feet (roots) wet.

When crossing Mackinac Bridge northward, we are greeted in the Upper Peninsula with White Cedars along I-75, growing on high ground composed of high pH soil covering dolomitic limestone. The cedars give me the feeling that I am entering the North Country. The Grand Rapids area of West Michigan, eastward across Michigan, is nearing the southern limit of the tree’s abundance. White Cedars are found farther south but large native stands primarily end their southward range here. They also hug the cooler climate along Lake Michigan and have found growing conditions suitable to southern Michigan.

In good habitat, the trees grow densely. Roots are shallow and spreading, allowing them to receive oxygen easily. If deprived of oxygen, they will not thrive. Moving water in swamps brings a fresh supply of nutrients annually, during spring snowmelts and high water.

The shallow roots result in trees being toppled easily by strong winds. I have been in Cedar swamps with fallen trees piled ten feet thick. Many times White Cedars grow in thick, pure stands following fire. Deer feed heavily on cedars and depend on mature trees, where they yard together for survival in harsh dangerous winter conditions.

Cedars’ dense growth and evergreen flattened branches hold snow, preventing it from falling to the ground. Shallow snow depth on the ground allows easier deer movement. Predators find it more difficult to capture and kill deer in such conditions. When deer leave the safety of cedar swamps into deep snow, they become vulnerable and even without the presence of predators deep snow requires increased energy expenditure.

Finding food buried in snow is difficult. Along Cedar and Little Cedar Creeks, Cedar trees are no longer abundant. When humans settled here, the native habitats were greatly altered. It is interesting to note that many roads and towns are named for species once abundant but were removed by human development. Now the plant and animal names dominate communities more than the species themselves.

One can gauge deer abundance by how heavily Cedars are browsed. When deer populations are excessively high, Cedars are browsed as high as deer can reach, when standing on their hind legs. Where deer populations have not exceeded the carrying capacity of food, water, and shelter, Cedar branches can be found growing closer to the ground. Lower green branches have become rare in much of Michigan.

The Red Cedar is actually a juniper (Juniperus virginiana) growing on high dry ground. It is a southern tree that found its way into mid Michigan. Prior to logging and European farmer settlement, the Red Cedar was uncommon here. Clearing of forests allowed this shade intolerant species to expand its range northward on well-drained calcareous soils. When driving south in winter, the Red Cedars seem to dominate highway shoulders where its evergreen branches are apparent during the cold season.

Its branches are very prickly to the touch, unlike the softer feel of White Cedars. It is drought resistant, slow growing and might live a few hundred years if not harvested. Its wood is also decay resistant, used for fence posts, cedar chests, and closet linings like that of White Cedar, for which Cedar Springs was named. Wood from both repel insects, fungi, and provide a pleasant aroma.

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

 

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