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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

First bull experience

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A visit to Uncle Al’s farm when I was seven gave me a first close encounter with a bull. Uncle Al was actually my dad’s uncle. While my dad and he visited or did whatever adults do, we were sent to a harvested cornfield to salvage corn the machine missed. Following that chore, we headed to the barn to put hay in cow feeding troughs. When our work was finished we got to play.

We decided to jump from the loft into a large pile of hay. That all sounded simple but I had a big, fearful challenge. When we entered the barn, it was necessary to walk past the cows to get to the hayloft ladder. In the first stall was a bull with a metal ring in its nose. I was ok walking past cows but I feared the bull would kick me for sure. He was looking over his shoulder at me.

He was surely planning how to take me out if I tried to walk past him. My older brothers and other great-nephews passed without incident. It was still too frightening for me. When I heard others having fun, I needed to build courage to risk my life by racing past the bull to join the others.

I had seen matadors on TV with a bull attacking and one matador was gored. Bulls are to be feared. My brothers and the others survived passing the bull so I darted past without incident.  My fear was unfounded. With more farm experience by age 7, I would not have hesitated walking past the bull.

As director at Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC), I greeted student groups. Some groups came with wild nature experience. Others came from the city and had no experience in the woods. Some students had parents and grandparent that took them to parks, national forests, or wild natural areas.

For those that had never been exposed to wild nature niches there was great fear. I was asked if they would be attacked by tigers. Their knowledge of Michigan wild animals was a misconception. They only knew nature from TV. Like my farm experience, their visit to a nature center provided a new and unknown experience.

I did not fear going to a farm and the trip was filled with wonderful excitement until I encountered a bull. I wonder if students that had never been in wild areas were sick with fear as the bus traveled from school to nature center. The bus left the city, traveled to the north woods through the Rogue River State Game Area and finally stopped in the desolate wooded parking area at HCNC.

Unfounded fears are real and we all have them. I am comfortable backpacking in remote wilderness areas where mountain lions and wolves are present. I know elk are more dangerous and kill more people. I have greater fear for unsavory people in large cities than I do for large predators in the wild.

Our daughter used to pick up stones and fill her cheeks like a chipmunk when she was two. When we noticed bulging checks on our hikes, we would say give mommy or daddy the stones and she would spit out a mouthful. We figured stones in the mouth would build her immune system. Others feared disease or choking but gumballs were ok for their kids. We just called her our little geologist.

As adults, it is important that we provide diverse experiences for coming generations. Wild areas are shrinking and becoming more foreign to youth. Knowledge is often dominated by TV exposure and it often shows risky, dangerous encounters instead of normal reality.

Take kids to the Howard Christensen Nature Center, 16190 Red Pine Drive, Kent City, MI 49330 for a wonderful positive nature encounter. Leave your own fears behind.

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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We all hunt differently


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Some of us hunt at farmer’s markets for produce, others seek nurseries to buy plants to grow, harvest and eat, others seek wild edibles. We harvest, kill, and eat both plants and animals. Presently many men and women are seeking wild, edible, deer during archery, rifle, and muzzle loading seasons.

Understanding the dynamics of healthy nature niches is elusive. Nature is more complex than the simplicity of computer technology or national energy grids. Applied technology keeps our communication, businesses, homes, and daily lives functioning, while nature works on a grander scale keeping our communities thriving.

Deer hunting impacts the health of nature niches. Too many deer result in reduction of important species. Habitats suffer when too many deer eliminate wild food that animals require to keep nature healthy. Wildflower over browsing by deer leads to a decline of insects, birds and other animals. In turn this prevents effective pollination and reproduction for many plants. Some people want more deer to hunt or see without concern regarding the impact on other species or ecosystems.

How do scientists gather evidence for proof of what makes habitats healthy? They hunt for plants, insects, birds, mammals, and every other kind of living creature using strict scientific research protocols. It is a different kind of hunting. Great value comes from watching plants and animals and recording detailed observations, but collection is sometimes essential and regulated.

The increase of citizen science observations has become extremely important. Additionally, scientists need some plant and animal collecting. Deer check stations allow wildlife biologists to gather information, with the aid of citizen science deer hunters.

Most of us kill hundreds of thousands of insects annually with our vehicles with no value to science or benefit for understanding how nature works. Many deer are killed on the road without salvage. One was killed on the road this week at Ody Brook. Road killed butterflies, bees, beetles, dragonflies, squirrels and birds are common.

Scientists collect a minuscule number of bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, and other species to determine the composition of ecosystems. It is takes decades of collecting species with ongoing analysis to understand ecosystem dynamics. The role of an organism is known as its niche. Every organism has a unique niche and we know very little about most species.

We deduce much by studying body structures and even by gathering pollen from their bodies. Knowing which animal does what, when and where, requires good collecting samples and data recording. The number of organisms removed by scientists from habitats is so small it barely registers as a percentage when compared to how many each of us kill with vehicles, pesticides, herbicides, and more importantly habitat destruction where native plants are replaced with lawns. Lawns are ecological deserts. In effect lawns are a hunting tool that kills wildlife without useful value much like hitting animals with a car. It is a form of hunting more deadly than a car or rifle because it kills whole communities instead of removing selected individuals. I did not eliminate lawn at Ody Brook but reduced its size by about 70% when when I moved here.

Some people oppose controlling deer numbers. These same people do not mourn the loss of thousands of species (mostly beneficial insects) and millions or billions of individuals when land is converted to lawns. Ecological stewardship becomes more important as our human population grows out of control.

Earth care are as part of religious, social, economic and ecological wellbeing is responsible stewardship. Consider your daily activities as a different way of hunting with impact on species. How many plants and animals does your yard enhance or kill? Healthy yards and ecosystems depend on personal choices.

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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Dying Pines

This photo shows normal fall needle drop in a white pine tree. Photo from purdue.edu.

This photo shows normal fall needle drop in a white pine tree. Photo from purdue.edu.

By Ranger Steve Mueller


During fall, people notice pine trees dying. They become concerned about what unexpected fungal blight or insect infestation is killing trees. Events occur in our neighborhoods that generally escape notice and then suddenly capture our attention.

Broad-leaved trees like maples, cherries, and aspens drop their leaves each fall and stand naked all winter in wait for the spring growing season. Losing leaves helps them avoid structural damage that would occur from the weight of snow or ice that would get caught on leaves during the winter. The weight would snap branches. If the trees maintain their large leaves during winter, they would fail. Frozen water in leaves would burst cell membranes causing leaves to die.

In our yards and in wild places over yonder during fall, one is likely to see massive brown needles on pines. This is very noticeable for our State Tree, the White Pine. People contact me inquiring what is wrong that trees are dying. In most cases I reassure nothing is wrong and the trees are healthy. It is normal for needles that are three years old to die. Younger needles closer to the branch tip remain green and healthy.

The older needles away from the tip wear out from old age. They are also tucked farther back into the tree instead of being more exposed to sunlight. Look at pine branches to notice the brown needles are clustered away from the branch tip. Closer to the tree trunk notice that there are no needles. In previous years the bare branch held needles. Each year as the branch extends new growth with fresh needles, old needles die at the inner portion during fall.

A layer of needles builds annually under pines, where pine pitch helps prevent their decay. Usually a thick duff of pine needles is found under the trees in wild nature niches. Yard needles are often removed.

How is it that pine needles avoid frost damage that would kill broad-leaved tree foliage? One advantage is pine pitch helps prevent frost damage by lowering the freezing temperature like antifreeze. Needles also contain sugar that functions like antifreeze. That only works to a limited point and then water in the cells would freeze and burst cell membranes causing the needles to be killed.

To survive very cold weather, water must be mostly removed from the needles. Trees transport water from needles and branches to roots in a similar manner to broad-leaved trees where sugar and nutrients are stored. Living needles that did not turn brown in fall cling to life throughout the winter but are mostly dormant.

During a warm sunny spell in midwinter, green needles are warmed and become active. This is dangerous for the needles and tree. The needles produce sugar by photosynthesis where they combine carbon dioxide and water in the presence of sunlight energy.

The winter needles contain little water and that helps prevent frost damage. Unfortunately, using the limited amount of water can dehydrate the needle to the point of death during photosynthesis. The trees are unable to ship needed water from the cold ground unless the soil temperature is above 40 F. The needles in warm air and sunlight make the effort to produce sugar but instead die from lack of water for completing the process.

What were healthy needles in late fall become victims of “winter burn.” The winter burn might only affect some needles on the tree but some years I have seen entire trees “burned” to the point that it causes tree death. Living is not easy but brown needles on pines in fall is usually not a sign of stress or tree death.

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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World heroes

Ancestral perennial corn.

Ancestral perennial corn.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Honey Bees and native insect pollinators keep food on our tables. Our society would crumble without insect pollinators that keep flowering plants thriving. Pollinators are real heroes that we should honor, respect, and care for by how we treat yards, farms, forest, and fields. If you ask people who they owe their health, wealth, and security to, I expect most would not reply “insects.”

Perhaps this is because the importance of ecological sustainability is not integrated into child upbringing by parents and is marginalized in school education by political forces and narrow subject focus. Ecological literacy is integral for maintaining sustainable economic, industrial, and societal community success. That was my focus as director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center and Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center’s cross curriculum instruction. Our survival is dependent on keeping essential workers like insects on the job.

As nice as it is to recognize the work of people we depend on, other life forms are equal or more essential. To help develop appreciation for life in our neighborhoods, Nature Niche articles highlight creatures with whom we share Earth. However, this week I would like to recognize a human world hero with whom I have had limited personal experience.

I met with Dr. Hugh Iltis at the University of Wisconsin when I was deciding a career path for graduate school. I was considering botanical studies with him as my advisor. Hugh had recently become aware of a perennial corn in Mexico, and he and his colleagues named the ancestral perennial corn Zea diploperennis.

What makes Dr. Iltis a world hero is his recognition for the importance of an unknown plant that is restricted to a few square miles on planet Earth and his efforts to preserve it. It is a true grass related to Zea mays, our domestic edible corn. Mexican and Nicaraguan governments have taken action to preserve these plants. Why?

It has potential for use in breeding insect resistance, perennialism, and flood tolerance into domestic corn. Can you imagine if farmers no longer needed to plant corn annually because it sprouted annually on it own? If we can breed domestic corn or genetically modify it to become perennial, it would have significant impacts for agricultural economics.

What if we could breed it or genetically splice insect resistance from ancestral corn back into corn that was lost during domestication 10,000 years ago? We could perhaps reduce human dependence on insecticides that pose dangerous health concerns for our families and other life forms.

The tolerance of Zea diploperennis to floods could possibly increase domestic corn survival if its genes were incorporated to help it survive when corn fields flood and soils become water logged.

Wild corn was thought extinct at the time this ancestral corn was discovered. Many people and perhaps most on Earth do not recognize the importance and need to preserve species in our neighborhoods. Their importance and value will be lost to us and future generations if we do not honor, respect, and care for the health, wealth, and security that other species provide in ecosystems that support us.

I did not take the road to study plants under Dr. Iltis’s direction. Instead, I chose graduate study in entomology and ecology, with a subsequent career in environmental education. I focused energies toward environmental stewardship essential for sustaining society and life on Earth, by following Dr. Iltis’ lead and that of other heroes that help sustain society. Hail Hero to Dr. Iltis, who is now 90.

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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Competently incompetent

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We all have areas of great competence and areas of lesser competence. As an ecologist, I have good competence but when it comes to any specialty subject, I lack desired competence. We all fit this scenario with strengths and weaknesses.

Recently I came up with the descriptor “Competently Incompetent” and it even fits organisms in nature niches. Each organism has adaptations that help it excel in limited areas. When working with groups, I sometimes have people get their eye close to a tree to look for insects’ eggs or insects in the crevices of the bark from one-inch distance. All is blurry and we are incompetent at the task of finding eggs or insects from that close. Brown Creepers successfully hunt from one-inch distance. Their small eyes can focus that close.

It is a little embarrassing when I present programs to groups like garden, butterfly, plant, or bird clubs, where I have been introduced as Michigan’s premiere Lepidopterist, botanist, or ornithologist, when some of Michigan’s true premiere specialists for those subjects are in attendance.

They are researchers that seldom present public programs but spend 40 to 60 hours a week working in their specialty area in the field or laboratory. Their work is the source of information for my programs, as well as Nature Niche articles. My field and laboratory time is split among geological, plant, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile, mammal, fish, weather, soil studies and more. I annually attend conferences for specialty subjects to develop a better knowledge.

The result is that I have developed good competency in many subjects and am able to apply the knowledge for how ecosystems function. When attending special subject conferences, I realize I am a nitwit among renowned specialists from around the country and world. Actually, I have developed their respect because they know I am “Competently Incompetent.” No one can be competent in all areas. I turn to specialists for guidance and help for my areas of incompetence and that has earned their respect. They know I have enough competence to know where I am incompetent.

In my research at Bryce Canyon National Park, I collected three virgin tiger moths. When studying them in my summer lab at the park, I could not determine the species. I took them to an international conference of specialists and requested help from three scientists that work with tiger moths. All scratched their heads and said they could not identify them beyond the Genus Grammia. One requested to take them for study. He was specifically working with this Genus Grammia. He studied body structures (morphology), dissected genitalia (regularly used to distinguish species), and did DNA sequencing (like human DNA testing for paternity and crime solving). Even though they looked nearly identical to known species, he found they did not match any. He gathered the physical evidence necessary to describe a new species.

His next step was to publish a paper describing the new species in detail where he named the species Grammia brillians. I was competent enough recognize that I could not identify the insect and brought it to specialists.

Like “Dirty Harry” said in one of the movies, “You need to know your limitations.” I am not pleased with my limitations but I also know I have a strong, broad competence to speak to many organizations. I have earned the title as one of Michigan’s premiere scientists for several subjects. I know I am not truly premiere. For most nature enthusiasts, I might appear premiere. Do not sell yourself short. I am sure each reader has specific knowledge I lack. Continue spending time outside absorbing sights, sounds, smells, feel, and taste of nature. Join me sometime to teach me your discoveries and increase my knowledge.

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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Who was that?

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Do you know what type of bird this is? Check out Ranger Steve’s tips on what to look for. Answer is in the article. Photo from the Audobon.org field guide.

Do you know what type of bird this is? Check out Ranger Steve’s tips on what to look for. Answer is in the article. Photo from the Audobon.org field guide.

A brown sparrow-sized bird captured my attention. A luminescent white shown from its throat. Narrow black lines framed the white on sides and bottom. Have you identified the bird? Noticing key field marks, in a short time, is often essential because many birds do not stay in easy view. 

The bird was in the willow thicket at Ody Brook. Several were present. It was early October when flocks of birds move through on a southward journey. I could eliminate most choices. Clearly, it was not waterfowl, and shorebirds tend to be along water edges or wading, so I can rule those out, except for possibly the Killdeer. Killdeers have departed, so that is not a likely choice. Shorebirds, like killdeer, stay mostly on the ground and this bird was on a shrub branch.

Large birds like gulls, grouse, hawks, and doves do not fit this observation. When trying to identify, narrow choices by selecting from a sparrow, robin, or crow-size. Then consider habitat and eliminate waterfowl, if you are in a forest or shrubland. Some waterfowl, like wood ducks, could be in a tree, so do not be so absolute that you rule out those you are looking at. Some species are unlikely to be in Michigan, so you can eliminate species restricted to dry arid deserts along the Mexico/US border, or other habitats not found in Michigan.

There are good bird field guides for Michigan, Eastern North America, and North America north of Mexico. Some popular Michigan bird field guides are incomplete so I suggest getting one that is most inclusive, instead of only having common birds. Some guides are much better than others.

The bird in question moved from the willow to a speckled alder. It faced me, showing a plain gray breast with no striping. Its bill was short and thick. Eliminate birds with thin bills like warblers and kinglets as well as flycatchers that have long point bills. Have you figured out the bird from the characters provided?

As the bird looked at me from the alder branch and turned its head, I could see white stripes on its head running from the beak to the back of the head. A neon yellow spot between the bill and eyes was evident in the sunlight. In shade, the yellow was not obvious. Perhaps you have figured it out now. If not, pause here, get a bird field guide, and find a sparrow-sized bird, with white stripes on the head, yellow by the bill and eye, white throat, thick short bill, plain gray breast, brown back and legs for perching on twigs.

Check if the bird you are considering is here all year or migrates. If it migrates, is it here in summer, or does it nest farther north, in places like the boreal forest? This bird happens to be a boreal nester so we would not see it during the summer months. That is not evident from our current observation, but maybe you noticed a bird with such a description was not seen all summer.

It has one of the most beautiful songs but is usually quiet during fall migration. Its musical song is a favorite sign of spring and offers wonderful joy to one’s spirit when heard. Sometimes one will let loose its song in fall or part of its song. It is described as reminiscent of the words “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” and belongs to the white-throated sparrow. Canadians prefer “Oh My, Canada, Canada, Canada.”

Start with yard birds you regularly see in your neighborhood nature niche to discover unique feather color patterns, size, bill, and leg characteristics. Many birds change plumage with the seasons, but some do not. I enjoy watching birds in the yard and at the feeder more than television so I usually wait to watch TV until after dark. Listening to music CDs is a nighttime pleasure also, so as not to interfere with the activity and music abounding from the depths of the wild sanctuary where I live.

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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Fall Ephemerals

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Fall has a resurgence of some spring activity but has its own unique ephemerals. Anxiously we wait for the fall color pageant. By August, cherry trees were dropping red and yellow leaves and sugar maples began releasing some green leaves.

The Michigan Botanical Club visited Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, on September 19, and witnessed 1200-1500 Clouded Sulphur butterflies flying over and among Frost Asters, in the field. Of the 40 people present, most said they have never seen so many butterflies in one area. It was a great, moving experience lasted through most of September and continues into October. After killing frosts, asters are mowed annually, in late October, to prepare the area for the ephemeral spring mating display of American Woodcocks. Also present were some Orange Sulphurs that hold off making an appearance until late in the year. We work to manage the sanctuary for greatest habitat biodiversity.

Fall flowering species of showy yellow goldenrods were observed in sunlit openings. Ragweeds with small unnoticed green flowers bloom at the same time. It is ragweed’s ephemeral, small, lightweight pollen carried on the wind that causes “hay fever.” Unfortunately, many people blame goldenrods because their fall ephemeral flowering occurs at the same as ragweed. Goldenrod pollen is large, heavy and falls to the ground. Goldenrod depends on insects to carry its pollen to other flowers and is not a source of “hay fever.”

A small fall resurgence of spring flowering maiden pinks shows pink petals with white dots and fringed petal tips. As daylight hours shorten and night lengthens, spring and summer plant physiology is confused and causes a slight increase in plant hormone levels that stimulates some out-of-season flowering. It is normal for fall flowering plants to have their full plant hormones increase late to stimulate fall flowering. Spring flowering plant schedules are completed because of earlier hormone peaks but a hormone resurgence stimulated by night length similar to spring brings about some out-of-season blooming.

Even animals like spring peeper frogs have a late season hormone rise that stimulates some breeding behavior. One will hear scattered peeping throughout the woods but the frogs do not migrate to their essential fishless breeding vernal ponds to lay eggs like they do in April and May. Gray tree frogs call with their short loud trilling burst from the woods. Of course, deer begin their ephemeral rut.

Bird migration time varies among species and is partly driven by hormone level changes. Many shorebird species migrate south as early as July. Warblers move through from August to October. Interestingly, it is the first year young birds that come through ahead of parents.

Bur Oak is an ephemeral of centuries, with its coming and going in Michigan, where remnants still survive. It has become less common due to habitat change. It thrives and reproduces best in grasslands, with widely scattered trees known as savannas. It has adaptations to survive periodic fires. We have largely stopped wildfires and the tree is in decline as savannas disappear. With periodic fires, savanna habitat supports conditions where this species can increase.

Nature niches have yearly ephemerals and others that occur over centuries (probably not technically classified as ephemerals). Some species are “ephemeral” that come and go over centuries, depending on adaptations to events like essential fires. Our lives are too short to witness all the ephemeral wonders around us.

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

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Birds plummet to the ground

OUT-Nature-niche-Ranger-Steve-Head-ShotBy Ranger Steve Mueller

After supper at about 7:20, I sat on the back the porch. There was little bird activity. A lone darner dragonfly was hunting at tree top height. Small birds too high to identify flew over. A robin, hummingbird, and morning doves perched in the trees.

Suddenly there was commotion in a tree top and a bird appeared to plummet to the ground. A Sharp-shinned hawk had a Mourning Dove in its talons. The dove struggled but did not get free. The hawk was immature, with dark barred feathers running vertically on its light breast. Adults have transverse bars across the breast.

The young bird began plucking feathers from its prey in preparation for dinner. Feathers were flying in all directions. The hawk’s tail raised in the air and I saw tail feathers were all the same length. That confirmed it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk instead of a similar looking Cooper’s Hawk.

Cooper’s Hawks have tail feathers that are successively shorter outward from the center of the tail. The Sharp-shinned’s tail feathers are all the same length and make the tail appear squared at the end instead of rounded. Sharp-shinned hawks are slightly smaller but size is hard judge. The head on Sharp-shinned is not as bulky as that of Cooper’s.

Suddenly more commotion while the hawk was plucking its prey. The hawk must have loosened its grip and the dove escaped. I thought the dove was dead and maybe the hawk did also. The two were about 50 feet from me, as I watched the drama with binoculars. The hawk pursued the escaping dove and the dove managed to bank to tall grass and irises by the porch, about 15 feet from me. The hawk was right on its tail, but the dove entered and hid in the vegetation. The hawk attempted to reach the dove as it moved to protect itself and the hawk jumped backwards.

I could not see the dove in the vegetation. The hawk moved around the clump figuring out how to recapture its prey. Though I was sitting 15 feet away as still as a statue, the hawk saw me. The hawk’s attention was divided between me and the dove. The hawk was nervous with my presence and flew up and landed on our picnic table. It continued to watch me while I pretended to be invisible.

The hawk flew to a low branch on a dead ash tree in the yard. A Mourning Dove perched at the top of the tree departed. The hawk surveyed the area and must of have felt too threatened by my presence to return to the grass clump for its dinner. It flew over the house and out of sight.

I felt badly for the injured dove and would prefer the hawk had killed it for a filling meal. By departing, the young hawk will need to capture another live bird. I went into the house with hopes that hawk would return to finish what it started before it was completely dark.

Hopefully the young hawk learned the hunting lessen that it needs to kill its prey before plucking feathers. I once witnessed a Peregrine Falcon capture a dove and it almost immediately opened the skull and began eating the brains. It left plucking for later. This young bird might go to sleep hungry because darkness was closing the day.

We attract birds to seed feeders and hawks to feed on live birds. People generally do not mourn the sunflower seed embryos eaten by birds but they mourn the loss of birds we feed. In healthy nature niches, there is a place for seedeaters, and for predators that eat the seedeaters. When niches are healthy, there is an abundance of life to provide nourishment for migrating hawks that need adequate energy for their southward migration.

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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River fishing challenges

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Fishing inland lakes in summer and ice fishing in winter is wonderful outdoor exposure. It’s a joy to look through the ice hole and observe swimming fish. Ice shanties create a dark room and sun filtered through the ice lights the water. The hole resembles a TV viewing screen. I find joy watching fish and catching them.

Now is a time when anglers crowd the rivers to catch fish swimming upstream. I am an infrequent angler and had little experience river fishing until I was teenager. At age 15, my older brother took me fishing to Fletcher County Park, near Alpena, and it became an annual Memorial Day weekend event.

At that park, I learned an important fishing lesson. Many Northern Pike were just under the size limit and needed to be released. It was fun for me to reel in a fighter big or small. I am sure that is not what the fish considered a good time. I prefer continuously casting my lure instead of sitting with a static line waiting for fish to bite. I am too antsy. Watching a bobber is not the best time for me.

Thunder Bay River flowed into and out from Sunken Lake. We floated the rowboat downstream to where we thought “the big one” would be lying in wait for its next meal. It was a great place to perfect casting skills. Too long a cast would land on a log; too short would not reach hidden hollows where fish were waiting; and too far to the left or right was not suitable for fish to hunt their prey. My older brother, Mike, was excellent at casting. Whatever he did was always better than I could do. I think that is true of older brothers in general (true or not).

As we floated down the lazy river, we would cast to where we thought fish were waiting. I hooked one and the fish decided it was not going to be landed. One must not to exert too much instant pressure on the line or it might snap. I kept constant pressure on the line and reeled the fish closer as it fought for freedom with powerful “fish moves.” Gradually the fish exhausted and was drawn close to the boat.

When it was close, I released some line and the fish took its chance to escape. Mike, with shock, said, “What are you doing?!” I said I wanted to play the fish longer. He said, “You cannot do that.” Instantly I learned why. The fish immediately swam to an underwater log and swam around the log. The log now caught me on one end of the line and the fish on the other. Mike rowed to the log that was submerged near the water surface. We could see the fish on a short line unable to get away.

It was near the water surface and Mike was able to net it. We landed the fish and prepared it for dinner. Mike explained more do’s and don’ts for fishing while we enjoyed a Northern Pike dinner. We enjoyed bass, sucker, and pan fish dinners on our fishing weekends. We smelt fished the Great Lakes. Each fish species has unique habitat requirements for temperature, depth, vegetation, currents, and prey.

The fish we catch taste better than those caught by other people. When one spends time exploring fish nature niches to learn behavior, selected habitats, and experiences time in beautiful wild places fishing, it adds flavor to the meal. This makes the fish we catch the best tasting. It is a psychological benefit that transposes to our taste buds.

I learned to never allow slack in the line because the fish will seize the escape opportunity. We were lucky to eat the fish that taught me a lesson. It is good for people to learn where fish come from. Too many people think they come from grocery stores or fish markets instead of rivers, lakes, and oceans. We cannot protect habitats if we do not know them from personal intimate outdoor experience. Go outdoors.

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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Big Year Birder Speaks

By Ranger Steve Mueller


The Big Year movie showed in area theaters in 2011, and featured Greg Miller, played by Joe Black, in the movie. The movie was about three men trying to see as many bird species in one year as possible. Each hoped to see more than anyone else had seen in one year. People found the movie fun and comical despite it portraying a real life serious experience and quest. The Grand Rapids Audubon is hosting Greg as speaker on September 28, 2015 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wege Auditorium on the Aquinas College Campus.

The Audubon club invites us to enjoy this entertaining speaker describe his quest to surpass seeing 700 species of birds in one calendar year, by traversing the continent in his quest. The motion picture entertained many in our community, and, if you missed it, I suggest you rent and view it prior to Greg’s talk at the end of September. The actors Steve Martin and Owen Wilson portrayed the other birders in the quest. Come to Greg’s presentation, where he will relate some of the hilarious stories about his journey and tell of his role as movie consultant.

A free-will donation at the door is encouraged to defray the speaker fee and to support Audubon club bird conservation and education efforts. For more information, you can contact John Chronowski at vice.president@graud.org.

The GR Audubon presentation will be at the Wege Student Center on the Aquinas College Campus at 1607 Robinson SE to accommodate a larger audience. The Wege Student Center is accessible from Fulton St on the north and from Robinson Rd on the south. Parking is available in Lots A and B on Fulton St and in Lots L and M on Robinson Rd. I approach Aquinas College from the East Beltline by taking Lake Michigan Ave to Robinson.

For those of us that watch and pursue birds, the birding quest is familiar, but to others it is a not. My sister-in-law saw the movie and asked if people really do this. Like any hobby, some people take great effort to be among the best in their pursuit. Personally, I am more casual about my pursuit but I do try to notice as many bird species as possible. This year, my list is over 350 species of bird species sighted and that is not an easy number to see in one year.

In my personal quest, I try to learn the habitat for each species and observe its strategies for survival. Where does it spend most of its time and what food is it eating? Does it associate with particular plants in its nature niche? Where does it nest and what foods are preferred during each month? What are spring arrival and fall departure dates? Natural history questions continue to challenge our observation skills.

I seek similar quests for butterflies, plants, amphibians, mammals, and even fish. One of my college professors commented that what he remembered most about me is that I am a generalist. As a generalist, it is impossible to excel in any one area, but I am most satisfied with connecting the lives of all organisms in an ecosystem, and thus claim to be an ecologist. We each have our personal quest but I am greatly looking forward to hearing Greg discuss his quest that he refers to as “My Big Story.”

My big year will never approach that of serious birders like Greg, but mine helps me learn about the birds encountered and aids my understanding for how ecosystems function. I will greatly enjoy learning how Greg enjoys nature and his great knowledge of birds. Come for an entertaining evening.

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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