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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Porcupine and Cougar

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Two North American porcupines in a tree in Quebec, Canada. Photo by Wikipedia user Mattnad.

Two North American porcupines in a tree in Quebec, Canada. Photo by Wikipedia user Mattnad.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

When working as a ranger at Bryce Canyon National Parks, I conducted field research on the mountain lions (cougars) in the park. During the summer months, the highest plateaus in North America were home to the lions, porcupines, and me. At 9000 feet elevation, I found tracks in one of the few areas with a surface water pond on limestone bedrock. It was a rare drinking hole for deer, lions, and other wildlife.

During the seven years I worked there, I never heard of unattended cows being taken by a lion in the national forest where ranchers grazed cows in summer. Come fall the ranchers drove cows to 6000 feet elevation. Deep snow, lack of food, and excessive cold would leave cows high, dry, and dead in winter on plateau tops.

South from the park’s Yovimpa Point one can see 80 air miles across a near wilderness to the north rim of Grand Canyon National Park. One paved road crosses the south expanse and unpaved trails zigzag the terrain. It is precarious and unknown whether a vehicle other than those with four-wheel drive and high clearance will safely succeed.

Lions follow deer south into the wilderness, or they move east off the Paunsegunt Plateau or neighboring Aquarius Plateau (10,000 feet) into Tropic Valley. Lions have legal protection but poaching occurs by ranchers who think laws do not apply to them. Lions heading east have a better chance of being poached but those heading south have better poaching avoidance. Energy companies desired to strip mine coal to the south of the park for more than 50 years instead of developing alternative energy sources. Coal proposals have been blocked but renewed pressure to strip mine is expected. Coal strip mines could eliminate lions from Bryce Canyon.

Life is difficult for predators in nature niches where they need adequate food, accessible water in an arid landscape, and places to hide. People have fears that have some justification but dangers from predators are unlikely compared to other health threats. Driving, falling from a ladder, and other threats are more likely.

Lions have few threats from animals except people but starvation and dehydration are dangerous. Ranch water impoundments can be valuable but bring lions close to people. They tend to seek water in night stillness.

While tracking a lion, I found scat and broke it apart to discover what it had been eating. Porcupine quills were present. Literature reports lions prey on porcupines and I had found physical evidence. They avoid quills by eating from the belly where no quills are present. First the lion must kill the porcupine while trying to avoid being struck by a tail swing or quills raised high on the back. Quills cannot be thrown but they dislodge easily.

Porcupines move slowly but their armor helps protects them. When quills enter skin, mouth, or tongue, the quills puff up like a balloon because air sealed inside cannot escape. Pressure from the quill’s squeezed end in the skin causes quill swelling. The sharp end that entered the skin is covered with scales like shingles on a roof that face away from the quill point. Those scales prevent easy removal because the shingles hold it fast.

To remove quills, clip them to release air pressure and pull with pliers. Do not try this with a lion because you might not survive. Pets do not seem to learn to avoid porcupines. Every dog in our family has gotten quills at least once. Ody Brook, who the sanctuary is named after, bit one in our yard one night in Bemidji, Minnesota. I did not notice until he came into the house. It is important to remove them soon. The delay allowed quills to work deep and were difficult to remove. One in his gum worked too deep to remove. One year later, I noticed something sticking out of his eyelid. A close look revealed it was the gum quill emerging. I pulled it despite Ody’s objection. That story ended well without it entering his eyeball.

I read some quills migrated into a lion’s heart and were deemed a likely cause for its death. Porcupines are moving south as forests reclaim this region. One has been seen at Ody Brook and some are resident at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. More than one has been killed on Red Pine Drive. Walk the forests at HCNC with attention to the conifers or aspens where you might see the dark lump of a porcupine.

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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Smells of Thanksgiving

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Thanksgiving turkey smells stimulate stomach growls. Smell has a major impact for organism nature niche living and survival. Flowering plants release odors that attract pollinators that ensure plant species survive. An unintended byproduct is survival of people depending on plants. If insects did not smell the plant and pollination did not occur, the plant would not produce seeds or fruit people require.

We should offer thanksgiving for the insects that pollinate and provide for the continued production of plants. Insects taste a plant with feet (tarsi) to make sure it is the appropriate species to lay eggs on so offspring have a suitable plant to feed on when eggs hatch.

Mammals depend on senses for survival also, but few have the exacting smell and taste of insects because they are generalist feeders, unlike many insects that require very specific feeding requirements. It is to the benefit for mammals that smells do not need to be in a direct unimpeded line to catch attention. Odor molecules drift around obstacles like trees walls or other barriers to make it to animal noses. We can smell a turkey roasting from a neighboring room because molecules work their way around corners. Our sense of sight and that of wild animals depends on a direct line of light. If there was no odor working their way around corners to the living room, we would not know a turkey was baking in the kitchen based on sight. Light traveling in straight lines does not bend around corners.

Most mammals have a much keener sense of smell than people. Moles smell their way to worms in the darkness underground and do not depend on sight for their next meal. A great many mammals are nocturnal and depend on smell more than sight. Coyotes have a sense of smell tremendously more sensitive than anything we experience. Moisture is important to help with odor reception. Dogs lick their nose and it helps. Licking our nose does not help but having moisture inside our nostrils is important. Smells are more easily noticed in humid weather than in dry air.

When looking for wild raspberries or a dead animal to eat, bears and coyotes have a great advantage over us. Once drawn close by smell, they can use sight to zero in on the food. Molecules from the berries or the smell of a dead animal drift and make it possible for a mammal to work its way toward the greater concentration of molecules until the object is in sight.

People depend on sight to a greater degree than smell. That probably is not the case for many mammals. The use of the two senses together provide increased survival value. Add the sense of sound and it offers another aid to survival success and challenges. I was walking in an aspen forest with thigh high bracken ferns where I could not see or smell a deer bedded ahead of me. It stayed hidden until I was about ten feet from it. It was listening to my approach and rose in front of me like a giant scaring me half to death. It bounded into a thick conifer forest before I recovered from heart stopping startle.

Had I walked to its side, it might have remained quiet, still, hidden, and unnoticed to my sense of smell or sight.

Like insects, our sense of taste requires physical contact. Touching with our hands does not work for our sense of taste. Touching cannot be used to decide we do not want that taste in our mouth. Insects can touch with feet and decide not to place that taste in their mouth. Feeling objects has its own advantages we can use to evaluate food in the grocery or woods based on it how feels.

Smell gives us pleasure and/or disgust. It is important in reproduction for most species. It drives success and failure for many species. For now, simply enjoy the pleasure of Thanksgiving dinner and a full stomach.

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, Endangered, Secure?

Photograph of a female Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in captivity from the year 1898.

Photograph of a female Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in captivity from the year 1898.

Dr. Hugh Iltis from the University of Wisconsin Madison became aware of a rare species with potentially great human significance in the mid 1970’s. It was a perennial corn that he, with others, named Zea diploprennis. He flew to Mexico to see, study, and collect it. It was found on a few habitat acres that were about to be destroyed by development. The development would have eliminated the species from existence. Big deal?

Potentially this corn, closely related to Zea maize (corn) that humans depend on, could contain genes with disease resistance that were bred out of domestic corn. If gene splicing could be used to make domestic corn perennial, it might grow annually without farmers needing to replant. That would be a huge economic savings.

A great many plants are being pushed toward extinction as habitat is destroyed without concern for fellow species needing space and unique growing conditions. Ecologically, humans are not the only important species in existence but our actions for sharing living space often ignores other species’ value.

The movie Medicine Man, starring Sean Connery, illustrates this point as the scientist is on the cusp of finding a cure for cancer, while the habitat and species containing the valuable resources are being eliminated from existence. Consider watching the movie about the hidden mysteries found in wild organisms.

Many rare species are secure and survive well in limited habitats of small size with unique growing conditions. Those conditions might have unusual minerals, water quality, or insect interactions that contribute to survival. We have not discovered many of the unique characteristics needed by the plants, insects, fungi, or other organisms. Most species’ significance for humans or ecological communities remains unknown.

Just because a species is rare does not mean it is endangered, threatened, or of special concern. Many species are rare, few in number, but are secure from a survival perspective. Rare and Endangered are two different conditions.

Some species can be abundant and endangered. Endangered means it is likely to disappear from existence in the relatively near future. Rare simply means not abundant but does not mean in eminent danger of extinction. Rare species might hold the most important secrets with value for human use and ecological sustainability.

When a species is recognized as declining, it can be politically classified as a species of Special Concern, Threatened, or Endangered depending on how serious the danger is for becoming extinct in the near future. The passenger pigeon was likely the most abundant bird species in existence that rapidly declined and became extinct. The causes were likely a result of human altered environmental conditions. The migratory population of Monarch butterflies was abundant and is now rapidly declining like happened with the passenger pigeon. The decline is likely related to how humans are altering environmental conditions.

One thing we have discovered from Monarchs is that cardio-glycosides have been useful for treating people with heart conditions. Recognize the significance of secrets held by other species.

The passenger pigeons and monarchs were not secure just because they were abundant. Do not confuse abundance with security. Many rare species are not threatened because their numbers are few. Rarity does not mean eminent danger for extinction. Rare species will become endangered if we do not maintain the unique ecological habitat nature niche conditions they require.

I have long suggested it is important to maintain at least 10 percent of every habitat and ecosystem as wilderness to provide secure living conditions for species that inhabit Earth’s environmental biodiversity. The idea can be viewed as sound scientific planning, religious tithing of Earth’s ecological creation care, socially responsible behavior to preserve valuable resources, and for maintaining economic security.

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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Shades and shapes of fall

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Fall yard raking is upon us and provides healthy physical activity. We rake leaves onto a tarp and drag them to the Island Bridge Trail or Peninsula Bridge Trail at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary where they protect boot soles from clogging with mud in wet locations.

The fun work is watching the occasional wood frog hop to a new hiding place, noticing the mosaic of remaining colors in fallen leaves and varied shapes. Encourage children or grandchildren to join with yard clean up. My kids helped by piling leaves and then jumping on them or crawling into the middle of the pile to hide like a frog. They are good memories that last a lifetime, even though their work might not have been very productive.

Most leaves have a yellow tinge. A great activity is finding leaves from one tree that express many shades of the same color or even different colors. Examine leaves on a tree that match colors with fallen leaves. It is a great way for you and children to learn attention to detail. We are not too old to live like a child. We just get too hurried in life. My writings are to encourage nature niche experiences primarily for adults and hope kids will learn and grow to appreciate continued outdoor activities that were learned from parents and grandparents.

It is excellent for all family members to participate in nature center activities for fun and learning. The Howard Christensen Nature Center has many programs locally and other nature centers in Grand Rapids and Ottawa County have wonderful activities as well.

After collecting leaves on the ground from one tree to compare colors with those that remain on the tree, collect leaves from different tree species and align them in a row to create a smooth transition within one color and then among various color shades. Arrange them in the ROYGBIV spectrum of the rainbow. ROYGBIV is Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet.

Identify as many colors as possible and determine which are most to least abundant. Learning details about chlorophylls, carotenes, and xanthophylls can wait until you feel like delving into the science of pigment color and function.

Compare leaf margins and sizes of leaves from the one tree and with different trees species. Compare with leaves remaining on the tree. It will be noticed that leaves with greatest sun exposure are smaller than leaves that are more shaded. They are referred to as sun and shade leaves. For those that like exploring on the internet, look up those terms and look up trees to identify them by matching leaves. Googling “Michigan Flora” will help limit your search to Michigan species.

Most of us have not spent time noticing varied leaf shapes. Some are long and thin, round, oval, wavy or toothed margined. Teeth on the margin might have large and small teeth alternating or have teeth of equal size. Some have many teeth or few. Different oak species have rounded or sharp pointed lobes. Oaks tend to turn purple or brown as fall progresses. Where does purple fit into the ROYGBIV sequence? It is a good discriminating activity for all of us.

If that is not enough, learn to separate tree species based on their growth silhouette. Yardwork can be fun.

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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Holes in the fabric of space

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Imagine a giant child placing a dark veil over the Earth and using a pin to poke holes in the veil to allow light through. The pinholes would look like stars to us. A new “star” would appear with each pinhole. It has only been a few centuries since similar ideas have been slowly replaced with scientific explanations. Of course, we still write stories as real. Many people believe them because they are simple explanations or are consistent with ideas we learned as a child about time and space or are simply what we want to believe.

I still like to travel to “Never Never Land” even though there is no physical scientific evidence of its existence. We like to believe there are parallel universes like exist in the “Back to the Future” movie series.

I sat on the Ody Brook Big Field bench at dusk when the sky only expressed one star, Arcturus. It was not long before more stars popped into view as if a giant child was poking holes in a dark veil covering over Earth.

High and slightly to the north above me, the constellation Cassiopeia looked like a lopsided bright W. To the northwest and closer to the horizon from the W was a lone star in the dusk sky. It was the North Star. Even closer to the northwest horizon were three bright stars creating the handle of the Big Dipper. Only one of the Big Dipper bucket stars was visible before darkness increased. Stars rise four minutes earlier each night, changing their position as the year progresses. Expect constellations to be on the move all year.

An introduction to the night sky is best discovered when the sky is not fully dark. Most constellations are composed of bright stars. It is easier to see them before the sky is cluttered with dimmer stars. For better or worse, lights from communities prevent viewing of dimmer stars. It might be easier to see the bright constellations but I want a dark sky lighted by 2000 stars.

Using outside lights that shine down instead up saves energy, money, and improves night darkness. Placing a shade above lights lowers needed wattage and expense. A billboard was placed across the road from Ody Brook with two bright lights shining skyward where they light the neighborhood and sky instead of just the sign. Township and city commissions could be elected to implement practices that protect neighborhood darkness.

As dusk changed to darkness, the other three stars forming the bucket of the Big Dipper appeared and a dim star by the middle handle star became visible. That dim star in the past was used to test distance vision and in the military to determine if servicemen were allowed to serve in certain positions requiring keen eyesight.

When the sky was dark enough, dimmer stars of the Little Dipper became visible. Consider the Big Dipper sitting on a level table and it will appear the smaller dipper empties into the larger. Their names are Ursa major and Ursa minor. The seven stars in each do not resemble Big and Little Bear shapes. There are more stars comprising the bear constellations. They are dimmer stars not easily visible in a community lit sky.

The Milky Way crosses the sky from Cassiopeia southward toward Sagittarius, the Archer. The Milky Way is comprised of massive stars arranged in a flat plane like a dinner plate. The flat plate is our galaxy. Stars above and below the plate stand out against the black night sky and are close enough for us to see as individual stars. Most stars in the Milky Way are distant and appear as a fuzzy white band unless one uses a telescope.

Physical evidence only supports that life exists on Earth. New evidence constantly changes science knowledge and facts about universe nature niches. We all “know” life exists elsewhere based on Star Trek and Star Wars. Many believe similar ideas instead of science-based evidence. Atmospheric evidence is adequately conclusive to convince 97 percent of climate scientists that human caused global climate change is increasing and threatening our economy, coastal cities, and agriculture. Validity deniers should ask why they deny despite overwhelming climate change evidence. Is it for personal reasons? Where are your holes in the fabric of space? Is the child with veil and pin real? Forty-nine percent of US citizens deny human-caused climate change. I wonder why?

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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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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