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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Eagle successes

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Immature Bald Eagle still with white on wings changing to white adult head and tail plumage. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

My father-in-law and I were driving the countryside when we spotted a Bald Eagle eating a car killed deer. This is typical behavior for scavenger birds like Bald Eagles. Fish is a high dietary component. Golden Eagles regularly fed on Federally Endangered Utah Prairie Dogs killed on the highway near the entrance to Bryce Canyon National Park. Eagles were hit and killed while eating prairie dogs. I stuffed two for the park service. Golden Eagles and Utah Prairie Dogs numbers declined dramatically for several reasons as did Bald Eagles. 

People realized Bald Eagles like many species comprising our natural heritage were declining. Dr. Wallace, ornithologist from Michigan State University, recognized a problem when American Robins returned in spring to die in large numbers on the MSU campus where DDT was used. The poison bio-accumulated to a lethal level in robins that ate worms and insects. Rachael Carson in her book Silent Spring enlightened the general public to the veil of doom affecting a broad spectrum of wildlife and human health. Her book included information about DDT presence in human breast milk and other health hazards directly affecting people. 

People and industry tried to discredit Carson with hopes that verified and supported science findings would be ignored. Activities to undermine scientific data continue as is currently prevalent by well-funded protagonists opposing climate change evidence. Successes that limited DDT use and other chlorinated hydrocarbons in our country helped eagles and other species increase populations and reduced human health hazards. 

Rather than directly die from metabolized derivatives of DDT, eggs shells thinned and broke under the weight of the parent. With few young to replace long-lived adults, eagles declined toward extinction. It was thought our great grandchildren would not see eagles. Peregrine Falcons also disappeared from most of their range.

The establishment of the Endangered Species Act created hope for declining wildlife and hopefully would help reduce harmful chemicals in our own diet. With the banning of DDT use in the US, conditions for eagles, falcons, other wildlife, and humans improved. 

This past week a friend and I took a Sunday afternoon drive toward Lake Michigan, along the coast and home. We observed twelve Bald Eagles with most being immatures. The young can be distinguished from mature adults because they lack a white head and tail. The long black wings have white bands extending from near the body to wing tips. Eagles seemed to enjoy playing in wind currents on the bright sunny afternoon shoreline. 

The pleasure of seeing young eagles that hatched from eggs with calcium rich shells brings joy beyond knowing the species is recovering from chemical abuses humans released into the environment. It offers comfort knowing our grandkids and future generations might experience healthier lives if we maintain a safe environment for all life. That is one of the fundamental purposes supporting the Endangered Species, Clean Water, and Clear Air Acts. I envision children in the outdoors watching eagles play in the wind. 

Experience elation when you see an eagle eating its fill on a road killed deer. Eagle numbers are increasing despite well-funded efforts to discredit scientifically supported evidence documenting hazards. DDT is still heavily used around the world instead of safer alternatives. People will continue substantive discussions about current issues like the importance for replacing fossil fuels with long term economically sound alternatives. The change to alternative energy can provide our kids and future generations with a healthy environment that serves food production, stable agriculture, and sustainable environmental conditions for people and wildlife.

Bald Eagles are now a common part of our neighborhood nature niche landscape because we recognized our activities impacted their survival and implemented laws to protect them and our health. Whether it is PFAS, climate change, recycling household waste, or the kind, quantity, and frequency of chemicals we use to treat our yards and gardens, it not only affects Bald Eagle survival, we can protect our family’s health and lives. 

Chemicals help us live well but careful selection with minimal application is essential. We challenge our health and wellbeing along with that of coming generations if we do not take responsibility for eagle survival. 

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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Morning’s first arrivals

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche By Ranger Steve Mueller

Does the early bird get the worm? I recorded the order bird species arrived at feeders or flew through the sanctuary one morning between 7 a.m. and 8:30. I expected arrival to begin shortly after 7 a.m. in mid-February. Table 1 shows the first arrival time for each species on three dates. 

After observing one morning, I thought it necessary to get additional data because one day’s observation might be quite different from other days. It would be good to gather arrival times and the order species arrived for many days to determine if there is a pattern. I would like to have gathered data for 20 or 30 days so it would be more statistically reliable. 

Each succeeding midwinter day, the sun rises a little earlier so it is expected to change bird wake up and activity times. 

With previous casual observation, I noticed Northern Cardinals are among the first arrivals at daylight and last to depart at dusk. The number of birds at the feeders are most abundant midday. Squirrels impact bird use. It seems like birds and squirrels take turns but I do not think it is by choice. There are 18 squirrels that visit and when they are present, birds tend to stay away. As soon as squirrels leave birds come to feed. 

A factor that affects bird activity is foot-candles of light. That is the amount the light produced by a candle at a distance of one foot. More candles produce more light at one foot. As daylight breaks, the area lightens with increased foot-candles of light. Various species become active at different light levels. Some are late sleepers until it is brighter. 

If the sky is clear there will be more light to produce a higher foot-candle luminance. It is obvious that on cloudy days there are fewer foot-candles of light. I did not measure foot-candles of light to compare with bird arrival times. That would be interesting to see how light levels affected early morning bird activity times. 

Another factor that makes a difference for bird arrival is their location in the time zone. Birds living at the same latitude but at the eastern edge of the time zone experience sunrise an hour early than birds living at the western edge. For convenience, time zones are set for a middle longitude and the time is accepted as the same for the whole zone. Birds do not use our clocks. They use foot-candles of light in the area where they live.

It gets light almost an hour earlier on the east coast of North America than it does at the Lake Michigan shoreline. Birds living on the east coast become active earlier in the day. North-south latitudes affect daylight hours. We are familiar with the land of the midnight sun in the Arctic Circle summer and 24 hours of darkness in winter. Here summer daylight is about 16 hours and winter light about 8 hours. Near equator light and dark remains close to 12 hours all year. 

Table 1 shows first arrival time for each species. The arrival sequence is numbered. It was not the same. If I gathered data for many days, it would provide a more reliable record for determining if species have a consistent sequence for arrival.

Outlier data needs to be ignored. It is possible that an individual for a species could arrive unusually early or late for an abnormal reason. Having many days’ data would allow us to see the abnormal and ignore it. Other outlier data I needed to ignore was first arrivals recorded much later in the day. I did not watch the feeder continuously after 8:30 a.m. Arrival times recorded for bird species later in the day most likely was not a first arrival. They might have come a few minutes after I stopped watching at 8:30. Times later in the day are outlier data that cannot be included when determining nature niche activity.

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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Theory and Theory and Evolution

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Nearly everyone knew certain facts as absolute truth but science evidence changed accepted knowledge. Examples of known facts that are no longer accepted: 

*The Earth is the center of the universe.

*Swallows hibernate in winter at the bottom of lakes.

*The sun moves around the Earth daily.

*The Earth is flat.

Facts change as new physical evidence is gathered. Scientific theories, however, are the most supported evidence for understanding how nature functions. They are based on experimentation with rigorous scientific challenges. Science is self-correcting. Scientists challenge experimental methods and conclusions for every finding. Conclusions must be verified with repeatable physical experimental evidence 100 percent of the time. When always supported, the conclusion can be elevated to scientific theory status.

Some supported scientific theories are atomic theory, gene theory and theory of evolution. There is another definition for theory that most people know but it has a different definition from scientific theory. 

Theory in general use is an educated guess. An example is that swallows hibernated at the bottom of lakes. Swallows gathered over lakes in fall, suddenly disappeared, and then reappeared over water in spring. The ancient idea of hibernating in lakes was an educated guess based on what people thought was occurring. Experiments could provide evidence that swallows could not be found in lake bottom mud. Putting a swallow underwater would cause it to drown. Most songbirds migrate at night so their departure was not easily noticed. 

The words theory and theory are different words with different definitions but are spelled the same. It is much like the words: bark (dog’s vocal) and bark (tree covering), bank (land along stream) and bank (financial institution), or bat (flying mammal) and bat (baseball club). Theory (scientific) and theory (hypothesis) are spelled the same but do not have the same meaning. 

I wrote about the two theory definition concepts in a December 2010 nature niche article to help clarify that a theory is not always a theory. In everyday use the word theory means a preliminary idea of what happened. “How did the accident occur”? In science, a theory is the evidence-based conclusion proving “How the accident occurred.” For scientific acceptance, it must have repeatable methods of experimentation. A scientific theory requires physical evidence as proof and is not an educated guess (hypothesis).

When the scientific community identifies something as a theory, it means scientific evidence is overwhelmingly conclusive as the one correct explanation. When new scientific experiments demonstrate a flaw in a theory, the theory must either be discarded or the flawed portion removed from the theory. 

In one of the papers (Rockford Squire) where my Nature Niche column is published, a question was posed to readers: Should creationism and evolution be taught in schools as theories? Readers provided interesting responses. The science and non-science theory definitions were not clarified. Physical scientific evidence verses faith beliefs was not addressed as to what can be accepted as science. 

Physical evidence supports the theory of evolution. Many people accept or reject it depending on the conclusion they desire regardless of evidence or lack of evidence. People often have beliefs based on perceptions without rigorous scientific experimental support. That is typical for politics and religion. Physical evidence usually will not convince people concerning politics or religion. What people want to believe takes priority.

Science and faith can complement each other. Science is about “How” the world works based on physical evidence. Religion is about “Why” the world exists. Faith is belief without supportable physical evidence. 

Should religion be dismissed because it is not supported with rigorous scientific evidence? My answer is No. There is a place for multiple realities that impact our lives. Faith should not be taught as science because it is not based on physical evidence. Science should not be taught as faith because it requires physical evidence.

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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Wildlife Barriers

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

An electric Asian Carp barrier is being used to prevent the exotic fish from entering the Great Lakes where the fish will cause billions of dollars in damage to the economy, disrupt the ecosystem, and likely cause direct death of people by knocking them from boats. 

Constructing the St. Lawrence Seaway and the locks for shipping allowed sea lampreys to enter the Great Lakes and greatly impaired native fish survival and the fishing industry. Chemical treatment of streams is required to kill young lamprey to reduce lamprey surviving to enter the Great lakes. The dams on the Grand River have prevented lamprey from getting upstream from Grand Rapids to reproduce in streams. A plan is being implemented to remove the dams to return the river to its natural flow like it was a couple hundred years ago. Pros and cons were debated and dam removal was decided. Treatment of upstream tributaries will be required. 

The US Department of Agriculture spends massive quantities of money inspecting products to prevent micromoths, fruit flies, beetles, and other invertebrates from entering our country. The money spent is miniscule compared to the economic losses experienced when exotic species successfully establish here. Most of us are aware of the billions of dollars damage the Emerald Ash Borer has caused in Michigan since it arrived in 2002. The list of direct economic impact is primary for most people. The social impact came in second when streets were denuded of trees and beautiful woodlots stand with dead leafless trees. Third comes concern for the loss of native insects and associated birds and mammals that depended on the ash trees for life.

I do not fully understand why the order of concern is money, social, and then ecological. If we protect the ecological, a good economy and good social wellbeing follow. 

A wildlife/human barrier is the center of national concern. The evidence supports a wall will be largely infective for preventing people and drug trafficking into the United States. Most unlawful immigration and drug travel is achieved through border inspection sites. Most everyone is opposed to illegal entry but many businesses hire illegal immigrants because it costs less than hiring legal immigrants and people prefer to pay less for products. 

Scientific studies are providing impact evidence the wall between Mexico and United States will have on wildlife populations. Laws are bypassed to build the wall. The Endangered Species, Clean Water, and Clean Air Acts have been exempted for wall construction. How would you feel if laws were exempted to allow PFAS chemicals in your drinking water? There is a movement at the national level for that but that is a separate issue. 

The border wall harms wildlife populations by eliminating, degrading, and fragmenting habitats. Studies indicated 1506 species of native land and aquatic animals will be negatively affected. Most species have not been evaluated. Sixty-two critically Endangered or vulnerable species listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature will be impacted. This is not only a question of economic, social, and ecological impacts for sustaining a healthy future for coming generations. It is an ethical behavioral decision of our society’s behavior. It is a “me first” verses an “us first” attitude that affects species that share the planet with us.

The more we impair ecosystems, economics hits our pocketbooks and wellbeing. The estimated 80-billion-dollar wall with a down payment of 5.7 billion has been critically analyzed as less effective than other border security measures. That debate continues with evidence mounting against the wall’s effectiveness. 

For wildlife, the wall will eliminate or degrade natural vegetation, kill animals directly through habitat loss, prevent breeding by separating wildlife, erode soils, change fire regimes, cause flooding and prevent animals from accessing water. The physical barrier will prevent access to food, water, mates, and migration routes. If space allowed I could provide information about how studies indicate specific species will be impacted. 

Scientists are urging the US government to recognize and give high priority to conserving the ecological, economic, political and cultural value of the US-Mexico borderlands. They state national security can and must be pursued with an approach that preserves our natural heritage. Our national leader dismisses science. 

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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Wolves of Isle Royale

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Moose were free from large predators from the beginning of the 1900’s when they colonized the island. In the mid 1900’s, wolves were able to cross an ice bridge from Canada to Isle Royale National Park. The danger of moose living in a predator free habitat is that the population can grow to a level causing starvation when food becomes over browsed and depleted. That is evident for human populations in many places around the world. It was a reason for massive Irish immigration to America during the potato famine in Ireland. 

On Isle Royale during the last 70 years, wolves helped keep the moose population from becoming too large. By searching the Internet for Isle Royale wolves, one can find graphs showing moose population fluctuations relative to wolf numbers. A large moose population occurred after someone illegally brought a dog to the island and parvo virus spread into wolves and reduced their population. Later wolf numbers increased and declined again. The limited number of wolves interbred with relatives and weakened their genetic blood strain similar to what occurred with European royalty when they could only marry royalty chosen from a small population set. 

Mating with first cousins is not allowed because of the genetic dangers for the health of children. Where many unrelated individuals live, opportunity allows genes to spread through the population and maintain a healthy population. On the island, wolf gene exchange was limited. Climate warming now prevents ice bridge formation between Canada and the island making it impossible for wolves to naturally come to or leave the island. 

Inbreeding weakens the wolves. A female bore a male and later a female. The declining wolf population was reduced to two wolves. They were the offspring of the female. The male mated with his half-sister. Their offspring did not survive. That male has not been seen for over a year and has probably died. Aerial flights are used to inventory moose and wolf populations in winter. The male could have stayed out of sight but more likely he has died. 

I have wondered about the last remaining lone wolf on the island and how a pack animal handles living alone. Bringing down a large animal like a moose is a pack endeavor. Other animals like beavers are good prey but are not available in winter. Wolves develop emotional relationships with their pack. 

It is clearly evident that when I went away for a week, BeeGee, our dog, was lonely and did not eat for days. When I returned, his demeanor changed. He became excited and joyous in my arrival. Scientists caution us from applying human emotion to animals. BeeGee and I developed a friendship where I was his and he was mine. He was a family dog but, in our case, he and I developed an especially close emotional bond. 

The lone wolf on the island has continued life on her own with no breeding opportunity. This past fall, four wolves were trapped in Canada and released on Isle Royale. One was male and three were female. They are fitted with radio collars that will fall off in two years. Batteries will die before then. At present the collars track wolf movements. The four wolves have remained on the north side of the island. Research scientists hypothesize it is because the south side is occupied wolf territory. That is where the lone female lives. 

The male’s collar stopped moving. His dead body was located for necropsy (autopsy) to determine cause of death. Only three released females occupy the north side of the island and the lone female remains on the south side. More wolves will be released in coming years. Release of 30 wolves is planned. They will come from Canada, Minnesota, and possibly from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to provide genetic variation. 

Some people think that humans should not release wolves, while others think it is essential to prevent moose devastation of habitats that will disrupt the survival for many plants and animals. Human-caused climate change is already preventing wolves from getting to the island. We are a part of nature niches and need to determine how we fit into the natural world scheme. In our yards we determine life and death of species by how we landscape. Our yard landscaping is not wolf management but it is important for the survival of plants, birds, insects, toads, frogs, salamanders, snails, and many mammals. Wild yards are beautiful with abundant life.

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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Kayaking Prentiss Bay

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller


For a decade I organized and led exploration outings during Labor Day Weekend. They were not the wilderness adventures where we camped with no toilets or restaurants. At Prentiss Bay off northern Lake Huron, we lodged in comfortable rooms and had great meals served in a dining hall. 

From early morning until well after dark, nature niche encounters filled our days. Early morning bird watching transitioned into nature preserve field trips from Cedarville and Drummond Island. Lake Huron’s north shore is rich with glacial drumlin islands I have weaved among in a canoe.

To provide tour participants with a new experience, I led interpretive kayak trips. Other naturalists lead canoeing and kayak outings down rivers or in lakes with a focus on paddling skill development or outdoor discovery. I desired to lead a more focused interpretive experience that I haven’t seen done by others. 

My purpose was to help people enjoy kayaking while discovering new aspects about the natural world. I kept participation to ten people. Prentiss Bay has a narrow inlet where water flushes in and out of the bay from the wide-open water of Lake Huron that reaches south to Port Huron by Sarnia. In the bay waves are usually small. Wearing life preservers, I helped each kayaker launch a kayak into calm water with instruction to paddle straight toward a tall white pine where the shoreline curved to the north. Once all were launched and hopefully becoming comfortable gliding across the water, I quickly caught up with the group. 

Upon joining the group, I put my kayak in reverse so to speak. I paddled backwards with my bow facing the group. A small group size allowed me to project my voice so all could hear. Instead of lecturing about the wonders of nature surrounding us, I helped them observe, question, and inquire about our encounters. 

Most obvious was the shoreline vegetation of fall flowers, trees and the impact of deer over browsing. White cedar trees lined the shore with green branches eaten as high as a deer could reach on hind legs. Yellow goldenrod flowers added late season color before deciduous trees ripened with golds and reds. Some maples provided red in wetlands but those on drier ground had not begun to lose their green chlorophyll. I could have spent time detailing the wonders of the life on the shore but beneath us we found richness in the water.

A dolomitic limestone bedrock underlays the bay. Since we were skirting the shoreline, we could watch fish and other aquatic inhabitants. Some organisms crawled along the bottom. Large lumps of bedrock projected from the water. Each was pitted with holes making the surface look like the inside of an egg carton. Hundreds of shallow holes covered rock surfaces. Observers were challenged to determine what caused such microtopography. It did not take long for some to determine that water sitting in small depressions dissolved rock to create pits. People discovered favorite gull perches by noticing whitewash deposits that dissolved rock. 

At the north end of the bay, I led the group through reeds projecting above the water surface. I knew what they would encounter as we glided through the plants but they did not. I let them know there was no danger. We could see easily through stiff pointed green grass-like stems to the shoreline. Water movement in the shallow water caused the firmly anchored plants to wave to passing birds.

It wasn’t long before our explorers were voicing anxiety about spiders crawling on the kayaks and on them. I assured them these spiders were not capable of biting them but many were still uncomfortable in the presence of arachnids. We pondered how the numerous spiders established residence on the scattered reeds far from shore. 

Green darner dragonflies hovered, darted, and fed among the offshore greenery. Many other waterway life form encounters enriched our experience. We reached the inlet to Prentiss Bay where we needed to cross to our landing. Waves were mild but larger than we had encountered. I had kayakers line up beside my kayak so mine would break the waves to make it easier for them. My kayak lessened wave height and with others in a row beside me, they could paddle calmer water. It was a good plan but each year it never worked. People were not able to hold their position. Regardless, they enjoyed the interpretive outing and no one dumped. 

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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Christmas Bird Count 2018

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Thirty-six field observers and five bird feeder watchers saw 58 species of birds (Table 1) on December 29, 2018. 

Total individuals sighted were 6,909 compared with last year’s 6,161 but both years are down from the previous two years when 9,342 and 11,246 were sighted. A number of variables might explain the lower numbers during the most recent counts. Weather conditions were not dramatically different on count day in those years. There were more count participants during the two years with higher sightings. 

I have not calculated the number of birds sighted per observer hour but that might partly explain the variation in numbers of birds observed. More counters provide better section coverage and hopefully additional eyes improve the number of sightings. Encouraging greater participation could help increase both numbers of birds and species seen. 

Partly cloudy weather began the day but clouds increased to full overcast as the day progressed. Temperature was nearly constant between 26º and 29ºF. There was little snow coverage but enough to whiten the ground. Still and moving waters were mostly open.

We totaled 56 hours in vehicles traveling 495 miles. Sixteen hours were spent on foot covering 17 miles and 10 hours at feeders. A combined total of 512 miles was on foot and driving. Groups totaled 83 hours of daytime birding. There were 16 birding parties in the morning and 12 in the afternoon with 5 feeder watchers.

In the predawn, 14 miles were traveled during 2.5 hours with successful owling to find four Barred Owls and one Great Horned Owl. 

Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center (WWC) co-hosted the count with our club. We appreciate use of the facility as our base station. Visit and enjoy the WWC trails and perhaps you will get to see the Evening Grosbeaks. This species has been rare in our region for several years. 

Mark your calendars for December 28, 2019 to participate in the 2019 Christmas Bird Count. It will help you see several species that you probably will not regularly see. It will provide an opportunity to be outdoors with people that will assist with identification and locating birds in their nature niches to make your day enjoyable. Participants can attend for part of the day to the entire day. 

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 Growth


By Ranger Steve Mueller

Kids change as they grow. Some change more than others. 

Monarch butterflies are worm-like creatures when they’re kids but as adults they have bright orange wings with black veins that serve as rigid support between a thin, scale-covered membrane that allows them lift for flight. Its growth process is referred to as complete metamorphosis with an egg, larva, chrysalis, and adult form. Milkweed bugs that feed on the same milkweed plant as monarchs, appear much like adults with the exception that adults develop wings that lay flat on their backs. The youth are called nymphs and have gradual metamorphosis from egg to nymph to adult instead of egg, larvae, pupa or chrysalis, to adult. 

When an aphid comes out of the egg it looks like a tiny version of the adult like the milkweed bug does. The aphid has a sucking mouth part, six legs, oval body, and two tiny spike-like projections rising from its rear end. Its eyes and antennae are like those of the adult’s. It sucks juices from a plant and grows, it will shed its outer skeleton that protects fragile inner body parts as it grows. A new soft skeleton forms inside the more rigid outer one. The rigid one splits allowing the insect to escape the old and the new soft one will expand with air before it hardens allowing room for internal growth. The shedding of exoskeletons will continue as the aphid grows to adulthood when it can reproduce. Gradual metamorphosis results with kids looking similar to adults.

Wooly aphids grow in a similar manner but secrete a waxy white covering over their bodies that hides their appearance. They live in masses like the more typical aphids you might see on plants in the garden or even on plants in your home. Many people have learned to use mild soap water to remove aphids from leaves if they are abundant enough to cause leaf wilting. Soap is a better alternative than insecticides. 

The woolly aphids are a chosen food for harvester butterfly caterpillars. The small butterfly is about the size of a nickel when wings are folded over its back and it lays eggs on alder shrubs where the wooly aphids live. When the egg hatches, the caterpillar crawls among aphids covering its body with the waxy secretion made by aphids to hide among its juicy prey. It has three tiny pairs of legs at its front end and fleshy prolegs farther back on its body that are not true legs. They are fleshy projects that help it move its worm-like body among the aphids it eats. Fluid is pumped in and out of the bulbous prolegs to make them function like legs. 

The harvester has a leathery exoskeleton that will split allowing the insect to crawl out when it gets too tight. The new one will expand from internal air pressure before hardening. When ready to transform to the winged reproductive adult, its growth process changes dramatically from that of an aphid or milkweed bug. It will form a chrysalis under its final caterpillar leathery skeleton and wiggle out of the youthful protective covering.

There it transforms to the winged adult. When the inner body transforms from a caterpillar, it will emerge from the chrysalis with tiny soft wings and a large liquid filled body. Fluid from the body is pumped into hollow veins of the wings causing them to expand like flat plates. The fluid hardens in the veins providing wing support needed for the butterfly to fly through its neighborhood to mate and lay eggs for new generations to continue.

The aphid and milkweed bug have gradual metamorphosis where the youth look much like the adult. The growth of insects that transform with a dramatically different appearance like bees, butterflies, and beetles is complete metamorphosis. A third type of metamorphosis is called incomplete and is seen in insects like the dragonflies where young are dramatically different from the adults, are called naiads, and lack a pupal stage.

Dragonfly naiads live in the water with a body form significantly different from flying adults. The kids breathing apparatus and mouth parts are uniquely adapted to different habitat nature niches than the air flying adults. The naiads are active in streams during winter. Incomplete and gradual metamorphosis are sometimes lumped together with only having egg, nymph/naiad, adult stages. They are different enough to be considered separate forms of metamorphosis. Insects with gradual metamorphosis live in a similar manner to adults as opposed to the greatly different life style of those like dragonfly kids and adults with incomplete metamorphosis. Insect kids grow with gradual, incomplete, or complete metamorphosis. 

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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Armchair Naturalist

By Ranger Steve Mueller

I am becoming more of an armchair naturalist and I expect other senior nature explorers are finding that necessary. I appreciate the inquiries and well wishes I have received. On bird count Saturday I planned to arrive for the intro and head home for a family day celebrating Christmas with relatives. I became quite ill Thursday and could not start the bird count. By Sunday, family convinced me I needed to go to hospital emergency at 10:30 p.m. I had been doing well for three weeks but I spent most of our family gathering in bed ill. Bummer.

The good news is I am rebounding on disgusting drugs. I spend more time birding from my window and saw a male Cooper’s Hawk on January 1. Good start for 2019. My friend Greg Petersen drives us to good birding locations. I continue with productive work even though I am limited in too many ways. I am working on completing Bryce Canyon National Park moth research with specimens I brought home for study and hope to complete the project this winter and present results at University of California Davis in July. There are still several field studies in progress. Like other people, I have too much to complete to die soon but cancer might dictate other plans. We each have our own health issues, whether it be heart, diabetes, or one of the multitude. Mine has a different name but yours might be as challenging to contend with. My best wishes for you for 2019 and hope we each make it through another successful, productive, and enjoyable year exploring nature niches.

When first diagnosed at age 47, survival expectations were 1 to 3 years. My multiple myeloma cancer is not curable but treatments can prolong life. I had ten years of smoldering MM before I was disabled and unable to continue employment. I needed a walker because of 7 spinal fractures and now can walk again. My skull is riddled with holes and bones are brittle. I now have ten fractures and getting out of bed can break bones. My last break was the fibula when I stood up during a butterfly survey. With the two bone marrow transplants and the current clinical trial, I have exceeded the survival mean. Survival is now 7 to 8 years. A couple others have been in the program as long but I am in the top survival group. Doctors count from when treatment begins and consider me in year 11. I count from diagnosis and that is 21 years. I have made it to age 68 and University of Chicago hospital oncology staff regularly comment on my longevity. My message is, work to stay positive and continue productive work that is meaningful for life. Chemo is important but I consider support received from you and my work in the sanctuary to enhance biodiversity equally vital. 

Though Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary is our private property, we open it for visits. I have always disliked “No Trespassing” signs. We ask people to call or e-mail to let me know when they would like to visit and we request respect for creatures whose homes are entered. Donations to assist with biodiversity enhancement are welcome. We have not charged people for access like a business and we are not a tax-exempt nonprofit. We pay for projects with my pension and I hire youth like people hire high schoolers to shovel their sidewalks. Volunteer assistance is welcome. V&V Nursery across the road has allowed parking for sanctuary access.

People are welcome to walk the sanctuary on their own or with me if timing works. Walk the 1.5 miles of trails where I have placed interpretive signs and perhaps hear the Barred Owl or see the Red-tailed or Cooper’s Hawks. Wild turkeys might show themselves. My hearing has gotten poor from chemo and age so I appreciate help from those that hear birds. If you are only up to birding from a stationary location, come and enjoy the dozen + or – bird species we see at our feeders. I watched a Pileated Woodpecker from my window as it drilled a fifth hole in a cherry tree last week. A Great Blue Heron was flushed at the creek a couple weeks ago.

We are not a nature center with a primary mission of natural history education. I was director at both the local Howard Christensen Nature Center in North Kent County where I encourage you to become a member and at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center in Lowell. Visit Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids. All provide family and school education programs. Here at Ody Brook our mission is biodiversity enhancement but I lead special focus group programs for a fee.

Enjoy what works for you and the family when exploring the wonders of nature. Bird, insect, and wildflower explorers, deer hunters and anglers are important for helping people learn better ways to enhance biodiversity so a healthy future is present for coming generations of life. 

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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Extinction of meaning

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A new year with new hope. Experiencing the fullness of the outdoors has been a constant theme for my nature niche articles. I will write my 500th article for the newspapers this year and many are archived on line. One needs experiences in nature to fully appreciate the natural world that supports us. Getting outdoors with family, friends, children, and grandchildren to spend time with all creatures great and small is essential. 

Essential for what? That discourse will go far beyond the space allowed. Suffice it to say, “Creation Care is Essential.” There is an inalienable right for us and other species to live without us threating many with extinction. We each do our best to live and thrive. With that comes responsibility to live within our means. 

When we excessively use natural resources such as coal, we threaten our own wellbeing and existence. The fundamental question I encourage we ask is, do we live in a manner that shares the world responsibly with the 30 to 50 million species that sustain healthy ecosystems? Dr. Dave Warners, from Calvin College, along with many scientists have informed us that human activities are causing 50,000 species to go extinct annually. There are practical scientific reasons why this should be prevented but they carry little influence with many people. 

Bryan Pfeiffer recently wrote an essay titled the “Extinction of Meaning” with a focus built around the Poweshiek Skipperling. I asked Bryan if I could use excerpts from his article but limited space available for my column does not allow me to do it justice. Please go to his website www.bryanpfeiffer.com to read his article. He concludes, “Without the skipperling, the prairie will be a prairie depleted. And so, will we ourselves be depleted — not just of a butterfly gone forever, but also of a loss of human awareness and restraint, an extinction of what it means to love and live responsibly with nature.” 

Bryan writes, “Ecosystems provide us with tangible “services” to which we can assign dollar values: mangrove swamps and barrier islands protecting us from coastal floods or storm surges, for example; forests sequestering carbon and easing the climate disaster; or even value in the peace of mind we find in the good company of wildlife. These notions don’t find much traction in the Trump administration. What good is a butterfly that doesn’t turn us a profit?”

The Poweshiek skipperling occurred in the annual NABA Michigan butterfly count reports until a few years ago. It is still found in a few other Michigan sites and Great Lakes Region. The species has disappeared from nearly all sites in its range and likely will be another of the annual 50,000 species to pass into oblivion. 

Butterflies and moths have been a focus of my professional research and there is much to be learned. When I began research in southern Utah, 25 butterfly species were documented for the region and my work increased the known count to 72 species. I discovered a new species of virgin tiger moth that is named Grammia brillians

In our region there is are also many unknowns waiting discovery. I found a breeding colony of Northern Blue Butterflies and the Michigan DNR immediately listed the species as threatened and provided a nongame grant for me to conduct life history research. I found its caterpillar feeds on a Michigan threatened plant species called dwarf bilberry. My limited work on Isle Royale added two additional species to the list of known butterflies in the national park. The point is we are not aware of the inhabitants that share the world with us. 

Bryan wrote about the Extinction of Experience and Meaning stating: “What worries me more is that most Americans know little of — and care even less about — the spectacular natural diversity surrounding every one of us. We are ignorant of the rainbow of warblers — dozens of species — passing through in migration each spring.”

He further quoted my friend Bob Pyle, lepidopterist, writer, and conservationist who refers to “extinction of experience”—our estrangement from the familiar. “If we do not know what lives next to us, we will not notice when it’s gone.” My hope for the new year is that every one of us will have personal experiences discovering the natural world around us. Those experiences will develop into meaning that leads to Creation Care. Have a Happy New Year of discovery. My column will highlight nature occurrences that I hope helps us explore 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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