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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

The Sun Clock

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Another ranger naturalist did not carry a watch. To be on time to lead guided walks, Steve Carlisle used the sun to tell time. He asked park visitors for the time to make sure he was on time for his duties. 

Being outdoors daily allowed me to learn to tell time within 15-minutes by the sun’s location. It is an accuracy skill I have lost by not staying in practice. Like lure casting, volleyball, golf, or canoeing, one must stay in practice to be proficient. I carried a watch as a backup tool to meet arrival responsibilities for park ranger work assignments. The watch is more accurate than the 15-minute accuracy I developed by sun watching.

The sun does not rise at the same time daily. It is in a slightly different location along the Zodiac path as the Earth moves around the sun creating yearly seasonal progression. That is a reason weather forecasters post daily sunrise and sunset times. It is the Earth’s rotation that makes it appear that the sun moves overhead daily. 

The Earth revolves around the sun on a 365-day journey. Revolution is responsible for the shift in the sun not rising or setting at the same time daily. It complicates telling time accurately. People living before the sundials or watches, paid close attention to the sun’s position. It helped them arrive home before dark and allowed them to plant crops when it was reasonably safe to avoid killing spring frost. 

Begin practicing telling time by looking at the sun at sunrise and compare it to clock time. Every 15 minutes check your watch and the sun’s position. It is best to practice during the early or late hours of the day. During the evening, start observing one hour before the time weather forecasters indicate the sun will set and check its position at fifteen-minute intervals. Soon you will not need to compare time with a watch.

It is important to use early or late day observations when it is easier to gage the celestial position compared to objects like the horizon, hills, or trees. Those hours allow us to relax and enjoy how the sun plays into our own nature niche activity routines. Enjoy the beauty of changing light on clouds. Notice cloud silver linings and experience colors deepen and change as the sun dips below the evening horizon.

When the sun’s lower edge first touches the horizon, time how long it takes for the ball’s top edge to slip from sight. Always be careful when looking toward the sun. Quick glances are essential. Special viewing glasses are available. You might still have a pair that was provided for observing the solar eclipse. 

Early and late day observations are safest because sun intensity is reduced by atmospheric interference. Its light must past through more atmosphere and suspended particulate matter before reaching our eyes. The sun appears larger during those witching hours because of atmospheric light dispersal. Even more importantly, there are objects to compare with the sun like trees and hills that make it appear larger at that time of day.  

When the sun reaches high noon, it is the same size as when rising or setting but it looks smaller because we lack objects for comparison. Telling time to fifteen-minute increments midday is more challenging without objects for comparison. It can be done but takes more practice. Telling time in half hour increments is more reasonable when the sun does not have nearby comparison objects. It is fun to use the sun in ways that were required by early civilizations. It creates more independence from human tools. Become more self-sufficient. 

Celestial objects were used as maps before paper and ink or cell phone Apps. Free Apps can be downloaded for identifying constellations. They do little to help us understand how to tell time by observing the sun. Apps do not connect us with natural world in a manner sky-watching can for developing time telling skills. Connect with the real world while enjoying the everchanging sky.

Take time to practice telling time using the sun’s position and later use stars to determine where on Earth you are and how to navigate without modern technology. Depend on your skills instead of someone else’s.

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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Window view

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

As evening settled in, I knelt like a kid on the couch and drifted into the wild outside my window. The sun had set but dusk lingered. A large cluster of fleabane flowers decorated the view. Most gardeners would have long removed the plant in favor of something more glamorous. It is my joy to have the fleabane. I should have spent part of the day watching its flowers to meet its visitors. 

Instead of a manicured lawn, the yard is an unkempt marvel of plants and animals. A bird feeder brings visitors that brighten the day. A handful of common species keeps me company. For the serious birder, travel is required to see species other than the common place. I am a common place person with common place birds. It is a pleasure to see the more unusual birds or even common birds like the Gray Catbird that remain in the thickets at yard’s edge. The catbird watches me from thickets as I take daily walks. It often mews or calls a variety of sweet melodies. It has now retreated for the night and is not heard or seen from my window view.

Ragweed populates bare ground around the feeders with blooms that most would not consider flowers. Nondescript flowers producing pollen remain hidden in plain sight as tiny green bumps. Those bumps release massive quantities of minute pollen that irritate the sinuses of untold numbers of people and animals. They will be cut or pulled tomorrow when the sun rises and I make a futile attempt to reduce their “hay fever” effect. 

People tend to blame beautiful goldenrod flowers as the “hay fever” culprit. Its pollen is too large and heavy to be carried far from the parent and seldom enters our sinuses. It falls rapidly to the ground. Insects are required to carry its pollen from one plant to another. 

A large ash tree killed by the emerald ash borers, stands just far enough from the house that it should not cause home damage when it falls. Other ashes whose cambium was destroyed by the beetle grubs have begun to fall. They crumble piecemeal with branches breaking and falling before the main trunk crashes. It has surprised me that the trees are falling so soon after being killed. Other species like elms and cherries stand for long periods after succumbing to age or disease.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird has a couple favorite perches on the dead ash’s branches. The skeleton stands tall above the butterfly garden and provides an ideal location for the hummer to guard the sugar water feeder and nectar flowers. 

My mind has drifted with the sights and sounds of the outdoors without leaving my reading and writing room. The surrounding abundance of life in view from my window offers contentment. Night has crept over the yard. Black-horned tree crickets are trilling their best tunes to call mates in their nature niche. 

A welcome rain dampened the landscape after weeks of dryness. Plants stood stoic during the drought. Their leaves stayed green and coiled in the dryness waiting for a needed drink. Several times I have witnessed the plants response to welcome water after dry conditions. Within a day of roots capturing as much liquid as possible, some leaves and branches turn dead brown while others revive. This occurred with the arrowwood viburnum this week. The plant will live but not all leaves or branches. 

I have never understood the reaction. It appears the plant maintains the appearance of life for all its green leaves until it finally has a drink. Then it rapidly sends vital fluid to leaves able to survive but not to those too desiccated. Those almost instantly turn brown and will be discarded. Plants are resilient. They only keep parts that can be sustained.

From my kneeling perch on the couch, I turned and sat like a proper adult to contemplate the wonders of nature surrounding the house. 

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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Gold Treasures

A soldier beetle. Photo by Ranger Steve Mueller.

By Ranger Steve

The field has turned to gold overnight. The rich value exceeds that of the precious metal many would trade several weeks’ pay to possess. The field transforms itself without the aid of a forger pounding and engraving to human desire. The field knows just what a person needs to lift one’s spirits and hopes. 

Unlike the metal artisan that makes permanent engravings, the field has ever changing beauty that entices us to search its gold flower settings. Its golden surface has creative intricacies of a jewelry artist’s dreams.

After weeks of drought when plants seemed frozen in time, a 6-inch rain soaked deep. Plants greedily took every drop possible to quench a long waiting thirst. Less than half of the goldenrod were in bloom yesterday even though it was past normal flowering season. Today more than 70% are blooming. The waiting burst of gold was not just by plants. Insects of great variety have been on hold in quest of the rich golden treasure. 

Goldenrod’s flowers and pollen are more essential to life than a person’s quest for gold at the end of the rainbow. Like people seeking a pot of gold at rainbows end, insects seek the ephemeral gold of late summer. Many have their nature niche lives timed to its flowering. Bees and other insects seek nectar. The nectar reward is not free. Insects leave with a full stomach but are loaded with pollen they carry to neighboring goldenrods. 

Goldenrod pollen is large and heavy. It does not blow distances in the wind and requires delivery service to transport it to mature flowers. When a golden finch lands on a goldenrod stem in search of a tasty insect morsel, it undoubtedly knocks loose pollen. Instead of easily drifting on air currents to another flower, it falls to the ground. A number of ground creeping invertebrates consume the manna falling from the heavens. 

Pollen eating insects are attracted to the flowers like people are attracted to all you can eat restaurants. Goldenrods like other members of the large aster family, produce in excess to make sure pollen grains fertilize other flowers. Insects at the smorgasbord leave with pollen covered bodies to serve as dispersal agents.

I was told by a honeybee keeper, that members of his profession do not appreciate gold season. Honey bees get rich feeding on goldenrod nectar but the honey produced is bitter. People desire sweeter honey. 

The value of gold is in the eye of the beholder. Bees are joyous with the concentrated fields of gold. Honey connoisseurs are dismayed. I am particularly pleased with the great variety of creatures found among goldenrod. The abundance of monarchs deep golden orange in fields brings happiness to many. Pearl Crescents stand still on flowerheads long enough for us to see the tiny silver pearl adorning the hindwing undersurface at its tail end. The pearl is surrounded by the butterfly’s own version of muted gold. 

One can walk through a field of gold and return home with more golden memories than are possible to retain. It is necessary to share as many as possible at the dinner table before they are lost like nighttime dreams that seem to vaporize by the time breakfast is finished. 

Soldier beetles with gold and black wings find the massive flower heads perfect beds for copulation. Net-winged beetles with their own version of gold and black wing elytra are differently shaped, with the tail end of wings widening to give a triangular appearance. 

It is always good to have a field guide at the ready. Many find cell phone photos useful. Increasingly Apps are able to narrow an identification search to a few likely insects similar to how facial recognition programs are being used. For those of us still more comfortable with paper field guides, we flip pages in books like the Golden Guide to Insects. The Golden Guide is still our version of gold treasure at the end of a rainbow.

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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Everybody is doing something

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Katydids did. Crickets chirp, Chickadees dee dee, doves coo, squirrels chatter, chipmunks cluck, butterflies flash color, bees probe flowers, aphids cluster, ants carry things, moles tunnel, fish splash, and snakes sun. 

We look for excuses to be outside. My skateboarding days are over. Climbing the big pine outback is a memory of days past but I saw a porcupine choose to climb the white pine I once scaled to the top. The prickly mammal was trying to catch some daytime sleep near the trunk but crows objected and announced his presence. 

Every creature is doing something. This year’s fourth generation of Harvester butterflies appeared in mid-August. I thought there were only two generations each year. After adults’ mate and lay eggs, caterpillars hatch to feed on clustered wooly aphids. When grown, they pupate to transform into gorgeous winged insects. 

Each species seeks special nature niche locations to spend days and nights. In a location we refer to as the woodcock circle, the Harvester searches for mates and chases intruders. This past week, one rapidly flew back and forth near sunlit branches. Soon a second arrived and the two tumbled through the air before separating. I wondered if they were two males hoping to chase the other away or if one was female and they would mate. 

One left and the other landed on a leaf where I could observe it had recently emerged from a chrysalis. Bright white circles were on shades of tan and brown wings giving evidence for its newness to the air. After days on the wing, its pattern dulls as it busies itself “doing something.” During its brief adulthood, I take pleasure watching its erratic flight. Without great effort on my part, the caterpillar remains unseen. It spends its childhood camouflaged among wooly aphids on speckled alder. It is hidden from me and the aphids it eats.

A downy woodpecker has taken a fancy to the hummingbird sugar water feeder. The hummers seem to have left the yard after nesting was complete. Where they went to “do something” is unknown. 

Katydids are beginning to tune their wing instrument as they strum their lower and upper wings together but they wait for the privacy of darkness to begin tuning up. These grasshoppers blend well in field vegetation during the day. Unlike butterflies and other insects with straw-like mouth parts, they have chewing mandibles like beetles. They feed on plants. Many beetles are busy seeking insects on plants or in the ground to chew. 

Much of an individual’s life is spent eating a specialized food choice. Food preparation is important. Mud dauber wasps build tubes of mud under overhangs where they will stash a spider paralyzed with a sting. An egg will be laid on the paralyzed meal that the adult will never eat. It is the young that will hatch to feed on the immobile spider in the dark protection of the mud tube.

Most mammals work the night shift. We seldom see their activities. After a day’s rest, they become active in the crepuscular hours of dusk or linger into the dawn. Squirrels and chipmunks choose daylight to scurry through the neighborhood. 

It is always rewarding to canoe or kayak a stream to encounter a multitude of active animals. Belted kingfishers take pause from hunting minnows and small fish when we drift into their hunting grounds. They keep moving downstream ahead of us instead of immediately flying overhead to an upstream location. 

On rare occasions, we see one capture food. Food preparation is a big event. They tenderize fish to eat. I have watched one land on a branch with its minnow and proceed to beat it against the branch for 10 or 15 minutes before swallowing it. 

Any creature encountered will entertain us while “doing something.” Enjoy observing something new each time you “do the something” of watching amazing activities in nature.

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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Campfire

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Backyard fire pit with campfire.

Sparks fly and crackle over quiet conversation. Colored flames mesmerize. S’mores are meant for eating in the dimness of glowing coals. Escaped fires are frightening and destructive. We all lament the currently raging forest fires burning out of control across the nation. 

Campfires instead provide yellow, red, blue, and green flames. Hidden in the flames are stories pulled from life’s memories. We cannot resist the chance to share outdoor experiences from adventures in the wild. I recall flipping in the Pine River’s floodwater one April when snow still covered the ground. We were on an overnight paddle trip. The group stopped to build a fire to dry our clothes while I stood naked in freezing air by the warming flames. Embellished details will wait for campfire sharing. We continued our voyage after the delay.

Campfires have a pleasant aesthetic. They provide a calm for reflection to share the day’s discoveries. It might be the size of the fish that got away, the rainbow of light reflecting from fish scales, or the blood drawn by a fin spine on a carelessly handled fish.  

We have all experienced smoke that follows us wherever we sit near the fire. We ask, why does smoke always follow me? Depending on the wood collected, some fires spark and display more colors or make louder pops than others. Pinewood filled with dried sap pops more than broadleaf tree branches. Green wood sizzles with bubbles oozing from xylem and phloem tubes at the cut ends of the log. 

Dumb moths fly to the fire and hopefully dodge the heat and flames before it is too late. When built in a properly constructed fire pit like those in our state and national parks or state forest campgrounds, we can safely burn. At Ody Brook, we have a fire circle lined with cement blocks. A bucket of water and rake are handy. It is fun to have a good rip-roaring fire with flames shooting high. For that reason, I keep shrubs and trees cut well away from the fire ring. 

As dusk settles upon us, daytime nature niche activity quiets, night sounds amplify, and we calm while gazing into the ever-changing flames. Campfire magic draws us. When the excitement of raging flames burn down, our mood becomes more peaceful when only glowing coals remain. It is best to hold the most intriguing stories until only embers create dim shadows on everyone’s faces. 

When people start fading and blend into the dark forest background, it is time to stir the coals to revive face details. Before dark, cut small shrub stems to make roasting sticks. Use green stems so they will not catch fire when toasting marshmallows. Teach kids to safely handle a jackknife for whittling the point. 

Youths will be anxious to get their marshmallows into the flames only to discover they will catch fire. Charred is not as tasty. Delay getting out the treat until there is a bed of coals. A slow roast allows the marshmallow to expand like an inflatable raft. When it is a puffy golden brown, place it on the chocolate candy bar waiting on a graham cracker. Use the second cracker to free it from the roasting stick. No explanation is needed for what to do next. 

Good luck trying to get kids and many adults to wait for flames to burn down before roasting begins. 

Campfires unify a family camping event. Ground fires often are not allowed in city or town yards but a solution is available. There are portable free-standing metal campfire trays. They have a curved metal disk that sits on a tripod stand. They can be placed on the driveway or in the lawn. The rising heat will not scorch the lawn. Campfires need not wait for infrequent camping trips. Find excuses to enjoy life outdoors with family members.

Enjoy the flames and night sounds. Talk about the wonderful creatures looming in the surrounding tree leaves or among the shrubs at yard’s edge. Insects, birds, and mammals are mysterious creatures watching you.

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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Shooting Stars

 

By Ranger Steve

 

There is joy in the quiet solitude of the night sky. It has taken millions of years for light from some stars to reach Earth. We see light that has been traveling for an extended time and enjoy it during our short presence. Travel time of light is immense while our own lives are brief. 

A shooting star’s existence persists for only seconds. August is the time to lean back to enjoy the sky slowly moving. Stars appear locked in position relative to others. We rely on them to be in the same arrangement nightly. Ancient cultures mapped them and gave names to clusters called constellations. Familiar are the Big and Little Dippers, and the zodiac. Twelve zodiac constellations lie in the plane of the sun’s apparent movement. 

This is the month my sign is said to be “in the sun.” The constellation Leo the lion cannot be seen because it is “in the sun.” Well, not really. It is behind the sun. The stars nightly rise four minutes earlier and creep closer toward the sun. We can observe zodiac constellations a few months prior to them working their way to the sun. 

It will take a year for each Zodiac constellation to make the circuit from being “in the sun” to return to be “in the sun” again. There is a peace and reliability in the sky compared to the frenetic world surrounding us daily. Year after year, expect old friends from billions of miles and light years away to signal all is well. A distant star might burn out millions of years before we discover it is no longer sending light our way. 

Light beams sent before a star burns-out continue the journey long after the star’s life extinguishes. Camp by a dark wilderness lake to experience the brilliance of darkness and contemplate. Will our own existence extend long after we depart? Are we like a distant star that provides stability and reliability that will transcend us?

In the quiet night solitude find life’s meaning and joy while watching stars advance. Pick a star near the edge of a tree’s dark nighttime canopy to the east and one to west. Relax in a comfortable location and gaze into the skies blackness perforated by a couple thousand pricks of light. After several minutes try to locate the selected stars. The one to east will have moved away from the tree. The one to the west will have drifted behind the tree. 

At this time of year, the Milky Way can be seen extending from the constellation Cassiopeia in the northeast toward the southwest. It looks like a ribbon of dim light draped across the sky. The haze of light is comprised of stars but most are too distant to distinguish individually. The galaxy’s flattened arms create a spiral disk. 

When looking at the Milky Way, it is like looking across the broad expanse of a pancake with curved fan blades. Imagine yourself in the flapjack looking up or down through the thin portion from top to bottom. Stars we see above or below are comparable to those we see outside the Milky Way. 

We live in a tiny section of the plate-like galaxy toward its outer edge. Comets orbit the sun and leave behind scattered debris in space. A comet crossed the Earth’s path thousands of years ago. Each August where the two crossroads intersect, the Earth collides with fragments left by the comet. 

The bits of rubble are mostly sand sized. When the atmosphere comes in contact with them, they are drawn by gravity and glow as they heat. Briefly, they produce light as they “fall” toward Earth. They are not shooting or falling stars but that is how they appear. Depending on the size of the object, some glow brighter.  

The peak Perseid meteor shower display concluded on my birthday this week but continues. Its “shooting stars” can be seen nightly. I consider the annual fireworks a birthday celebration. The quiet solitude of night with flashing streams of light brings peace like the rhythmic lapping of waves to our campsite shoreline.

Shooting stars can be seen any night of year but more are seen where a comet left debris drifting in Earth’s orbital path around the sun. It is all part of our nature niche to enjoy.

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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Cloud jumping

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Jumping from a plane into a puffy cumulus cloud was a sensation I wanted. My fear was how would I return to the ground. Would I be stuck forever drifting over the surface of Earth with no way home?

I was at age of discovery but do not recall my age. The story of Jack and he Bean Stalk most likely aroused my interest in cloud jumping. I wondered what was really in clouds? How could I discover nature niche secretes in those moving works of art without jumping into the cottony fluffs? 

Laying in the lawn, I watched clouds come and go. Each comprised uniquely shaped creatures and objects. One was a passing whale followed by an elephant, and then a dragon breathing fire. They weren’t all animals. An ice cream cone was leaning to its side. Warm sunshine caused the ice cream to vaporize and disappear. At some point, I would learn clouds were water droplets that condensed from a gas to liquid on a speck of dust. Later liquid water would evaporate again as the sun’s rays energized molecules back to an invisible gas. 

A smaller group of passing clouds comprised of three birds with wings outstretched were making their way toward a larger cloud that must have been a tree canopy where they could take shelter and find rest. They were not gaining on the tree as they flew. Their wing feathers were vaporizing and disintegrated before my eyes. Each of the cloud birds disappeared one by one and never reached the shelter they sought. 

If I jumped into a cloud, I feared not being able to get back to the Earth’s surface. Had I managed to actually jump into a cloud, I would have discovered too late that I would pass through quickly and end my journey as a splat on terra ferma. I would vanish as surely as the three vaporizing birds.

Using imagination to ponder the world while lying flat ones back develops a healthy mind. Our girls and I discussed creatures overhead. They would point out bears, penguins, houses, clumps of grapes, smiling faces, and dogs. Summer days on family vacations included skipping stones on still water lake surfaces, paddling a canoe across a lake to “turtle bay” where turtles quietly slid off logs, and watching the passing cloud parade.

Peace away from the hustle of life at home allowed us to become an element of nature. We replenished our spirits and souls. Wonderment surrounded us. Later in life, the nature of clouds would be transformed from imaginary creatures to water droplets and our fascination could dangerously evaporate like the three birds. 

The enchantment of drifting clouds from my childhood has not vanished like vaporizing clouds before my eyes. Time with my kids allowed me to relive the passing parade many times over on vacations or on day outings. The girls have grown, moved away and begun families. They can relax and enjoy cloud discovery with their spouses and kids. New clouds and creatures arrive to greet every new generation. Don’t miss them.

Cloud creatures still enrapture my solitude adventures to wilderness locations where time stands still and my mind peacefully wanders. Despite an aging body, my consciousness retains the excitement revealed early in life. We all get lost among responsibilities of everyday demands. Time away from the routine of human-centered activities and technological inventions allows us opportunity to develop a real-world relationship.

I learned stratus clouds quietly drop rain for hours, high cirrus clouds are icy, and noisy cumulus thunderheads startle us with loud claps after jagged bolts of lightning cut the sky wide open. Understanding the science of clouds is important for a number reasons. One of those reasons is so we do not jump into them thinking we will get to explore a hidden world only to discover it will be our last living experience. 

Savor the parading creatures. Take time to recline in wilderness areas alone, with family members or friends. Let your mind drift with the clouds. Rejuvenate your soul and spirit. It happens naturally in wild places away from the distractions imposed by daily demands. The values of wilderness are immense. 

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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Monarch champion and icon dies

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Lincoln Brower, who was considered one of the foremost experts on the iconic monarch butterfly and a scientist who advocated for protection for the declining species, died on July 17 at his home in Roseland, Virginia at age 86, with complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was a key researcher demonstrating that blue jays become ill eating monarchs and learned birds avoid eating them. His research helped build scientific evidence supporting that birds learn to avoid toxic insects in their diet. The orange color is a warning “don’t eat me.” 

Through scholarly papers, articles, and interviews, Dr. Brower illuminated the story of the monarch. Working with groups in Mexico and with the Mexican government in the 1980s, he helped establish sanctuaries to protect crucial fir forests from logging where the butterflies gather in the millions. In later years he said illegal cutting continued. I recall discussing the plight of monarch migration phenomena with him. 

He stated the monarch species has non-migratory populations that live in sedentary populations in the Caribbean islands, Trinidad, Bermuda and South America. Those are not likely to go extinct. Most of the Northern American population gathers in Mexico by the millions for a two-way multiple generation migration unique in the world. He said that would likely disappear in the early 21st century. Fortunately, that has not occurred. In part, the migratory population might still exist because of his tireless efforts to protect it. 

Biodiversity that supports humans and other life on Earth is disappearing piece by piece. Dr. Dave Warners recently stated we are losing 50,000 species worldwide annually. I have seen habitat sampling evidence that supports higher and lower estimates. We do not know the long-term impacts this will have on humans or ecosystems that support us. Lincoln focused research on monarchs but he held a broader view for protecting biodiversity essential for our species’ economic, social, and environmental health.

I write about such things in my nature niche column. They are not my original ideas. Most were generated in previous centuries with additional scientific evidence support being added in recent decades. Dr. Brower was a scientist whose work and evidence helped protect human interests. I hope voters consider the importance of scientific evidence and do not dismiss it because it does not agree with their desires. Most scientists are unwilling to voice political advocacy when their work is referred to as fake news. Lincoln used scientific evidence to advocate protection for the monarch. He said, “We’re too pragmatic in this country, and I think we need to realize that biological treasures such as the monarch are just as valuable as the Mona Lisa.” 

Brower charted the butterflies’ stark decline. Its overall population has fallen by about 80 percent over the last two decades, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. In 2014, Brower placed his name alongside conservation groups to petition the federal government to protect the monarch under the Endangered Species Act. “He was the only scientist who joined the petition–it’s a gigantic deal,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “A lot of scientists shy away from advocacy.” The Endangered Species, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Wilderness Acts are under grave threat by the Trump administration. I encourage readers to voice their opinions to Congressional representatives now. 

Dr. Brower recognized many people relate to human created treasures. Many species comprising Earth’s diversity are not equally valued and are considered expendable. Regarding protection of endangered species, Congress is not protecting the value of Grand Staircase National Monument in Utah where protections were removed by Executive Order last year. By who voters elected, we support the unlawful taking of private property along the Mexican border without due process. I am part owner of North American Butterfly Association property there where the Endangered Species Act has been exempted as a matter of national security. Dr. Brower objected to such taking and recognized personal rights and environmental protection are essential to national security and sustainability. 

I am honored to have known Lincoln and to have been mentored by him personally and through his published works. “Google” Lincoln Brower to discover the authors I used to cull information shared and to read details about his amazing life. Sadly, we have lost a monarch champion and icon. Will you champion monarchs? 

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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Genes and inheritance

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Some male and female organisms look nearly identical. It is not easy to recognize a male and female robin apart. Is it a boy or girl cottontail hopping through the yard? Plants like wild strawberries have both sexes in one flower while others like willows are either male or female plants.

Male and female American Goldfinches look very different in summer but by winter look quite similar. It is the outward appearance we notice. What is hidden from view is the genetics. We can observe the results but the secrets for how genes and inheritance help species survive in nature niches is an ongoing discovery process. 

DNA sequencing has become popular for tracing personal family origins and is a tool for solving cold case crimes. As an ecological tool, molecular analysis aids understanding the evolution of species. 

DNA and RNA analysis has provided great advances toward understanding origins of species. It has also revealed new difficulties to decipher. When I first encountered the Northern Blue butterfly in Michigan, I confused it with Karner Blue butterfly. The two are nearly identical twins in appearance. 

Mo Nielsen immediately told me I did not make a Karner Blue discovery in the Upper Peninsula when I reported one. He said there is no wild blue lupine there that the Karner Blue requires. He instructed me to look closely at the wing pattern to see if it was a Northern Blue. I was unfamiliar with the Northern Blue but that is what I found. It was a breeding colony that confirmed the species as a Michigan resident. The Michigan DNR nongame program provided a grant for me to conduct life history research for this new Michigan species. 

I was not involved with the molecular analysis, but it was found the Northern Blue showed a closer relationship with the Karner Blues genetically than with the Northern Blues of western North America. Outwardly, Michigan Northern Blues look more like Karner Blues than they look like western Northern Blues. 

As scientific abilities become more advanced, we find separation between species is more difficult to assess. We like to think species are distinct entities that are clearly separated. They are not. A key feature that helps define species separations is ecological nature niche adaptations. Species adapt to utilize different food plants and micro-habitats that result to speciation. 

Many species are cryptic. Physically they look alike but are ecologically and reproductively separated. They share habitat but have developed isolating survival strategies that are different from the parent species. Specific isolating adaptations create new species but interbreeding during the process complicates analysis. 

Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted Flickers (woodpeckers) were considered separate species. We planted trees across the Great Plains and the two got together. They mate and produce fertile offspring. The two are now lumped as one species called the Northern Flicker. Interestingly where they live together, the yellow and red do not readily interbreed. This has caused some ecologists to think they should be considered separate sibling species. Others think they are one species with two color forms that reduces interbreeding based on appearance. 

We experience the same difficulty among humans where Danes, Germans, French, Hispanics, and other races live together. Our genes are fully compatible. There was a time when people thought each race was a separate species but DNA sequencing indicates our genetic differences are superficial and too minor to separate humans as different species. The differences are primarily cultural. We are one species that developed different physical adaptations that helped us survive in various climatic conditions. Cultural isolation helped define our races.

Science is supported by physical evidence. It often conflicts with what we want or choose to believe. Our cultural background helps define our behavior. Like flickers, some people like Karen (Norwegian) and me (German) intermixed our genes while others choose to limit relationships to their race and cultural history. 

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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Waxy Bloom

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Hopefully all have enjoyed the beauty of Colorado Blue Spruce trees that are planted in Michigan to enhance yards and businesses. Blue spruces have a white wax secretion on new green needle growth that creates the blue we enjoy. It is not unique to blue spruces but the wax abundance is.

Waxy bloom secretion is common on plants and prevents evaporation desiccation on new growth. It is particularly important for blue spruces in their native western North America’s dry nature niche with low humidity. Needles exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through the needle surfaces to survive. Pores called stomata, where gas exchange occurs, are concentrated on needle undersurfaces in tiny pits. These pitted micro-humidity chambers help prevent excessive drying in the tree’s arid habitat. 

Native plants and animals support healthy Great Lakes Ecosystem functioning. I am not a purist. Nonnative plants are used in gardens and along the road but are kept to a minimum. We enjoy non-natives as do a small number of insects, birds, and other taxa. By limiting non-natives, native species can support large populations of native animal populations. Non-native plants support few native animals and mowed lawns almost none.

Enjoy some non-natives and touch them. Rub your fingers on blue spruce needles to notice the blue changes to green. The wax rubs off allowing green to show without being modified by light passing through the white waxy bloom. Become friendly with trees, shrubs, and other plants you invited to live with you on your property. You hug your kids so don’t neglect the plants you adopted. 

We help, shape and guide the development of our children and grandchildren. Do the same for plants. Prune, shape, and water so they thrive. Non-native plants usually need extra attention, time, support, and work so keep them to a minimum. Plant native species because they do not need fertilizers or much work to survive.

Plants are not the only species with a waxy bloom. Common Whitetail Dragonflies will search your yard for lunch if you allow native plant growth in portions of your home habitat. Keep as much native landscape as possible and mow minimally. Field areas provide a large variety of spring and summer wildflowers that support biodiversity and beauty. They require less maintenance and expense. Mow wild areas once or a few times a year to prevent unwanted woody growth. Dragonflies will stop in for lunch. The “teenager” whitetail dragonflies will find good meals. Colorful species will rapidly zip about and occasionally land where you can view them well. 

As whitetails mature, they will secrete a white waxy bloom that turns the abdomen brilliant white. They are seen in yards but when mature, concentrate in wetlands protecting the best breeding habitat from other males. It is valuable to allow native wild vegetation to grow along stream and lake edges, and by wetlands where they support dragonflies, fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife we enjoy seeing. Weasels turn white in fall and the color helps them blend with winter’s snow. They do not produce a white waxy bloom but enjoy them anyway by providing wild places to thrive in your yard where they will eat mice, voles, and moles.

Explore the feel of leaves. Notice some have a thick waxy surface that is heaviest on the sun exposed surface and thin on the shaded lower surface where microscopic stomata concentrate. The thick wax coating is referred to as a cuticle instead of a bloom. It does not rub off and helps protect plants from being eaten. Many insect feeders chew or suck plant juices from young leaves or needles before they develop a thick cuticle.

The waxy bloom is thin and temporary on new growth. Take time to compare with older needles from previous years that are green with a thick cuticle. Summer’s new blue spruce growth has the bloom that entices us to plant this tree. As fun as it is, do not get carried away with rubbing off the bloom. Make sure you spend time with kids and grandkids that will enjoy the activity. They will remember it better than you. Simple activities in nature develop appreciation and love for the natural world that needs support to prevent habitat loss as our human population continues to grow. Our yards are critical for maintaining biodiversity for future generations.

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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