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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Nesting records

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Many species are nesting though it might seem early because it looks wintery brown. Rabbits, mice, shrews, and other mammals are producing families despite the cold, dreary brown pre-spring appearance of neighborhoods. Bald Eagles, hawks, and owls have eggs or young in nests. The timing for predatory birds to have young in the nest is linked with the other species young leaving nests. February eggs in the nest is normal.

It is important adults find enough food to supply rapidly growing young with nutrition. A young owl or hawk that hatches first gets a head start on growth. If the first hatched is satisfied with a full stomach, other birds in the nest might get to eat. When this is not the case, others go hungry or might be pushed out of the nest by the larger sibling. When predators are searching for prey it is good when many of the prey’s young are just out of the nest. They are easier to capture and can be abundant. 

Population replenishment is better when one owl or hawk survives than for two or three to die of starvation. When prey populations are doing well the predator population can do well and produce more than one young. 

I have observed a Great Horned Owl fledge three young. Bravo! Normally, I encounter nests haphazardly by chance. Birds have a good knack for hiding nests. One March I flushed a Horned Lark and noticed it left a nest. I sat nearby waiting for its return. When it came back, it landed a distance away and sneaked through the vegetation on foot to the nest where it continued incubating. I noted behavior and other interesting details.

The next day, three inches of snow covered the landscape. The adult bird kept the eggs in its well-hidden nest warm. I returned to observe the nest until the two young ventured into the world on their own. I numbered that nest 1971-2 in my journal. It was the second nest I found that year. When I encounter a nest and note it in my field journal, it receives a number that follows the year. If I observe the nest repeatedly to monitor development and nesting success, the nest number remains the same, but the new date and activity are documented. For 1971, I had 65 separate nest discoveries. 

Interesting observations are recorded that hopefully will add to our understanding of bird ecology. Last year I found a Yellow Warbler nest with six eggs. At Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Center, I found a Wood Thrush nest with five eggs but one was not a thrush egg. It was a Brown-headed Cowbird egg. 

Cowbirds have a nature niche adaptation to follow bison that were constantly on the move grazing prairies. By laying eggs in other birds’ nests, cowbirds can continue to follow bison eating insects stirred by the bovines. Cowbirds were not a natural part of Michigan’s European pre-settlement wildlife communities. When we reduced the forest cover, cowbirds expanded their range. The adventive establishment of cowbirds to new habitat created survival risks for many bird species. 

Young cowbirds are raised by the parasitized species adult. Often the baby cowbird pushes the parent’s eggs or young out of the nest and will be the only bird to fledge. I removed the cowbird egg from the thrush nest and set it on the ground for a chipmunk or other small mammal to discover and eat. Hopefully a cowbird adult did not return to lay another egg in the thrush nest. 

It is good to avoid nests for a number of reasons. A mallard cracked an egg when it rapidly flushed from a nest when people approached. Eggs left unattended might be preyed upon or lose heat needed for development. Walking to nests can create a scent path that predators like raccoons or opossums use to find nests with eggs or young. Rarely do I monitor nests. I note what I discover and hope the bird successfully raises a family.

I note the species, habitat, nest location, tree species used, height of nest among other details such as behavior. Nests records are entered to ebird and will be available for others to review the what, when and where for bird nesting well after I am dead. You can become a part of citizen science data gathering and add it to ebird. 

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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Enhancing community health

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Nick Sanchez, our district forester with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is sharing a cost-effective incentive to help protect our health, stream health, ground water, and air quality. A healthy community depends on people caring for themselves, neighbors, and community. The program available was included in the Farm Bill in 2014 that Congress approved.

Nick states, “Trees have many benefits. They provide food and a home for wildlife, and even help keep your family happy and healthy! Did you know that trees filter dirty water and keep our topsoil from washing away? Trees also help store water underground, preventing flooding in the spring and low levels during summer drought. Even the shade from trees provides a benefit, keeping streams clear and cold, ideal for fish like trout! Planting trees along a stream provides big benefits and we want to help you keep our home rivers clean and healthy for your family, fish, and other cool wildlife!” 

He would like community members and farmers know about the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. A representative from the Rogue River Partners came to Ody Brook to enlist my advice for protecting the quality of the local environment for the benefit of people and wildlife. 

Nick would like all to know, “Conservation partners have teamed up to bring farmers and forestland owners access to a unique pool of funding to help them take actions on their land to help prevent soil loss, and to create and improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Rogue River and Indian Mill Creek watersheds, a 250 square mile area in northern and western Kent County. Financial assistance is available now to help you plant: filter strips, grassed waterways, cover crops, and riparian forest buffers, as well as many other options to help in this effort. This special opportunity is available through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) over the next four years. Call Matt Soehnel, NRCS District Conservationist, at (616) 942-4111 ext. 3 for more information!” Programs are available for others besides farmers. Give Matt a call to learn how NRCS can help you be a good land steward in your neighborhood. 

I receive requests asking me to address the PFAS groundwater issue, the water mining issue impacts on wells and wetlands, and other pressing issues. I could write an article a week on issues for the entire year. Environmental quality for our lives depends on sound science-based data being scrubbed from the EPA website. Information is being censored to downplay the impact of human caused climate change that is degrading the environment. The long-term cost of anti-environmental policies threaten a sustainable economy, our health, and future generations. Scientific data supported by decades of research is not “fake news.” 

I encourage people living in the Rogue River Watershed to take positive action locally to enhance the health of the environment that supports our physical and financial health. First contact the NRCS at the number listed above to learn what you can do on your property and in the community to enhance the health of our neighborhoods. Second contact your US Representative and Senators to protect environmental laws established in the 1970s that are currently on the chopping block. They protect a sustainable economy and our health. Both actions are important for your family. The current administration is working to remove Water, Air, Endangered species, and Wilderness Act protections. Such actions will allow a return to things like PFAS dumping that was stopped decades ago. Things like the PFAS contamination that occurred prior to the federal environmental protection acts could result again if laws are dismantled.

It is less expensive to protect the environment that supports our livelihoods and health than to try to clean it up after we discover it is injuring our health, killing people, and causing economic hardship such as lowering home and property values. Contaminated fish and wildlife affects their health. It makes them dangerous for us to eat.

Nature niche health for fish, bees, birds, and mammals ensures healthy conditions for people. The triple bottom line of economic, social, and environment stewardship protects your family’s future. 

 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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Enjoying the beauty

A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched in the branches of a Weeping Holly tree.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Imagine a bird slightly smaller than a cardinal with a brown crest that it can raise or lay flat on its head at will. It has a black “lone ranger” mask outlined with white “eye-liner” surrounding the black. From head towards the tail, its russet brown head subtly grades to an olive brown on its back to gray wings and rump. On the gray wings are tiny splashes of red on the secondary feathers next to the large primary wing feathers. It appears these smaller wing tip feathers have been dipped in red wax. 

The light golden brown on the head, back, and chest, transitions to become lighter and changes to yellow on the belly and sides. The yellow belly gives way to white under the tail. The tail above is gray with a rather abrupt change to a black crosswise band near the tail’s end. The terminal end has a bright yellow band. 

When the bird stands on branches, it is more erect than many birds. One often expects birds to stand horizontal with head out front and tail protruding backwards like a robin. A cedar waxwing posture angles from head to tail at an angle steeper than 45 degrees. Its black mask provides a penetrating look even though it eyes are quite hidden in the mask. 

Waxwings became a favorite beauty for me in the 1970s because their brilliant colors blend in a manner that creates a gentle over-all appearance that must be studied for details. The beauty of goldfinches, cardinals, and blue jays grab our attention with flamboyance. Cedar waxwing colors are vivid but hidden in plain view among subtle transitions.

Even their calls are someone secretive. They have a high-pitched simple call that I can no longer hear. The calls are not meant for me anyway. The waxwings travel in small to large flocks where they cluster in trees and maintain vocal contact. This morning I saw a half dozen together with four eastern bluebirds. Last week I saw 100 together. 

During the winter, they seek shrubs and trees with berries. As I waded a stream one early summer during a mayfly hatch, waxwings fluttered from tree branches to snatch mayflies in the air like one expects from a flycatcher. 

For today, no bird equals the beauty of these avian wonders. Tomorrow, next week, or month, a different species might claim the title as “my favorite.” Our choice of favorite depends somewhat on where we live and observe. When I was a ranger at Bryce Canyon National Park for nearly a decade, the Green-tailed Towhee provided hidden brilliance of blended colors similar to what we experience with waxwings here.

Use a bird field guide to study the patterns, shapes, distribution, and habitats of moving beauties that come and go in yards. I am an old guy and still prefer to hold a book in hand. An Internet search provides hundreds of outstanding photographs for each species. You could while away the day with beauty on the computer screen but for me it does not match the joy of seeing these neighbors in real life. 

Your outdoor yard is the place to be or at least view from a home window. To attract cedar waxwings, provide for their needs by planting viburnums and other native berry producing shrubs and trees. Waxwings are not attracted to bird feeders. They seek yards with choice berry shrubs and insects. 

It is nice to see a dozen species that visit bird feeders daily. A yard and neighborhood planted to meet bird nature niche needs provides opportunity to enjoy the beauty of 50 to more than 100 species. Enrich your life by inviting birds of beauty by landscaping for wildlife. 

Hope to see you this Saturday, March 24, at the Howard Christensen Nature Center for the Modes of Animal Behavior program at 9 a.m. 

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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Bird nest boxes

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It is time to clean nest boxes. Bird behavior announces they are claiming breeding territory. It is beautiful music to our ears when we hear the variety of songs in our neighborhood. In bird neighborhoods, songs announce property boundaries and call for mates. 

Within a given breeding territory, appropriate nesting space is essential. Many species require cavities in hollow trees. People have a habit of removing dead and hollow trees for a variety of reasons. To maintain adequate cavity nest opportunities, install nest boxes in a variety of habitats. 

Most well-known are Eastern Bluebird and Tree Swallow nest boxes. If not placed well they are taken over by House Wrens or House Sparrows that frequently kill bluebirds and swallows. 

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center, I made sure the nest boxes were a considerable distance from shrubbery. When placed in open areas, the House Sparrows and House Wrens usually did not interfere with the open field nesting species. Tree Swallows compete with bluebirds for nest boxes. That problem can be reduced by placing two nest boxes within 15 feet of each other. A Tree Swallow that claims one box does not allow other Tree Swallows to use the nearby box. The swallow will allow bluebirds to use it. In effect the swallow protects the bluebirds from being driven out by swallows when two boxes are placed near one another.

Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary’s field has experienced plant succession with the invasion of native shrubs and trees. The shrubs have driven swallows out and bluebirds have not used some boxes meant for them. We have begun clearing shrubs and trees from the field to create more open habitat. Hopefully we will once again entice swallows and keep the bluebirds nesting here. In one area where bluebirds stopped nesting, I cleared an area around the nest box and the next year bluebirds began using the box again. 

Birds like Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and White-breasted Nuthatches nest in cavities in wooded areas. I place houses in the woods for their consideration. Birdhouse boards are often about a half inch thick. We have placed predator guards on the boxes. It is an additional board that makes the entrance hole about one inch deep. Animals, like raccoons that reach in, cannot bend their leg to reach the eggs or young birds. 

The boxes are placed in locations away from heavy human traffic. When close to human activity, birds are often alarmed and leave the nest box when people approach. It interrupts egg incubation. 

Many designs offer selection options for nesting. The entrance hole size is important to prevent unwanted species from entering. Sometimes wrens, that are smaller than bluebirds, enter and kill bluebirds. Instead of a round or oval opening, a rectangular slit is used. It allows the bluebird to escape instead of being trapped by an invading wren. If an entrance hole is too large, European Starlings can enter and kill resident birds. 

Last year’s nest material should be removed from boxes so birds can start fresh with new materials that are fungus and parasite free. Cleaning nest boxes removes health hazards like mice turds or bird droppings. Wear rubber gloves and a facemask for your own protection when cleaning nests. Mice often occupy nest boxes during the winter and they can carry diseases to avoid like Hantavirus. 

One time near the edge of an invading forest, I found Southern Flying Squirrels using one of the nest boxes. Having lots of nest boxes provides opportunities for many species to nest. It is a joy to serve nature niche needs for a diversity of animals. 

Carrol Henderson wrote a book titled Woodworking for Wildlife. It is available from the Minnesota DNR. It provides the plans for making different wildlife nest boxes. If you haven’t cleaned nest boxes this spring, I recommend completing the task before the end of March. Install more boxes to provide nesting cavities.

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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Modes of Animal Behavior

 

Ranger Steve will present an interactive program addressing audience questions about animal behavior and will share stories about experiences with animals. Displayed animal mounts will provide attendees the opportunity for close examination of animals. This popular program includes audience participation for asking questions of personal interest. The presentation will last one hour. Time will be provided before and after the presentation to explore displays and ask additional questions. 

Program: Modes of Animal Behavior

Location: Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC), 16160 Red Pine Dr., Kent City, MI 49330

Date: 24 March 2018

Time: 9 a.m.

Cost: $3 per person (HCNC members free) 

Presenter: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

You can become an HCNC member that day and waive the program fee. Many activities are provided at no additional cost throughout the year for members. 

Enter the main entrance for HCNC and park near the Welcome center. Walk the Ranger Trail to the Red Pine Interpretive Center past Tadpole Pond. Handicap parking is available next to the building by entering the service drive north of the main entrance. 

Bring family and friends for a great Saturday morning to enjoy learning about animal behavior. 

Ranger Steve was director at HCNC for 20 years before becoming director at Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center in Lowell. Prior work included being a ranger naturalist at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah; college instructor at Bemidji State University, Brainerd Community College, and Jordan College; Chief naturalist for Morningside Nature Center in Gainesville Florida; and a middle and high school teacher in Dry Ridge Kentucky, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Manistique, Michigan. 

Currently he is the sanctuary ecologist at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary where he guides management to enhance biodiversity. He writes a nature niche column for newspapers and conservation organization newsletters. 

His varied experiences provided opportunity to learn in many ecosystems across the country with opportunities to experience close encounters with animals he studied. He has discovered a new species and range extensions for species in remote areas that lacked adequate study. 

Directions: US 131 north from Grand Rapids to Exit 104. West on M-46 (17 Mile Rd.) about 6 miles to Red Pine Drive, north on Red Pine Dr. about 3 miles to HCNC. Park by the Welcome Center and walk trail to Red Pine Interpretive Center. Consider staying after the program to enjoy some of the 7 miles of trails. 

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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Sensory Overload

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

A winter walk brings one close to a great variety of sensory experiences. Each species of tree and shrub as unique buds. Take a close look and notice bitternut hickories have yellow buds with no protective scales to protect the delicate embryonic leaves waiting to expand during conducive spring weather. The new leaf cells were formed last summer. When sap flows, it will enter the leaves expanding them like a water balloon. For several days the plant will grow necessary cell contents that support plant needs. 

Nannyberry viburnums show evidence of two different shaped buds. One will be long and narrow. The other will have a swollen bulb at bud’s base. The swollen base contains the embryonic flower cluster ready to emerge. 

Red and silver maples have red globose buds that are among the first flower buds to open in early spring. The hazelnut flower buds are noticeable during winter. They are long tan catkins similar to those found on birches. It flowers before the maples and is wind pollinated instead of depending on more efficient insects to carry pollen. They have successfully reproduced at Ody Brook over the past 40 years. I knew of two shrub clusters years ago. Now there are several surrounding the parent plants and others scattered in distant locations. 

We have more squirrels than desired, but they might be what planted hazel nuts in distant locations. 

We enjoy watching the squirrels and I do not mind them eating seed meant for birds. Perhaps I should only have squirrel proof feeders. A main reason I do not want too many squirrels is they feed on bird eggs making it difficult for birds to maintain stable or growing populations. 

Birds will soon be changing into breeding plumage and adding sparkle to yards. The American Goldfinch is a people’s favorite yard bird because males dazzle us when they change from dull olive winter plumage to bright yellow with a black cap. It is ready for a stage show but it is the female it must impress. Take time for a close look to enjoy its gradual color change in coming weeks. 

The warm mid-winter thaw stimulated several birds to sing. I was shocked one year when I heard a high melodious song in February. I thought it was a warbler here unusually early. When I followed the sound and located the bird, it was a secretive bird that stays here all year. A Brown Creeper was singing. They remain obscure and have a thin down curved bill used to eek insects from bark crevasses on large tree trunks. They fly from high on one tree trunk to the base of another and work their way up to repeat the process to the base of another tree. They blend with tree bark and are easily missed. An intent look is essential to notice them. I have yet to find one’s spring nest that is built between loose pealing bark on dead or living tree trunks.

Bird songs may tell us spring is just around the corner, but this week light fluffy snow piled on dead wildflower heads in the field. Sunrays sparkled through the crystals before they melted and were lost forever to observers. Along the creek, water rose a foot during the previous week’s winter rain and snow melt. Now water had subsided to a low flow but raised twelve inches above the stream were suspended ledges of ice that froze on the surface when water was high. Ice ledges extended from the bank. Sawblade teeth ice edges hung in air above the creek. Ice from the middle over the creek broke and fell in to the stream. Suspended ice remained a few days. Had I not taken frequent outside ventures to enjoy the world of nature niches, I would have missed great pageant of wonders that vary daily close to home. 

Recently the temperature reached 48 F and dropped 30 degrees in one day. On the warm day, I found a twelve-inch garter snake on the trail ice. It was lethargic and moved slowly when I picked it up. I moved it about six feet and set it on snow free ground next to fallen log. Weather forecasters had informed us a cold snap was on the way. I hoped to help the snake avoid freezing. I wondered if moving it disoriented it. Would it find its way to the underground shelter it came from or be able to take shelter under the log? I hope my assistance helped. Enjoy having your senses overloaded by taking beautiful winter outings.

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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Kittiwake in flight

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

This photo shows black-legged kittiwakes at nest on Staple Island, Farne Islands, Northumberland, UK. Photo from Wikipedia.

The search was on for a bird along Lake Michigan’s shoreline at Holland State Park and Lake Macatawa. A birder spotted it and posted the rare sighting on the ebird website. It drew bird watchers from great distances to see a bird in Michigan that normally is found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

This rare sighting of a black-legged kittiwake in Michigan was seen and photographed by Carl and Judi Manning, on February 2, 2018, on Lake Macatawa, in Ottawa County. Photo from ebird.

The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small gull that breeds in the far north where it nests on cliffs. It migrates south over the oceans where it commonly stays far out to sea and out of sight of shores. It flies over the oceans in search of small fish and squid near the surface and sleeps floating on the water. 

Sometimes a young bird will venture over land and ends up at the Great Lakes. This winter, one has been present at Lake Michigan where it was found among hundreds if not thousands of gulls. This juvenile bird, when found among the gulls, can be distinguished by having black feathers along the leading edge of the wing. 

When in flight, the dark feathers appear as a dark inverted V along the front wing edge. The bird’s wing bends in the middle causing the black band to make the V shape. If the wing were held straight the black band would be straight. When standing on ice, the gull’s dark line is straight on the folded wing from shoulder to wing tip. The young kittiwake has dark feathers on the back of the neck and a dark ear patch behind the eye. 

It is a distinctive pattern but finding the bird among massive numbers of Ring-billed and Herring Gulls is not an easy task. Three of us armed with spotting scopes were scanning through untold numbers of gulls at Lake Macatawa where this rare visitor to the Great Lakes was last seen. Other birders were present with scopes and binoculars hoping to see this individual without taking a boat trip into the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. 

While searching through the gulls, we were fortunate to find both the Greater and Lesser Black-backed Gulls that are uncommon birds here. A Bald Eagle flew through the area. Long-tailed Ducks and others were present.

Apparently, the kittiwake is finding adequate food to survive but the winter is not over. Will there be enough small fish near the water’s surface to meet its needs? At least near shore it can dive to find some mollusks or aquatic worms. The Great Lakes are probably not ideal habitat for its nature niche. No small squids or other oceanic species from its normal menu will be found. 

Perhaps the species rarely comes to the Great Lakes because of the long over land flight or maybe those coming do not survive to return to breeding grounds and their genes are removed from the gene pool.

We saw the Kittiwake flying back and forth with gulls on a cold, windy day, when the temperature was in the single digits. We were warmly bundled but our feet were chilled. We discussed why the birds were flying back and forth in what appeared to be a waste of energy. They were not feeding or even flying near the open water surface where they could find food. Burning energy for no useful purpose could be deadly.

When I got home I posed the question to Karen and she offered a reasonable answer that had not crossed my mind. She suggested the birds might have been chilled in the very low temperatures while standing still on the ice. Flying takes energy like any physical activity and warms the body. 

Flight will consume stored energy that might be needed later but for now the bird will not get hypothermia and die. Staying alive until tomorrow is a priority. Hopefully finding food will replenish consumed fat tissue. Gulls will visit garbage dumps or restaurants parking lots where people drop food. Kittiwakes do not. If they do not find enough food in the lake, they perish. 

It is fun to see an unusual bird visiting Michigan, but it is dangerous for it to be away from habitat for its adaptations.

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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Hidden mountain lion

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Warnings signs encourage people not to hike alone in Zion National Park because a mountain lion might kill a lone hiker. I read about the occasional person being killed by a mountain lion. In a mountainous area near Denver, a woman had a home daycare where a cougar tried to take a child from her fenced backyard. The woman sprang into attack on the lion that grabbed a child. She successfully fought off the animal with bare hands. Neither she nor child suffered life-threatening injuries. Not all stories end as well.

A cougar researcher employed by the forest service lived in Alaska with her parents. From their home, she cross-country skied a regular route. Predators pay attention to such behavior as part of their hunting strategy. They plan ahead in anticipation for where they can secure prey.

Evidence of the young woman’s death indicated she suddenly picked up her pace before being taken from behind. It must have been horrifying for her parents to find her when she did not return home. Her father mourns the loss deeply but said she died researching the species she loved. They do not fault the cat for its nature niche life style and said their daughter agreed. 

I reluctantly share such stories for fear they will frighten people from being outdoors. It gives people a reason to want large predators removed from wild places. In the case of the daycare, homes were built in wild country. It is still extremely rare for lions to attack people but it is an everyday occurrence for people to be killed in car collisions. We should fear being in car more than being taken by a lion. 

Safe hiking precautions are advised in lion country. One of those precautions is to travel in groups instead of solely like the girl in Alaska. I like long solo hikes. When alone any mishap could be life threatening. Traveling in groups is always safest. I follow most safety guidelines except when it comes to solo hiking. 

Karen drove me to a remote area in Zion National Park where I departed on a 10-mile hike through wilderness to the Virgin River. A sign advised against hiking alone because lions inhabit the area. The sign is meant to protect the park service as well as the hikers. There have been no lion attacks on people or pets in the park. 

When hiking alone in the backcountry, I need to be especially cautious. My senses must be on high alert. I must be ready for the unexpected at all times. For the lion country hike, I carried my hiking staff for safety more than for balance. When I approached trees near the trail, I looked for a hidden cougar waiting to pounce from above on a lone hiker. I was not fearful, anxious, or worried. I was pleased to be where I needed to use my senses to the fullest. It was wonderful to be a part of nature instead of being apart from nature. 

My hike did not end in tragedy. My greatest fear was that if a lion killed me, the lion would be killed because I made myself available for its meal. The lion has more right in its home than I do. My death would be my fault and responsibility if a cougar attacked because I hiked alone. I feared putting the lion’s life in danger.

Keep in mind that you are safer hiking alone in lion country than driving to it or even to the grocery to get your meal. It is more likely you will be killed or injured traveling to wild country in your vehicle than while enjoying the splendor of the outdoors on foot. Hidden mountain lions should not be feared. Hike with another person or in groups to reduce vulnerability to all dangers.  

When I worked at Bryce Canyon National Park, our youth summer crew camped in a remote area where they worked. They got water from the pond where a lion visited to drink. They enjoyed seeing and hearing the lion. There was never a conflict incident. 

Head to lion country for a safe hike. Hopefully, you will survive the more dangerous road trip getting there.

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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Old Books

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

My bookshelves are filled with old books. Authors shared riveting human connections with animals. I grew up at the edge of a city and ventured to wild country two blocks away. That countryside had scattered fallow farm fields nestled among active croplands in a flat open landscape that stretched for miles. 

I read fiction stories about dogs, a boy, and their adventures in the wild but my experience was hunting quarry in the fallow farm fields. The quarry was butterflies, frogs, and a lone big tree that could be climbed. I resorted to fictional books for connections with large wild creatures that did not live in my neighborhood.

This duck is known as a surf scoter. The male’s strong head pattern earns the species the hunters’ nickname of “skunk-head coot.” Photo from audubon.org.

By middle school age, I was reading non-fiction about animals and developed a sense of purpose to share the world with them rather than usurp it from them. I had yet to become a naturalist or spend time in truly wild places. By age 15, I was working during the summer at a Boy Scout camp, living in a tent, and exploring wild woodlands at the scout camp. 

The world of discovery unfolded as I followed animal trails, stumbled upon deer bedded in bracken ferns, and found a skeleton that challenged me to determine what caused the animal’s death. I still have that deer skull and bones I found in a bog in 1962. I determined it got mired in the muck and could not free itself. It is a prized possession I often show visitors. 

Early connections with nature developed mostly through exploratory adventures. As my curiosity expanded, I needed help. Books became important. I bought my first nature field guide when I was 15. It was a late start. My exploration was limited to places I could reach by walking or biking. I had an opportunity that many kids did not. Our family took a trip to western national parks when I was eight and again when I was twelve. 

It was on one of those trips I decided to become a park ranger. I needed to absorb as much nature niche knowledge as possible. I did not know how to study wildlife. New books have the latest information and field guides have improved in many ways. The newest books are concise with great photographs but many do not retain the flavor of old books that have detailed observational descriptions written by early authors. 

I was told recently that books are a thing of the past because technology has made the information available electronically. I disagree; books are not a thing of the past. Most old books by nature writers are not available like popular novels for MP3 players or other electronic means. Old natural history works that can be held in hand contribute a foundation for present day books. They can often be found inexpensively for sale online.  

I just read a great new engaging book titled “American Wolf” about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, but old books like Adolph Murie’s about wolves are indispensable and not available electronically. Old books give us perspective for how our current knowledge developed. They offer extensive descriptions of animal behavior and the author’s personal relationships with their surroundings. 

Perhaps authors had long hours by campfire light to write details of the day’s events. Today, we have daylight 24-hours a day in lighted rooms if we want. We can lodge in motels and seek entertainment after dark. We do not need to spend hours by firelight writing. Motels, TV and internet were not available to Lewis and Clark as they worked their way west describing species and recording detailed descriptions of the landscape. 

Edmond Way Teale, Sigurd Olson, Ann Zwinger, Henry Beston, John Muir, John Burroughs, Ernest Thompson Seton, are some authors that will take you on journeys like you have never experienced. Old books take you into historic wild places. Henry Beston’s wrote about the skunk coot in The Outermost House. I could not find the old name in recent books. I have an old 1904 bird guide that pictures them. They are now known as surf scoters. Old books are not a thing of the past. They are a connection to the past and are a wonderful read. Let their stories take you into the wild country.

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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Winter Bird Sightings

by Range Steve Mueller

 

What species were present or absent during the Grand Rapids Audubon Bird Count on 30 Dec 2017? No gulls were seen. Only two other years during the 31 years I have coordinated the count were gulls absent in the Kent County Count area. Carolina Wrens have become regular since the turn of the century but were only seen 7 times between 1953 and 2000. 

Both the White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows were rare sightings during the 1900s but the white-throated has been sighted most of the past ten years. I suspect some sightings might have been misidentifications like the 15 Chipping Sparrows sighted in 1992. It is highly unusual for one Chipping Sparrow to be here in the winter and 15 is not likely. 

Evening Grosbeaks were seen most years between 1970 and 1990 but were absent before and after those decades. Red-winged Blackbird populations were high during the 1960s and their numbers have declined dramatically since. I conducted a spring blackbird nesting survey in 1970 and have never again seen the density of nests I found then.

Bird populations fluctuate for many reasons. Blackbirds have been sprayed with a chemical used to cause death so they do not compete with humans for crops. Climate change is impacting bird distribution and altering survival chances. Seasonal winter weather fluctuations (different from climate change) that are warm, cold, snowy, or dry influence bird annual distribution.
Fifty-six species were seen (Table 1) by 41 field observers and 2 bird feeder watchers. One Winter Wren and one Eastern Towhee were recorded during count week. The three days before and after count day are reported separately from count day species. Count week sightings document winter presence in the area but are statistically evaluated differently from count day sightings.

Total individuals sighted was 6,161. That is down considerably from last year’s 9,342 and almost half the number sighted (11,246) two years ago. Travel conditions and weather were unexpectedly good. Only light snow fell in the morning and the sky cleared for the afternoon. 

We experienced 80 percent cloud cover in the a.m. and 20 percent in the afternoon. Temperature was between 7 and 15 F. A steady NW wind was 8-18 mph. Snow cover depth was 4 to 12 inches. Moving Water was partly open and still water was frozen.

We totaled 65.5 hours in vehicles traveling 529 miles. We spent 14.25 hours on foot, covering 16.75 miles and 9 hours at feeders. A combined total of 545.75 miles were on foot and driving. Groups totaled 88.75 hours of daytime birding. There were 16 birding parties in the morning and 10 in the afternoon, with two feeder watchers.

In the predawn, 11 miles were traveled during one and half hours looking for owls.  

Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center (WWC) co-hosted the count with Audubon. We appreciate use of the facility as our base station. Visit and enjoy the WWC trails. 

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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