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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Hidden singing locations

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A pair of Eastern bluebirds in Michigan. Photo from Wikipedia.

Some birds sing from locations that are easily visible but many remain hidden from view. There are benefits for broadcasting their songs from undercover. 

Two primary functions for bird songs are territory establishment and mate attraction. At selected times during the day or for some species night, males travel a circuit near their territory border to “sing their hearts out.” The song is unique for each species and announces to other males to stay away. It is a vocal “No Trespassing” message. Territories vary in size from year to year depending on population size and abundance pressure. 

Males for most species arrive from migration before females to establish breeding territories. The first ones returning seek the best breeding habitat and generally are successful in defending it. They are challenged by other males and sometimes are driven out but that is not typically the case. Some males do not migrate as far south and this provides the opportunity to arrive at selected breeding sites earlier than other males. 

There is a disadvantage to not going to a more distant winter habitat that might have more suitable weather and food. If the winter is severe, individuals that stay farther north might not survive. Black-capped Chickadees are primarily permanent residents but there are southward invasion movements. The population appears to shift south from Canada. The ones at our winter feeders could be summer residents farther north. 

On a sunny February day, the rise in hormone levels circulating in blood generates a behavior change. We hear the chickadee’s two-note song from both easily viewed locations or hidden in thickets of winter shrubs and forests. The song has one higher whistle followed by a lower note. Typically we hear the chick-a-dee-dee-dee call all year. The call helps them keep track of each other and holds bands together when they are out of sight. Notice several chickadees travel together and often travel in association with other species. 

In March, we begin to hear another songster that repeats its high-pitched song that makes me think some beautiful voiced warbler has arrived too early. Instead it is a bird that is here all winter but generally stays out of sight. It is brown and well camouflaged. It flies to the base of a tree and spirals up the trunk looking for insects in hidden bark crevices. The Brown Creeper sings from hidden locations high in trees. When spring leaves expand, the male is more easily hidden from view but a female will be able to locate it with a little effort. 

Predators seeking hidden birds for a meal need to work hard to find them and the birds become silent when they see or sense danger. The hidden singing location enhances survival chances. Many of the beautiful warblers are unfamiliar to most of us because they stay out of sight when singing. Most of the 30 or so warblers nesting in Michigan’s lower peninsula are not easily seen but can be heard. Other warblers move through on migration to more northerly nesting locations and sing their way through the state giving pleasure to our ears. 

Some of the thrushes like American Robins announce a presence in view but are often hidden. We mostly see them tilting their heads as they listen and look for meals in our yards. Others like the Common Wood Thrush, Veery, and Hermit Thrush are harder to see but are easily heard singing from hidden forest locations. Eastern Bluebirds are more easily viewed because they nest and claim territories in more open areas from visible perches. The more brilliantly colored Indigo Bunting nests in shrublands and sings from high shrub or tree perches. Not all birds remain hidden when claiming territory or announcing locations to attract a mate. 

When we consider how many species thrive in our region, it is a relatively small number that are easily viewed singing. Enjoy the serenade that is most prevalent from late April to early July. I am not particularly good at bird song  recognition but take pleasure in the variety, pitch, volume, and vocal range of avian singers. I had excellent hearing but it has diminished with age. I still hear many. I know where to seek birds in their nature niches and now am mostly a birder by sight. It is more challenging so it is good go birding with others that can locate birds by sound. They help me locate singers in hidden locations that I could not find by sight alone.

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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The Art of flowering

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

An abundance of flower beauty graces wild areas during April. By May many spring flowers reach peak blooming. Trout lily faces shine bright yellow. From the backside of the flower, there will be three yellow and three brown petal-like structures but from the front all are yellow. The flowers nod toward the ground on cane-like peduncles above their light and dark green mottled leaves that also have reddish brown patches. During the second week of April, the first had burst into bloom. By the last week of the month, they are in peak flower along with the spring beauties that started blooming just prior to the trout lilies. 

Bloodroot is an early spring bloomer. Photo credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia.

The same day trout lilies began sharing their beauty to attract insects, bloodroot white blooms began their show but they lose their petals almost immediately. It seems they would not attract insects quickly enough to reproduce but they continue to thrive. It is likely few seeds survive. Breaking ground in the same location annually indicates they sprout from underground over-wintering rhizomes. 

In wet lowland areas, spring cress flowers open with pink petals that rapidly whiten. Nearby marsh marigold leaves expand around a cluster of flower buds that will be among the showiest streamside blossoms. 

Flowers stand at the end of stem-like structures that expose them in proper manner for reproductive advantage. Depending on the specific supportive structure, it might be called a peduncle, rachis, scape, spike, umbel, or something else. Details interest ecologists because they distinguish methods for effective fertilization and seed production. No room here for term definitions but flower guide glossaries and pictures will clarify.

The supporting flower structures are not what captures our immediate attention nor do the essential parts. Inside the flower are found stamens, pistils, or perhaps both that are essential. They are essential parts required for successful reproduction. Often they are relatively inconspicuous but produce pollen and eggs. Even from a distance they can draw attention. The early flowering silver and red maples create glowing red treetop hues.

The pollen is produced by an anther at the top of a thread-like filament and together they are termed a stamen. The filament holds the male reproductive anther in a position for releasing pollen where and when needed. Plants like the marsh marigolds found in sunny wetlands, have a large number of stamens but not all release pollen at the same time. Those toward the outer flower reach maturity first and their pollen is less likely to land on the female part that is ready to receive pollen at the same time. This helps prevent self-fertilization. Insects arriving at the flowers bring pollen on their bodies that promote cross-fertilization and better genetic vigor. By the time inner anthers release pollen, the female portion has been fertilized and self-fertilization is prevented.

For many flowers self-fertilization is prevented by male and female parts maturing at different times. The stamens typically are arranged around the female part located at the center of the flower. Anthers are sometime bright yellow or red and add to floral beauty. On willow shrubs the gray fuzzy pussy willow buds of early spring have their own special beauty. Later they yellow when catkins release pollen. Notice female willows do not have yellow catkins. The plants have separate sexes and in that manner insure cross-fertilization. Plants with separate sexes are referred to as imperfect and flowers with both sexes are referred to as perfect. 

The female organ, called a pistil, is composed of three parts. At its base the ovary contains eggs and sits on the receptacle at the end of the stem-like structure supporting the flower. Reaching above the ovary is the style that lifts the stigma into position for receiving pollen. The stigma is the upper surface to which the pollen sticks. Pollen digest their way through the style to the ovules in the ovary where they fertilize them and become seeds. 

The essential stamen and pistil are aided by accessory parts that insects and we most appreciate. The accessory parts are sepals collectively called a calyx and petals are collectively known as a corolla that attract pollinators like bees, flies, beetles, and butterflies. Flowers have nectaries that produce sweet solutions attracting insects. Some produce attractive or foul fetid scents that draw specific pollinators with unique nature niche 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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50th Earth Day April 22

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve

Earth Day is a time to celebrate nature niche natural wonders. Observe and ponder the importance of species sharing the world with us. Hazelnut catkins began releasing pollen in late March. It is in the birch family and is a shrub currently releasing pollen. Several trees like silver maple have been shedding pollen and expired flowers are falling. Gray fuzzy pussy willow buds were evident before the end of March. Mourning Cloak and Eastern Comma butterflies were flying from their secret winter hibernation seclusions. 

With April’s arrival of comfortable warm days, sharp-lobed hepaticas were harbingers of spring with white and purple blossoms. At the same time Golden-crowned Kinglets were feeding on insects in shrub thickets. On April 5 I saw the first Spring Azure butterfly that emerged from its overwintering pupa. The first Field Sparrow with plain gray breast, pink bill and legs arrived in the forest edge aspens and ventured among field shrubs. 

While life forms work to meet the challenges of daily life, environmental protection law enforcement was suspended by President Trump in response to Covid-19. No negative aspects from environmental protection warrant suspension of law enforcement to protect people from respiratory ailments. The Clean Air Act helps protect people from air pollution that worsens health conditions. From the beginning of his presidency, he has looked for ways to abolish environmental protections that have been put in place during the last half century. By directing the Environmental Protection Agency not to enforce laws he is trying to stop protections Congresses created to protect Americans. He has not suspended enforcement of laws for agencies like the Departments of Treasury, Military, and Transportation. Polluting industries can now stop monitoring and reporting dangerous air and water pollution. They could even be exempt from penalties for violating pollution limits.

We should consider why challenging President Trump’s policies is important. Many of his policies do not support long term economic and socially sustainable health to “Keep America Great”. 

Environmental organizations like the Natural Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, and many others are suing the Trump Administration for taking illegal and unwarranted actions that endanger human health and the natural world that sustains the economy. Nature niche articles focus on protecting ecology and sustainable conditions essential for the health and wellbeing of present and future generations of people, wildlife, and plant communities. The president feels environmental laws are not necessary and found Covid-19 as an excuse to cease enforcing laws that protect our health, economy, and environment that keep our nation productive. Data and scientific findings demonstrate environmental protections improve the industrial, social, economic complex. The laws create a healthier society but he is ignoring both science and economic advisors. Pollution abatement protects family health and household economic prosperity. 

Trump policies are devastating to the efforts begun with leadership in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, republicans, democrats, and the president for the first Earth Day 50 years ago. Massive efforts to undermine environmental protections by the Trump Administration are a way to overwhelming the courts with lawsuits that will take years or decades to resolve. Many conservation organizations are challenging Trump policies in court.

There are two primary points for addressing the 50th Earth Day in a nature niche article. One is to encourage people to contemplate the importance of enforcing environmental laws put in place by past Congresses and past presidents. Hopefully readers will investigate the impacts of current policies and discuss them with others. Protection from things like PFAS is important but President Trump does not think drinking water protection merits law enforcement. The second is to promote enjoyment of the natural wonders and take responsibility for Creation Care. Recognize your personal role for the health of family, society, and economy that depend on a healthy environment. Pollution prevention is less expensive in health and money than to clean up damage.

Watch trout dart from hiding under logs in streams when you approach banks. Cherish the golden yellow of marsh marigold blooms. Enjoy the splendid taste of wild strawberries. Protect future environmental health.

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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Relive Nature Experiences

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Pictures, family stories, and journals are a way to relive experiences. During this time when we are on lock-down and expected to stay at home, get out the albums and vacation journals to remind you of outdoor times with family. Each family member will recall special events and the whole family will spark memories. 

Spring is a great time to begin noting observations in a journal. Someday, you or a family member will enjoy reading the observations and they will bring memories to the forefront. Experiences disappear in brain recesses but are ignited when read in journals. Many would otherwise be lost forever. Some of our experiences follow.

This month we witnessed a Tom Turkey displaying at Ody Brook to entice a hen. Once a Tom turkey saw me as a real turkey at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, approached and mated with my boot. Another time I received a Michigan DNR call inquiring if I had seen any turkeys lately. I participated with them in the reintroduction of turkeys in the Rogue River State Game Area. By odd chance the night before the call, I saw 70 turkeys cross the road in the game area as I drove home. I had not seen any for quite a while and by good fortune saw many that night. My dad referred to such things as a result of “living right.” 

Once when we were driving home from my grandparents in the 1950’s, we saw a Great Blue Heron with a broken wing. We took it to the humane society with hopes they could help it survive and recover. 

At Petoskey State Park on a chilly day we put our inflatable boat in the water near the swimming beach. People were not swimming in the cold water on the pleasant breezy day. My oldest daughter who was about 8 or 9 was rowing in shallow water. An offshore wind was blowing her “out to sea.” To no avail, I instructed how to row to shore. When I saw she was getting into deep water, I realized I needed to swim to rescue her. It was frightening to swim in 40ºF water over my head. If I recall correctly, I shed pants and shirt so they would not weigh me down. I swam in my underwear and once I got to the boat and put my arm through the rope, I relaxed. I no longer thought I could drown. People on the beach were anxiously watching and I figured someone would get help if I got into serious trouble. I pulled her to shore and all was good including the memory.

Some events are positive and some negative but nearly all are a pleasure to recall and discuss at family gatherings and enjoy in retrospect. 

When I have encountered black bears in wild places, they have run from me or at least ignored me and went about their business. Once on a hiking trail in Grand Tetons, two cubs crossed the trail in front of Karen and me with the sow trailing behind. We stopped. We saw two people approaching from the opposite direction and we feared they would walk between the mother and her cubs. I called to the people instructing them to stop until the bear passed. They refused to stop and trudged on without concern. If the bear attacked them to protect her cubs from potential danger, it is likely the bear would have been killed by the park service. 

I began journal writing in 1962 and now I am entering data in Volume 52. In 2011 I began entering natural history observations directly to a Word document with each volume corresponding to the calendar year. I keep Excel Files for many daily sightings for easier organization. I can look up Ody Brook flowering dates, bird sightings, butterfly occurrences among other nature niche happenings. My natural history studies are recorded along with family explorations and substantive thoughts. Hopefully my grandkids and great grandkids will find pleasure reading of times long past. They will learn new things about their parents and even things about themselves. I am transcribing my handwritten journals to Word Docs and get to relive events. It is a joy. 

As a young person, I thought in my old age I would be able to relive experiences via my journals and pictures when unable to physically explore remote wildernesses. We recall family outings when we get together. One person’s memory jogs another’s. Ask family members about what they recall and everyone can relive favorite experiences. Keep making new memories but take joy recalling those from the past.

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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Deadly Alien Beauty

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Recently a Cedar Springs Post reader submitted a picture of a deadly beauty (reposted this week). When I first saw the plant in a ditch a few decades ago in front of a home, I thought about planting it by the road at Ody Brook to create a winter visual barrier. It is Phragmites that grow tall. I learned it is a deadly alien beauty.

This photo was taken recently on 22 Mile Road between White Creek Ave and US131 near Sand Lake. Someone painted many of the plumes various colors. Photo taken by Cherri Rose.

The plant hid Moses when he was a baby and saved his life but in our native habitats it is deadly.

Phragmites has a healthy nature niche across the ocean in Egypt but here it is a killer costing a large amount of money, time, and energy from natural resource agencies and volunteers to control it in wetland habitats. 

It is an example of a pandemic species like those I wrote about in last week’s article. Phragmites do not support native species and eliminates them from habitats. It crowds out cattails and other native plants that are residences for many insects supporting Red-winged Blackbirds, Marsh Wrens, and Song Sparrows. Muskrats food and shelter building materials are lost. Minks and otters lose muskrats, fish and crustaceans from their diet. 

This beautiful plant causes significant harm to the wetland ecosystem, causes human economic damage, and interferes with production of a food source many people desire. It reduces fishing opportunities. Phragmites control is completed by a variety methods that include draining wetlands and use of herbicide chemicals. 

The Kent Conservation District (KCD) expends a majority of time, effort, and money assisting farmers and other landowners to manage family property and businesses. Among other work, it supports best practices for agriculture, livestock, and animal waste control to prevent contamination of streams and lakes. It facilitates grants to help families manage woodlots. The additional work necessary to control species like Phragmites that kill massive numbers of native species goes unnoticed by most. KCD helps prevent environmental pandemics. 

The Cedar Springs Public Schools had an actively used outdoor study site along Northland Drive with a portable outdoor classroom. The primary teacher facilitating the program retired and site use diminished. The Kent Conservation District was recently instrumental in controlling Phragmites that established in the ditch along the road and threatened survival of native species on school grounds and the outdoor study site. 

Last week I mentioned there are 180 pandemic exotic species causing havoc in the Great Lakes. Many alien species are doing damage in our yards, communities, and public lands. Much of the native timber harvest comes from land owned by private community members. State and national forests are managed for timber and wildlife resources that support local economies. Preventing establishment of pandemic species is essential work.

Many people do not realize the economic and social impacts of human caused introduction of exotic pandemic species into native habitats. Recent laws, 50 years late, address control of ballast water from ships that release exotics into the Great Lakes. Single focus short term monetary interests, often supported by industry, undermine long term community health and sustainability and negatively impact environmental health supporting us. 

The current coronavirus pandemic onslaught devastating the human economy, social structure, and environment is systematic of occurrences in native ecosystems in our neighborhoods. Most do not have the immediate effect of the virus on people but they threaten the long-term sustainability for our communities for future generations. 

Many people do not embrace the importance of human caused climate change that is driving major problems that will flood continental shorelines to a greater extent than the highwater problems occurring in the Great Lakes. Large cities will be flooded and displaced. This will dwarf the problems caused by the covid-19 outbreak. Better leadership from the president and administration is needed to address climate change and the impact it will have on controlling pandemics.  Our role is to require elected leaders to protect environmental conditions that sustain our communities and family heritage for a healthy future. We need elected leaders to focus on inclusive economic, social, and environmental nature niche sustainability of to insure a healthy 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.

Visit http://cedarspringspost.com/category/outdoors/ranger-steves-nature-niche/ for last week’s article.

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Pandemics in Nature

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The beautiful purple loosestrife is an example of a non-native species that causes a pandemic loss of life in nature to natural species by crowding them out. Photo by Linda Wilson University of Idaho Bugwood.org.

When a species causes massive illnesses or deaths to members of another species, a pandemic is the result. Some that cause obvious and immediate economic harm receive widespread attention. The emerald ash borer that arrived in Detroit in 2002, spread rapidly killing ash trees in a widening radius. It cost communities, businesses, and private property owners billions of dollars. The financial burden gained human attention. 

The loss of an ash tree’s life did not result in the same concern caused by the loss of a human neighbor or family member to coronavirus. The death of people in China has not disturbed people in our region as much as the death of people in Washington state. People contracting the disease in Michigan created even higher concern. This is perhaps because we recognize the virus might personally make us ill or kill us. 

When the concern is not likely to kill us personally, we do not elevate actions immediately. The emerald ash borer spread as a pandemic through forests killing most ash trees. The beetle likely arrived in wood pallets and moved to live trees that had not developed evolutionary defenses. When native species are investigated and tested by other species, they develop defenses through co-evolution. One tries to feed on the new food source and the other tries to prevent being fed upon. If successful both survive by developing ecological adaptations. 

The sudden appearance of a species from another part of the world adapted to feed on a similar species, might find easy pickings when introduced to exploit a region like occurred with the ash borer. People lost trees in their yards, forests lost timber that could have been harvested, and cities found public land full of trees that presented public safety hazards. The general public took notice because of economic and safety concerns.

The loss of life of an individual tree in the yard does not bring a similar emotional response that comes with the death of a person dying next door. When the borer beetle pandemic spread, few people realized the impact on forest economics for other species. It closed the tree “restaurants” used by hundreds of other species similar to how human restaurants closed. Tree bark was home to mosses and lichens that lost their residence like business owners might lose their residences. 

People are not well attuned to the economic, social, environmental impacts that result from the successful establishment of exotic species. The stock market would fluctuate more greatly if we did. The American Chestnut blight caused economic harm and adversely affected businesses in the early 1900’s. Dutch elm disease in the 1950’s created similar devastation and had the added danger from DDT used to control the vector beetle that carried the killer fungus. Economic stress cannot be separated from environmental impacts that result in social harm that undermines community health and sustainability. Many economic woes can be traced to inadequate environmental policies. Sound environmental laws protect our economy and health.

Pandemic loss of native species is caused by more than diseases. Beautiful flowering species like purple loosestrife crowd other species from wetland habitats and remove ecosystem foundations essential for maintaining community health. Basically non-native loosestrife removes grocery stores, banks, apartments, construction warehouses, hardware stores, and pharmacies in wetland habitats needed by native species. Invasive species simplify the community and bring about instability. The long-term impact eventually harms human financial community health when we have not taken adequate care of environmental and social needs. 

Few exotic species have been addressed here. About 180 exotics are causing havoc in the Great Lakes and costs billions of dollars in damage to our economy. Two decades after zebra mussels were discovered in the Great Lakes, some scientists call the foreign mollusks the most harmful exotic species to invade the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. Zebra and quagga mussels have caused more profound changes in the lakes than sea lamprey that decimated lake trout and other native fish species in the mid-1900s. The mussels are two of 185 exotic species in the Great Lakes. About 120 of those species were imported by ocean ships that discharged ballast water from foreign ports into the lakes. Invasive species result in pandemic losses.

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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Cattail marsh springs to life

Ranger Steve

By Ranger SteveMueller

Anticipation greets our mornings and weekends. We have experienced wonderful weather on weekends of late. Like a magnet, the weather has pulled many of us from winter abodes into sunshine and happiness. 

With rake in hand, we entered gardens to remove dead thatch that was allowed to stand through the winter to supply the needs for wild winter residents. Clearing dead stems before new perennial growth begins is good. Daffodils and hyacinths brighten our yards with early color and cheer. To prevent damage to new growth, it is beneficial to prepare the garden early. 

Some stems in the garden like ironweed are left standing about two feet tall so solitary native bees can find habitation for their offspring. Native insects that create a healthy neighborhood can use all the help possible. Insect populations are experiencing a pandemic of sorts and it has ramifications for our food crops that need pollinators. Reduced insect numbers mean reduced birds, mammals, amphibians, and life in general. 

We should take joy in seeing the marsh come alive each spring. Though we might not cherish mosquito season, invertebrates in marshes equals duckling, geese, and other water bird survival. Sora, Virginia Rail, and American Coot young require an abundant diet. We are aware of crises that impact human lives like the Irish potato famine, black plague, and now the coronavirus. By adding one and one to equal two, we should recognize how our activities impact plant and animal survival and our own community health. 

March might seem early for spring life abundance but shortening night hours causes hormone changes that result in altered behaviors. Bird migration is well under way. Sandhill Cranes are seen in farm fields or heard making their dinosaur-like calls in flight. Male Red-winged Blackbirds began returning to cattail marshes by early March and can be seen standing on last year’s cattail flowering stalks. Rhizomes are preparing new growth for the coming warm season. Female red-wings should arrive by the time this article appears. 

It surprised me that I did not hear frogs calling from marshes by the first week of March. Spring peepers, chorus frogs, and wood frogs begin calling before ice is completely gone. A warm rain kick starts a March mating frenzy. Had I gone to some of my favorite marshes or ponds, I probably would have heard frogs.

American Woodcocks have been displaying their spring sky dance, ground stomping ritual and associated peenting calls. At dawn and dusk they are in fields like that found at Luton County Park. I am drawn to Ody Brook’s Big Field to enjoy the mating display annually. It is a highlight of spring that energizes me. I wonder how lonely life might be for people that do not experience the joy of life that surrounds us. 

We hear that depression and sadness are rampant in society and commercials offer pills as a remedy. If only I could help others experience the joyful rush of spring as marshes spring to life. It seems a better alternative to pill popping. The abundance of life is wonderful and offers more than a lifetime’s opportunity of experiences if one spends time outside exploring nature niches. 

It reached 63ºF on a sunny Sunday afternoon in early March. I was outside looking for butterflies with friends and surprisingly, we did not locate any Mourning Cloaks, Eastern Commas, or Milbert’s Tortoiseshells that hibernate as adults. I received an e-mail from a friend stating he saw a Mourning Cloak that day. I was just in the wrong place. Perhaps somewhere at Ody Brook, butterflies were on the wing in warm sunshine.

Spending time outside exploring marshes, forests, and fields, is a healthy endeavor. Many of us spend less time exploring the healthy benefits and wonders of nature when we become adults. For many the experiences continue through fishing, wildflower photography, bird watching, gardening or other nature pursuits. Head to a marsh this week to witness it springing to life. In swamps, skunk cabbage flowers are blooming and hepaticas in forests might be flowering when this goes to press. If not, go out again in early April. 

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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Ponds and lakes

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

What defines a pond verses a lake? A pond can actually have a larger surface area than a lake. Ponds might be deep enough to extend below the water table so they can have water throughout the year. Vernal ponds do not extend below the water table so they normally lose standing water during the summer. They often lack water during fall and winter but might remain damp. They are important hibernating substrates for amphibians.

A water table is the upper level where water saturates spaces between rock particles. Depending on the crumbled debris, the water filled space could be between clay, silt, sand, gravel, cobbles, or larger rocks. The particles names mentioned are determined by size instead of rock or mineral composition.

We drill wells into groundwater for private homes and cities. Some cities lay pipes that run from a Great Lake to cities to draw large quantities of water. Many communities draw water from rivers. It does not matter whether the water comes from a Great Lake, river, or from drilling below the water table, the water is supplied from below water table with some exceptions. In parts of country water is so deep or solid bedrock underlies the area preventing wells. There water is captured from roofs and stored in cisterns if river water is not unavailable. 

Groundwater filling the Great Lakes first arrives as rain or snow falling directly into the lake or comes by rain or snow percolating through soil particles to a depth where it saturates spaces between the crumbled rocks. It then flows slowly to one of the Great Lakes in our part of the country. Groundwater moves towards the Great Lakes and flows through depressions deep enough to create lakes or ponds. The shoreline is at the water table.

Light penetrates to the bottom of ponds and is a key factor separating them from lakes. Lakes are deep enough that light diminishes to a point where it cannot support photosynthesis. This is not an absolute determining factor but is the primary one separating ponds from lakes. Usually plants can grow across the entire bottom of a pond and this is normally impossible in a lake. 

The amount of suspended dirt particles and even plants in a body of water determine how deep light can penetrate so a pond is normally defined by how deep light extends during the clearest portion of the year.

A thermocline will develop in a lake at a point where light cannot penetrate. It is a layer where the water above it is warmed and circulates separately from colder water below the thermocline. Warm water cannot hold as much oxygen and might become dangerously low causing death for some species. Cold water below the thermocline can hold more oxygen but because it does not mix with the water above, and it can become oxygen depleted causing fish suffocation. For this reason fish sometimes concentrate at the thermocline to breath. 

These are not all the factors involved in fish location so it will be good to visit with experienced anglers. Water flowing into lakes and ponds from surface streams is a source of oxygen rich water that concentrates fish. Plants and algae growing above the thermocline release oxygen during photosynthesis allowing fish to breath. If the plants and algae become too abundant, they can consume oxygen during the night causing fish to die of what is referred to as “summer kill.”

Nature niche survival for fish depends on each species unique needs. Trout need more oxygen than panfish but this article is about defining ponds and lakes. Generally lakes are too deep for light to penetrate to the bottom while ponds have light reaching the bottom. A pond can actually have a larger surface area and look bigger than a lake. Visit Chrishaven Lake at the Howard Christensen Nature Center to see a lake smaller than many ponds. 

A heavy black and white disk can be lowered into the water to see the point where it disappears. If it is a pond the disk should rest on the bottom without disappearing. Remember the amount of suspended material could prevent light from reaching a pond’s bottom during some portions of the year. Hard and fast rules are seldom the only factor for separating ponds and lakes.

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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Plants and animals respond to extremes

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We look forward to the coming of spring but not the extremes that pose challenges to our security. We are not the only creatures experiencing extremes that bring disruptions and joys to daily life. Warm sunny days brighten our spirits, warm our hearts, and bodies. We look forward to shedding heavy layers of clothing needed to protect us from the biting cold. Days without gloves allow greater finger dexterity and the ability to work outside more freely. Hopefully we have found opportunity to spend many hours outdoors throughout the winter. 

For centuries the Great Lakes water levels have fluctuated above and below an average to highs and lows. The lows bring about wide sandy beaches and highs create no beach with waves that undercut the shoreline causing homes and trees to tumble. 

Many plant species have survival adaptations that do not protect individuals from extremes but help the species survive. During decades when water levels are higher than average, plants are drowned as surely as homes are lost by falling into the lake when the shoreline erodes. Plant populations with adaptations to fluctuating shorelines reproduce and their offspring hopefully find suitable growing conditions where habitat is reduced. 

Prior to our usurping much of the shoreline for homes, more space was available for plant populations to move inland when beach loss shrunk living space. Populations were reduced during tough years when water levels rose but increased when below average levels created habitat that provided suitable growing conditions. 

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan along with other conservancies around the Great Lakes work to enlist support for wild shoreline protection essential for people, plants and animals. Insects, mammals, birds and plants have a vested interest in nature’s extreme processes. People like to think we are in control of natural processes even when evidence proves us wrong. Each year tornadoes devastate human shelters, hurricanes level communities, and winter storms end lives. It is the extremes that bring greatest notice. 

This year’s mild winter has allowed many animals to survive that could not several years ago when the region experienced below average temperatures. Eastern Bluebirds took shelter in one of our bird houses during the minus 30 F weather. When I bundled warmly for a short pleasurable cross-country ski in the extreme cold, I saw a dead bluebird hanging from the nest box entrance. Moisture had caused its wing to freeze to another bluebird’s dead body. It could not pull free from the second and it hung outside the box where it froze.

During a violent spring storm that toppled trees onto homes and caused multiple power outage days, a Baltimore Oriole nest was ripped loose from a branch killing the mother and her clutch of eggs on the ground beneath. At the Howard Christensen Nature Center, one nest was torn almost free and hung precariously in an unsuitable condition for use. Any eggs or young inside needed to be abandoned. The mother likely survived and could rebuild to begin a new family. Such tragedies are common for humans and wildlife, including plants. 

People might wonder why it is important for us to design with nature. Ian McHarg wrote a book titled Design with Nature describing an ecologically sound approach for planning communities. I read it in college when being trained to help communities thrive with best design practices. Read it and pass it on to a city planner.

Along shorelines, Piping Plovers have lost essential nesting habitat and it has become necessary for us to create the Endangered Species Act to assist plants and animal survival because we do not design with nature. Other species are not the only creatures being devasted by our inadequate design with nature. Over 50 years ago we were advised to address human caused climate change but it fell mostly on deaf ears. Greater devastation awaits us if we do not embrace behavioral change away from fossil fuels more rapidly and toward more ecologically sound alternatives to protect present and future generations of people, plants and wildlife. Our long-term economy and social structure are tied closely to sound ecological practices. Effective leadership is needed from community planners, and local, state, and national officials to support a sustainable future. What is your role?

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 Encounters

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Knowing when and where to explore outdoors increases the opportunity for seeing wildlife. There are many opportunities where you can see birds, butterflies, wildflowers or different types of wild creatures in natural habitats. Exploration encounters might be two-hour ventures, several hours, or even weekend events. 

Mark dates on your calendar and plan ahead to participate with guides that will help you find, see, and hear wildlife. Bird, flower, and butterfly field outings are suggested.

Butterfly Counts

3 July 2020 (Fri) 9:00 a.m. Allegan Butterfly Count – Allegan Co. Leader: Ronda Spink. Meet at the Allegan State Game Area, Fennville Farm Unit, 6013 118th Ave, Fennville (butterflynetwork@naturecenter.org)

11 July 2020 (Sat) 9:00 a.m. Rogue River Butterfly Count – Kent Co. Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller) Meet at Long Lake County Park south of 17 Mile on the east side at the beach parking area. odybrook@chartermi.net 

15 July 2020 (Wed) 9:00 a.m. Greater Muskegon Butterfly Ct – Muskegon Co. Leader: Dennis Dunlap. Meet on Mill Iron Road from M-46 (Apple Ave.) east of Muskegon at second set of power lines that cross the road north of MacArthur Road. dunlapmd@charter.net. 

17 July 2020 (Fri) 9:00 a.m. Newaygo County – Manistee National Forest Butterfly Count. Leaders: Ronda Spink and Ranger Steve (Mueller). Meet at Leppink’s Grocery parking lot at the corner of M 82 & M 37 in Newaygo. butterflynetwork@naturecenter.org or odybrook@chartermi.net)

Contact leaders to sign up or for additional details. Rain day alternates will likely be the next day. Sign up with Ranger Steve at Odybrook@chartermi.net so unexpected changes can be shared. There is a $3 charge to participate.

Wildflower Discovery

22 – 25 May 2020 Michigan Botanical Club Spring Foray in Onaway, Michigan. For Memorial Day Weekend, join for three days with a wide variety of field trips led by Michigan’s premier botanists that focus of various groups of plants. Lodging, meals, and field trips are scheduled. Camping is usually an option to keep expense low. Details and registration will soon be posted online at Michigan Botanical Club Website. 

Aman Park is owned by the City of Grand Rapids. 0-1859 Lake Michigan Dr NW, Grand Rapids 49534. It is located west of Grand Rapids before Grand Valley State University. A wonderfully rich array of flowers will be found along trails at the end of April and in May. Google the park to see trail maps. 

Bird Watching

One of the best birding opportunities for close views of about 100 species is at Tawas Point State Park on Lake Huron during the Tawas Birding Festival from May 15-17, 2020. Guided field trips help with viewing and identification of about 20 species of wood warblers on a walk along the park’s peninsula while encountering many other species. Field trips include car-pool/bus destinations in Iosco County. Participants can expect to see Eastern Whippoorwills, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Trumpeter Swans, migrating warblers, Bobolinks, and Scarlet Tanagers.  Some field trips focus on the unique Kirtland’s Warbler’s nature niche and habitat. Mid May is peak migration.

A variety of birding field trips are available in the Grand Rapids area. One is held weekly at Millennium Park. Others are led at Reed’s Lake, area marshes, and in State Game Areas. Visit the Grand Rapids Audubon website (www.graud.org) for details listed in the Caller Newsletter.

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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