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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Growing Cardboard

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

As a child, I observed toilet paper rolls were not wrapped around a cardboard tube. By the time we removed the paper, a cardboard tube had grown on the inside of the roll. I remember my mother telling me a rock on a street corner near her house grew larger as she was growing up.

Our observations were faulty. Both my mom and I thought we made good observations. I looked inside the paper roll and did not see the cardboard. I was not perceptive enough. Mom did not make measurements on the rock to verify growth.

I recall taking local middle school students to Costa Rica to learn about Tropical Rain Forest. We visited schools to plant trees with students. We shared that forests are a renewable resource that were being cut faster than they could regenerate. Some rainforest soils get baked to laterite rock when cleared of trees.

Sustainable practices that support future generations of people living in the rainforest and here need to manage rainforest differently if we desire to have toilet paper or other forest products in the future. Some apply temperate forest management practices there and are unwilling to change because they desire to think it will work anywhere. As adults, we are not making accurate observations based on sound scientific investigations.

Naturally, tree harvest industries are most interested in cutting trees and shipping them. They keep moving and clearing rainforest without adequate concern regarding the impact on the local community or future generations. For some, the goal is only short-term profit for the company. Many people feel that is in their best personal interest and it is particularly true if they invest money in mutual funds that include that forestry company.

Others seek socially screened industry investments that work to provide healthy economic, social, and environmental practices for both present and future generations. It is known as the triple bottom line.

A recent national survey prioritized 12 US citizen concerns. Environment was number 11 of 12. The only one of less concern was immigration. Political policies are based on constituent desires. It is good when people develop good observation skills and behave to support the triple bottom line for the present and future.

When I was director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, it was operated by the Kent Intermediate School District serving Kent County public and private schools. One purpose was to provide hands on learning to help students develop careful observation skills and to learn how scientists constantly review the work of other scientists to find flaws and correct them. When studies involve things like how nature niches work in forests, we can improve best practice management. Science has self-correcting peer review.

Field trip learning helps children develop accurate observations in fun natural locations. They learn to draw better conclusions than I did regarding toilet paper growing cardboard while on the paper holder.

The Kent ISD superintendent, in 2005, told me they were closing the Howard Christensen Nature Center because environmental education was no longer a priority in America. He stated he was not saying it lacked importance but only it was no longer a priority in America. In the presidential election prior to 2005, Al Gore, with a sustainable environment policy, won the popular vote but lost the electoral. The recent election went the same way with the sustainable environment policy candidate winning the popular vote but losing the election. Environment was only one of twelve American priorities but indicated a sustainable environment for future generations is low on our priority list. The role of environment for sustaining a stable economy is important.

Encourage your children’s teachers to go to HCNC. It is now operated as an independent nature center. Purchase a 2017 family membership. Rent snowshoes there and have fun outdoors. Emotionally connect with the environment that supports us and our future. It will help raise a sustainable environment priority.

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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Breathing Skies

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Warm south winds brought a record high temperature to the region in late December followed by cold air being sucked in from the northwest. By early in the new year warm air was again sweeping the area. The landscape breathes in and out creating varied weather daily.

Each breath is a temporary sigh creating different air mass movements depending on where the air is drawn from. Imagine a giant head looking in a new direction when it inhales its great breath of air. When looking north, it draws air from the north. When looking west, draws air across Lake Michigan picking up more moisture. When looking south, it brings an upwelling of warmer air from the balmy south.

Weather forecasters provide a better and more accurate account for how air masses move. They illustrate the locations of high and low pressure centers with explanations for how they interact to create changing weather.

A couple centuries ago when communication was not instantaneous, predicting weather for the next week was nearly impossible. People kept records of annual occurrences and predicted climatic expectations. It was obvious that winter would provide cold conditions compared with summer warmth.

Astronomers studied sun, Earth, moon, and star movement relationships. They determined the Earth traveled around the sun instead of the sun going around the Earth. Accumulated data gradually was pieced together to provide improved understanding for how air masses move on Earth.

Air movement has significant life and death impact on our lives. To our benefit, weather forecasters caution us about what to expect so we can plan safe travel. We are warned about hazardous driving conditions so we will adjust commute time or make decisions about cancelling school and community events.

Animals are in the dark ages when it comes to knowing what weather is headed toward their nature niche three days hence. They are locked into their own built in “Farmer’s Almanac” for climatic conditions. Climate is the long-term average of weather that occurs for any day, week, month, or year. Evolutionary adjustments in behavior and genetics allow species to survive. Some migrate, some hibernate, some stay active in winter.

Rabbits remain active all winter, warblers migrate to warm climates, and woodchucks hibernate using adaptations developed in response to long-term climate conditions. Survival is not assured because weather conditions bring extreme variations compared with averages that determine climate. A recent cold winter caused the Great Lakes to have 90 percent ice cover and many ducks were forced to small areas of open water where food was depleted. Massive duck die off occurred that year in response to weather.

When weather shifts the average conditions to colder or warmer, it is an indication that climate is changing. Climate change has occurred throughout the 5-billion-year history of Earth. Most often the average change has been slow and allowed organisms to adjust through life and death changes in behavior and genetics selection.

Some animal perceptions are keener than those possessed by humans. Changes in barometric pressure are noticed by animals and they respond before we recognize weather is about to change dramatically. Animals are attributed with responding to severe storms before they arrive while people have not taken notice. People have taken warnings from pets or wild animal behavior that resulted in saved lives.

Changing weather conditions are more easily observed than climate change. We are likely to adjust behavior for things like icy road weather. When it comes changing behavior for long-term averages of weather that create climate change, there is a tendency to deny recognition. When evidence supports human activity is changing global climate, many choose to ignore it. In that regard, we continue to live in the dark ages with animals unable to perceive long-term change. We have the ability to adjust our behavior based on the evidence or ignore it.

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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Meaningful New Year’s resolution

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

When making a New Year’s Resolution, make it fun and emotionally meaningful for you and family members.

I have been reading research studies on how informal learning spaces like your yard provide the opportunity to make life experience connections. They have long-term impact for family understanding about the environment that support a healthy and sustainable future. Create a pesticide free butterfly garden with native plants to entice insects, birds, neighbors, and friends. Let’s get everyone outside.

Creating a pesticide-free butterfly garden helps children learn about nature, while helping the insects and birds in your own backyard.

Creating a pesticide-free butterfly garden helps children learn about nature, while helping the insects and birds in your own backyard.

To develop an interest in nature and natural history research suggests a need for frequent and recurring experiences over many years. Last week’s nature niche was about our family’s Christmas tree experiences that continued throughout the kids’ entire growing up adventure.

Involvement with local fauna and flora instill emotional feelings that create responsibility for the local natural and human community. It is an experiential place-based education. When local plants and animals like insects are discovered and valued, conservation and re-wilding our neighborhoods becomes feasible. One research paper focused on the ecological importance of insects for our own healthy living.

When considering a New Year’s Resolution, select activities where the family explores outdoors on trails at county parks, nature centers, or has excursions in the yard. I recall one family experience when Jenny Jo saw dots high in the sky when she was about three. She asked what birds were flying. I looked and said I missed them. She asked again and I looked more intently. I was looking too close. The birds were very high in the sky.

We went outside and saw about 250 Broad-wing Hawks soaring in a heat thermal as they migrated south one October. It was an amazing experience that took about five minutes. It provided an emotional connection with the natural world. Reading and showing pictures of hawks riding thermals in books or on the Internet does not create an emotional connection that effectively builds appreciation for the natural world.

Perhaps your childhood experiences did not include similar events but it is I time to create new meaningful family traditions with emotional nature connections. Walking in natural areas, exploring wild things in your yard, or growing a butterfly garden will persist in the mind and heart of child for a lifetime.

Outdoor experiences help organize knowledge in the brain by what I call “hook” placement. It provides a hook in the mind to place experience knowledge in your own mental file cabinet. Once sorted and stored in a meaningful manner, book knowledge has a good place to be combined for rapid recall. It prevents searching unsuccessfully for things that get misplaced somewhere deep in memory recesses. Classroom book knowledge becomes more effective when connected with real world experiences like field trips to nature centers.

We learn best when we connect emotional outdoor experiences with new knowledge gained from what we hear, read, or see when surfing the Internet. We can compare a multitude of misinformation we are bombarded with from other people or see on the Internet. Nature exposure helps us make better sense of our surroundings.

Make the best New Year’s resolution ever. Explore outdoors with the family to build connections with each other and with the nature world during the coming year. It is more fun than resolving to lose weight.

The research paper concluded that intellectual messages detached from direct real world experiences in the outdoors are often impotent.

My friend Bob Pyle, a nature writer and butterfly field guide author, states that the butterfly net is perhaps the cheapest, simplest and most effective environmental tool ever invented.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Christmas tree experiences

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It was an exciting and major event when our family selected a Christmas tree when I was child. We had a favorite seller we visited each year and searched a large selection of pre-cut trees. It had to be the right height, breadth, fullness, and not too large a trunk base so it would fit in our tree stand.

Our family event allowed everyone to have a say in the choice. My mother wanted to make sure it was not too full so the ornaments would have room to hang. Dad didn’t want it so broad that it crowded us out of the room. I wanted lots of room underneath for gifts. My wife recently asked if we fought over the final selection. I do not recall unpleasant conversation. We negotiated and found one accepted by all.

After I grew and started a family with Karen at Ody Brook, we began a different tradition. We planted several Scotch Pine trees in an open sunny area to care and nurse with good husbandry. It was about 7 years before any were ready for harvest. During the intervening years, we bought trees from a neighborhood tree seller.

While the trees were growing, the tree cluster served as part of a nature niche for itself and other creatures. Mice and rabbit tracks showed evidence the trees provided shelter. Feeding damaged by sawflies killed some branches and created gaps among the branches suitable for larger ornaments.

Sawflies are not flies but as adults look fly-like. They are actually in the Hymenoptera Wasp Order instead of the Diptera Fly Order. As a larva, they resemble Lepidoptera Order butterfly and moth caterpillars. The adult lays eggs in mass so when hatched, they feed and devour all the needles on a branch. Rather than use pesticides to prevent damage, I picked the larvae off the tree by hand before significant damage occurred and placed them on a large ant hill as a free lunch for ants.

That growing season work became my youngest daughter’s when she was about 5 years old. During the years when the girls and trees were growing and cultivated, the girls learned good natural resource stewardship. Most of Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary remains wild for native plants and animals but portions serve personal use.

Wild species besides rabbits, mice, and sawflies made use of the growing trees. Chipping Sparrows, American Robins, and Northern Cardinals chose to construct hidden nests among the thick branches. Deciduous tree embryonic leaves do not expand from buds by the time birds weave spring rearing chambers for young.

For 7 to 10 years the trees are important for wildlife shelter and food. To insure we have a sustainable harvest, it was required we plant two seedlings annually so we could harvest one each Thanksgiving weekend. If all survived, we could harvest two for different locations in the house or give one away.

The fresh cut tree would be decorated and last indoors to the new year. The tree still offers years of service after the holiday season. We place it near a bird feeder to provide winter cover and protection for birds. I do not know if birds appreciate our efforts but they use the tree for the remainder of winter.

When springs arrives, we cut the limbs from the tree and place them on one of the brush piles as a slowly decaying roof that helps stop rain infiltration. Rabbits use the ground level maze among brush pile logs and birds use upper openings. The Christmas tree trunk is cut to sections and used for family backyard campfires where some-mores are made.

Each annual tree ritual serves wildlife for about 20 years and provides us pleasure with family bonding. It helped our girls learn about sustainable harvest. In my opinion, Scotch pines become unsightly when allowed to become large. They are a non-native species that competes with native trees. The large Scotch Pine stands are relatively sterile habitat when compared with native tree stands. I recommend harvesting them while they are still small trees. Enjoy nature related holiday traditions.

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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Diversity for nature and learning

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

It is a wonderful time of year to experience diversity at a of variety nature locations. Your yard is a great place to start. Diversity of life is limited in yards unless they maintain space for native plants and associated animals.

Community opportunities provide connections with things wild and natural with diverse emphasis. They exist because community members value and support them. Local wonderful diverse places meet multifaceted interests for people. Some places are mostly wild with limited accommodations for people while others are hardly wild where the plants and animals require constant care to survive such as the Fredrick Meijer Gardens for plants or the John Ball Zoo for animals. Wild and cultivated places offer their own greatness.

The Rogue River, Cannonsburg, and Allegan State Game Areas have large wild areas that support plants and animals in a native landscape with minimal human accommodations. The North Country hiking trail traverses and one can listen in quiet solitude to hear one’s own heart or the melodies sung by plants and animals. The squeak of a flexing tree, the rubbing growl of branches against one another on a breezy day, or the hidden chewing on inner tree bark by beetle larvae expresses the presence of life in the forest.

During the year, people hunt morels, blueberries, rabbits, fish, ducks, or deer for meals. Others seek photographs, birds, butterflies, and wildflowers. Hiking the wild is a favorite. Hunting license purchases allows for the existence of the game areas. Tree harvest is managed to help desired wildlife thrive and it supports local economies.

Places like the Howard Christensen Nature Center maintain trails, boardwalks, toilets, water, camping, museum displays of birds, mammals, insects, mounted herbarium plants and twig collections for education and recreation. The library includes resources about organisms, geology, weather and climate. Membership and donation support is essential. Visit the wonderful facility to learn and join the effort. HCNC has one of the most extensive collections of birds and mammals for visitors and school group study. As this year succumbs, consider making the coming year’s programs possible by purchasing a membership or donate to support school programming. Be a champion for your school district that connects teachers, students, and nature at HCNC. The nature center is unique by being isolated in a wilder area than other nature education facilities in Michigan.

The wonderful Blandford Nature Center is a vestige of wild surrounded by urban development. It is more easily accessible for massive human influx and provides connections for people with native plants and animals. Rescued wildlife that cannot survive if released allow us to see creatures that most do not otherwise experience. Membership and donations are required for the facility to thrive.

Luten, Long Lake, and Millennium County Parks provide different degrees of diversity and preservation. Many enjoy Luten Park for the thrill of its mountain biking trails while others discover nature niches in the native prairie.

The Land Conservancy of West Michigan establishes preserves to ensure natural areas maintain the biological and physical environment that allowed settlers to colonize, live and prosper in West Michigan.

Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary manages for the greatest native plant and animal diversity. Human visitors are welcome to study the diversity of life and unique rare species such as the federally threatened American Chestnut. College interns study plants with a high co-efficient for conservancy for preservation and conservation groups like the Michigan Botanical Club visit. The site is a “Birding Hotspot” for ebirders.

Bunker Interpretive Center, Wittenbach/Wege Center, GR Audubon’s Maher Preserve, and others are sites worthy of financial support. Support is requested for maintaining a diversity of natural areas locally. Contact the sites to provide essential support in your local community financially or by volunteering.

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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GISSS

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

When seeing a family member or friend in a crowd from behind, we can often recognize them based on the general impression perceived. Their size, overall shape, and where they are or what they are doing helps us zero in on who we see. We do not need extensive detail to identify them.

Wildlife can be identified in a similar manner. Under our bird feeder a sleek smooth gray furred mammal popped out of a hole, grabbed a seed and ducked into its tunnel. It was in view for seconds but it was adequate to identify it as a short-tailed shrew. It was about as large as a mouse with solid gray color, short tail, and pointed nose. The masked shrew is smaller with a long tail. Deer mice have tan coats with a white belly and long tail. The meadow vole looks similar to the shrew but has a heavier body without a pointed nose.

Characteristics to take notice of quickly when trying to identify something when we only get a quick look is referred as GISSS (General Impression, Size, Shape, Seasonality).

When we see a deer, we usually do this naturally. I know a person that saw several deer in winter along a road and thought it was a large group of coyotes. He needed to develop his senses to key into important features. First capture a general impression and associate with what you know. When seeing a deer like animal, determine if it horse size like a moose or smaller. Does the shape appear deer-like with long thin legs and no obvious long tail or is it more dog-like with shorter legs and longer tail like a coyote?

Winter is a great time to practice GISSS with birds. Red-breasted Nuthatches recently arrived at our bird feeders. White-breasted Nuthatches are present all year. The general impression helped identify it as a nuthatch by its overall size, long thin bill, and straight alignment of head, body, and tail. Tufted Titmice or Black-capped chickadees have more contour between the three body parts. Generally associate size as sparrow, robin, and crow size. That helps narrow the choices.

Blue Jays, crows, and doves can be quickly dismissed because their size is much too large for consideration when looking at a nuthatch. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is smaller than chickadees, titmice, and the White-breasted Nuthatch. Look at the shape for how the head, body, and tail align and the tail length. Tail length will eliminate many choices. Nuthatches have a short tail. Seasonality is important. Generally, Red-breasted Nuthatches are only seen in our area from fall to spring. They move north in spring similar to how robins generally move south in winter.

It does not matter whether you are trying to identify mammals, birds, butterflies or even plants, the GISSS will help. Plants have a characteristic size, shape, and seasonality. The Fall Frost Aster blooms late into October with small white ray flowers that look like petals on plants about knee high. The New England Aster is about three to five feet tall with long purple ray flowers. Some plants like trilliums seasonally bloom in May.

Butterflies might be large like a monarch or swallowtail, medium sized like a cabbage white butterfly, or small like the little blue flyers that are only about the size of a dime. Use those for size comparisons. Once you have the general impression with size and shape ideas, you can consider unique details. The tiny Spring Azure butterflies fly from April into June. The nearly look-a-like Summer Azure begins flight in June and continues throughout the summer. The more iridescent Eastern Tailed Blue flies summer to fall with increased numbers in fall. As the name indicates it has tiny tails on its hind wings but the tails often break off.

Associate species with their nature niche habitat. Both azures are found near dogwood shrubs while the tailed blue is common in open fields. The small number of bird species at the feeders in winter will help you practice GISSS before spring when over one hundred bird species move through the neighborhood. About 150 species of butterflies make Michigan home. Simply enjoy the vast number of plants and animals and have fun trying to identify them. Visit various plant habitats and notice associated animals found in each. GISSS! Isn’t that fun?

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Porcupine and Cougar

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Smells of Thanksgiving

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Rare, Endangered, Secure?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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Shades and shapes of fall

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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