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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Spring progression

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Expect the same sequence of change but not the same timing annually. I attempt to record dates when plants and trees first flower to compare changes from year to year. Butterfly appearance is a special treat for me and an excel file is maintained to record the species sightings daily. Daily bird sightings are recorded. A narrative is written in my journal of nature niche occurrences like the location and abundance of Earth Star Fungi and Ebony Spleenwort Ferns.

It is an impossible task and for many species an X on the excel file suffices to document a species has been sighted this year. Busy life activities keep us all from noticing the first day when each species makes its grand appearance. Accurate phenology progression can be important to document things like Climate Change. For most of us, it is more important to experience the wonder and joy of life as it unfolds each day of spring.

I try to walk among the abundance of life daily witnessing what neighbors are doing. I am a nosy sort of guy. Ephemeral neighbors like hepatica, springs beauty, trout lily, bloodroot, marsh marigold, and skunk cabbage race to flower before tree leaves expand and shade the ground. Flowering is an energy expensive activity and for many it needs to be completed before intense tree canopy shade reduces access to adequate sun energy.

Some plants like marsh marigold spend the summer slowly storing energy so when spring arrives they have adequate energy to produce flowers and seeds. Others like the trout lily gather sunlight during the short period before tree shade reduces light. Their flowers and leaves decay by June ready for new growth next spring. Evidence of their existence is only visible for about six weeks annually.

Butterflies have certain flight periods that result in a sequence of appearances and disappearances for various species throughout the warmer seasons. Most have their activity linked with specific plants their caterpillars feed on so their flight is timed with the plant’s life cycle for egg laying.

Join for a couple hours of ephemeral exploration at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary with the Michigan Botanical Club on 6 May from 2 to 4 p.m. Park at V&V Nursery on Northland Drive about a mile south of Cedar Springs. The sanctuary does not have adequate parking space so V&V Nursery has kindly allowed parking. Considering shopping for plants at the nursery before or after the wildflower walk.

This year many species of flowers are blooming one to three weeks earlier than last year. Plant activity is weather dependent. During years when cold and snow persist well into April flowering is delayed. Other years early warm weather encourages ground thawing and sap flow in February. Wildflowers progression advances flowering dates in warm springs. This year it was necessary for maple syrup tree tappers to begin in February to capture the first dense sugar surge rather than wait until March.

I am waiting with anticipation to discover when the trilliums, baneberry, saxifrage, wood betony, and many other ephemerals bloom. I expect they will be in flower during the 6 May field outing. Though the sanctuary’s purpose is to primarily enhance survival success for plant and animal species, we are pleased to share the beauty of nature’s bounty with our human neighbors and to encourage you to discover the opportunities provided by the Michigan Botanical Club.

Come mingle with plants and plant enthusiasts. I will meet you in the parking lot at V&V Nursery before 2 p.m. for our stroll through ephemeral days of spring.

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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Fishing with feet

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

A reader told me that I probably would not believe him but he said he caught a trout with his foot. Before he said more, I said, “I believe you because I have also.” How many others have done the same? Trout fishing season is under way but angling with feet is not a chosen fishing tactic.

The reader was wading a stream when a fish tried to dart past him just as he stepped down and caught the fish between foot and substrate. My experience was similar.

In Calf Creek in Utah, I was wading bare foot in a small desert stream fed by snow melt and ground water from Boulder Mountain. The mountain road summit was over 12,000 feet with a spruce/fir forest in highest locations and ponderosa pines in the 8,000-foot range. Down the mountain, pinyon pines and juniper trees reigned at 7,000 feet.

Calf Creek was at 5,500 feet but that water remained cold, rich in oxygen, and full of trout food. Willows and other woody plants were abundant along the three to ten feet wide creek. In most places the creek was one to twelve inches deep. A beaver constructed a couple dams and created a pond where it built a lodge. After a few years, the beaver exhausted its food supply. The pond filled and became a wet meadow full of life.

It surprised me to see a Great Blue Heron standing on a bare sandstone desert cliff over Calf Creek. It made sense because trout were present for the heron to hunt in the stream’s shallow clear cold water.

My barefoot walk for about two miles was in the stream’s cold water but the desert air was near 100 F. The stream bed was mostly bare sandstone a few inches deep with frequent holes a foot to three feet deep. Deep holes were places the trout hid in shadows. They often remained stationary in shallow water with use of their powerful tail muscles beating just enough to hold their stable position.

As I walked downstream, a trout facing upstream was alarmed by my presence and attempted to dart past me up stream. My right foot was just coming down as the trout slipped between my foot and rock. The fish’s body pressed against the bottom of my foot and was squeezed to the sandstone stream bed.

Quickly, I shifted my weight to my left foot to prevent hurting the fish. Too late. The fish began to roll downstream stunned by physical trauma. I picked up the fish and held it with head upstream to allow water to flow over the gills.

For several minutes, I hoped it would recover as it continued to open and close its mouth. Each time I released it, it could not swim and rolled in the current. After considerable time, I let the fish roll out sight.

Such events are now out of sight but not out of mind. It occurred in the 1990’s but stays with me. Previously, I wrote about this in my column. Like most stories shared with family and friends, they get repeated at gatherings, campouts, or in another group setting. We all have experiences to share and reminisce.

Many do not end in tragedy like it did for this trout. When you are fishing or on adventures into the wondrous world around us, remember to bring back fish stories or those of your personal experiences with wildlife and nature niches. Truthful stories are best and most interesting. Exaggerated “fish stories” are not necessary. The more time you are outdoors the more exciting stories you will accumulate for sharing.

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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Earth Week Celebration

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Earth Week is an annual kick-off to remind us how we can have a positive impact throughout the year. How we live impacts the survival of all creatures great and small. We inherited a world rich with biodiversity. There are utilitarian uses that are essential for our survival and there is an inherent responsibility to preserve species and habitats for the wellbeing of future generations. We do not know the value of most species.

Environmental and Earth Care has fallen in priority for reasons I do not understand. Perhaps it is because we do not recognize the importance of the air we breathe, the water we drink, the quality of food we eat, or the value of land in public and private stewardship. A survey prioritized American issues of concern and environment was listed eleven of twelve. The only one of lesser concern was immigration. Due to it being a priority of our President its priority has been raised and moved environment lower. Billions of dollars are being allocated to immigration control and money must come from somewhere. Major budget reductions are proposed for environmental protection and will affect present and future generations.

We can each act locally in addition to contacting representatives and senators to let them know that environmental stewardship is an important value for our wellbeing. In 1973 the Clean Air, Clear Water, and Endangered Species Acts were created to improve living conditions for humans and all species. Currently there is a campaign to eliminate those Acts to return us to conditions like those before the environmental protections.

The idea is that the economy can grow faster without concern for protecting the environment that sustains us. Elimination of the Acts will have negative impacts on human health, health of other species, and our long-term economy. Environmental clean-up cost will increase for future generations if we are not good environmental stewards. We still struggle with pollution clean-up from damage prior to establishment of the protection Acts.

What can we do that is positive to protect life, economy, and society’s wellbeing locally and in our daily lives? I am honored and appreciative to be invited to offer a Creation Care message on Sunday, 23 April, at 10:15 a.m. at the United Methodist Church located at the corner of 140 Main and Church Streets one block N of the traffic light in Cedar Springs. Traditional worship is blended with creative and enriching touches, music ministry and time with children. Families and individuals are invited. Please come.

I will address what I call complimentary multiple realities. It is an idea most have not considered. The nature of science is self-correcting through physical evidence with experimentation. Religion is based on faith without physical evidence. We each experience the environment through different realities based on how we interact with the world. Some relate through artistic expression, song, music, internal reflection, interaction with people, or direct physical interaction through farming, hunting, watching wildlife, or camping the grandeur of creation.

Regardless for how we encounter the wonders of the world, we share a common dependence on Earth’s biodiversity for our current survival and that of generations to come.

Many faith traditions emphasize the importance of being “Creation Care Stewards” for the planet and honoring its life-sustaining blessings. The question to ask is whether your actions support healthy stewardship?

I will share the practical value of species for utilitarian use, psychological value, ecosystem value of nature niches, and value for present and future generations. Please come for an hour of what I hope will be an energizing Creation Care message. Move through spring, summer, fall, and winter with more than hope. Live with joy knowing your actions are valuable for your family’s health, wellbeing, and future. I hope to share personally with readers what is usually only done though print. Celebrate Earth Week with me and the UMC.

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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Big Trip

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

We have the itch to travel come spring. What about food along the way? Where will we stay? Do we have good directions? Will we find affordable lodging? What if we encounter high wind storms or tornadoes? How will we spend time besides traveling? Will others help us find food, lodging, water, and the best stopping locations?

In nature niches, the answers mean life and death. Perhaps it would be best not to migrate and stay in a warm region near the low latitudes of South Florida or Central America. It is important for birds to risk their lives to travel to mid and high latitudes. If not, survival of their species would be at greater risk of extinction.

During the winter, food, shelter, and water are limited resources in the far north. One species, the Arctic Tern, flies from the North Pole region to the South Pole region where it experiences 24-hour summer daylight. During the arduous long trip, it experiences night and many survival challenges. All migrating species face conditions that reduce survival chances. This past year I took a pelagic boat trip into the ocean to view birds that do not come to land except to nest. Species, like gulls, that frequent land also venture out to sea.

A Savannah Sparrow was flying ten miles from shore cutting across expansive open water with distant land in view. Two California Gulls saw it and thought lunch. They pursued the bird and tried to nab it from the air. The sparrow was about 30 feet above water on a beautiful calm warm weather day. When a gull swooped to take the bird from the air, the sparrow quickly dropped down and slipped behind the gull out of reach of its bill. The second gull gave it try. I was rooting for the sparrow’s survival and hoped the gulls would find a meal elsewhere. The drama continued until we were out of sight of the trio. The best I could do was to offer a prayer for the sparrow to safely reach shore and shelter.

Such drama is commonplace for birds on migration. Most song birds are night migrators and the dark provides cover for safer travel. When light arrives, it is important to settle in protective thick vegetation. If birds are over one of the Great Lakes, they might experience the challenge faced by the Savannah Sparrow.

When a bird has flapped its wings all night, it has consumed stored fat and hunger will be high. Some birds are so focused on destination, they think little about food. I banded birds with Dr. Dwain Warner in the Big Bog of northern Minnesota near Red Lake and the Canadian border. The bog is over 100 miles across. Warblers on their way south from Canada stop in the Big Bog to replenish fat reserves. By the time, they get as far south as the bog, they have lost half their weight. After gorging for a few days and doubling weight, they resume travel on their big trip. It was found they fly without feeding much until thy arrive in Louisiana swamps where insects are abundant. They have lost half their weight again and must replenish fat before continuing the trip.

Avoidance of predators and hunger are only two migration perils. Storms can knock a small bird out of the air. My friend Donna Hickey told me about a tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet that had been knocked into the water of Lake Superior by a storm. It washed to shore alive. On shore, it took flight and flew up under her sister’s blouse and startled her. She slapped it from the blouse and the bird fell dead on the beach. They brought the bird to me to stuff for museum educational display.

What would make it worth the hazards to fly great distances? Breeding success is paramount. Daylight in the tropics is only about 12 to 14 hours. In the Arctic summer, it is light for 24 hours and in Michigan it is about 16 to 18 hours. Tremendous feeding on insects can occur during long daylight. Mosquitoes can cover and darken exposed skin in seconds. Insect populations fill high latitude habitats. When I was doing insect research above the Arctic Circle, a Say’s Phoebe was feeding every time I observed her during a 24-hour period. I presume she took short “catnaps.” It is easier to raise a family there than in the tropics. Greater diversity of insect species exists in the tropics but great population abundance is found in the arctic summer. That is one of the most important values for risking long spring migration to favored breeding grounds where days are long.

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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Whipping Willow Tree

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

We have a favorite willow tree at the intersection of US 131 and I-96. As one exits from east I-96 to enter north US 131, a weeping willow lives in the cloverleaf. Three decades ago, I saw what looked like a chicken in the tree. I could not safely take an extended look to determine what was in the tree. It was winter and it seemed extremely odd for a dark brown chicken to be in a tree along the highway.

I watched on future passages when I used the off ramp. It turned out to be a dark phase of the Rough-legged Hawk that was using the willow as a favorite perch for hunting. I told my naturalist friend, Greg Swanson, about the “chicken in a tree.” We laughed and he said he knew the bird. He had seen it during previous winters. This bird had found a good winter hunting location and it returned winter after winter.

When human “snowbirds” head to Florida or Arizona for the winter, many arctic birds come to this balmy winter feeding area in Michigan to escape the barren arctic where finding food is a winter challenge. Our family enjoyed looking for what I originally thought was a chicken a tree. It helped us remember to look for interesting animals wherever we drove. After thirty plus years, we still talk about the bird but it has not been seen in decades. It likely died sometime in the 1990’s.

The weeping willow tree also experienced life challenges. Julianne, our youngest daughter, called it a whipping willow. What fun! Ever since, the family refers to it as a “Whipping Willow.” It has become a family friend.

One day when we were circling around the tree on the off the ramp, we were dismayed to see the tree had been blown down and was laying on the ground. Fortunately, a portion of the trunk was still attached to the base and the tree refused to die. It sprouted vertical stems along the prostrate trunk. Before the new leaves expand, you can see the old trunk on the ground and several large stems growing upward.

Once leaves grow and obscure view of the stems, one would not recognize its hard life recovery from being blown down. Neither can one see into the past to witness a “chicken in a tree.” We each need to aware of our surroundings and make family discoveries as we travel together.

For thirty years, the dark phase Rough-legged Hawk and the “Whipping Willow” have given us joy and family moment connections with nature niches. We have many moments to reminisce. Such moments strengthen family relationships. We all love each other and the natural world helps us maintain that love in a simple way.

Experiencing the outdoors does not need to be an elaborately planned outing. Take notice of things natural to enjoy and share with parents, spouses, kids, grandkids, and friends.

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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Coyotes, Ducks, and People

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

 

One would expect coyotes to prey on ducks and their eggs. They do, but foxes are better duck hunters than coyotes. When coyotes are present, they keep fox numbers down. Studies by National Biological Survey research scientists found predator control programs that reduce coyote populations increase fox populations. The increase in foxes causes a greater reduction in duck production.

Many people support coyote control programs because they think it will reduce duck predation. Instead the increased fox population preys more heavily on ducks. At the same time, people support draining wetlands. Many wetland areas are drained or filled for farming or human habitation development. Wetlands are also filled to eliminate species we do not like such as mosquitoes. That reduces duck reproduction. Ducks Unlimited and other organizations work to establish conservation easements that restore drained wetlands and support programs that pay farmers to keep natural wetlands on their land. The Wetland east of Cedar Springs on 17 Mile Road is restored wetland that was drained for farming and has restored to the liking of waterfowl.

Loss of wetlands reduces spawning beds for fish like the northern pike. When pike decline, society spends money on hatcheries for restocking of pike. Poor land use decisions cost society more to maintain clean water, reduce flooding and to restore wildlife. The current proposed elimination of the Clean Water Rule by President Trump will have negative impacts on wildlife as well as community water of human use.

In Michigan’s past, predator control programs supported killing wolves. In locations where wolves and coyotes live in the same area, wolves kept coyote numbers low. Historically, coyotes were rare in Michigan.

Nature niches are finely tuned systems that function quite well until people decide to reshape them. When large predators live close to humans, there are occasions when they take the opportunity to kill domestic animals.  It is more effective to control a specific wolf or coyote problem than to try to eliminate a population.

When coyotes are removed through predator control, ecologic/economic studies have found coyote’s social structure is damaged and rapid reproduction occurs. Rapidly increasing populations spread into new areas. Additional money is then needed for more extensive predator control. A cost/benefit analysis shows it is generally poor and ineffective to try to control coyote populations instead of handling a specific problem.

It does not seem to make common sense that coyotes help duck populations increase but they do by controlling fox population predation. It does not seem to make common sense that wolves strengthen deer herd health but they do by keeping the deer population from over browsing habitats and causing long-term habitat damage. Human population expansion also reduces duck populations by destroying critical habitat. Many attributed reduced duck populations to predators, when it is often caused by human population increase. Human altered habitats and draining wetlands is more harmful to the ducks than predators. We do notice a growing human population reduces other life on Earth.

Coyotes live in our area but usually are not excessively abundant. Foxes live in our area but are not abundant. Life is very hard for all wildlife. Most coyote pups never live a year.

Predator nature niches are complex systems. It is necessary to control particular individuals that interfere with our livelihoods but large scale predator programs are usually unproductive, wasteful of life and money.

As a society, we have not recognized the positive role of predatory mammals like coyotes and wolves. Public understanding has gradually increased its understanding for how nature niches function. Public policy has not kept pace to reflect healthy land management but positive changes are gradually being implemented. Emotions usually trump research-based evidence and practices.

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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Make life better

 

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Thanking Mr. Hayes was important for both of us. He taught middle school social studies to help me develop social responsibility and understanding for my role in living a healthy productive life for myself. Several years ago, I wanted to thank him. When I looked at the city’s long list of Hayes in the phone directory, I had no idea which one would be his phone number.

I called my high school biology teacher to ask if he happened to know Mr. Hayes so I could call to thank him for his role in my life. Serendipitously, he said, “Yes. Do you want to talk to him now? He is here visiting.” Though it had been 40 years since we heard each other’s voices, I recognized his immediately. I doubt he recognized mine or clearly remembered me.

We had a nice conversation and I mentioned a social studies assignment that was helpful. We were told to interview someone in a profession we might want to pursue. I interviewed a conservation officer. After the conversation, I imagine Mr. Hayes probably asked Fred Case to remind him about who I was. Hopefully, my good points were shared. Mr. Hayes did not let on that he did not recall me, but I did not think he could picture me in his classroom. Mr. Case died about a decade ago. Perhaps Mr. Hayes did also.

What we do during our lives can have important impacts on those around us while it improves our own lives. Think about your neighbors and their role in your life. Bees and other insects are good neighbors. They make it possible for us to eat many choice foods. They bring birds to our yards. We cannot call to thank them for their role in our lives but we can do better.

We can provide yards as safe havens full of selected native genotype plants. Buying plants native to the region instead of cultivars is a first major step. Ask landscape nurseries if they sell native genotype plants. If they do not, request they start by having a small section designated for such plants. Hopefully they will and the section will grow larger each year if buyers like you select plants that support native pollinators and wildlife.

Many cultivars sold have had important qualities needed for animal nature niches bred out of them by accident while other characters were selected. Some characteristics like larger flowers or double petals are nice but the breeding process often results in some valuable wildlife characteristics being bred out of them. Take joy in plant characteristics of native stock that evolved with insects, birds, and mammals instead of seeking excess of one character.

Google River City Wild Ones to view their web site and learn more about sources for native plants. Providing yards that support native species is one way to thank species we cannot directly converse with. Avoid use of pesticides and herbicides in yards and gardens. It will provide a richer and safer habitat for you to enjoy and supports survival of native species.

Our thank you is well received by native plants that grow and support native animals. Spring life is well underway in the wild natural areas of the yard. On 9 March, high wind gusts broke a silver maple branch that revealed its flowers had already shed pollen from anthers. A willow shrub had fuzzy pussy willow buds. Both hazelnut and speckled alder catkins had elongated but flowers were not yet open. Skunk Cabbage spathes with spadix flowers were present on the floodplain muck. On the 10th, an Eastern Screech Owl spent the morning peering at us from the nest box we provided. Eastern Bluebirds were inspecting nest boxes.

Thank a person important for improving your life. Allow plants and animals to thank you for providing them good living conditions in your yard. They will thank you by being present for you see and enjoy.

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

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Ready for Spring?

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The warm spell in February was a big tease. It forced me into action. I pruned some low branches along trails at Ody Brook that I knew would grow to interfere with free travel. I thought hazelnut shrubs would appreciate me clearing some shrubs and small trees away from them to provide space for growth. There are relatively few hazelnut shrub clumps in the nature sanctuary and I want to encourage their survival.

The landscape mound’s dead vegetation was left standing in fall as a place for insects, birds, and rabbits to use as shelter during the winter. Usually before March ends and snow has melted, I rake the dead stems from the mound to allow unimpeded new spring growth.

There is always something to draw one outside every day of the year but the extreme February warmth and sun created an irresistible enticement. I got a jump on spring “clean-up.” It was good exercise for my muscles with the rake instead of using exercise equipment. Exercise equipment might be better for targeting specific muscles for toning but somehow indoor machines leave me empty compared with good meaningful work in the yard.

The benefits of work in the yard are many. It helps maintain appropriate living space for wild neighbors. I see animals moving about more during the warming. Two Sandhill Cranes flew over to increase my outside enjoyment. They were my first for the year. Anxious to reach breeding grounds, they advance north as quickly as the frozen water retreats. Finding remnants of corn left in fields, mice, and aquatic animals in open shallow water sustains them.

Frogs were active in their nature niche during what must have seemed like spring’s arrival. Unfortunately, some explorers of territory do not survive the early season jaunts. I went to the road to remove animals killed by passing vehicles. An opossum lay dead just north of the creek, where it tried crossing from west to east during the night. In late afternoon, a wild turkey lay dead south of the driveway where it was not present at midday.

For early spring color and nectar, daffodils and irises were planted in the gardens years ago. Already in February, the warmth stimulated activity. Daffodil leaves stood three inches tall and irises showed green to one inch above ground. I would not have seen their rush to grow if I did not do some early season gardening. I have learned from observations during previous years the new growth will survive the coming cold that will return.

The warmth persisted and I cleaned the butterfly garden of dead leaves well before the spring equinox. I looked for butterfly activity in the woods and was surprised I did not find Mourning Cloak or Eastern Comma butterflies taking advantage of unseasonable sunny warm weather.

The Sugar Maple trees by the house were daily dripping sugar rich sap from winter wounds during the warm spell. Birds like chickadees and titmice carry black oil sunflower seeds from birdfeeder to tree branches where they peck the hulls to get seed meat. In the process, birds break thin bark on small branches. The wounds drip sap.

Some butterflies that hibernate as adults find the wounds a rich source for nutrition to recharge their energy after months of not feeding. Though they hibernate and use little body fat during the cold, it must be good to wake to a ready source of quick sugar sap energy from bleeding wounds.

Take the opportunity to witness spring life in your yard.

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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A Sand County Almanac

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.”

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost things in natural wild, and free. For us in the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” Aldo Leopold from the preface of A Sand County Almanac.

I stumbled upon the book in 1969. I did not know such good reading existed. Outdoor studies were where I experienced firsthand why geese are more important than television and discovered why finding rare flowers is an inalienable right. It was not until 1978 that I first found a pasque-flower in northwestern Minnesota at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. I can describe the experience like it happened last year.

Part 1 of a Sand County Almanac has wonderful prose for each of the twelve months. One gets steeped in the lives of wildlife and unknowingly is provided the basics for wildlife ecology and nature niches. The chapters are a delight. Part two is “Sketches Here and There.” It takes the reader on a journey across North America from Canada to Mexico. It relates how our quest for a “still higher standard of living” has diminished the quality of the environmental ecosystems and our lives. The almanac section provides essential basics that help the reader understand how the dilemmas described in part two impact the economy and esthetic quality of our lives.

The most significant section is part three called “The Upshot,” where Aldo presents a blueprint for maintaining a healthy biosphere. He demonstrates with science and emotional connections how we can pass on a healthy planet for future generations. Many, like me, have written about nature and wildlife or described conservation challenges we face. Few have provided a framework for forging a healthy and sustainable future for people and nature as well as Leopold. The book concisely laid out such a plan in 1949.

After reading the book, I meet Wakelin McNeel, who was a professor at Central Michigan University. He and I camped together in wild country. I learned he grew up with Leopold as a neighbor in Wisconsin. His dad and Aldo were close friends and Wake was friends with Leopold’s kids. I was told then that Leopold was probably the most significant conservationist of the 20th century.

When the 21st century rolled around, committees selected people for the 20th century’s most significant title in many endeavors. For conservationist of the century it came down to two people. One was Rachel Carson and the other was Aldo Leopold. Choosing one became impossible so both share the title.

If you have an inkling to enjoying nature through observation, growing plants, or hunting, I encourage you to read the book. I have been presenting a program titled “Wilderness–Unique Treasure” since 1974 based on the book. I insert prose of my own and that of poets and literary giants like Thoreau. Invite me to present the program for organizations such as conservation, hiking, hunting, fishing, birding, or botanical clubs.

“The Upshot” of the book establishes the importance of wilderness for recreation, science, and wildlife. It clearly articulates their value. I have taken pictures to illustrate the values of wilderness for present and future generations. Anticipate hearing me recite Leopold’s most famous piece titled “Thinking like A Mountain.”

I have read several great books and I am pleased to share in this book review; it can be a life changer beyond a pleasant read.

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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Long-shadowed forest speaks silently

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

The groundhog saw his shadow if he woke from hibernation in 34-degrees fahrenheit temperatures. Instead, I expect it continued its chilly winter’s sleep with a body temperature of about 40F. Unconscious to the world above, it does not even wake to poop. Instead it remains in a shadow free subterranean cavity feeding on its plump body’s stored fat.

Cold mid-teen temperatures swept in from the northwest as high pressure brought dense air and clear skies during the night in early February.

The following day remained cloudless and sunny. The late afternoon beauty was too compelling to resist. Unlike the groundhog, I was conscious and drawn to venture into the big woods.

Wild Turkeys left trails with a center toe drag mark between steps. Two side toes glided over the four-inch deep snow without touching. The fourth, rear toe, did not leave a trace except when placed on the ground. Within the track imprint was a gray shadow protected from direct sunlight by the day’s late low-angled light. The un-shadowed snow surface glistened white from the falling sun in the western sky.

The cold following the recent snow kept it fresh, light, and unconsolidated. Wind could move it crystal by crystal. It was not cold enough for the snow to squeak under my footsteps. Instead the lowering sun on the horizon was making trees tell me they were taller than they are. By casting their long silent shadows great distances on a clean white snow palate, trees boasted a tall stature that did not exist.

Turkeys and trees were not the only painters marking the palate. A fox walked nearly straight lines with diversions to investigate brushy areas where cottontail rabbits sought shelter. Deer mice left four footprints and a tail drag mark on the fluffy snow surface. The fox was not fooled into wasting energy following mice tracks that would not provide a meal.

The mouse traveled about 150 feet before its light weight and tiny tracks that barely penetrated the snow surface disappeared through a small hole in the snow near a tree trunk. In a few places, it appeared a minor earthquake broke the flat snow surface and raised the ground cover leaving one long crack with several radiating fissures to the sides. I was unable to decipher what had moved beneath the snow to leave its silent telltale mark.

Fallen trees provide short shadows from horizontal trunks. Squirrels bounded between standing tree trunks to prostrate logs where tracks disappeared at one end and reappeared at the far end. Rabbit tracks looked much like squirrel tracks but circumvented logs to stay on the ground. They went around erect trees unlike squirrel tracks that disappeared at the base of standing trees.

Squirrel leaf nests high in trees blocked sun passage and showed dark balled shadows among the intricate gray branch shadows cast to the ground. Though it was quiet, the long shadowed forest was speaking loudly of its inhabitants.

I returned to my comfortable nest with a west-facing window to put pen to paper as the sun filtered light through pine trees during the last moments of day. Birds had quit feeding at feeders and darkness of night would soon replace the long shadowed forest with an even blackness. In a couple weeks, a full moon will cast shadows during the night when I will be compelled to take a night hike in a same yet different long-shadowed forest. Lighted by moon instead of sun, it will be a different world. Perhaps then I will hear the audible hoots of the Great Horned Owl.

For now, pine branch shadows lighted from behind by the setting sun cast shadows on my face to remind me I am a part of the pine’s nature niche.

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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