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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Extinction of meaning

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A new year with new hope. Experiencing the fullness of the outdoors has been a constant theme for my nature niche articles. I will write my 500th article for the newspapers this year and many are archived on line. One needs experiences in nature to fully appreciate the natural world that supports us. Getting outdoors with family, friends, children, and grandchildren to spend time with all creatures great and small is essential. 

Essential for what? That discourse will go far beyond the space allowed. Suffice it to say, “Creation Care is Essential.” There is an inalienable right for us and other species to live without us threating many with extinction. We each do our best to live and thrive. With that comes responsibility to live within our means. 

When we excessively use natural resources such as coal, we threaten our own wellbeing and existence. The fundamental question I encourage we ask is, do we live in a manner that shares the world responsibly with the 30 to 50 million species that sustain healthy ecosystems? Dr. Dave Warners, from Calvin College, along with many scientists have informed us that human activities are causing 50,000 species to go extinct annually. There are practical scientific reasons why this should be prevented but they carry little influence with many people. 

Bryan Pfeiffer recently wrote an essay titled the “Extinction of Meaning” with a focus built around the Poweshiek Skipperling. I asked Bryan if I could use excerpts from his article but limited space available for my column does not allow me to do it justice. Please go to his website www.bryanpfeiffer.com to read his article. He concludes, “Without the skipperling, the prairie will be a prairie depleted. And so, will we ourselves be depleted — not just of a butterfly gone forever, but also of a loss of human awareness and restraint, an extinction of what it means to love and live responsibly with nature.” 

Bryan writes, “Ecosystems provide us with tangible “services” to which we can assign dollar values: mangrove swamps and barrier islands protecting us from coastal floods or storm surges, for example; forests sequestering carbon and easing the climate disaster; or even value in the peace of mind we find in the good company of wildlife. These notions don’t find much traction in the Trump administration. What good is a butterfly that doesn’t turn us a profit?”

The Poweshiek skipperling occurred in the annual NABA Michigan butterfly count reports until a few years ago. It is still found in a few other Michigan sites and Great Lakes Region. The species has disappeared from nearly all sites in its range and likely will be another of the annual 50,000 species to pass into oblivion. 

Butterflies and moths have been a focus of my professional research and there is much to be learned. When I began research in southern Utah, 25 butterfly species were documented for the region and my work increased the known count to 72 species. I discovered a new species of virgin tiger moth that is named Grammia brillians

In our region there is are also many unknowns waiting discovery. I found a breeding colony of Northern Blue Butterflies and the Michigan DNR immediately listed the species as threatened and provided a nongame grant for me to conduct life history research. I found its caterpillar feeds on a Michigan threatened plant species called dwarf bilberry. My limited work on Isle Royale added two additional species to the list of known butterflies in the national park. The point is we are not aware of the inhabitants that share the world with us. 

Bryan wrote about the Extinction of Experience and Meaning stating: “What worries me more is that most Americans know little of — and care even less about — the spectacular natural diversity surrounding every one of us. We are ignorant of the rainbow of warblers — dozens of species — passing through in migration each spring.”

He further quoted my friend Bob Pyle, lepidopterist, writer, and conservationist who refers to “extinction of experience”—our estrangement from the familiar. “If we do not know what lives next to us, we will not notice when it’s gone.” My hope for the new year is that every one of us will have personal experiences discovering the natural world around us. Those experiences will develop into meaning that leads to Creation Care. Have a Happy New Year of discovery. My column will highlight nature occurrences that I hope helps us explore outdoors.

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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Birds Collide with Buildings


Ranger Steve

Nearly one billion birds are estimated to die annually by colliding with building windows. Gathering definitive data is a monumental task. Scientists have two ways for analyzing events in nature. 

One is qualitative where numerical information is not present. It includes things such as it is bright outside, leaves are becoming colorful, and dead birds are found by buildings. The other is quantitativewith a numerical measurement. Light meters measure light intensity, 50 percent of leaves have changed color, or 127 dead birds were collected by buildings this year. Quantitative data is needed for scientific analysis.

Under my permit, 127 dead birds were collected in 2018 for a study coordinated with Michigan Audubon and Michigan State University to gather quantitative data for birds killed by collisions with buildings. 

I hold US Fish and Wildlife Service and Michigan DNR permits to collect dead birds. Possessing an American Robin or Red-tailed Hawk feather is illegal without a permit. People wonder why. There are people that will kill songbirds to possess a few feathers or to use them in products sold at craft fairs. Conservation officers visit craft fairs to see if illegal nongame feathers are being sold. Possession of game bird feathers is legal.

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC), birds learned to trust us and to land on our hands to eat seeds. Several birds were shot at the birdfeeders. Someone thought it fun to shoot birds that learned to come close to people. Laws were enacted in the early 1900s to help species survive in nature niches because unregulated hunting was threatening several with extinction. Today hunters help bird populations even though they kill birds. Hunting license fees are used to manage habitats for game birds and the DNR monitors numbers quantitatively to manage population size. Nongame species like woodpeckers, goldfinches, and warblers benefit from habitat management. Duck hunters have helped increase waterfowl populations by maintaining wetlands.

It was a tradition on Christmas Day for hunters to compete to see who could kill the most birds in one day. Frank Chapman began the first citizen science Christmas Bird Count in 1900 as an alternative to encourage people to count birds quantitatively instead of killing them. Bird counts are important for documenting winter bird population numbers and distribution. I have coordinated the Grand Rapids quantitative Christmas bird count 32 years but I also qualitatively enjoy birds daily at Ody Brook without keeping number records. 

My salvage bird permit allows me and the people I list on the permit to collect dead birds for educational and scientific analysis. Many birds at HCNC were collected and mounted in life-like position for visitors to see closely and others were mounted in what is called a study skin. Study skin mounts look like the bird is lying dead on its back. Those specimens were used when I taught ornithology at Grand Rapids Community College and for natural history programs. Visit HCNC to see birds you might not get to see easily in the outdoors.

The salvage project with Michigan Audubon and MSU collects birds that hit buildings and provides data that quantifies bird deaths to learn the dates and species impacted. Monitoring weather conditions, wind direction, and fog conditions helps us understand when birds are at greatest risk. That knowledge is used to help us make recommendations that can reduce deaths by adjusting our human behavior to help bird survive.

It is especially important to darken buildings during spring and fall bird migration above the second floor. Most birds migrate at night but fly toward light in the dark. They collide with lighted buildings in the dark. By closing shades to darken windows we can save birds. Schools were recently closed for fog and there are school fog delays to save our kids from being killed going to school in those conditions. Birds do not stop migration for fog delay announcements but we can help them survive by darkening windows and maintaining dark skies. 

I submit a list of the birds collected each year to the US FWS and DNR. Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Cedar Waxwing, Brown Creeper, Brown Thrasher, Indigo Bunting, Rosebreasted Grosbeak, Nashville Warbler, Ovenbird, Sora, and Pine Warbler are some the casualties this year. To enjoy birds in nature it is important that we each take responsibility for helping bird neighbors survive.  

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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Insects in Winter

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Winter active insects have different nature niche adaptations for getting warm compared to birds or mammals. Reptiles and amphibians are inactive in winter as are some mammals and many birds migrate to warmer regions. Most insects and other invertebrates are stuck here all winter. Many aquatic insects maintain activity in winter. Their activity along with that of other invertebrates is minimized. 

Even when the ground is covered with snow, terrestrial insects can be seen actively going about their business of walking, jumping, or flying when conditions are suitable. Snowfleas are usually absent until well into the new year. They are not a flea but because they are small, black, and flip summersaults into the air, they have gained the name “flea.” A better name is springtail. When active on sunny winter days, they gather by the tens of thousands, usually at the base of large trees making the snow surface appear black. 

Dark tree bark absorbs heat and radiates the sun’s warmth. Winter sun rays are not restricted from striking the trunk as they pass through the bare canopy branches. Springtails are soil inhabitants that come above ground where the snow has melted around the south side of the tree trunks. They have a small spine on the underside at their tail end that projects forward. It is locked in place at the spine’s tip. 

Simulate the snapping mechanism that allows the springtail to flip summersaults into the air. Place two fingertips from opposite hands together at their very tip and provided increasing pressure until they snap apart. When the springtail lever snaps against the snow or hard surface it sends the lightweight an inch or two into the air to land somewhere nearby. A close view of massive snowfleas appears like jumping pepper on the snow.

Winter stoneflies, flies, and other insects fly on sunny winter days. When you see a name like stonefly with the two parts combined rather than separated to read stone fly, it indicates the species is not a true fly but belongs to a different classification Order. The same is true with snowflea.

To warm adequately to jump, walk, or fly, the organism must be small and usually dark. The dark body allows it to absorb sun energy and the small size allows heat energy to penetrate the body to warm muscles quickly. They also lose heat quickly. During short bursts of sun warmth, they can become active. 

Large hibernating adult insects like the mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies require a longer stretch of warming to bring their muscles to a temperature for flight. I have seen a mourning cloak come out of hibernation in early January but usually they are not active until near the spring equinox. Even so, I watch for them to become active in late February or early March before the sun crosses the equator and gets spring into high gear. 

We might lay naked on the snow on a warm winter day but the sun will not warm us to a comfortable activity temperature by penetrating deep to our muscles like it does for a springtail. Instead, we will quickly suffer from hypothermia and die. I suggest we keep our oversized bodies bundled and lay in the snow making snow-angels. Each species has specialized body adaptations that allow it to function. Body size and color are important. 

Habitat is critical. Aquatic insects, crayfish (can you tell by letter spacing if the crayfish is a true fish or not?), and fish can remain active in chilly liquid water. Their body temperature, though cool, allows activity all winter. Anglers know fish eat in winter but feeding and digestion are slowed in cold water compared to warm season rivers and lakes. Peer into an ice fishing hole from a dark ice fishing shanty where it is like watching TV with fish swimming through the viewing screen. Viewing is best when sunlight penetrates the ice.

Enjoy looking for active insects on beautiful sunny winter days when you rent snowshoes or get free use with your family membership at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. Take the family winter exploring in new ways during the coming months between the winter solstice on December 21 and spring equinox on March 20. There are always interesting things to do outdoors any time of year. Remain active and enjoy active insects.

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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Do you fly?

By Ranger Steve Mueller

When is the last time you flew under your own power and ability? This does not refer to flying in a plane. Many insects are small, lightweight, and have wings that allow them to become airborne. Some newly hatched spiders float miles through the air on a single silk thread and disperse a long distance from their site of origin. Birds take flight on feathers that lift their hollow-boned lightweight bodies. Bats are the only mammals that have mastered the air with flight but “flying squirrels” glide with the aid of skin flaps.

The Southern Flying Squirrel in our area and the Northern Flying Squirrels a bit to the north have skin that stretches between their front and hind legs. They leap into the air without fear of falling with a thud to the ground. They glide like a parasailer. These small squirrels, the size of chipmunks, are among the most nocturnal mammals so they are seldom seen. If you have allowed hollow trees to persist in your yard, it is likely you have these cute bug-eyed squirrels. 

Bats have thin sheets of skin between bones that are analogous to our phalange finger bones and are adept fliers who make a living removing flying insects in our neighborhood. The idea that they will get tangled in our hair has more to do with poor observation than reality. Bats flying near people’s heads are seeking an abundance of insects and an easy nature niche meal. They do not swoop so close to get tangled in hair. 

We are mammals that only fly in our dreams. Perhaps we have limited flight experiences. Remember those youthful days when you jumped from a swing and were airborne for a short flight. I recall once when I was in a leather strap swing seat instead of being on a solid board seat. When it was time to jump, the strap seat held me until the swing reached its peak assent. My body flew upward into the air from a tall swing in a county park. It was a long fall and when I hit the ground it hurt my legs. Flying did not work well that time.

Another flight experience was in dune country where I ran and jumped off a steep sand dune cliff. I sailed free through the air and landed on shifting sand where I slide downhill. My stomach seemed to rise into my chest as I dropped through space and produced a tummy tickler. It was great fun. Many of us have had a similar exciting experience when a roller coaster drops making us feel like we are suspended in air. 

When I sleep, I get to fly through the air in dreams. Karen says it is ridiculous how I fly. She flies “like a normal person” head first with arms outstretched in the manner we have seen superman or other super heroes fly. I fly flat on my back feet first and lift my head to look where I’m going. She says I am a lazy flier. I do not flap my arms or legs but simply move peacefully through the sky. In Karen’s dreams she is often being pursued and flies between utility wires to escape danger pursuing her. Her flights are “James Bond” events. 

My dreams do not indicate where I am going or what I am doing but it is a joy to travel through air viewing the countryside. Not every flight has been a joy. Twice I have fallen to my death in dreams. For whatever reason, I fell from a high building or mountainside and plunged earthward, where I splatted and died instantly. My spirit rose from the lifeless body where I viewed my crushed limp being.

Fortunately, my flights of fancy are usually wonderful excursions of mind and body. It would be nice to flutter like a butterfly through fields, hover like a hummingbird nectaring at a red columbine flower, or flit from tree to tree like a chickadee. 

Birds have lightweight hollow bones, which weigh less than their feathers, making flight possible. Insects are small and able to lift their bodies into the air. For us heavy bodied creatures, we must content ourselves with joyous flight in dreams or maybe with the aid of a hot air balloon that lifts our weight. 

How often do you fly aided by a parachute, hang glider, airplane, or some other device? What is your manner for being airborne? Self-propelled free flight is only a momentary reality in dreams. Enjoy the experience. 

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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River Wind

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We arrived at the river shortly before dusk. Our friends would join us early the next day. The river flowed straight toward us for about a quarter mile from the west before turning abruptly south. We selected a tent site where we could view the river and feel the breeze. It was fall so few bothersome insects were present and a breeze was comforting during the warm evening. 

We built a small fire in the forest service campsite grated fire ring to cook supper and make s’mores. Birds were mostly quiet during the late season but migrating warblers could be seen foraging in their transient nature niche from summer breeding grounds to winter havens far to the south. 

Grass was green and trees were beginning to flash colors we hadn’t seen in twelve months. Some were shedding a few leaves early. It was a peaceful evening and we were the only campers present. Families were home with children in school routines and it was premature for most hunters. 

We erected a dome tent with fiberglass rods that arched over the top. A rainfly covered the dome a few inches above the screen tent ceiling. The sides were waterproofed nylon. We laid our sleeping bags on small pads to make a comfortable bed and went to sleep after dousing the fire with water in the dark cloudy night. 

It was a quiet evening with only the infrequent hooting from a Great Horned Owl and the sound of rustling leaves as wind forced its way through the tree canopy. The breeze was soothing and lulled us to sleep like a mother humming at our bedside. 

Without warning the roar of a train startled and woke us from sound sleep as it raced closer. The dome tent that we could stand in was flattened and pressed against us. The rainfly was ripped off and carried into the forest. A strong straight wind or perhaps even a tornado was upon us. It was scary but exciting for Karen. For me it was terrifying. I had not inspected the area for dangerous trees that might break and crush us. 

I immediately envisioned John and Pat finding us in the morning dead under a fallen tree. The wind lessened quickly and the fiberglass rods supported the tent dome again. A pouring rain was coming through the screen tent apex. With flashlight in hand, I unzipped the tent and ran into the dark toward the downwind forest to recover the rainfly. Quickly, I returned with the slightly damaged bungy straps and rainfly that were ripped loose.

Together while being doused like in a shower, we covered the tent. Once back inside, we toweled our bags and tent floor as dry as possible and then dried ourselves. The sound of the roaring train came and went in an instant. I had learned that sound accompanies a tornado. When we got up in the morning little evidence indicated a tornado. No trees were uprooted and the area looked much like it did when were arrived. 

It must have been what is referred to as straight wind that came forcefully speeding down the quarter mile stretch of river and it did not turn at the river bend. Instead it continued eastward pressing the tent against our faces and trapping us prone on our backs. It was one of the scariest moments of my life but fear quickly passed when the dome erected itself and no tree was laying across our chests. 

We had a story to tell our friends when they arrived and that was much better than them finding us dead under a fallen tree. I learned that night it is important to survey a temporary camping residence for unexpected dangers. Rarely am I frightened when in the wild. Well maybe I should say infrequently. Dangers are present but rarely are they as dangerous as traveling in a car. One needs to be vigilant and cautious whether camping in wild country or going to the grocery in a car. It is usually more peaceful and safe camping than traveling on what seem like safe roads. Enjoy camping, learn how to stay safe, and have fun outdoors.

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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How birds stay warm

This winter might be a good time to feed the birds if you haven’t done so before.

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Many birds stay warm by migrating to warmer climes. Even more important for migrators is locating to places where they can find adequate food. Many birds that depend on insects, worms, and other invertebrates find moving to a winter home with adequate food is essential. Some that eat invertebrates stay in cold country but change their diet to vegetation and feed heavily on berries or even buds in winter.

American Robins that stay in our area move from our yards to swamps. I have been seeing robins during the last week of November and I am sure we will find many during the Christmas Bird Count on December 29. Come join us and discover what species are around in winter.

One of the most important ways birds stay warm in cold weather is by eating enough calories daily to maintain body heat. It appears this winter has a scarcity of food farther north. Evening Grosbeaks that we have not seen locally in years are making an appearance. Common Redpolls arrived in open country. Pine Siskins arrived at feeders after Thanksgiving. I did not expect them to arrive this early. Saw-whet Owls are reaching southward. This might be a great year to begin feeding birds if you haven’t maintained winter feeders.

As for staying warm, watch birds at your feeder on warm and cold days to notice differences in appearance and activity. I have not timed the frequency of birds returning to get seeds on cold verses warm days to learn if their foraging behavior changes. It seems they come and go more rapidly on cold days. It is difficult to keep track of a particular bird to monitor its behavior when several of the same species are visiting. Perhaps one will have feathers that make it distinguishable from others of its kind. Watch that bird and note the frequency of visits. Hopefully you will be able to observe it on both cold and warm days.

One of the most obvious things to notice is how birds look heavier in cold weather. They fluff their body feathers called contour feathers to trap air. The trapped air insolates and reduces heat loss. Small contour feathers are numerous and more abundant in winter. If feathers get wet they pack and do not insolate. You may have noticed this with a down sleeping bag. Birds have a preening gland at the base of their tail. They use their bill to gather waxy oil from the gland and spread it on feathers much like we use waterproofing oil on our boots.

Waterfowl, like ducks, geese, and swans, have a massive quantity of down feathers that keep them warm in winter while they float or swim in frigid water or lay on ice. If their down gets wet, the bird’s life will be short. Another vital adaptation to their aquatic nature niche is how blood circulates to and from their feet. Warm blood traveling in arteries to the feet flows adjacent to veins carrying blood from their feet. Heat from hot blood on the way to feet is transferred to cold blood returning from the feet. Cold blood is warmed by the veins touching warm arteries before blood reenters the body. The hot blood in route to feet is cooled. Instead of losing the heat to the environment, some heat is conserved by being transferred to the cold blood before it returns to the body.

It might not seem like a big deal but having moderately warmed blood entering the body instead of cold blood means the bird does not need to consume as many calories to maintain its body temperature. Watch birds like gulls standing on the ice to notice they often stand on one foot and tuck the other to the body. When watching behavior, determine if birds are facing the wind or away from the wind. When facing the wind, the air flows over the feathers and they are not ruffled to let cold air enter like when the wind approaches from behind.

Little things spell life and death. Like us, they can generate heat by increasing physical activity but this is only effective when they have enough food to replace lost body fat. During the night, a bird can consume its fat and starve in extreme cold. Black-capped Chickadees can go into a hibernation-like torpor where their heart rate and metabolism are reduced on long winter nights preventing too much body fat loss causing starvation.

These are some major methods employed to survive cold weather. Birds do not directly say thank you for us providing black oil sunflower seeds and suet but increased use of feeders in cold weather tells us they are appreciative.

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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Kent County Christmas Bird Count

The Grand Rapids Audubon Club has maintained bird count records dating back to 1953. I began placing the data on an Excel spreadsheet in 1986 when I became count co- ordinator and added the historic data sometime during the 1990’s. That is 64 years of data tabulated. I use the data when summarizing the current year’s count by looking for interesting comparisons and include a couple notes for the published summary report.

It would be helpful for someone to proof the data entries and help get the tabulated data in order so it can be made available for distribution or printing. Let me know if you are interested in such a project. You can come to Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary and we can plan the project.

Join bird count participants at 7:30 a.m. on December 29, 2018 at Wittenbach/Wege Agriscience and Environmental Center (WWC), 11715 Vergennes Rd. in Lowell, Michigan 49331. Field teams are organized and depart by 8:00 a.m. They return around noon for lunch. Joan Heuvelhorst will prepare a lunch. Lunch cost is $5.00 or you can bring yourown. At 5 PM, section ndings are collected. Participatepart or all day. Participation is free with donations sent to support the National Audubon Program.

This citizen science project is great for introducing fami- lies to bird discovery and is fun data collection. It is a way for families to do meaningful things together outdoors with help from experienced birders.

Have a great time enjoying birds, birders, and gathering data useful for tracking bird locations and species abun- dance. Individual teams see about 25 to 30 species and when all teams’ data are compiled, we total around 55 to 60 species sighted.

I hope you are enjoying your domestic Thanksgiving tur- key dinner today. Wild Turkeys were mostly killed by over hunting and disappeared completely from Michigan and from most of North America. There were about ten million in the North American in the early 1800’s. By the early 1900’s they had been killed to near extinction. Only about 2 percent survived in widely scattered areas and were unable to rebuild their population.

People became aware of the disappearance and tried to remedy the problem. Hunting regulations were enacted but failed attempts to capture wild turkeys for reintroduction to suitable habitat nature niches were problematic. By the 1950’s an effective method for capturing turkeys was de- veloped using a cannon net.

In the 1980’s I participated with the Michigan DNR in a release of wild turkeys in the Rogue River State Game Area. Later a DNR wildlife biologist called me to learn if I could provide information about the success of reintroduc- tion from the small number released.

By serendipity, the night before I saw 97 turkeys cross the road in front of my vehicle as I went home from the Howard Christensen Nature Center where I was director. Ten years ago, at Ody Brook on Thanksgiving when our relatives were gathered and eating domestic turkey, 21 wild turkeys paraded through the front yard.

Species are declining for a variety of reasons while many politicians work to weaken or dismantle the Endangered Species Act. Vigilance is needed to protect species and nat- ural resources for our present and future wellbeing.

For more information about the bird count and citizen science, direct inquiries to count coordinators:

Tom Leggett: (616) 249-3382 E-mail; tomleggett@hot- mail.com or

Ranger Steve(Mueller) odybrook@chartermi.net 616- 696-1753.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be di- rected 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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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche Different Kinds of Birding

By Ranger Steve

Are you a window watcher? That means most of your bird watching is done through a window. Much of my birding is casual with glances out the window. I used to leave for work before sun up and arrive home after dark. I still fed the birds all winter for their benefit even though I was not present to enjoy them. 

On occasion, a friend and I travel to interesting locations in West Michigan to see birds that are not found in our yards. Lake Michigan shoreline is a great place to see winter waterfowl. Binoculars are needed. A closer view in the open water where rivers like the Grand and Muskegon empty into the big lake provide good views. 

During the winter, my friend and I pick a January or February weekend when we can make a trip to the Upper Peninsula to enjoy the snowy scenic beauty and birds that do not come this far south in winter. The Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Northern Hawk Owl, and Sharp-tailed Grouse require us to visit their winter range to see them. This is referred to as “target birding” where people go somewhere to see a specific species. 

Birds end up in places where they are not expected. Some have been seen only a few times in our region. Why they are there is a mystery. Perhaps their navigation system has been confused. Their survival can be precarious. We observed a Rufous Hummingbird visiting a sugar water feeder the last week of December one year. The home owner saw a hummingbird and promptly put out a feeder to help it survive. It stayed for a couple weeks before disappearing. It was never known if it made the trip south or died in the stark cold winter weather. The Rufous Hummingbird is a western species that winters in the extreme southeastern states or farther south. 

I find exploring bird nature niches an exciting and rewarding endeavor that can shed new information for understanding bird behavior, ecological adaptations, and normal daily habits. Forging my way into difficult areas people tend to avoid is fun and challenging but reveals things not generally observed. 

The American Woodcock has a wonderful ground dance followed by an aerial spiral flight, plunges toward the earth, levels before crashing and resumes the ground foot stomping and spinning display at dawn and dusk. This can be observed during the late March and April breeding season at Luton Park and many area locations. We manage habitat for the bird at Ody Brook and always enjoy its performance. I occasionally keep records of the vocal calls called peents during the ground dance between aerial flights. They vary from a few to more than fifty. Peents increase in number as dark settles in. I note where they land and what they do on the ground. 

A different kind of birding is to discover woodcock activity before their breeding displays begin. I have tried to determine how early they arrive north. In late February and early March, I have forced my way through thick swamp shrubbery in hopes of flushing one when thick snow still covers the landscape. Trudging in such habitat is not easy and I have never encountered another person on such adventures. To my joy, I have come upon a woodcock feeding along a tiny rivulet of open water where it can probe its long bill in to mud in one of the few places where food can be found at that time of year. My observations indicate the species returns earlier than most people expect but they remain hidden and focus on feeding and shelter until breeding time. 

Another different kind of birding is documenting where nests are constructed, how many eggs are typically laid, the height of nests, plant species used for nest placement, and behavioral interactions with their own species and others. I waded in a marsh from nest to nest during a Red-winged Blackbird nesting season. Attached is an abbreviated table of observations from that venture into the wild wet world of blackbird nesting territory. Some data fields were deleted for space limitations and to prevent losing your interest with too much information. I keep bird nest records annually as shown in the accompanying sample table. That year I had records for 65 nests. This year, I have records for 49 nests. 

A different kind of birding is the life blood for sustaining a naturalist. I also keep records for plants, insects, weather, and more so we can best manage Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary to “Enhance Biodiversity.”

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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Zygodactyl

 

Downy woodpecker using its specially adapted feet to hang onto the tree, even upside-down. Photo by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant William Osterloh.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Red-bellied, Downy, Hairy, Pileated, and Northern Flickers are common woodpeckers present at Ody Brook and in many wooded neighborhoods throughout the area. Some are seen more frequently than others.

Downies are seen daily when visiting suet and black oil sunflower seed feeders. The males have a red spot on the back of the head, females do not, and young males have red on top of the head. Watching for color and feather patterns from the comfort of your home is easy. I combine watching with breakfast and lunch. 

Feeder watching is a casual activity. On the windowsill is a pair of binoculars within reach so I can quick get a better view. Some details are difficult to observe without aid. The white spots on black wings of the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers helps narrow identification quickly to those two species. Body size and bill length further help distinguish the two that have nearly identical patterns. 

Somewhat hidden is black flecking on the underside of white tail feathers of Downies. The under tail feathers are pure white on the Hairy. From a top view, the tail is black on both species except for white outer tail feathers that might show black spotting on Downies but it is sometimes obscure. Binoculars help get a look at the under tail. The black flecks are a definitive identification feature. The birds are not always cooperative in how they stand on the feeders for me get the view I desire. 

Other features helpful for separating the two species is their bill and body lengths. Downies are smaller and shorter than the Hairy. Bills on Downies are less than half the length of the head. The Hairy Woodpecker bill is large and greater than half the length of the head. This feature can be difficult to assess so using the black or lack of black spotting on the under tail is more reliable. 

The Red-bellied Woodpeckers have white markings on a dark back but theirs appear more like white irregular lines running crosswise. These birds are much larger than the Downy or Hairy. Some people confuse them with Red-headed Woodpeckers that have completely redheads while the Red-bellies only have red on the back of the head in females and on the top and back of the head on males. When they fly, a muted white can be seen on the rump. 

A more obvious white rump is distinctive on the Northern Flicker. Flickers in our region are the yellow-shafted subspecies that display flashes of yellow on wing feather shafts in flight. If large trees compliment the neighborhood, you might get to enjoy the crow sized Pileated Woodpecker. It is mostly black but flashes white in flight and it stands on the sides of trees. Crows need branches for standing.

A zygodactyl toe helps all woodpeckers stand on the side of trees. It is an important nature niche adaptation. Nearly all bird species have three toes facing forward and one backwards. Woodpeckers also have three toes pointing forward but one of those is flexible enough to rotate so it can be pointed backwards. 

When toes are positioned with two forward and two backwards, it provides a better anchor for gripping the tree trunk when the birds bang their beaks against the bark. The flexible zygodactyl toe is a significant adaptation aiding woodpecker survival. 

The exceptional toe is not unique to woodpeckers. Owls have one that helps them with the capture and holding of prey. Parrots share this unique feature but we will not see those birds in this cold climate. 

Seeing the toe adaptation in action is difficult but a pair of close focusing binoculars will make it easier to observe when birds perch on the side of trees or at feeders near the window. Something special is always waiting to be discovered in the yard by those observing the wondrous creatures that abound. 

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

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Hidden towhee beauty

 

Eastern towhee. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Two male Eastern Towhees stopped by for a visit at Ody Brook. We offer special treats but that is not why they come. They do not make secretive stops to play tricks on us either—well, maybe one that I will discuss in the conclusion. Perhaps they simply discovered other bird species and too many squirrels find the yard inviting. Now with trick or treat over, I can contemplate a nature niche reason they visit on their journey south. 

Some will rarely be found in the region during the winter months. It can be hazardous for males that stay here where winters are more moderate than farther north. There are benefits and hazards. As much as we would like to think they could predict the severity of winter, they are not fortune tellers and cannot. If severe winter conditions occur, their survival is challenged. An advantage of staying farther north than those wintering to the south is it provides a head start in spring for securing the best breeding sites before rivals arrive. 

Those leaving our area to claim choice breeding habitat farther north arrive earlier than males that departed from farther south. Once a male claims a territory, it is likely it will be able protect it from intruding males that arrive later. From secluded and even exposed tree branches during breeding season, it will sing a phrase referred to as “drink your teeeeeee.” The phrase is frequently repeated so we can follow the sound to discover the bird’s stunning beauty. Rarely do they make themselves obvious in the yard like robins.

Wintering farther south where snow does not persist on the ground enhances winter survival. A primary feeding strategy is to scratch through fallen leaves and they particularly like to hunt under shrubs and branches that conceal them. They prefer the seclusion of evergreen trees and shrub thickets. 

We get to observe their amazing beauty when they show themselves. We planted a balsam fir when the girls were young. The tree is about their age and now stands 30 feet tall. The girls did not keep pace with tree growth and we are pleased. It is difficult enough to raise children without having to deal with giants. The purpose for planting the evergreen tree was to provide a location where birds can hide when coming for a feeder meal. 

The towhees are appreciative and spend time when traveling to stop in or under that tree. They scratch through the deciduous leaves blown under the fir to look for choice food. Sometimes one will be seen under the bird feeder throwing seeds in every direction while looking for tasty morsels other birds ignore.

I watched one preen on a fir tree branch and ready itself for the continued journey south. It used its beak to clean and straighten feathers. It wears a sleek black hood that trails black on the back all the way to the tip of its tail. Under its chin, the black hood extends midway on the chest and stops abruptly at a clear line where white contrasting feathers grow. The belly is white with robin orange feathers that cover its sides and somewhat obscure the white underside. One could mistake a towhee for an American Robin at a glance. Robins are gray on top instead brilliant black and their orange covers the entire belly. 

The towhees have white markings accenting its black back and white on tail feathers that can be seen when the bird spreads its feathers or most easily when it flies. You might rarely have the opportunity to see one during winter. If evergreens are part of the landscape, viewing chances are improved when leaves are allowed to remain under them so don’t over rake. Even better are thickets of shrubs where they hide among clustered branches during the winter. Wet lowlands are often wild, not mowed or cleared so towhees find them good dinning accommodations. Allow unmanicured areas to establish in the yard and more wildlife will treat your eyes during the trick or treat season and throughout the growing season. Landscape to support bird biodiversity. 

In old bird guides, the bird was listed as Rufous-sided Towhee. It was discovered that instead of being one species, the bird played a trick on us and hid two species with nearly identical appearances. The towhees have now been separated into two species. The different western birds are named Spotted Towhees. Plan a trip west next summer to enjoy the similar species that has more white spotting on its back than the Eastern Towhee. 

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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