web analytics

Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Neighborhood Nature Niche

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

How far must you travel for basic food, water, and shelter needs? Are they readily available in the neighborhood? Who fills your specialized nature niche to provide essentials that keep you healthy?

I reminisced about my early childhood with such thoughts. I grew up in a city of 100,000 people that provided many of our neighborhood family needs within a half-mile home range. Ecologically a “home range” is the area an organism roams in pursuit of basic needs. In addition to food, water, and shelter those needs must be arranged into an appropriate living space.

Until I was two, we lived in an upstairs apartment at my grandparent’s house. My dad built a house across the street from Grandpa and Grandma’s. My older brothers recall the move but I was too young. I remember going to my grandparent’s. A friend of my dad’s moved his family into the apartment we vacated. I played with his daughters Kris and Lynn. With those girls and other neighborhood kids, we learned social and life skills that supported life in our small neighborhood community nature niche.

Two houses to the south of ours, brothers Paul and Gus Herm had their home. Paul owned the Texico gas/service station located at the corner to the north where several businesses supplied our needs. I do not know where Paul’s employee’s lived but I expect they lived nearby. Three houses to the north from ours was Dr. McCarty’s dentist office where he lived in half and had the office in the other half. Across the street from that office lived Mr. Art Persale, who had a remnant small farm.

The farm was near the Texico service station at the intersection of State and Bay Streets in Saginaw. A privately owned Strand Drive-in restaurant, comparable to an A&W, was on one corner, our barbershop on another, and Granger Nitz Pharmacy on the fourth. Rupprecht’s Meat Market was next to the pharmacy, followed by Miller Bakery. The bakery smell was the best smell in the neighborhood. People would line up for the fresh baked bread in the morning. Mr. Miller would not cut it until it cooled, otherwise it would crush in the slicer. I still cannot find pineapple or cinnamon rolls as good as he made. An appliance, furniture sales and repair shop was near the bakery.

Across the street was the Daniel Theater that showed double feature movies preceded with the “News of the World and two cartoons. Between the movies when film reels were changed people bought popcorn and candy. I liked the Chuckles candy in its five-piece packet or a box of Milk Duds. White’s Bar, owned by my friend Bill’s dad, was next to the theater. Whites lived near Fuerbringer Elementary School that was a half-mile walk from my home. There were other neighborhood businesses that I do not remember that supplied things I did not use like a women’s beauty parlor and tax service. Not every person used all the services available. Specialized services met the needs for different people similar to services provided to organisms in natural wild habitats.

Behind our house was an extensive field that had been a farm field before my memory. We could see the row homes across the field on Avon Street where the Filiatrauts lived. My dad went to school with Mrs. Filiatraut and I went to school with her daughter Jane. The field was our playground full of rabbits, insects, excavated holes and forts we constructed.

Some essential products came and went from greater distances like city water and city sewage removal.

Neighborhood raspberry, strawberry, corn, potato, and tomato gardens supplied personal needs. A local farmer with his horse drawn fresh produce wagon visited weekly. The milkman came often to deliver milk and it was necessary to bring it in from the milk box before it froze on cold winter mornings.

Utilize the local farm markets, support local producers and neighborhood suppliers for basic needs. In turn become the supplier that maintains healthy wild nature niche needs for native plants and animals 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.

 

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Neighborhood Nature Niche

Weigh less under a full moon

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

If you desire to weigh less, weigh yourself when the moon is overhead or even better when it is a New Moon. When the sun and moon are both on the same side of the Earth during a new moon, they exert greater gravitational pull together and make you weigh less. Tides are highest when the gravity from both pulls toward them. You will weigh your least when the sun and moon are directly in line. The opposite side of the Earth experiences high tides at the same time. This results in high tides every twelve hours. Unfortunately, our bathroom scales do not measure fine enough to actually show how much less you weigh. It is only a fraction of a pound.

The Perseus Meteor shower article two weeks ago took precedence over the moon’s gravity because it only occurs once annually. We experience moon cycles monthly. The Perseid meteor shower peaks about August 11-13 but we can observe increased meteors for a greater time about a week before and after peak.

I have read the moon’s gravity is not great enough to create tides in the Great Lakes because the size of the lakes is too small but my observations do not agree. It is well known that tides in oceans raise and lower water by several feet daily. In the open ocean it is not observable, but along the shore, water retreats great distances when the sea floor slope is gentle. If the coast drops abruptly, it is still noticeable but one must look at the nearly vertical cliff walls. Sea wall life becomes visible for several hours before the water rises again.

I observed a tide in Lake Michigan near Manistique in the Upper Peninsula. We lived there for a couple years when the girls were little. We would frequently walk the mile to the lakeshore with wagon in tow just in case the girls became too tired.

The lake surface was as smooth as glass on a warm summer night. A full moon worked its way to zenith. Dolomitic limestone slabs of flat rock peppered the shallow water near the swimming beach. Some of the flat slabs barely protruded above still water. Rocks made an inviting stepping-stone trail to a large rock that rose several feet above lake level. We walked on the dry slabs to the big rock and sat to enjoy the evening. It was a movie quality evening. We had the lake, quiet, beauty, and the distance sounds of nature from the shore all to ourselves. It was a choice family evening.

We sat on the rock as the moon moved overhead. A Great Blue Heron fed in the shallows to the west. Ring-billed and Herring Gulls walked the beach gathering food morsels in the dimming light as day became night. The moon was bright enough to create shallows of our silhouettes. Aquatic insects skimmed the shiny water surface. We looked for fish but I do not recall if we saw any. I guess it is good reason to pull my daughters away from their busy lives and take them back to look for the abundance of life and see if we can observe fish. Life thrives in the water, on the surface, and above it. I know fish must be present or the heron would not have been wading and hunting.

When we decided it was time to walk home, we planned to walk on flat rocks used to reach our high rock perch. Most were now under water. Moon’s gravity had drawn Lake Michigan closer. The surface of the lake was higher but unlike large ocean tides, Lake Michigan had risen about a half inch. It was enough to submerge several of our stepping-stones. I did not have a millimeter ruler to measure the change. I should have gotten a dried grass stem to determine the vertical lake level change. It is another reason to return so I can measure how high a rock protrudes at low tide twelve hours earlier and then measure how much it is submerged when the moon pulls Lake Michigan closer. Take your family outdoors to observe and experience wonderful everyday nature phenomena.

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Weigh less under a full moon

Pileated Woodpecker

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Many people refer to Pileated Woodpeckers as flying dinosaurs. They have a unique appearance and life history. Every species fills a unique nature niche separating it from other species. Adaptations allowing a species to survive might cause it to become extinct if its habitat changes and its needs are too specialized.

This photo shows two Pileated Woodpeckers eating at a feeder at the home of David Marin, of Nelson Township, in 2013. The male is on the lower left. Photo by David Marin.

This photo shows two Pileated Woodpeckers eating at a feeder at the home of David Marin, of Nelson Township, in 2013. The male is on the lower left. Photo by David Marin.

Pileateds declined significantly in Michigan as a result of unregulated logging in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Trees were cut and the remaining branches were deliberately burned to clear regions. Fires spread to burn towns, kill people, and destroyed habitat that many species required.

Following deforestation, areas were cleared for farming and settlement. Much of Lower Peninsula was no longer suitable for Pileated Woodpeckers and in the Upper Peninsula the species was relegated to restricted areas. Second growth forest expanded in the Upper Peninsula creating large stands of maturing forest where the bird expanded its population. Few remained in lower Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio because of deforested habitat. Southern Ohio and Indiana landscape prevented complete clearing. Pileated Woodpeckers remained more prevalent southward into Kentucky and Tennessee.

For most of the past 100 years it was special to see this woodpecker between the Upper Peninsula and Southern States. Now it is quite common. They are regularly seen at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary where adequately large habitat exists. The sanctuary is not large enough by itself to support the species. Fortunately, neighbors have allowed maturing forest to remain along Little Cedar Creek where it creates a ribbon of habitat containing essential food, water, and shelter in appropriate living space.

Habitat space is critical but it does not need to be shaped in squares, rectangles, or ribbons.  It needs to be large enough to contain adequate food of the correct type and shelter for nest sites. The pileated normally drills a fresh nest cavity in a tree annually and requires large trees. Minimal habitat to supply food and shelter is thought to be about 150 to 200 acres. Food includes many insects, acorns, and fruit.

They feed heavily on carpenter ants by using their long sharp beak for chipping large pieces of wood from a tree. The trees are usually partially hollowed by ants. The woodpecker can hear the hollowness when it pounds its head against the tree. A solid healthier tree will not provide a smorgasbord of food inside. Trees hollowed by ants are easier to drill into.

Woodpeckers have cartilage in the skull that helps absorb shock and protect the brain. When the bird creates a hole in the bark, it can reach deep into an ant tunnel with its long tongue to retrieve many ants. There are barbs on the end of the tongue to help capture prey. When not feeding, the tongue must be stored somewhere besides hanging out of the mouth. It draws it into a cavity between the skin and skull, wraps it around the back of the skull for storage until needed.

I have State and Federal permits to salvage dead birds for educational use and have stuffed a pileated woodpecker. I retained the long tongue to show people its adaptation. The feet are also uniquely adapted for anchoring the bird to a tree while it works. It has a zygodactal toe on each foot. It can move its outer toe forward so it has three pointing forward or move it backward so two are forward and two back. When drilling the two backward toes provide greater grip. It uses its tail feathers that have stiff central veins to prop and hold the bird in place. This is the only woodpecker in the US to make long rectangular cavities in trees. Even without seeing the bird you can recognized the presence by cavity shape.

Males have a red crest that reaches the bill. Females are gray from the bill to the top of the head. Males have a red mustache along the side of the head while females have a black one. White can be seen in the wing of this crow-sized bird when it is in flight. Enjoy seeing this increasingly common bird as forests regenerate in our region.

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Pileated Woodpecker

Perseus Meteor Shower

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

 

“Shooting stars” create fire in a black sky. To celebrate my birthday, the Perseid meteor shower reoccurs annually with a peak fire performance from August 11-13. I pretend the fireworks are a personal birthday celebration but I know scientifically we all share this annual nature niche event equally.

Why does the Perseus meteor shower gain prominence as my birthday approaches and diminish afterward?

Most of us are aware the sun is the center of our solar system with planets that revolve around it and are held by its gravity. It takes the Earth about 365 days for a trip around the sun and we call it a year. The time it takes planets to go around the sun is their year but it is easier to compare their orbits to our year. It takes Jupiter nearly 12 Earth years to go around the sun once and only 88 days for Mercury.

Earth’s path around the sun brings the planet into contact with space debris that becomes “shooting stars” (meteors) nightly. During mid-August, the Perseid meteor shower light show might have 200 shooting stars an hour because there is massive debris in Earth’s orbit at that location. A comet likely passed through Earth’s path and left billions of rock, iron, or nickel bits floating in space.

Comets orbit the sun making large oval loops. We can predict return dates for some but adequate data is not present for others. Some may not return. Little is known about the source of debris for the Perseus meteor shower. Perhaps a comet passed through Earth’s path and it may or may not return.

Think of Earth’s path as a tube that the planet is in as it travels around the sun. When debris drifts into the tube, it gets caught by Earth’s gravity and is pulled to the surface. As the material within the tube is drawn toward Earth, it heats, glows, and vaporizes. Material farther outside the tube continues to float in space and next year it might drift close enough to be caught by gravity.

Material left by a passing comet is called a meteor swarm. It is a mass of material that is mostly very small. The average size of a meteor is .0005 (5 ten thousands) of an ounce. That is the size of sand grain. When the Earth passes, it draws particles that heat, glow, and vaporize. Some larger pieces glow very bright and may even survive to land on Earth as a meteorite.

My friend Bob and I went to see the “Old Woman” that is kept hidden away in recesses of the Smithsonian National Museum. We received permission to have someone escort us to see her because she is not in a public access area. The Old Woman is the largest meteorite found in California and the second largest found in the United States. It was named for the location it was found (The Old Woman Mountains).

This week spend time watching the sky for meteors. It is best to look between midnight and dawn when Earth faces the direction of travel and collides with more debris. Before midnight, we can see many but it is like backing into debris instead of hitting it face on. Think of it like driving a car forward into insects or backing into them. You will notice most when looking and driving forward as you hit them. The front windshield gets splattered and the back does not.

Shooting stars are usually about 50 to 75 miles over head but emit bright light for a tiny sand-sized particle. Meteor showers are named for the constellation where they appear to originate. The constellation Perseus can be found in the northeast sky and moves west during the night. Perseus stars are light years away and have no relationship to the meteor shower that originates in Earth’s orbit. Look before the moon rises or after it sets because the sky will be darkest. Get away from lights that impair the ability to enjoy a dark night sky. You have a couple weeks for watching the Perseid Meteor shower.

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Perseus Meteor Shower

Turtle encounters

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Seeing turtles sunning on logs is a joy. At times, a dozen line up on a log. When climbing onto a log, one often climbs on the turtle in front of it creating a row of several turtles propped on the backs of others. They appear like a row of fallen dominos as they warm in the sun.

When Karen and I canoe, turtles pay little attention to us unless we approach too closely. Maintaining a distance allows them to stay on their sun perch. Last week, we drove Chicago’s I-94’s ribbon of pavement that meanders through the city like a river. Turtles often cross ribbons of payment to reach wetlands or to find leg laying areas.

Finding a location for egg survival has become increasingly challenging. The increase in raccoons, skunks, and opossums has had negative impact on turtle egg survival. The increase of roads to serve our growing human population is a deadly challenge for turtle survival.

On I-94, three eastbound lanes were full and bottle-necked at a speed of 20 mph. A cement barrier was present to prevent vehicles from crossing into the on-coming west bound lanes. Traffic flow eastward improved and gained speed to 50 mph as we passed an on-ramp where cars were merging.

A large painted turtle with a shell about 10 inches from front to back was standing where the on-ramp joined with the traffic lane. Its legs and head were retracted into its shell. It faced the three travel lanes. If it proceeded across the three lanes, it is doubtful it would survive to reach the impassible cement center barrier.

I wanted to stop and rescue the turtle from certain death. If I returned it to the roadside vegetation, it might survive. There would be a good chance I would become roadkill if I tried to rescue the turtle so we drove on. Traffic was too heavy for even a large creature like me to enter the traffic lane. There have been many times I could safely rescue a turtle but this was not one of those times.

I made the decision to protect my life instead of the saving the turtles. I asked Karen if we should call 911. We thought the police would not respond so we did not. Perhaps I should have have made the call anyway. Saving a fellow denizen of nature niches is important during this era of turtle decline due to human population growth that is eliminating wetland habitats and requires more road building.

A study was conducted where rubber turtles were placed on a road shoulder. The researcher watched driver behavior. Six in 1000 drove onto the shoulder to deliberately kill the turtle. Some drivers stopped to rescue the turtle. Some people have what I refer to as a “reverence for life” and others do not.

Hunting and fishing licenses help maintain wildlife habitat and turtle survival. People kill turtles for food and laws regulate the take just like fishing and mammal take limits designed to maintain sustainable populations. I find great dismay in roadkill loss, whether it is people killed that we read about weekly or wildlife roadkill. It is such a wasteful death. The DNR attempts to maintain turtle populations from long term decline but it is an enormous, tenuous challenge. I have personally watched people go out their way to kill turtles just because they are present.

Encourage young children to appreciate turtles so they learn when it is appropriate to take turtles like fish or deer and to avoid killing roadside turtles just because they are present. Encourage a reverence for life. Help a turtle that is crossing the road but make sure you do not become roadkill.

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Turtle encounters

Ant stories

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Ant stories abound. Some are good and then there are others. I hope children still watch ants carrying sand grains and sticks as they tend to their house keeping. It was always interesting to watch ants march one by one in a long row carrying food bits to the nest while others walked in the opposite direction to a food source that an ant found and trail marked.

The ant finding a food source laid a trail of pheromones for ants to follow and a great chain of ants began work. I’ve watched them walking over cement following an invisible trail. I rubbed a finger across the trail about three inches wide. It removed the trail scent. On both sides of the rub, the ants came to a stop and did not know where to go. They piled in mass about three inches apart.

After I watched and waited for about 30 minutes, an ant found a way to reconnect their road. The new trail was about three feet long instead of three inches. It made a big loop like a bypass we might encounter when a road is closed for repair. One would think they would have found a short route but they did not. I had read about pheromone marked trails and wanted to verify it. Science requires observation that is repeatable with verifiable physical evidence. I do not need to personally conduct every science experiment to accept it but some are great learning experiences. When food is depleted, the ants cease placing pheromone drops on the trail. It evaporates and the trail is abandoned.

It was sad for a beetle when a group of ants discovered it for a meal. I was tempted to save the beetle by shooing ants and moving the beetle to safety. Instead, I allowed the ants to continue their predatory role. The beetle fought for its life as long as it could but the ants chewed off its legs. Once the beetle could not move, ants proceeded to kill it for a hearty meal. I suppose it is like humans fishing, hunting birds, mammals, or slaughtering cows and pigs for our sustenance.

Our daughters were raised to respect life and to avoid causing needless or cruel harm or death. When Jenny Jo was in second grade, she told her teacher that kids were stepping on ants and killing them in the playground. The teacher acknowledged but did nothing until she realized how traumatic it was to Jenny Jo and decided to stop the students from needlessly killing ants going about their daily work. It was new experience for the teacher to encounter someone valuing ant lives.

We each raise our children with different values regarding a “Reverence for Life.” There are times when it is appropriate to kill insects and times when we should not. I have written about the importance of insects as pollinators, predators of other insects, and their importance for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Many kinds of butterfly caterpillars require ants for protection in order to survive to the winged adult form. The Endangered Karner Blue butterfly in our region is one example. In Karner Blue habitat one will find large ant mounds and without the ants, their survival would be greatly reduced.

Preventing ants from causing houses to collapse is important. Carpenter ants found our home and began hollowing support beams. That was unacceptable and we hired a treatment company to save the house.

Most insect activity provides direct or indirect benefit for society. We should make intelligent decisions to live with most insects. They do not know the difference between carrying food they found, a hapless beetle, or beams in a house. We can selectively control problem ants to protect our homes. Value ant roles in nature niches and support life when reasonable. Spend time outdoors with family members to discover the biodiversity of life sharing our yards and encourage a reverence for life.

Few wildlife are harmful to us or property so I suggest we do not to use excessive control, pesticides, or herbicides that kill the approximate 99 percent that are beneficial. Selectively target the 1 percent causing damage.

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Ant stories

Big Timbers Fall

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We each have our own mentors, heroes, and life guides.

As a young person, we latch on to experienced seniors in areas of interest or professions. Interestingly, as we age, we learn many younger than us surpass our own skills and knowledge in specialty subjects. Our mentoring leaders become younger people that model how to complete our work more effectively.

Despite the concept of “in with the new and out with the old,” it is important to build on foundations forged by those that came before us. They redirect our lives. Each of us have special mentors. Most often they are people we interact with personally or have secondary connections with through others.

I began college at Ferris State where an emphasis was on pharmacy and bio-chemical education. I wanted to focus more on wildlife management and ecosystem analysis. I decided to transfer to Michigan State, which is well known for its wildlife management programs. It was a much larger institution than I desired with 40,000 students but it focused on skills I hoped to achieve.

I happened to meet Wakelin McNeel, professor at Central Michigan University. Camping with him in the wilds of Michigan and discussing education opportunities offered at MSU and CMU, he redirected my college selection. Some aspects of MSU education would provide better education and narrow my focus, while opportunities at CMU would develop and improve teaching and field biology skills.

Classes at CMU involved more outdoor instruction and experiences than MSU. Upper level science class sizes were smaller with greater individual instructor interactions during the 1970’s.

I chose to be mentored at CMU by a variety of skilled instructors and students. At MSU, I expect I would have forged some great mentors but I particularly liked the smaller education community at CMU. My career opportunities would have been different and great at MSU but CMU guided me to a wonderful career. Fellow CMU field biology graduates acquired careers that suited their interests and life desires. We maintain contact and they continue to mentor me from afar and when we get together.

The take home message is we each need to direct our own lives in a manner the matches our skills and desires. My career path took me to many jobs and places before settling into a career nature niche as director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, Director at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center and now Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. Major unexpected occurrences interfered along the way but mentors helped me develop despite challenges.

My advisor, Dr. McNeel, was hit and killed on his bicycle when a college student passed another vehicle on a double yellow line. A second car came over the hill, saw the student passing and went onto to the road shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. Wake was biking there and was killed at age 45 in 1970.

Despite his death, he continued to mentor to me through his legacy. I became an unofficial “Big Brother” for his three young children Ted (8), Amie (7), and Ross (4) by spending every other weekend with them while I finished my college years. A good friendship with their mother, Katie, helped me learn more about Wake’s personal life. That mentored my development.

I have great stories to share and continue to maintain a causal relationship with Ted, Amie, and Ross. We will all pass but maybe beforehand we will become a mentor for someone and it might continue when we become a fallen timber. Live a life as an important big tree. Be a person someone chooses as a mentor. You might not know it but you could already be a Big Timber for someone.

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.

Posted in Outdoors, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Big Timbers Fall

Arrowhead Spiketail

 

This Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly photo was taken at Ody Brook, the property owned by Ranger Steve Mueller. Photo by Jerry Belth.

This Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly photo was taken at Ody Brook, the property owned by Ranger Steve Mueller. Photo by Jerry Belth.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Standing on vegetation in sunlight, an Arrowhead Spiketail allowed us to see its bright yellow arrows that appeared to have been painted on its black abdomen by an artist. The spiketails are large dragonflies and the Arrowhead is striking and beautiful.

My colleague Jeff Belth, who wrote the book Butterflies of Indiana, was able to photograph one while we explored Ody Brook (see picture). Dragonflies are active insects pursuing small insects for a meal. The agile flyers are perhaps the best insect flyers and it is difficult to get looks at details. Venture out early in the day and the dragonflies might still be perched and sleeping with dew covered wings.

I tend to be a late sleeper so I do not beat the sun up for its morning rise. If you go out when the sun is above the horizon and warming the day, a watchful eye might find various dragonflies perched. My first experience with the Arrowhead Spiketail was in Porcupine Mountains State Park and I was elated to see such a magnificent creature.

It is generally difficult to approach this species but I have seen them perching in grassy in fields where I could get a great look with binoculars. Generally, they are a northern species so I did not expect them here. It is wonderful that so many life forms share Ody Brook. The down side is that is difficult to observe everything. I have not given adequate attention to dragonflies and have only documented a few species here. This year we first noticed the unexpected Arrowhead Spiketail at Ody Brook. They have probably been here since I joined this community of nature niches in 1979. For 37 years I have lacked adequate focus on who my neighbors are but we have shared the property in harmony.

Many dragonflies are fairly small (1.5 to 2 inches long) but the spiketail is three inches long. Its wings are clear except for a small black stigma near each wing tip. The stigma is a dark thickened wing membrane near the tip appearing as a dark spot. It helps provides weight and flight stability.

It is hard to notice body pattern details when dragonflies zip about the yard. Patient observation provides an opportunity to see details when the insect hunter takes a break and lands. When we are lucky, it lands in a field, but in forested areas this species will perch in sunlit tree tops.

Dragonflies, like other insects, have three body sections (head, thorax, and abdomen). A long, black abdomen with yellow arrows pointing toward the tail make this one an easily identifiable dragon. The abdomen is long and thin. Between the wing bases is a large thorax with powerful muscles attached to the inside of the exoskeleton. Unlike vertebrates that have an internal skeleton, insects have their skeleton on the outside. Muscles in the thorax pull the two sides of the exoskeleton together in alternation with muscles that pull the top and bottom together. The alternation of contraction and relaxation, in rapid sequence, forces wing movements to create flight.

Pay attention to colors and patterns on the thorax that are helpful or essential for identification. The Arrowhead Spiketail has two yellow thorax stripes. On the head, how the eyes meet with each other is important. All spiketail species have eyes that only touch the other eye in one small spot. Many species of dragonflies have eyes completely separated or touch along their length on top of the head.

Associate dragonflies with habitat. Little Cedar Creek at Ody Brook has many spring seeps, with soft bottoms in the west part of the sanctuary, that keep water flowing all year. The creek headwaters in the east portion of the sanctuary dry in summer. The spring seeps with small persistent pools and muddy bottoms covered by shallow water, is where female Arrowheads lay eggs. After eggs hatch, the small aquatic naiads feed on insects in the water before transforming into the gorgeous adults. Look for adults in June and July. Always expect something new.

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.

Posted in Featured, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Arrowhead Spiketail

Lost in the fog

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

A long exhausting flight was necessary for a mystery bird that followed the national park boat, Ranger III, in a fog. I led a tour for Michigan Audubon to Isle Royale National Park. We took the boat to the island archipelago in beautiful sunny weather. The trip takes about five hours from Houghton, Mich.

We spent five days hiking and exploring the wilderness on short and long hikes. Boat trips trip were taken to special islands where we discovered wondrous natural history. Also explored were the mining, fishing, and human history including how Native Americans sustained their economy using island natural resources.

We left the park in a thick, chilling fog. Participants spent most of the time in the cabin where I presented a Wilderness slide program. (Program brochures are available by e-mail).

Occasionally, people would go on deck to gaze into the fog. A bird was flying just above and behind the boat. I was requested to identify it. We could see a silhouette with a long tail and it was about the size of a skinny robin. I was puzzled. I returned several times during a three-hour period to look for identifying details.

Finally, about an hour before we docked, the bird must have tired enough that it decided to land high on the boat. It was still in the fog’s thickness and showed only its silhouette. Finally, I recognized it. It is a bird I seldom see. The species often remains hidden in shrubby areas or in thick forest.

It is famous because it eats fuzzy tent caterpillars or spiny caterpillars like the exotic Gypsy Moth caterpillar that many bird species reject. It was a Black-billed Cuckoo. As we approached the Keweenaw Peninsula, the fog thinned making details like its long thin bill and small crescent white patches on the tip of each long tail feather evident to confirm my identification. People came out to add one more species to the tour’s bird list. The Common Loon incubating eggs might have been a favorite for many but this lost bird was a favorite for me.

I say lost because I think it might have found itself over water and could hear the boat engines. It flew to the sound and was trapped with the boat being the only option for landing. It flew for hours and finally landed.

Once the fog cleared, the bird could determine where it was based on sun position, polarized light, and magnetic receptors in its head that are used to orient to the Earth’s poles. I suspect it fed heavily and headed back to its summer nesting territory. A long flight over Lake Superior is exhausting and could be deadly.

Maybe its nesting season was complete and it was beginning its migration south in early July. Some birds, like shorebirds, begin southerly migration in July from the high arctic. It does not seem likely for the cuckoo for three reasons. I see cuckoos later in the season at Ody Brook. I know they typically migrate at night like many forest, shrubland, and field birds. I also question it using a migration route over Lake Superior.

We know so little about bird movements. I wonder if most fly the much shorter distance north to Minnesota and then follow the shoreline to Duluth before working their way south to wintering areas in South America.

It is wonderful to be a broad spectrum naturalist who knows a considerable amount about nature but I am aware of how little I know about any specialty group. I have friends that would have quickly recognized the cuckoo flying in thick fog. I should have recognized it sooner. One friend said he dares not study butterflies, my specialty, because the learning curve would be difficult to become proficient and he would not be able to maintain bird study adequately. I depend on experts to help me with plants, Fungi, invertebrates, vertebrates, astronomy, geology and anything about nature niches. For most of us, help from scientists is great and provides knowledge so we can learn to live with nature most effectively. Being generalists prevents us from becoming true experts in one subject. Request an e-mail program brochure and invite me to present for your organization.

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Lost in the fog

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: New pollinator guide

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A new Michigan State University pollinator publication PDF is available for free download titled “Protecting and Enhancing Pollinators in Urban Landscapes for the US North Central Region.” This 2016 publication (MSU Extension Bulletin E3314) is the complete guide to protecting pollinators while gardening, growing flowers, or managing trees, shrubs, or turf grass in urban areas.

The extension service encourages people to plant native species and also suggests use of non-native species. Non-native species plants spring up in the lawn. Like the extension service, I encourage allowing them to live among the grass. They attract nectar seeking butterflies and insects. The Extension Service provides a list of non-natives for the garden; also I suggest New pollinator guide use of non-natives. They point out that cultivars and non-natives often do not attract insects well.

Though I strive to encourage native plants, I am not a purist and tolerate some exotics. Part of the reason is because it would be necessary to use herbicides and fertilizers to eliminate broadleaf plants in the carpet of monocot grasses. A pure grass yard has nice appeal but supports little diversity of life. I encourage the greatest diversity of insect life and that in turn allows more birds to thrive.

Regularly I see an Eastern Phoebe fly from a tree perch into the yard to eat insects. Ground feeding birds walk or hop in the lawn searching for insects. That is not as common in manicured pure grass lawns. Karen commented that our yard looks like something out of a Disney movie. When we look out the window, we see two or three rabbits nibbling on clovers, deer, birds and squirrels. Many birds and mammals are present in our yard because it is not excessively manicured.

When the Wild Ones Native Plant Group comes for field trips, I share that I am not a purist and allow some non-native plants to live. I try to restrict most planting to native species. I realize most people do not have the books that identify species as native or non-native. I encourage landscape nurseries to sell native genotypes but they sell what people buy. Request nurseries to sell native species genotypes. That might affect healthy change that encourage maintenance of native biodiversity in your yard.

In sections of the yard that I mow, I leave areas unmowed until July to allow wildflowers to brighten the landscape. Two species that provide dense beauty, color, and food are Maiden Pink and Cat’s-ear. The pinks form a wonderful layer of pink flowers with Cat’s-ear making a towering layer of bright yellow above them. They are present because of delayed mowing. Both have flowers that open in sun and close in shade or night. Butterflies and other insects visit for nectar. When the pinks go to seed, I mow them but summer garden flowers have begun blooming and provide continued nectar.

I greatly appreciated the volunteer work from the River City Wild Ones that prepared the butterfly garden for the past two springs. They are Meribeth Bolt, Tammy Lundeen, Mindy Miner, Deanna Morse, and Gretchen Zuiderveen. My oncologist has stated my gardening days are through because I am not fungus protected. The cancer and three chemo chemicals limit my body’s immune system. The limitation does not prevent me from exploring, enjoying, and discovering something new every day in nature niches. Use the new pollinator guide will help liven your yard with flowers, insects, and birds.

Download the Pollinator Guide PDF:

<http://msue.anr.msu.edu/uploads/resources/pdfs/ProtectPollinatorsInLandscape_Final-LowRes.pdf>

I met with with Extension Agent Erwin (Duke) Elsner at his request this spring to provide sources for pollinator data. He had most sources for our region identified but I was able to assist with a few more.

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.

Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: New pollinator guide