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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

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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Palmate, Pinnate, Toothed, Entire

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Look at your palm to notice your hand bones radiate from one basal area at your wrist outward to finger tips. Spread your fingers to make it more obvious. This pattern is called palmate. Think of the ribs branching from your spine and how they wrap around your chest in vertical rows. This pattern is like leaflets branching outward from a central shaft called the rachis on plants with compound leaves like roses, walnut trees, or sumac shrubs. 

Palmate, pinnate, toothed, entire, simple, and compound are few easy leaf characteristics to use to identify trees, shrubs, and other plants. Now is great time pick up leaves from the ground to enjoy the beauty of colors and to notice a variety of characteristics. Maybe you will want to pile leaves while raking, bury the kids, or even flop into the pile yourself. Take time to have fun with family and do things the kids or grandkids might not expect.

Imagine their surprise if grandpa gets into a pile of leaves with the kids. It will probably be even more surprising to grandpa’s kids than to the grandkids. When in the pile, have each family member pick a leaf and see how many colors can be found. Don’t miss the shades of tan, brown, yellow in addition to red, orange, green, and even black. 

If you are raking maples, the leaf veins will be palmate like the bones in your hand. Apple leaf veins will be pinnate and branch from a straight midrib that runs up the center of the leaf. On the abundant dogwood shrubs or dogwood trees, pinnate veins will branch from the central midrib, but veins curve toward the leaf tip. It is best to look at the underside of leaves where veins are more evident.

Beginning with a few leaf characteristics will make it easier to distinguish different plants. It is not even necessary to learn the names of the various plants. Simply enjoy different patterns and recognize how to separate them. 

Leaves might have teeth along the edge of the leaf blade. Teeth are sharp pointed projections along the edge. Some teeth are straight but cherries have curved teeth. There are plants with doubly serrate teeth. They are alternating teeth with one being large followed by a smaller one in a repeating pattern. The leaf blade might have a smooth untoothed edge from its base to the tip and is referred to as having an entire edge. 

Fallen leaves can be a bit tricky. Those with compound leaves tend to fall in pieces. Look at plants that have not dropped their leaves. The sumac shrubs still retain bright red compound leaves making them easy to find even when they are on the ground. To recognize if a leaf is compound, one needs to locate the leaf bud at the base of the leaf. Leaflets do not have a bud at the base of the leaflet.

On the sumac or walnut, there is a main leaf shaft called the rachis with pinnate leaflets branching from it. Look closely to notice there are no buds at the base of the leaflets. One needs to follow farther back to discover the bud at the base of the compound leaf where it attaches to the shrub branch. 

Bitternut hickory trees have compound leaves with fewer pinnate leaflets branching from their rachis than the sumac shrubs or walnut trees. The hickory drops leaflets individually while the walnut drops the leaf as a whole unit. Bitternut leaves become yellow while walnuts leaves fall green. 

The difference between simple and compound leaves is based on whether there is a bud at the base of the single leaf blade or whether the bud is at the base of a leaf having many leaflets. Spend time enjoying leaf characteristics in nature niches this fall and help family members experience the variety growing around the yard. 

Make raking leaves more than work. Make it an adventure into the mysteries of the living space you share with plants. There is more to enjoy in fall than the color change. 

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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Red Rock Wilderness presentation

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Plan an evening of enjoyment with a presentation by Clayton Daughenbaugh titled “A Wilderness Icon: Utah’s Red Rock Canyonlands.” It will include a multimedia program narrated by Robert Redford. Sorry, Bob will not be here to present his portion of the program but it will add to Clayton’s information and spectacular images. 

The journey through red rock splendor will invigorate and motivate viewers to participate in the movement to protect these unique lands. 

Clayton lives in Chicago but will speak to his own experiences as conservation organizer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and his concerns about current attacks on protected wilderness areas. Aspects of specific concern include President Trump and his administration’s efforts to repeal and replace the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments, as well as reversing progress made to protect the largest unprotected wilderness area in the lower 48 states. 

I have been a member of the SUWA since its founding and have written about this special place in nature niche articles. The new species I discovered (Grammia brillians) in 2005 resides in this wilderness. I am confident other new species live in the fragile and unique environment. Come discover the wonders of a wild place that deserves protection from short term despoliation that will impair one of the most special places on Earth. The few wild places like this will become more important for future generations. They are currently vital for recreation, science, and wildlife. In the future, these values will become more significant if they survive.

With his varied professional background and on-the-ground experiences, Clayton brings a unique perspective to the topic. He has chaired the Sierra Club’s volunteer positions with conservation groups. 

“These public lands are among the most beautiful and most intact portions of Creation remaining,” stated Clayton of wilderness areas. “We have a great responsibility to act to protect these special places.”

This is a wonderful opportunity to see spectacular images of a place I refer to as Eden on Earth. 

Date: Monday 29 Oct 2018

Time: 7:00 p.m. social – 7:30 p.m. program

Location: Aquinas College, John Donnelly Conference Center

Speaker: Clayton Daughenbaugh

Topic: Wilderness Icon: Utah’s Red Rock 

Canyonlands

Cost: No charge 

Directions: from north Kent County: Travel south on Northland Drive that becomes the East Beltline. After crossing I-96, turn right (west) on Fulton and travel to Woodward Lane on the Aquinas College campus. Turn left on Woodward (south) and proceed to the parking lot on the right. The parking is immediately south of the conference center. 

Map: https://www.aquinas.edu/sites/default/files/2017%20AQMap_OUTLINE_FINAL.pdf or use Mapquest.  

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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Guardabosque Esteban

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Fall is a good time to plant trees. Here, I am known as Ranger Steve. When I took middle school students to Costa Rica from Kent County, we worked with students from their communities to plant trees in damaged rainforests. There I was called Guardabosque Esteban. As “forest guard Steven,” the effort was to help young people learn how to protect the environment that supported community health, water, and the economy. 

Our students were paired with Costa Rican students and they planted nursery-grown trees. It was a wonderful experience for all, including the trees that could establish a good root system in a suitable nature niche.

Those middle school students are now 25 years older and I hope they show their kids the trees they planted. It was a fun and thrilling experience where the young people recognized how they could do something in their community to help maintain a healthy sustainable environment. 

Here at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary our girls planted trees yearly. We planted seedling Christmas trees to harvest for our personal use. In order to harvest a tree at Christmas, it was required we plant trees so they would learn how to maintain a sustainable supply. 

Pine trees need care as they grow. Sawflies, a type of wasp, would eat limbs bare of needles. The girls were responsible for protecting the trees from the foraging damage and manually removed the insects rather than use poisons. The caterpillar like larvae were placed on ant mounds as a special treat for the ants. 

We wanted fir and spruce trees to provide winter cover for birds and to block visual and sound impacts from the road. They were planted in several locations. The trees were only knee high. Within a few years they were taller than the girls and heavily used by birds and rabbits for shelter. Now the trees are 30 plus feet tall. 

It started with the family act of planting. Fall has cooler weather that is good for plants and tree planters. We prefer to work in cool weather. It is even great to plant during a light rain. It protects the roots from drying. Fall soil is still warm and allows the tree to grow and establish before the ground freezes. 

Fall showers aid root survival. Trees were planted in locations that are not accessible to the garden hose and carrying water long distances is difficult. We hoped adequate rain would come as needed but that is always a gamble. During dry periods carrying water helps survival. Properly planting is important. 

Fertilizer is not recommended with fall planting. It encourages new root growth that will be killed by winter weather. Allow the tree to establish on its own in the warm fall soil with available moisture. When planted properly it should survive the winter and grow vigorously in the spring. I have noticed slow growth during the first few years as the roots establish out of sight and rapid stem growth follows.

It is best to plant trees and shrubs a few weeks before freezing weather cools the ground. Keep newly planted trees well-watered when possible so they go into winter dormancy well hydrated. 

Dig a hole twice as wide as the tree root mass and properly deep so the base of the stem meets the ground surface. Do not bury the stem or have the root trunk exposed above ground. Use the same soil removed from the hole when planting. Using other soil is not recommended because new root growth will stay in the richer amended soil. Let the tree seek nutrients from the surrounding area and reach outward. 

Hold the tree upright as it is planted and pack the soil so air pockets are eliminated. Watering helps eliminate air pockets that can cause roots to dry and die. Mulching around the tree prevents plant growth that will compete to make living difficult. Keep mulch away from the stem. Watch the tree grow. It will add zest and beauty to the yard for you and wildlife. Select native trees species because they have adaptations to the local environment.

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

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The Sun Clock

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Another ranger naturalist did not carry a watch. To be on time to lead guided walks, Steve Carlisle used the sun to tell time. He asked park visitors for the time to make sure he was on time for his duties. 

Being outdoors daily allowed me to learn to tell time within 15-minutes by the sun’s location. It is an accuracy skill I have lost by not staying in practice. Like lure casting, volleyball, golf, or canoeing, one must stay in practice to be proficient. I carried a watch as a backup tool to meet arrival responsibilities for park ranger work assignments. The watch is more accurate than the 15-minute accuracy I developed by sun watching.

The sun does not rise at the same time daily. It is in a slightly different location along the Zodiac path as the Earth moves around the sun creating yearly seasonal progression. That is a reason weather forecasters post daily sunrise and sunset times. It is the Earth’s rotation that makes it appear that the sun moves overhead daily. 

The Earth revolves around the sun on a 365-day journey. Revolution is responsible for the shift in the sun not rising or setting at the same time daily. It complicates telling time accurately. People living before the sundials or watches, paid close attention to the sun’s position. It helped them arrive home before dark and allowed them to plant crops when it was reasonably safe to avoid killing spring frost. 

Begin practicing telling time by looking at the sun at sunrise and compare it to clock time. Every 15 minutes check your watch and the sun’s position. It is best to practice during the early or late hours of the day. During the evening, start observing one hour before the time weather forecasters indicate the sun will set and check its position at fifteen-minute intervals. Soon you will not need to compare time with a watch.

It is important to use early or late day observations when it is easier to gage the celestial position compared to objects like the horizon, hills, or trees. Those hours allow us to relax and enjoy how the sun plays into our own nature niche activity routines. Enjoy the beauty of changing light on clouds. Notice cloud silver linings and experience colors deepen and change as the sun dips below the evening horizon.

When the sun’s lower edge first touches the horizon, time how long it takes for the ball’s top edge to slip from sight. Always be careful when looking toward the sun. Quick glances are essential. Special viewing glasses are available. You might still have a pair that was provided for observing the solar eclipse. 

Early and late day observations are safest because sun intensity is reduced by atmospheric interference. Its light must past through more atmosphere and suspended particulate matter before reaching our eyes. The sun appears larger during those witching hours because of atmospheric light dispersal. Even more importantly, there are objects to compare with the sun like trees and hills that make it appear larger at that time of day.  

When the sun reaches high noon, it is the same size as when rising or setting but it looks smaller because we lack objects for comparison. Telling time to fifteen-minute increments midday is more challenging without objects for comparison. It can be done but takes more practice. Telling time in half hour increments is more reasonable when the sun does not have nearby comparison objects. It is fun to use the sun in ways that were required by early civilizations. It creates more independence from human tools. Become more self-sufficient. 

Celestial objects were used as maps before paper and ink or cell phone Apps. Free Apps can be downloaded for identifying constellations. They do little to help us understand how to tell time by observing the sun. Apps do not connect us with natural world in a manner sky-watching can for developing time telling skills. Connect with the real world while enjoying the everchanging sky.

Take time to practice telling time using the sun’s position and later use stars to determine where on Earth you are and how to navigate without modern technology. Depend on your skills instead of someone else’s.

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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Window view

 

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

As evening settled in, I knelt like a kid on the couch and drifted into the wild outside my window. The sun had set but dusk lingered. A large cluster of fleabane flowers decorated the view. Most gardeners would have long removed the plant in favor of something more glamorous. It is my joy to have the fleabane. I should have spent part of the day watching its flowers to meet its visitors. 

Instead of a manicured lawn, the yard is an unkempt marvel of plants and animals. A bird feeder brings visitors that brighten the day. A handful of common species keeps me company. For the serious birder, travel is required to see species other than the common place. I am a common place person with common place birds. It is a pleasure to see the more unusual birds or even common birds like the Gray Catbird that remain in the thickets at yard’s edge. The catbird watches me from thickets as I take daily walks. It often mews or calls a variety of sweet melodies. It has now retreated for the night and is not heard or seen from my window view.

Ragweed populates bare ground around the feeders with blooms that most would not consider flowers. Nondescript flowers producing pollen remain hidden in plain sight as tiny green bumps. Those bumps release massive quantities of minute pollen that irritate the sinuses of untold numbers of people and animals. They will be cut or pulled tomorrow when the sun rises and I make a futile attempt to reduce their “hay fever” effect. 

People tend to blame beautiful goldenrod flowers as the “hay fever” culprit. Its pollen is too large and heavy to be carried far from the parent and seldom enters our sinuses. It falls rapidly to the ground. Insects are required to carry its pollen from one plant to another. 

A large ash tree killed by the emerald ash borers, stands just far enough from the house that it should not cause home damage when it falls. Other ashes whose cambium was destroyed by the beetle grubs have begun to fall. They crumble piecemeal with branches breaking and falling before the main trunk crashes. It has surprised me that the trees are falling so soon after being killed. Other species like elms and cherries stand for long periods after succumbing to age or disease.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird has a couple favorite perches on the dead ash’s branches. The skeleton stands tall above the butterfly garden and provides an ideal location for the hummer to guard the sugar water feeder and nectar flowers. 

My mind has drifted with the sights and sounds of the outdoors without leaving my reading and writing room. The surrounding abundance of life in view from my window offers contentment. Night has crept over the yard. Black-horned tree crickets are trilling their best tunes to call mates in their nature niche. 

A welcome rain dampened the landscape after weeks of dryness. Plants stood stoic during the drought. Their leaves stayed green and coiled in the dryness waiting for a needed drink. Several times I have witnessed the plants response to welcome water after dry conditions. Within a day of roots capturing as much liquid as possible, some leaves and branches turn dead brown while others revive. This occurred with the arrowwood viburnum this week. The plant will live but not all leaves or branches. 

I have never understood the reaction. It appears the plant maintains the appearance of life for all its green leaves until it finally has a drink. Then it rapidly sends vital fluid to leaves able to survive but not to those too desiccated. Those almost instantly turn brown and will be discarded. Plants are resilient. They only keep parts that can be sustained.

From my kneeling perch on the couch, I turned and sat like a proper adult to contemplate the wonders of nature surrounding the house. 

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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Gold Treasures

A soldier beetle. Photo by Ranger Steve Mueller.

By Ranger Steve

The field has turned to gold overnight. The rich value exceeds that of the precious metal many would trade several weeks’ pay to possess. The field transforms itself without the aid of a forger pounding and engraving to human desire. The field knows just what a person needs to lift one’s spirits and hopes. 

Unlike the metal artisan that makes permanent engravings, the field has ever changing beauty that entices us to search its gold flower settings. Its golden surface has creative intricacies of a jewelry artist’s dreams.

After weeks of drought when plants seemed frozen in time, a 6-inch rain soaked deep. Plants greedily took every drop possible to quench a long waiting thirst. Less than half of the goldenrod were in bloom yesterday even though it was past normal flowering season. Today more than 70% are blooming. The waiting burst of gold was not just by plants. Insects of great variety have been on hold in quest of the rich golden treasure. 

Goldenrod’s flowers and pollen are more essential to life than a person’s quest for gold at the end of the rainbow. Like people seeking a pot of gold at rainbows end, insects seek the ephemeral gold of late summer. Many have their nature niche lives timed to its flowering. Bees and other insects seek nectar. The nectar reward is not free. Insects leave with a full stomach but are loaded with pollen they carry to neighboring goldenrods. 

Goldenrod pollen is large and heavy. It does not blow distances in the wind and requires delivery service to transport it to mature flowers. When a golden finch lands on a goldenrod stem in search of a tasty insect morsel, it undoubtedly knocks loose pollen. Instead of easily drifting on air currents to another flower, it falls to the ground. A number of ground creeping invertebrates consume the manna falling from the heavens. 

Pollen eating insects are attracted to the flowers like people are attracted to all you can eat restaurants. Goldenrods like other members of the large aster family, produce in excess to make sure pollen grains fertilize other flowers. Insects at the smorgasbord leave with pollen covered bodies to serve as dispersal agents.

I was told by a honeybee keeper, that members of his profession do not appreciate gold season. Honey bees get rich feeding on goldenrod nectar but the honey produced is bitter. People desire sweeter honey. 

The value of gold is in the eye of the beholder. Bees are joyous with the concentrated fields of gold. Honey connoisseurs are dismayed. I am particularly pleased with the great variety of creatures found among goldenrod. The abundance of monarchs deep golden orange in fields brings happiness to many. Pearl Crescents stand still on flowerheads long enough for us to see the tiny silver pearl adorning the hindwing undersurface at its tail end. The pearl is surrounded by the butterfly’s own version of muted gold. 

One can walk through a field of gold and return home with more golden memories than are possible to retain. It is necessary to share as many as possible at the dinner table before they are lost like nighttime dreams that seem to vaporize by the time breakfast is finished. 

Soldier beetles with gold and black wings find the massive flower heads perfect beds for copulation. Net-winged beetles with their own version of gold and black wing elytra are differently shaped, with the tail end of wings widening to give a triangular appearance. 

It is always good to have a field guide at the ready. Many find cell phone photos useful. Increasingly Apps are able to narrow an identification search to a few likely insects similar to how facial recognition programs are being used. For those of us still more comfortable with paper field guides, we flip pages in books like the Golden Guide to Insects. The Golden Guide is still our version of gold treasure at the end of a rainbow.

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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