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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Not a creature was stirring

 

OUT-Nature-niche-Ranger-Steve-Head-ShotBy Ranger Steve Mueller

 

As we wind down the year, creatures stirring in our home are less obvious. Mice seem more abundant in fall. A mouse was caught in a trap yesterday and a short-tailed shrew was caught in another. I am dismayed to kill a shrew because they are nature’s living mouse trap. A drug carried in their saliva causes mice to become uncoordinated when bitten. It becomes easier for the shrew to kill the mouse. Shrews eat more than their weight daily. A mouse is a good day’s meal. I take comfort in the idea that shrews control our mice population (I hope).

Some would think nature niches stop at our door step but that is not the case. Wildlife inhabit our homes whether we want them or not. Humans are not separated from nature at any time. Air infiltrates our homes. Warmth arrives from furnaces to maintain our tropical environment. House plants filter air, remove chemicals and purify living space. Be thankful for air leaks and house plants.

We have become better at sealing air leaks, but home air quality studies show air in modern homes are not as healthy as in poorly insulated homes. We insulate well and have many house plants to purify air. I encourage each of us to have many house plants. It is most important in winter. Bring nature into the house.

Other creatures live in our homes. During the summer we notice more insects. Flies become a nuisance. Screens work well but an open door allows them to sneak in unnoticed. They lay eggs on hidden dead mice and within a few days reduce the mouse to fly flesh.

A naturalist friend is a spider specialist and tells me we are never more than three feet from a spider in the house. Spiders eliminate many insects. Cherish spiders in the house. Most are actually smaller than a mosquito but we notice the larger ones. Many do not build webs but hunt their prey. The lack of web building helps them stay hidden while they secretly do important work. Save money by letting spiders do pest control for free instead of hiring a company to treat your home with chemicals.

That is not always acceptable. When we bought our house, we had a termite problem and needed to hire a company to save the house from serious damage. Back then dangerous chemicals were used and I wonder if that could be a source of my cancer. Doctors have no common links among people with multiple myeloma. The cancer cause remains a mystery.

Termite life history studies have revealed ways to get them to carry hormone material to the termite nest that interferes with reproduction without putting dangerous chemicals in the home and it only affects termites. The absence of termites opened living space for carpenter ants that threatened the structural integrity of the home. We needed to call a pest management company. Chemicals were used around the perimeter of the house. I do not want that, but find it necessary. I inquired and requested use of the safest chemicals.

Many insects live with us and we get along fine. Very few cause health, safety, or damage to people or the homes. Some can be a nuisance. The European “ladybugs” have become abundant and enter home siding to hibernate by the thousands. Many get into houses. Too many around is disturbing and unlike native ladybugs, they will bite. Some Leaf-footed bugs enter the house. I just pick them up and release them outside. Earwigs scurry in damp areas. They do not enter ears. Crickets are often only noticed when they serenade during dark hours when we choose to sleep.

Many species of flies enter the house. I recently removed the kitchen ceiling light cover to empty dead fly bodies that accumulated during warmer weather. Species of small micro moths are present. In the bathroom, I saw small moths in the bathtub. A closer look demonstrated only two wings and proved them to be a fly named moth fly. It feeds on sludge in the drain for free—less drain cleaner needed. The list of creatures that share our homes is long. We mostly get along well with household creatures except for a few that will eat our home from under and around us. Find a balance with minimal creature control.

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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Pieces and parts

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Learn to see and help wildlife at the same time. First, place a bird feeder 5 to 15 feet from a window where you can observe birds. Second, discover distinguishing characteristics for identifying different species and even sexes of birds. Use systematic practice with different pieces and parts of birds on different days.

Start with heads and stick with just that part. Common birds that frequent feeders are Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, House Finches, and American Goldfinches.

Downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

On the head, look for a crest. Jays, cardinals, and titmice will have a crest. Notice they can stand it up or lay it flat. Look for head patterns. The White-breasted Nuthatch has a black-cap with white cheek and throat. The chickadee also has a black cap and white cheek but its throat is black.

The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers have nearly identical head appearances. Both have black and white stripes running from the front of the head toward the back. The Hairy has a larger head and the entire body is larger but I frequently encounter people misidentifying them based on size. A helpful head feature to note is that the Hairy has a beak that is as long as the head or longer. The Downy’s is shorter than the length of the head. Male and female Hairy and Downy’s can be separated because the males have a red spot on the back of the head and females do not have red on the head.

Hairy woodpecker

Hairy woodpecker

On another day, look at bird wings. Are they a solid color? Chickadees have gray wings with white along the edge of each feather. Titmice have solid gray wings. The Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers have black wings that are heavily spotted with white. Goldfinches have two light wing bars running crosswise across the wings. House finches also have wing bars but they are more faint.

Third day check out tails. Are the tops and bottoms different? How about the edges? The gray tail on the chickadee has a white frame around the edge. Are tails of different lengths? The chickadee has a long narrow tail. The nuthatch as a shorter wide tail. Woodpecker tail feathers have obvious pointed projections at the end that are used in their nature niche to brace themselves on a tree when using their sharp bill for pecking trees. Hairy’s have white undertails. Downy’s have black dashes across the white underside.

Many unique features help separate bird species. It becomes easier when we notice pieces and parts. At the feeder, we get frequent, repeated, and even long looks at what is called bird topography. Purchase a field guide and study the bird topography page.

When you try to identify a species, the guide may suggest looking at the crown, cheek, lores, supraloral stripe, nape, or some other feature that may be foreign to you. By practicing on birds at the feeder and comparing features listed on the topography page with birds in view, it will be easier to recognize pieces and parts when you begin looking at birds in the bush.

We notice the over all general appearance of different birds and most recognize that large blue birds with a crest are Blue Jays, bright red birds with a crest are Northern Cardinals, and smaller gray birds with a crest and white belly are Tufted Titmice. Sometimes it is not easy to separate birds with similar appearances. That is evident when we look at the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers.

Take time to enjoy the details. We barely began the discussion of appearance. Continue by comparing bill sizes and shapes or bird bellies. Discovering bird pieces and parts is fascinating.

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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Day with the birds

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

This is year 29 for my coordinating a day with the birds, where we regularly see about 60 species. This year’s event is on January 2, 2016. It actually marks 50 years since I began participating in what is known as the Christmas Bird Count. Please join us.

Frank Chapman started the event in 1900 when he encouraged people to change the focus of a Christmas day birding event where people went out to shoot as many birds at possible to see who could the kill the most in one day. It was an exciting day for hunters to show their skills at finding birds and gathering the largest number.

Frank thought it was excessive kill and caused harm to bird populations. His effort to change human attitudes toward our use of wildlife in a less consumptive manner caught on and has become the longest running citizen science monitoring program.

People throughout North America, others in South America and across the oceans have Christmas Bird Counts on a day selected during a two-week period. Grand Rapids Audubon Club has been holding its count yearly since WW II.

Gather to enjoy seeing a large variety of birds during winter. Some species from the Arctic or Subarctic come this far south in search of food. It is often the only time we get to see them unless we take a long summer trip toward the North Pole into the area of Santa’s secret workshop.

Some unexpected oddball species are found. A few years ago we found a western Rufous Hummingbird in Lowell. Whether it survived the winter is unknown. A hummingbird bander banded the bird in hopes it might be recaptured.

Many species seen are expected but not usually encountered because we do not visit their nature niches. In our yards, we can expect to see about a dozen species daily if we feed birds. For 40 years I have kept feeders full for the birds even though I could not usually see them. I left for work before sun up and arrived home after dark. My purpose has been to help birds more than me. On weekends, I had the great pleasure of seeing them.

Please join us (details at end of column). We divide into small groups and carpool to different areas of a 7.5 radius count circle. The area is consistent so we can compare differences in bird populations over the course of decades. Some species that do well with a growing human population and development has increased, others have decreased and some have remained stable.

Some people and families participate for the whole day while others choose to end at noon. There is no participation fee but donations are accepted. This is a wonderful introduction to bird watching and to Grand Rapids Audubon. The club offers many field trips throughout the year. From September through May we also have excellent indoor programs on the last Monday of the month at 7:30 p.m.

Event: Christmas Bird Count

When: Jan. 2, 2016

Time: Gather at 7:30 a.m. Birding from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Wittenbach/Wege Center, 11715 Vergennes Rd, Lowell MI, 49331.

Bring: Binoculars and bird book if you have them. A lunch is provided for $5 or brown bag.

Dress in layers so you can shed or add as needed. We drive the area but get out to walk also.

Call or e-mail with additional questions.

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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Selective hearing and response

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A naturalist walking in an urban area mentioned a bird song. The friend said he could not hear it over city noise. The naturalist dropped a dime on the sidewalk behind his friend who immediately stopped in response. The naturalist said, “You heard that!” We have selective hearing.

Since the 1960’s, I have been engaging peoples’ awareness to the abundance of life and encouraging responsible creation care in our yards. Professionally, my focus has been as a scientist and educator.

For various reasons, society limits attention to a narrow selection of things like money verses Earth care. Some of the most important things impacting our survival are ignored including nature niche survival. Some losses are in plain view but remain obscure. I read about a snowshoe hare that scanned the countryside before venturing onto a snow-covered open hillside. When all looked clear, it ventured onward. A Snowy Owl rose from a snow-covered knoll, swooped in, and made it the last memory the hare would experience.

Though the owl was in plain view, the hare did not see it and it cost his life. It had mated and its legacy continued. Rabbits do not have the ability to foresee the negative impact of excessive population that would kill grandchildren through starvation. If they could, a pair would not voluntarily limit reproduction to only replace themselves with two offspring.

By voluntarily maintaining a stable population, they would not over browse vegetation that creates an absence of adequate food, shelter, and appropriate living space for succeeding generations.

I have shared such scenarios since the 1960’s to encourage people to voluntarily limit our human population to maintain a healthy environment supporting our economic, social, and environment triple bottom line. Waiting to have children until we are in our 30s would reduce or human population by 40  percent by having three generations per century instead of five that result from bearing children at age 20. Waiting does not limit the number of children per family but I have also encouraged a two-child family to balance death rate with birthrate. We have greatly reduced the death rate with vaccines and health care. Responsible care for future generations requires a balance between birth rate and death rate.

When I was in college, there were 3 billion people on Earth and now there are more than 7 billion. Thomas Malthus, in about 1900, predicted massive human deaths from starvation due to rapid population birth rate exceeding death rate. It did not happen in the time frame he predicted, because of innovative farming practices that increased food production, fertilizer use, genetic engineering, improved food transport and by removing natural habitats worldwide for human crop production. Instead of the human population crashing, mass extinction of other species supporting a healthy creation is occurring instead. Paul Ehlrich in the 1960’s, E.O. Wilson in the 1990’s, and many others for more than a century have been sharing the immediate call action to prevent massive die off of people but society chooses not to hear the abundance of scientific evidence. Reducing our population is essential to avoid a boom and bust for our present and future human generations. It is like hearing the bird song and dime. We select what we want to hear instead of hearing all and responding appropriately.

Would you retrieve a hundred-dollar bill on the ground but destroy native plants worth more? Plants have real economic value for water purification, atmospheric carbon removal and more that protect future generations and society.

The President of the US gathered with leaders of 180 countries in the perhaps the largest gathering of world leaders this past week to work on climate change agreements. He stated that natural communities have real economic value that are ignored because we focus only on economics instead of including social and environmental aspects of the equation. I and other scientists have been promoting this idea with scientific evidence for decades to deaf ears. One aspect of energy conservation is related to how many people are living on Earth at one time. Many people work to prevent change to carbon free energy production. Many have lawns instead of maintaining natural habitats in portions of yards. In many ways I feel my career has been a failure by falling on deaf ears.

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center, we had energy-monitoring kits we sent to schools to measure consumption to show how they could save millions of dollars with simple energy conservation actions. It fell on deaf hears until energy prices soared and they began implementing practices solely for money. It has not a priority in America to conservative energy to save money, future generations or environment.

More personally, anyone that exceeds the posted speed limit consumes excessive fossil fuel that degrades the environment and it costs more money. Arriving at a destination a few minutes sooner hurts or kills our grandchildren by causing atmospheric damage. Society’s ears are deaf and our actions are poor. In 1973, Jimmy Carter implemented a 55 mph speed limit that reduced billions of gallons of gas consumption and saved billions of dollars. If we continued driving with an economic, social, and environmental behavior at 55 mph, we would have been reducing our personal carbon imprint for 40 years. Our desire for speed takes precedence over health of coming generations. My Christmas gift is to suggest local behavior solutions to reduce human-caused carbon imprint by encouraging voluntary family size limits and to change from carbon energy production sources. Implement creation care for economic, social, and environmental essentials that protect present and future generations. Deaf ears, with no behavior change, are dangerous.

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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Exciting Discoveries

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The next time a thundershower approaches, listen for the American Robin’s rain song. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service, Donna Dewhurst.

The next time a thundershower approaches, listen for the American Robin’s rain song. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service, Donna Dewhurst.

Anyone spending time outdoors has most likely made exciting observations worth sharing. Some might be new discoveries or are experiences new to others. One time a man told me he had an experience I would not believe. He said he was walking in a stream and killed a trout by stepping on it. I replied, I believed him because the same thing happened to me.

I was wading in Calf Creek in Utah, when a trout tried to swim past me as I was stepping down. It was caught between foot and rock. I tried to shift my weight quickly to the other foot but it was too late. The fish began to roll downstream. I held it for several minutes in the water hoping it would recover. Sadly, it did not survive.

A new discovery occurred in the 1970’s while I was observing birds. As a thundershower approached, I noticed an American Robin began singing an altered song. Four minutes later, the sky opened with rain. I listened to other robins shortly before thundershowers and repeatedly they gave me a four-minute rain warning.

When camping with a group of fellow college students in the Manti LaSal Mountains of Utah, the sky was overcast but appeared unchanging. Suddenly, I heard the robin rain song and told others we had four minutes to get into tents. They did not believe me. I entered my tent and they were caught in the rain four minutes later. The storm came and went. Later another rain song was heard under an unchanging sky and I gave warning. Others did not enter tents and got wet. A third time when I heard the rain song, fellow campers went to their tents and it began raining four minutes later.

When a gentle rain arrives, robins have not provided warning but when it was a thundershower they did. I presume a greater barometric pressure change occurs when a thundershower approaches and stimulates their rain song. An ornithology professor told me he never noticed the four-minute warning.

Another time I was sketching a rock formation at Capitol Reef National Park, when I heard a Black-headed Grosbeak provide a song I thought might be a rain song. I looked at my watch and immediately headed for my campsite a half mile away. Seven minutes later it began to rain. Since then, I have referred to the grosbeak as the seven-minute bird.

Each of us can make original discoveries when we pay close attention to occurrences in nature niches. I have not prepared research experiments to prove robins or grosbeaks sing a unique song before the rains begin. Someone else will need to do that but I have warned others based on my discovery.

I made an unexpected discovery at Bryce Canyon National Park when I watched a parasitoid Sphecid wasp with prey. The wasp was dragging a grasshopper to a burial hole it dug. It had stung and paralyzed the grasshopper. This behavior is known. The wasp lays an egg on the grasshopper and the larva hatches to eat the prey. The wasp larval grows, pupates, emerges as an adult, and is a natural control for grasshopper populations. I did not identify the species of grasshopper or wasp.

Then something more significant occurred. While the wasp was pulling the grasshopper into the hole, a fly appeared at the entrance and began shooting eggs into the hole. The fly eggs would hatch and either feed on the grasshopper or developing wasp. I did not have collecting equipment so the discovery details and fly species will need to be investigated by someone else.

By spending time in the yard observing, you will likely make new discoveries to share with family, friends, or scientists. An exciting, unknown, natural world awaits your discovery.

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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First bull experience

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A visit to Uncle Al’s farm when I was seven gave me a first close encounter with a bull. Uncle Al was actually my dad’s uncle. While my dad and he visited or did whatever adults do, we were sent to a harvested cornfield to salvage corn the machine missed. Following that chore, we headed to the barn to put hay in cow feeding troughs. When our work was finished we got to play.

We decided to jump from the loft into a large pile of hay. That all sounded simple but I had a big, fearful challenge. When we entered the barn, it was necessary to walk past the cows to get to the hayloft ladder. In the first stall was a bull with a metal ring in its nose. I was ok walking past cows but I feared the bull would kick me for sure. He was looking over his shoulder at me.

He was surely planning how to take me out if I tried to walk past him. My older brothers and other great-nephews passed without incident. It was still too frightening for me. When I heard others having fun, I needed to build courage to risk my life by racing past the bull to join the others.

I had seen matadors on TV with a bull attacking and one matador was gored. Bulls are to be feared. My brothers and the others survived passing the bull so I darted past without incident.  My fear was unfounded. With more farm experience by age 7, I would not have hesitated walking past the bull.

As director at Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC), I greeted student groups. Some groups came with wild nature experience. Others came from the city and had no experience in the woods. Some students had parents and grandparent that took them to parks, national forests, or wild natural areas.

For those that had never been exposed to wild nature niches there was great fear. I was asked if they would be attacked by tigers. Their knowledge of Michigan wild animals was a misconception. They only knew nature from TV. Like my farm experience, their visit to a nature center provided a new and unknown experience.

I did not fear going to a farm and the trip was filled with wonderful excitement until I encountered a bull. I wonder if students that had never been in wild areas were sick with fear as the bus traveled from school to nature center. The bus left the city, traveled to the north woods through the Rogue River State Game Area and finally stopped in the desolate wooded parking area at HCNC.

Unfounded fears are real and we all have them. I am comfortable backpacking in remote wilderness areas where mountain lions and wolves are present. I know elk are more dangerous and kill more people. I have greater fear for unsavory people in large cities than I do for large predators in the wild.

Our daughter used to pick up stones and fill her cheeks like a chipmunk when she was two. When we noticed bulging checks on our hikes, we would say give mommy or daddy the stones and she would spit out a mouthful. We figured stones in the mouth would build her immune system. Others feared disease or choking but gumballs were ok for their kids. We just called her our little geologist.

As adults, it is important that we provide diverse experiences for coming generations. Wild areas are shrinking and becoming more foreign to youth. Knowledge is often dominated by TV exposure and it often shows risky, dangerous encounters instead of normal reality.

Take kids to the Howard Christensen Nature Center, 16190 Red Pine Drive, Kent City, MI 49330 for a wonderful positive nature encounter. Leave your own fears behind.

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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We all hunt differently

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Some of us hunt at farmer’s markets for produce, others seek nurseries to buy plants to grow, harvest and eat, others seek wild edibles. We harvest, kill, and eat both plants and animals. Presently many men and women are seeking wild, edible, deer during archery, rifle, and muzzle loading seasons.

Understanding the dynamics of healthy nature niches is elusive. Nature is more complex than the simplicity of computer technology or national energy grids. Applied technology keeps our communication, businesses, homes, and daily lives functioning, while nature works on a grander scale keeping our communities thriving.

Deer hunting impacts the health of nature niches. Too many deer result in reduction of important species. Habitats suffer when too many deer eliminate wild food that animals require to keep nature healthy. Wildflower over browsing by deer leads to a decline of insects, birds and other animals. In turn this prevents effective pollination and reproduction for many plants. Some people want more deer to hunt or see without concern regarding the impact on other species or ecosystems.

How do scientists gather evidence for proof of what makes habitats healthy? They hunt for plants, insects, birds, mammals, and every other kind of living creature using strict scientific research protocols. It is a different kind of hunting. Great value comes from watching plants and animals and recording detailed observations, but collection is sometimes essential and regulated.

The increase of citizen science observations has become extremely important. Additionally, scientists need some plant and animal collecting. Deer check stations allow wildlife biologists to gather information, with the aid of citizen science deer hunters.

Most of us kill hundreds of thousands of insects annually with our vehicles with no value to science or benefit for understanding how nature works. Many deer are killed on the road without salvage. One was killed on the road this week at Ody Brook. Road killed butterflies, bees, beetles, dragonflies, squirrels and birds are common.

Scientists collect a minuscule number of bees, butterflies, flies, beetles, and other species to determine the composition of ecosystems. It is takes decades of collecting species with ongoing analysis to understand ecosystem dynamics. The role of an organism is known as its niche. Every organism has a unique niche and we know very little about most species.

We deduce much by studying body structures and even by gathering pollen from their bodies. Knowing which animal does what, when and where, requires good collecting samples and data recording. The number of organisms removed by scientists from habitats is so small it barely registers as a percentage when compared to how many each of us kill with vehicles, pesticides, herbicides, and more importantly habitat destruction where native plants are replaced with lawns. Lawns are ecological deserts. In effect lawns are a hunting tool that kills wildlife without useful value much like hitting animals with a car. It is a form of hunting more deadly than a car or rifle because it kills whole communities instead of removing selected individuals. I did not eliminate lawn at Ody Brook but reduced its size by about 70% when when I moved here.

Some people oppose controlling deer numbers. These same people do not mourn the loss of thousands of species (mostly beneficial insects) and millions or billions of individuals when land is converted to lawns. Ecological stewardship becomes more important as our human population grows out of control.

Earth care are as part of religious, social, economic and ecological wellbeing is responsible stewardship. Consider your daily activities as a different way of hunting with impact on species. How many plants and animals does your yard enhance or kill? Healthy yards and ecosystems depend on personal choices.

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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Dying Pines

This photo shows normal fall needle drop in a white pine tree. Photo from purdue.edu.

This photo shows normal fall needle drop in a white pine tree. Photo from purdue.edu.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

During fall, people notice pine trees dying. They become concerned about what unexpected fungal blight or insect infestation is killing trees. Events occur in our neighborhoods that generally escape notice and then suddenly capture our attention.

Broad-leaved trees like maples, cherries, and aspens drop their leaves each fall and stand naked all winter in wait for the spring growing season. Losing leaves helps them avoid structural damage that would occur from the weight of snow or ice that would get caught on leaves during the winter. The weight would snap branches. If the trees maintain their large leaves during winter, they would fail. Frozen water in leaves would burst cell membranes causing leaves to die.

In our yards and in wild places over yonder during fall, one is likely to see massive brown needles on pines. This is very noticeable for our State Tree, the White Pine. People contact me inquiring what is wrong that trees are dying. In most cases I reassure nothing is wrong and the trees are healthy. It is normal for needles that are three years old to die. Younger needles closer to the branch tip remain green and healthy.

The older needles away from the tip wear out from old age. They are also tucked farther back into the tree instead of being more exposed to sunlight. Look at pine branches to notice the brown needles are clustered away from the branch tip. Closer to the tree trunk notice that there are no needles. In previous years the bare branch held needles. Each year as the branch extends new growth with fresh needles, old needles die at the inner portion during fall.

A layer of needles builds annually under pines, where pine pitch helps prevent their decay. Usually a thick duff of pine needles is found under the trees in wild nature niches. Yard needles are often removed.

How is it that pine needles avoid frost damage that would kill broad-leaved tree foliage? One advantage is pine pitch helps prevent frost damage by lowering the freezing temperature like antifreeze. Needles also contain sugar that functions like antifreeze. That only works to a limited point and then water in the cells would freeze and burst cell membranes causing the needles to be killed.

To survive very cold weather, water must be mostly removed from the needles. Trees transport water from needles and branches to roots in a similar manner to broad-leaved trees where sugar and nutrients are stored. Living needles that did not turn brown in fall cling to life throughout the winter but are mostly dormant.

During a warm sunny spell in midwinter, green needles are warmed and become active. This is dangerous for the needles and tree. The needles produce sugar by photosynthesis where they combine carbon dioxide and water in the presence of sunlight energy.

The winter needles contain little water and that helps prevent frost damage. Unfortunately, using the limited amount of water can dehydrate the needle to the point of death during photosynthesis. The trees are unable to ship needed water from the cold ground unless the soil temperature is above 40 F. The needles in warm air and sunlight make the effort to produce sugar but instead die from lack of water for completing the process.

What were healthy needles in late fall become victims of “winter burn.” The winter burn might only affect some needles on the tree but some years I have seen entire trees “burned” to the point that it causes tree death. Living is not easy but brown needles on pines in fall is usually not a sign of stress or tree death.

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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World heroes

Ancestral perennial corn.

Ancestral perennial corn.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Honey Bees and native insect pollinators keep food on our tables. Our society would crumble without insect pollinators that keep flowering plants thriving. Pollinators are real heroes that we should honor, respect, and care for by how we treat yards, farms, forest, and fields. If you ask people who they owe their health, wealth, and security to, I expect most would not reply “insects.”

Perhaps this is because the importance of ecological sustainability is not integrated into child upbringing by parents and is marginalized in school education by political forces and narrow subject focus. Ecological literacy is integral for maintaining sustainable economic, industrial, and societal community success. That was my focus as director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center and Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center’s cross curriculum instruction. Our survival is dependent on keeping essential workers like insects on the job.

As nice as it is to recognize the work of people we depend on, other life forms are equal or more essential. To help develop appreciation for life in our neighborhoods, Nature Niche articles highlight creatures with whom we share Earth. However, this week I would like to recognize a human world hero with whom I have had limited personal experience.

I met with Dr. Hugh Iltis at the University of Wisconsin when I was deciding a career path for graduate school. I was considering botanical studies with him as my advisor. Hugh had recently become aware of a perennial corn in Mexico, and he and his colleagues named the ancestral perennial corn Zea diploperennis.

What makes Dr. Iltis a world hero is his recognition for the importance of an unknown plant that is restricted to a few square miles on planet Earth and his efforts to preserve it. It is a true grass related to Zea mays, our domestic edible corn. Mexican and Nicaraguan governments have taken action to preserve these plants. Why?

It has potential for use in breeding insect resistance, perennialism, and flood tolerance into domestic corn. Can you imagine if farmers no longer needed to plant corn annually because it sprouted annually on it own? If we can breed domestic corn or genetically modify it to become perennial, it would have significant impacts for agricultural economics.

What if we could breed it or genetically splice insect resistance from ancestral corn back into corn that was lost during domestication 10,000 years ago? We could perhaps reduce human dependence on insecticides that pose dangerous health concerns for our families and other life forms.

The tolerance of Zea diploperennis to floods could possibly increase domestic corn survival if its genes were incorporated to help it survive when corn fields flood and soils become water logged.

Wild corn was thought extinct at the time this ancestral corn was discovered. Many people and perhaps most on Earth do not recognize the importance and need to preserve species in our neighborhoods. Their importance and value will be lost to us and future generations if we do not honor, respect, and care for the health, wealth, and security that other species provide in ecosystems that support us.

I did not take the road to study plants under Dr. Iltis’s direction. Instead, I chose graduate study in entomology and ecology, with a subsequent career in environmental education. I focused energies toward environmental stewardship essential for sustaining society and life on Earth, by following Dr. Iltis’ lead and that of other heroes that help sustain society. Hail Hero to Dr. Iltis, who is now 90.

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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Competently incompetent

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We all have areas of great competence and areas of lesser competence. As an ecologist, I have good competence but when it comes to any specialty subject, I lack desired competence. We all fit this scenario with strengths and weaknesses.

Recently I came up with the descriptor “Competently Incompetent” and it even fits organisms in nature niches. Each organism has adaptations that help it excel in limited areas. When working with groups, I sometimes have people get their eye close to a tree to look for insects’ eggs or insects in the crevices of the bark from one-inch distance. All is blurry and we are incompetent at the task of finding eggs or insects from that close. Brown Creepers successfully hunt from one-inch distance. Their small eyes can focus that close.

It is a little embarrassing when I present programs to groups like garden, butterfly, plant, or bird clubs, where I have been introduced as Michigan’s premiere Lepidopterist, botanist, or ornithologist, when some of Michigan’s true premiere specialists for those subjects are in attendance.

They are researchers that seldom present public programs but spend 40 to 60 hours a week working in their specialty area in the field or laboratory. Their work is the source of information for my programs, as well as Nature Niche articles. My field and laboratory time is split among geological, plant, insect, bird, amphibian, reptile, mammal, fish, weather, soil studies and more. I annually attend conferences for specialty subjects to develop a better knowledge.

The result is that I have developed good competency in many subjects and am able to apply the knowledge for how ecosystems function. When attending special subject conferences, I realize I am a nitwit among renowned specialists from around the country and world. Actually, I have developed their respect because they know I am “Competently Incompetent.” No one can be competent in all areas. I turn to specialists for guidance and help for my areas of incompetence and that has earned their respect. They know I have enough competence to know where I am incompetent.

In my research at Bryce Canyon National Park, I collected three virgin tiger moths. When studying them in my summer lab at the park, I could not determine the species. I took them to an international conference of specialists and requested help from three scientists that work with tiger moths. All scratched their heads and said they could not identify them beyond the Genus Grammia. One requested to take them for study. He was specifically working with this Genus Grammia. He studied body structures (morphology), dissected genitalia (regularly used to distinguish species), and did DNA sequencing (like human DNA testing for paternity and crime solving). Even though they looked nearly identical to known species, he found they did not match any. He gathered the physical evidence necessary to describe a new species.

His next step was to publish a paper describing the new species in detail where he named the species Grammia brillians. I was competent enough recognize that I could not identify the insect and brought it to specialists.

Like “Dirty Harry” said in one of the movies, “You need to know your limitations.” I am not pleased with my limitations but I also know I have a strong, broad competence to speak to many organizations. I have earned the title as one of Michigan’s premiere scientists for several subjects. I know I am not truly premiere. For most nature enthusiasts, I might appear premiere. Do not sell yourself short. I am sure each reader has specific knowledge I lack. Continue spending time outside absorbing sights, sounds, smells, feel, and taste of nature. Join me sometime to teach me your discoveries and increase my knowledge.

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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