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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Everyday Wonders

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Every day brings newness from what were yesterday’s normal everyday events. We might ask if anything has changed in the past 24 hours, week or month. Things are different from a month ago and the wonders of change capture our attention as nature’s progression transitions into April.

The “plump robin-sized” American Woodcocks perform a ground dance by stomping feet and twisting from side to side in evening’s last glow. Eyes bulge from the side of the head looking in opposite directions. How is it they avoid confusion from seeing two different views of the world at the same time? They see nearly everything on each side but combine the scenes into one understandable picture.

They benefit from seeing in every direction at once. It becomes difficult for predators to approach unnoticed. For mating, the bird stomps feet and turns from side to side. It makes a nasal buzz called pneeting every few seconds in evening’s dusk. I count pneets of the bird that is usually not in view. My ears triangulate the direction and distance to the sound in the brushy field.

I dare not approach for fear of stopping the spring dance. The number of pneets has reached 17 and stopped. The long-billed bird flies toward me at a low climbing angle. I get to see its long bill piercing the darkening sky ahead of its plump body. It does not see me as it concentrates on a series of climbing spirals over the field. Short stubby wings are in rapid flutter as the bird reaches higher altitude with each spiral. It becomes difficult to keep track of the dark spot shrinking in size with each successive upward loop toward heaven. It seems the woodcock is on an invisible spiral staircase that it climbs with ease. I run to where it left the ground while it is in the air. On its zigzag return to Earth, I will be close to where it will continue its ground dance.

While it is in the air, I invariably lose sight of it as it fades from view into high clouds or haze of the darkening sky. Suddenly I hear a twittering sound that indicates it reached its flight apex and is now plummeting earth bound. I scan for the bird in sky dive. When it is well on its way downward, I catch a view. Before the long bill pierces the ground, leaving a dead bird’s body sticking up like a sucker ball on the end of a candy stick, it levels its downward flight before crashing and safely lands.

Safely on the ground, it pneets with more foot stomping and turns from side to side. As the evening sky darkens the bird spends longer on the ground and the number of pneets between aerial flights increases. Their antics impress me more than TV mysteries. It has been nearly 50 years that I have watched the spring ritual and still do not know mating details. Somewhere a male and female mate.

Friends have found ground nests and photographed females sitting on eggs in a forest or shrub thicket. I have found recently hatched young running about soon after gaining freedom from the cramped quarters of eggshells. My presence has caused these little fuzz balls to lay still and flat on the ground in hopes that I will not see or eat them. Several young lay still nearby as I photographed. Most will not survive to perform next spring’s mating dance. During the lifetime of a mated pair, most offspring will not survive.

American Woodcocks populations seem stable. Having four to five young annually during a four to six-year life span is enough to maintain the population but habitat is decreasing in our area. At Ody Brook, we have maintained suitable nature niche habitat to meet woodcock needs. Once a year in late October, I mow an upland dancing ground to ready it for spring. Little Cedar Creek’s muddy floodplain is kept natural. Woodcocks probe their long bills deep into mud in search of worms and insects. Muddy lowland shrub thickets along creeks are essential as are upland fields for mating. Clearing along creeks for a manicured lawn and view reduces woodcock populations as well as eliminates a multitude of plants and animal communities. Share space with life on Earth. Grandchildren will appreciate your efforts.

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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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Seeing with Kids Eyes

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Walking through the big woods this week, I felt like a kid in a candy shop. It was exciting to experience wonder after wonder. It is a time when winter seems to linger and spring has not arrived but there is more occurring than the senses can grasp.

Song Sparrows are active at brush piles along the forest edge and in wetland shrubs. Just a couple weeks ago, I was seeing a dozen species of birds daily and now it is two dozen. Sandhill Cranes announce evening, Canada Geese fly over, and Wood Ducks are swimming in Little Cedar Creek.

An American Woodcock flew in for its evening dance, saw me, and kept going. The next night a Great Horned Owl was hooting from forest edge and probably kept the woodcock from showing itself. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks soared over the Big Woods and power line clearing by day.

A Turkey Vulture on clean-up duty has been soaring over the highway by Ody Brook’s entrance looking for the dead opossum and muskrat that I reported killed on the road last week. The carcasses are not obvious among the roadside vegetation but the vulture can smell them at great distance.

Two Pileated Woodpeckers feasted at an old ash tree stump. My friend, Greg, was coming to visit and I told him about the woodpeckers at the driveway’s edge. He arrived, stopped, and watched as one woodpecker worked. When the woodpecker left, we looked to see what was being eaten. Termites.

On a smaller scale, Skunk Cabbages are blooming on the floodplain. They have a hood covering minute flowers. The hood protects this first flowering plant of the year from freeze damage. The hood wraps around an inner spike that holds many flowers. The spike with flowers is called a spadix and the hood is called a spathe. Small flies and crawling insects move into this temporary shelter where they find protection from being frozen. The plant generates heat that keeps the temperature above freezing in the spathe. Heat protects plant tissues and the variety of creatures in the hood. The benefit to the plant for providing lodging is that insects pick up pollen and carry it to other Skunk Cabbage flowers.

Other flowering plants already blooming at Ody Brook by mid March are Silver Maple trees, Speckled Alder, and Whitlow-grass. Whitlow-grass, a mustard, has a small rosette of leaves found on exposed bare ground. It is only about one inch across the radiating ring of leaves. Small white mustard flowers about the size of a pinhead ensure reproduction. The plant and its flowers are so small that few people notice them but hundreds are currently in bloom.

It is good to carry a small magnifying hand lens to examine the near microscopic world of life in wetland, field, shrubland, and forest.

Bluebirds still have not arrived to inspect nest boxes cleaned and readied. They arrive before wrens to claim bird houses. When wrens arrive, they enter and kill bluebirds or destroy eggs to use the box themselves. If houses are kept in open areas away from shrubbery and forest edge, it is less likely wrens will invade.

I place two bird houses within 15 feet of another. Tree Swallows often claim one and keep other swallows from nesting that close. The swallows do not mind having bluebirds as neighbors. The bluebirds, so to speak, have a swallow guard that protects them from other swallows that try to take the second nest box.

Nature niches have a greater variety and abundance of wondrous special treats than candy in a candy shop.

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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Spring Equinox

 

By Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The sun is directly east everywhere on Earth during the first day of Spring. It is a most dangerous time to drive east shortly after sunrise and west shortly before sunset. Many people have been injured or killed during travel due the Earth’s position on its annual trip around the sun.

Wildlife make hazardous trips at this time of year, when hormone levels rise to stimulate seasonal movement. This week a muskrat and an opossum were killed at Ody Brook as they crossed the road.

Whether you are at the North Pole, South Pole, equator, or at home on this date, the big warming ball of gas is about 93 million miles east at sunrise and west at sunset. The sun does not rise and set. The Earth is spinning one rotation every 24 hours to make the sun appear to rise and set.

The 24-hour spinning rotation is different than the Earth’s revolution around the sun that takes 365 days for one trip. The Earth is held by the sun’s gravity as it is moves in a large loop around the hot gaseous ball. Put your palm toward the sun and feel the warmth. The sun not only warms your hand, it warms your spirit. Attitudes and behavior change as daylight hours lengthen. Like people, animals experience hormone changes in response to day length changes. Animal migration to breeding grounds is under way.

Monarch butterflies are departing wintering habitat in Mexico and are heading north.

It is not just warmer temperatures that influence animal activity. The position of the Earth and sun are important. A North and South Pole line through Earth is not at a right angle with sun. The imaginary pole that extends from the most northern point of Earth to the most southern is tilted at an angle to the sun. The Earth is spinning like a top around that imaginary pole once every 24 hours.

Interestingly, when the northern hemisphere is leaning toward the sun in summer, the Earth is farther from the sun than it is in midwinter when the hemisphere is leaning away from the sun. We are about 91.5 million miles from the sun in winter and about 94.5 million miles from the sun in summer. One would think we would be warmer when closer but the angle of tilt compared to the sun makes the difference. The northern hemisphere is tipped toward the sun in summer when we are farther away causing more direct sunrays to warm us more.

Locally, many birds have arrived from the south by the first day of spring but others are still far south. Some, like Mourning Doves, may already be on nests. American Woodcocks are performing their mating display of dancing on the ground and aerial acrobatic flights high into the sky. Bluebirds claim nest boxes. Eastern Comma and Mourning Cloak butterflies hidden as adults all winter are venturing out on warm days. Woollybear caterpillars not seen since fall crawl in the leaf litter.

During February and March as the equinox approaches, sap in trees and shrubs flows, causing buds to swell. Damaged twigs leak sap. Squirrels and birds tend the wounds to lap the sugar rich sap. Freezing temperatures create sapsickles that hang as icicles when liquid flows from stems but freezes in air. I always enjoy sucking on these frozen sugary treats offered free for the taking by nature.

Look around your yard for nature niche signs of spring that would not occur if the Earth did not revolve around the sun. Near the equator, day length and warmth remains fairly stable all year with a continuous growing season. Daylight length stays close to 12 hours as does darkness. Organisms near the equator do not get to experience shorter day light hours we have in winter or the wonderfully long lighted hours of summer. Enjoy the change of seasons with snow and rain, cold and warmth and animal movements during spring transition as plant growth bursts.

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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Life in desolate woods

By Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve

After the big snow, schools were closed. Country roads were not safely passable for school buses. Previously the ground was mostly bare of snow and spring seemed upon us. Sandhill Cranes arrived with a throat-gargling prehistoric sound. The first Red-winged Blackbird sang from a tree at cattail marsh. It was early for arrival. I normally expect them between March 3-10 but sometimes it is later and uncommonly earlier. This year the male blackbird arrived locally on February 26 but I saw one closer to Lake Michigan a week earlier.

The snowstorm returned winter’s desolation as March arrived “Like A Lion.” We walked through 6 inches of unblemished snow in Big Field and Big Woods. Upon entering the Big Woods, a Great Horned Owl hooted in the distance. I listened and watched for it to fly as we penetrated the wood’s depth. As we exited the woods and crossed Little Cedar Creek, the owl called from the woods north of the power line clearing. A concealed owl quieted but it saw us and flew. It flew south into the larger section of Big Woods.

It was the only bird we had encountered between 5:45 and 6:15 p.m. The sun was above the horizon at our start but was now hidden creating a golden glow on clouds.

The Owl disappeared into the woods we would soon reenter. Suddenly a Black-capped Chickadee appeared from nowhere and disappeared into nowhere. We completed our walk at 6:30 with one more bird gobbling in the big woods when a lone Wild Turkey sounded its presence. Food must be fairly scarce and birds no doubt are more anxious for spring than we are.

Mammals provided track evidence. Cottontail rabbits, Gray Squirrels, Red Squirrels, White-footed Deermice, Meadow Voles, White-tailed Deer broke the snow surface with fresh tracks. A Coyote and Red Fox visit on occasion but not tonight. Turkey tracks and unidentifiable small bird tracks announced they were recently here searching.

The woods and field appear desolate following the late winter storm but signs of life abound. Trees and shrubs captured our attention as stationary denizens in nature niches. They provide insects with places to hide all winter and produce buds that sustain animals of forest and field. Seeds produced last summer found their way to the ground. Rodents dug through snow to salvage meals. It is not obvious where birds and small mammals find insects during winter but survivors are successful.

We can each help birds survive the lean times by keeping a bird feeder full. Regularly Mourning Doves, Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and American Goldfinches are at the feeder. Occasionally a Cooper’s Hawk seeks a bird for lunch near the feeders. Great Horned and Barred Owls bring life to the night with calls starting in earnest during January. Crows are abundant daily and Pileated Woodpeckers are occasional. Canada Geese become more frequent as spring nears. Wild Turkeys are regular. Red-tailed hawks watch the field from forest edge.

Horned Larks stay in farm fields surrounding Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. A couple European Starlings rarely come for suet but it does not disappoint me that they are rarely here. Unusual visitors are American Tree Sparrows, Brown Creeper, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Abundant birds leave the feeders and disappear into surrounding habitats late in the day. Most had already left the feeders during our walk. Where do they hide in the desolate forest and field?

The desolation will soon be changed by song, dance, and early nesting birds as they push winter northward and drag spring with them on their way to claim breeding habitats.

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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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Itty Bitty Sleeper

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Being hard to find has an advantage when you are a tasty morsel. Consider how tasty you are to female mosquitoes. Being thousands of times larger than a mosquito makes you an easy target. You make yourself an even easier target by expelling carbon dioxide and by giving off heat. If you quit breathing, mosquitoes will lose interest and your heat will quickly dissipate.

I do not recommend that tactic to avoid mosquitoes. Animals have many adaptations that actually provide improved survival chances. Being small is one advantage. It is difficult to find a creature that is less than one-fourth of an inch long. When the creature does not move for months, it makes it even more difficult to find.

The creature I am describing ties a willow leaf to a twig so, when fall leaf drop arrives, the leaf stays on the shrub. Silk from salivary glands becomes a strong binding thread when exposed to air.

During the summer months, this insect might have three broods of young. Summer broods hatch from a minute eggs and begin eating willow leaves. If fortunate, they are not eaten by Blue-winged Warblers, Indigo Buntings, ants, or stink bugs. It will pupate and transform from caterpillar to butterfly.

People often refer to the pupa as a resting stage but it is not. Tremendous work of changing its body from caterpillar to winged adult is accomplished in the chrysalis (pupa). Little rest takes place. If it is warm, the pupa will transform more rapidly and chances of becoming food for mice or other things is reduced. Less time in the chrysalis increases survival chances. It is likely that less than one percent survive from egg to adult. A primary ecological function of the adult is reproduction to keep its nature niche occupied in willow thickets.

Late season reproduction differs from earlier generations that feed heavily and work to transform to an adult as quickly as possible. The late season animal is affected by changing day length. On hatching, the egg prepares for a long resting sleep. First it must tie a leaf petiole to a twig so the leaf does not fall off as autumn progresses. It then wraps and binds itself in the small leaf with silk.

In its sleep chamber, it waits for new spring leaf growth. If it escapes a multitude of animals looking to eat it, it might get to feed and grow in spring’s warming sunlight. If we have a wet fall or early spring, fungus or bacteria might kill the small upstart. Surviving is tough.

During the long winter months, the caterpillar is actually in a deep sleep called diapause. It is hormone induced caused by shortening days and lengthening nights that bring chemical changes to its body. The hormones result in behavior different from summer broods.

Try to find one of these sleeping Viceroy butterfly caterpillars in a brown coiled leaf that looks like a leaf fragment attached to a willow twig. It is the work of birds to search twigs all winter in an effort to eat the insect. I feed birds all winter in hope of distracting them enough to help some Viceroys survive to grow, pupate, become an adult, and reproduce here at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary.

The tiny caterpillar, about the size of a pencil’s visible lead, has a big challenge to survive a long winter sleep but its adaptations improve the odds. When it emerges from the crumbled leaf in spring, its color pattern looks much like a bird turd. When disturbed it arches its body and looks even more like a turd.

Develop observation skills and patience with the challenge of finding an overwintering caterpillar in its deep sleep. Take the family to a willow thicket and search the shrubs. My friend Ken is more skilled than me at finding them. The last one he found was on a willow shrub along the White Pine Trail.

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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Walt’s Stream Crossing

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Time outdoors is refreshing but can be life threatening if one does not learn to read the landscape. It is easy to become disoriented and lost. It is easier to get lost in Michigan than in the mountainous west. When hiking unfamiliar territory in the west, I use mountain peaks and ridges to keep my bearing. In Michigan, a compass is more essential because one cannot see distinctive landmarks in the distance.

On cloudy days when the sun is obscured, it is difficult to maintain orientation.

In our personal home range, we become familiar with objects and know exactly where we are and how to get to specific locations. Going to and from work, school, or regular haunts, it becomes so familiar that we can almost travel the routes blind folded.

As a teenager, my father-in-law hunted, hiked, and played in southern Minnesota’s landscape along the Minnesota River near Le Sueur. Wildlife in the forest and fields changed during the year depending on available food and shelter. Walt learned to track animals and it helped him hunt successfully.

Landscape features helped him survive solo outings. The Minnesota River was wide and at certain times of the year was not crossable due to high water. Even in seasons with lower water, crossing required submerging to his thighs or waist. He learned to read the landscape for safe crossing in shallowest water.

To cross the river, Walt would seek a bend in the river where a sandbar extended from the inside of a curve toward the downstream bank on the opposite shore. Water flowing toward the curve would flow straight into the outside edge of the curve, hit the bank and be diverted toward the center of the river.

Sand and other material carried by the river dropped in the slower current on the inside of the curve and created a sandbar. Directly opposite another sandbar extended toward the center of the river because the stronger current was diverted from the bank to the center of the river. Slower water on the far side dropped sediments.

When Walt crossed the river, he waded on one sand bar, was able to cross deeper water in the center, and finish crossing on the other sandbar. The Minnesota River was wide and reasonably shallow so he could wade water that was usually shallower than the length of his legs.

In February, when the temperatures seldom rose to zero during the day and dropped to -15 to -30 F at night, the river surface froze enough to walk on despite the flowing current beneath. One winter day he was crossing the frozen surface and the current had thinned the ice. He broke through and submerged to his waist. The air was about -20 F.

He scrambled out of the water and started running as fast as he could for home a mile away. Wet clothes on skin draws heat quickly from one’s body. He knew hypothermia would come fast. When he arrived home, his pants were frozen solid everywhere except at the knees where they were constantly flexed as he ran.

Good fortune allowed him to arrive home, cold and shivering instead of becoming a frozen ice statue in the wild country he enjoyed. It was good he crossed the river where it was shallowest. When venturing outside, we should pay attention to the landscape and read its secrets so when the need arises we can safely navigate. Outdoors should be enjoyed and not feared. Fear will dissipate when we become familiar with the outdoors. Spend time with family exploring nature niches during all seasons.

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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Winter sleeping

 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Chipmunks emerge from underground burrows in mid winter when conditions warm, the sun shines, water trickles, or warmth penetrates deep into their bodies.

During my naturalist career, we shared the best evidence-based scientific discoveries about hibernators, deep sleepers, and those that stay active all winter. Insects hibernate, diapause, or even stay active all winter but they are excluded from this discussion, as are birds that also have some hibernators. Those groups like reptiles and amphibians will merit their own nature niche adaptation stories.

Within the Class Mammalia, we taught Michigan has four groups with true hibernators, including some bats, the 13-lined ground squirrel, woodchuck, and jumping mice. Bears are deep sleepers but are not considered true hibernators. Chipmunks that periodically pop out of the ground during winter were reported as deep sleepers.

An authoritative book I depend on is Michigan Mammals by William Burt (1957). It referred to chipmunks as hibernators. Despite the rigorous scientific scrutiny used in making the text accurate, questions were raised regarding chipmunks’ winter behavior in regards to sleeping or hibernating. I was not greatly concerned with the issue and referred to the small striped mammals as deep sleepers.

I should have pursued the issue with more vigor but information seemed conflicting and I had other scientific controversies to address that seemed more pertinent and meaningful for society’s welfare. Things like climate change or animal species origins related to Earth’s biodiversity, for ecological sustainable conditions that people need, took precedence.

Recently my naturalist friend, Greg, spoke about chipmunk hibernation and I challenged the idea. It stimulated me to examine peer-reviewed research. New technology developments during recent decades make it easier to study winter sleep for various species. Small monitoring devices can be implanted in animals to monitor breathing, heart rate, and temperature on a 24-hour basis.

Studies supported chipmunks are true hibernators but there are still unknowns. Hibernators’ breathing and heart rate become extremely slow and body temperature drops to near freezing. Bears do not experience such dramatic reduction and are considered deep sleepers. Bear body temperature only drops from about 100 to 90 F. Respiration and heart rate slow but are not so reduced that it is difficult to arouse the bear.

Chipmunk heart rate slows from 350 beats per minute to about 4, temperature drops from 94 F to 40 F, and respiration changes from 60 to about 20 breaths per minute. It is difficult to arouse them. The adaptations merit the designation of true hibernation but other factors are not consistent with what is normally considered true hibernation.

Chipmunks awake periodically instead of remaining in deep torpor for months. The triggers causing them to periodically waken are unknown. They become active, eat cached food in burrows or even venture outside. Other true hibernators do not defecate or urinate for months, but chipmunks do.

I learned long ago that it is not either/or in nature. Most everything is on a gradation from one end of a continuum to another. It is not either hibernate or not hibernate. Different species demonstrate behaviors and adaptations along a continuum. Most might show a particular adaptation, such as hibernation, but all are experimenting through the process of natural selection and evolution for survival.

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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365 days of new

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

New sightings, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch are waiting for you to experience. Do not miss the opportunity to explore nature niches everyday. Spend a few minutes outside reaping at least one newness each day. Do not make a resolution that you will not keep. Instead, find something new for this year and savor it as the special.

The White Pine tree is the only pine with five needles held together by a tan follicle at the base. Photo from www.bates.edu.

The White Pine tree is the only pine with five needles held together by a tan follicle at the base. Photo from www.bates.edu.

It might be most rewarding to discover something you have not noticed previously but relish things you have known and find new joy in experiencing them this year. You might know Black-capped Chickadees but enjoy them anew this year. Look closely at a tree branch in your yard to notice buds. Can you count the small bud scales that cover the bud during these cold winter months? Some trees like the Bitternut Hickory do not have protective scales over the embryonic leaf and stem tissues. Two small leaves tightly crumple as protective covers over the inner tissues. Willows have a single scale over next spring’s new growth. Oaks have several sturdy scales covering the nearly microscopic leaves and stems within.

Make it simple and enjoy things you want to explore. Continue to make new discoveries for 365 days. The year has already progressed a few days. There will be days without observations so catch up by making more discoveries on other days. Keep a list of new experiences daily. You can keep track what you have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt. It is good to list date, location, time, and observation. Look over your list once in a while to refresh your memory and relive the experience. This can be the beginning of nature journaling.

Walk with a friend on the White Pine trail. Avoid being so engrossed in conversation that you miss the natural world. Stop along the trail and use your senses. Share a discovery with your friend. It might be as simple as pointing out the sound of an American Crow. You might take notice of how many pine needles are held together in a cluster. White Pines have 5 needles held together by a tan follicle at the base. Each needle is shaped like a cut piece of pie. Two sides are straight and meet at the inner point. The outer edge is curved like that of a pie. Run your fingers from the base to tip and notice they all fit together like a freshly cut pie. I contend this is a pine tree’s version of the compound leaf.

I have never heard of needle clusters being referred to as compound leaves but each cluster is one needle-like leaf divided into five parts. When spread apart they make it possible to capture more sunlight for photosynthesis. Red Pines, Jack Pines, and Scotch Pines have two needles in a cluster that fit together like two half moons. Spruce and firs have one needle attached directly to the branch.

Feel tree trunks to notice different bark textures. Do some feel smooth or rough, furrowed up and down or crosswise? Do trees have different bark colors?

When looking at birds in flight, are wings long and narrow, short and wide, light or dark? Are tails longer or shorter than wings?

Be cautious with tasting but bite into a cherry twig and describe the taste. Try tasting a Sassafras twig. Find a White Oak acorn and taste it. Do the same with a Red Oak acorn. It is good to have a bottle of water with you just in case you do not like a taste and want to rinse your mouth. You might discover why deer have preferences for what they eat. Smell each item to discover new pleasant or unpleasant smells.

Rather than isolate yourself from nature when outside with music coming through ear plugs or by being totally engrossed in conservation, put the ear plugs away for a few minutes or cease talking for a few hundred feet. Stop at a random location for a short time to experience the surroundings. Introduce a friend to a nature’s wonderful world. Turn New Year outdoor experiences into meaningful conversations full of newness.

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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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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