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Archive | Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

Those of the forest


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Following the life of Snowshoe, a hare, in the book Those of the Forest, is joy in discovering natural history without textbook dryness. The novel about the life and times of this northern Wisconsin animal describes ecology in an enjoyable manner and it applies to where we live.

Wallace Byron Grange published his book in 1956 and it continues to sell for good reason. The story is about the events in Snowshoe’s world and introduces the reader to animals, plants, weather, climate, geology, changing seasons, and how all are intricately intertwined. It is a fascinating excursion into nature niches.

The accuracy and depth of Grange’s content exposes the reader to ecology without bogging one down. It simply takes us with Snowshoe through the forest, fields, and wetlands. The journey describes real inhabitants and their behavior where Snowshoe works to survive and it applies to wild places near our homes. Descriptions of plant and animals associations create a mental image of the natural community for Those of the Forest. It heightens awareness of what we can discover when we explore outdoors and prepares us for spending time observing the real world though personal exploration with our families.

We live farther south than snowshoe hares but most characters in the book will be familiar neighbors. Amazing aspects of the occurrences from the distant universe and the sun are revealed in the lives of those that have come and gone over the ages of Earth’s history, in this one small locality where Snowshoe lives. The coming and going of glaciers shaped the land and set the stage for Those of the Forest during the past million years. Five billion years of formative history for life are portrayed in the lives of those in the story.

Habits of specific birds, mammals, insects, amphibians, snakes and others are woven together in a manner extraordinarily well. Whether it is obligate internal parasites or more casual parasites like mosquitoes, their role and impacts reveal the challenges living things struggle with daily. Hormone fluctuations and breeding behavior influenced by Earth’s movement around the sun are subtle and also drive Snowshoe’s color change from brown hair in summer to winters white.

I first the read the book in 1975 and have read it twice since. I have been careful not to reveal too much about Snowshoe’s experiences that could spoil the novel’s story. Re-reading is like watching a good movie repeatedly to discover new details missed during previous viewings. It will be helpful to have flower, tree, insect, bird, and mammal field guides or computer apps at hand to look up species that you might not know. I led a walk at Ody Brook Sanctuary this week and introduced participants to new unknown wildflowers and it provided a similar thrill of reading about the many species encountered when reading Those of the Forest. The book will undoubtedly introduce some unfamiliar species and details of their lives.

Search the Internet for the title or author and enjoy reading this summer. Best of all, it will help you discover nature niches when you take your own outdoor explorations.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.

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Bird migration safe passage


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Birds are migrating from wintering grounds to breeding grounds. High mortality occurs. It is a challenging endeavor for few ounce birds to fly from South America, Central America, or southern North America to Michigan or places farther north. Those surviving hopefully have success raising enough young to replace those lost during the year.

If enough young survive to replace those lost, the population remains stable. More surviving means the population increases. In the second half of the 20th century and early 21st century, many species have been unable to successfully keep up with mortality rates.

Many species are in decline and some are in great decline. Some causes are clear while others are not fully explained. Outdoor cats kill about one billion birds annually in the United States. It affects bird species survival but humans are reluctant to keep cats indoors. For a century, radio towers have been known as death traps for migrating birds. Cell tower abundance has increased the death hazard. Human convenience takes priority over sustaining Earth’s biodiversity.

In an effort to reduce cell tower deaths, varied plans are being tested with some success. One test used white lights on towers at night instead of red, and it was showing promise. In a wealthy West Michigan community, there were complaints that white lights at night were too bright, so the red lights were used again. The stewardship value of saving migrating birds was not as important as our human desire to have seasonally red tower lights in spring and fall.

Light from tall buildings draws birds to their death. To reduce mortality, lights above the second floor can be turned off or windows darkened with shades during spring and fall migration. The safe travel initiative can save birds and perhaps species. Encourage businesses and high rise apartment buildings to turn off lights or shade window at night above the end floor to save energy and species. Building collisions are most frequent on foggy nights. Several cities have adopted “Safe Travel” initiatives.

Windmill energy production holds promise for reducing dependence on fossil fuels that cause habitat loss through climate change. Migrating birds collide with wind towers but placement location can reduce problems. Choosing the safest long-term energy production challenges society. Carbon release causes habitat alterations that are economically, socially, and environmentally destructive for future human and wildlife populations. Many problems are evident at present.

It appears wind energy might be preferable provided windmills are properly placed away from primary migration routes. Birds have their own super highways in the sky similar to human expressways. Towers along heavily used lakeshore areas and choice travel routes can be avoided. Local Township and city planners largely determine site selection. Appropriate human behavior for sharing living space with other life forms can ensure healthy nature niches remain for our children’s children.

Increasing human abundance is rapidly eliminating living space for other life forms. If people wait until they are in their 30’s to bear children, we would have three generations per century instead of five caused by having children at age twenty. It would reduce the world population by 40 percent by having two generations instead of five living at the same time. Spacing of human generations would benefit migrating birds and result in less human crowding, social strife, wars, and natural resource conflicts.

For the present enjoy bird migration and participate in the Bird Migration Count on the 2nd Saturday of May annually. Count birds in your yard or larger area. Add your observations of bird locations for the continent on one specific day. To participate in Kent County contact Steve Minard by e-mailing him at sdminard@gmail.com or call 616-942-7165. Count day is May 9 this year.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.

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Reader’s genocide concern

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Recently a reader expressed dismay with efforts to remove Mute Swans from the lake where he lives. The exotic swans cause problems and death for native ducks and geese by preventing their nesting. I know of at least one instance where a Mute Swan killed an elderly man in his boat. Mute swans compete with native Trumpeter Swans being restored in the Great Lakes ecosystem where this native species was near extinction.

The reader told me that management to safeguard native ecosystem species is genocide of Mute swans. I stated that exotic Mute Swans of European origin are causing genocide of native wildlife populations. Wildlife biologists are working to prevent genocide of native species. He said he is also of European origin and killing exotic swans equates with killing people of European origin that settled North America.

I commented that social and political aspects for sustaining native ecosystems are often driven by emotions and/or short-term personal and economic interest instead of ecological health. We were present for a conservation fundraising banquet and the program was about to begin. We did not get to continue the conversation. I would like to know how he felt regarding efforts to kill and eliminate other exotics species that cause ecological and economic havoc in native community nature niches.

Environmental groups and governmental units are working to prevent Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes where they will cause major economic, ecological and genocide problems for native species and will result in billions of dollars in environmental damage. Exotic species replace native plant and animal species and reduce biodiversity. Native species eliminated by exotic species is also genocide. Human efforts strive to protect native species evolved in ecosystems from genocide caused by exotic species. Native species help maintain the “Triple Bottom Line” of social, economic, and ecological integrity of the natural world that sustains our human culture.

We often choose beauty over ecological value. Purple Loosestrife is a beautiful exotic plant in wetlands that eliminates food and habitat for native species. Like the Mute Swan, its beauty makes it difficult for us to want it removed. The tall feathery seed headed grass called Phragmites (Common Reed) is replacing cattails and associated native wetland birds, mammals, insects, and plants. Removal of native species by Phragmites disrupts nutrient cycles and energy flow in ecosystems essential for sustaining breeding habitat or fish, birds, mammals, insects, and other life forms. Many eliminated native species have direct economic and social importance for human communities and businesses.

Many exotics lack the emotional appeal of Mute Swans and might fail to raise the genocide concern of the reader that spoke with me. Zebra Mussels cost Grand Rapids millions to prevent clogging of water intake pipes in Lake Michigan. I wonder if the reader is concerned about mussel genocide.

Exotics like Gypsy Moth, Quaga Mussels, Garlic Mustard, Emerald Ash Borer, Autumn Olive, Oriental Bittersweet, and swallow-wort are more than direct economic problems. They cause ecological disruptions and genocide in native plant and animal communities. Most exotic species arrive accidentally. We have quarantine inspectors working 24/7 to safe guard our livelihoods by preventing additional exotic species from disrupting native communities, agricultural timber, and food crops.

Exotic Garlic Mustard pulls are sponsored to prevent it from causing genocide to native wildflowers, associated insects, birds, and mammal that evolved locally over expansive time. How should we address difficult issues? “Triple Bottom Line” management addressing social-economic-ecological problems becomes a means for maintaining and sustaining a healthy society.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or 616-696-1753.

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Wildland Conservation Organizations

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Organizations with focused visions target specific conservation initiatives for wildlife and plant communities. We cannot care for species or natural communities important to human survival without knowing about native species and their function in nature.

Too often we have constructed buildings and filled floodplains that caused increased flooding of residences and business downstream. We have placed drain tiles in areas to increase tillable farmland and caused increased flooding of homes and businesses downstream. In addition to personal loss for owners downstream, it costs taxpayers twice when money is used to subsidize agricultural tiling and wetland draining for community development in areas that should remain natural. Secondly, government funding often provides money to help families flooded out of their homes or businesses.

Knowledgeable zoning commissions and community members could avoid the economic and personal trauma of loss with increased ecological understanding of nature niches. Too often contractors have been allowed to fill and build where it is not safe for downstream residents.

To gain an ecological intelligence, it is first important to have enjoyable experiences in the outdoors when growing up to discover the wonders of the surrounding world. Once we begin to discover biodiversity by exposing family, friends and members to outdoor experiences, we will likely become interested in the landscape that secures economic and living safety for our families. That knowledge could guide us to become what used to be called conservationists and has become known as environmentalists.

Exposure in the nature broadens our experience to a holistic understanding for how humans interact and with the natural world. Many organizations provide outings and opportunities to learn nature and the species that live in association with our yards. Too often we spend money to destroy and eliminate important species that keep our yards healthy functioning components of a neighborhood. Healthy stewardship of our yards could preserve multitudes of species that are killed when we try to eliminate a few species we perceive as harmful to us or vegetable gardens.

What are these organizations? Individual articles detailing each organization could be written but here they are simply listed. Hopefully some will peek interest and you will search the Internet to learn more. Many have frequent meetings and field trips for learning, sharing, and becoming knowledgeable about ecological stewardship in our yards to improve family security, joy, and quality of life.

Local Organizations: River City Wild Ones, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Grand Rapids Audubon, White Pine Chapter of Michigan Botanical Club, Trout Unlimited, Dwight Lydell Chapter of Isaac Walton League, Michigan Audubon, West Michigan Butterfly Association (WMBA), Michigan Entomological Society, West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Master Naturalists and Master Gardeners programs through MSU Kent County Extension, and Groundswell & its community partners, Sierra Club. This is not a complete list but it provides connections associated with mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibian, fish, insects, plants, outdoor experiences as well as broad natural community health initiatives.

Learning Centers: Blandford Nature Center, Howard Christensen Nature Center, Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center, Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, Calvin College Ecosystem Preserve, Outdoor Discovery Center, Fredrick Meijer Gardens, and Public Museum of Grand Rapids.

Regional organizations: City, Twp, County, State, and National Parks. National Audubon, Defender’s of Wildlife, North American Butterfly Association, Lepidopterists Society that supports local youth science training with Outer-net Kits through WMBA, National Wildlife Federation and its associated Michigan United Conservation Clubs.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, 616-696-1753

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Slip off Slope

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Rivers slip off slopes and create cut banks. Rivers, streams and brooks move from side to side to create cut banks and slip-off-slopes that become important habitats for wildlife and plants. The movement of stream channels creates unique nature niche environments.

Belted Kingfishers use cut banks for excavating deep tunnels where they nests. Marsh marigolds flower on slip-off-slopes. Slip-off-slopes floodplains retain water that reduces flooding of homes downstream.

A stream or river channel is the trough filled with flowing water. It cuts deeper every season, decade, century, and millennium. The work is slow but not steady. In spring after heavy rains or snowmelt, channel cutting increases. Once the river valley did not exist and the land was nearly level with the surrounding landscape. Following glacial retreat, water flowed to lower areas and began moving particles. Continued flow cut deeper into the landscape creating river valleys.

When water meets an obstacle like a tree or rock, it is diverted sideways and cuts into the opposite bank of the channel creating a cut bank. What was a straight flowing stream forms a meander. Bank undercutting creates hidden hollows where fish hide. Meanders become larger loops but the stream channel width normally remains about the same size. If it was 3-foot wide or 30-foot wide, the size does not change significantly.

Where the stream cuts into a bank along the outer edge of a meander, water flows faster with greater force. On the inside of the channel’s meander, water moves more slowly and drops sediment. It creates shallower water in the process of filling the channel on that side. As the cut bank is eroded on one side, a new wetland known as a slip-off-slope floodplain is formed on the other. The slip-off-slope is named because the river channel is actually slipping off the streambed as it creates new land. The opposite shore can have a nearly vertical bank. It might only be a foot or two high or almost 100 feet. Over time the river moves back and forth across the river valley.

This can be observed along the Grand River, Rogue River, and even Little Cedar Creek. At Ody Brook, the stream valley is about as wide as a football field is long. In Grand Rapids, roads climb slopes of the Grand River’s cut bank toward the Medical Mile to the east and to the west on I-196 west from US 131. Where the Grand River channel flows through town, we have worked to stop the sideway meandering by constructing concrete walls.

To protect businesses and homes on the slip-off-slope floodplain, it was necessary to prevent stream movement back and forth. One can observe more natural slip-off-slope wetland communities at places like Millennium Park. Ody Brook is a headwater for Little Cedar Creek that feeds Cedar Creek, Rogue River, and Grand River. Upstream from Ody Brook, the channel is dry in August but water flows year around at Ody Brook because springs seep from the cut bank maintaining continuous flow.

Even this small watercourse channel that is 4 to 5 feet wide and usually a few inches deep has cut a valley about 12 feet deep and about 300 feet wide. During flooding as water flows through the wetland forest, the current is slowed and drops rich fertile sediment nourishing floodplain communities.

Mouse “houses” and low bird nests get washed away during high water and minks visit more frequently. Failed nests require adults to rebuild, bare new young or lay replacement eggs. Mice trapped on floodplain islands swim to higher ground. It is not just people that construct homes in locations prone to flooding.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, or call 616-696-1753.

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Sanctuary vs. Nature Center

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


A nature sanctuary has a primary purpose for preserving the native species that inhabit ecosystems evolved in a particular environment. A nature center’s focus provides education and human experiences in nature to help people understand the intricate workings of the natural world communities.

Sanctuaries and nature centers can serve both purposes to some degree. I receive calls and e-mails from people interested in exploring Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. Visitors are welcome even though the sanctuary is a privately owned sanctuary. We appreciate groups and people to call or e-mail to request permission so we know when to anticipate use or schedule guided activities. Donations are welcome to support management. The trail system traverses native communities in various stages of plant and animal habitat succession.

We manage the oak upland forest ecosystem to include early succession field, shrub, and pioneer forest stages that attract and maintain the greatest variety of species as habitat communities develop to the mature forest. Similar management in the wetland forest community maintains areas in early stages of community development for more sun-loving wetland plants and animals within the forest.

The management helps more than 250 plant species, 24 mammal, 11 herps, 51 butterflies, and over 100 bird species thrive. We have not surveyed dragonflies, fungi, fish, or other taxonomic groups well but are in the process. Management focus provides suitable living conditions for the greatest biodiversity of native species. Part of the sanctuary focus is to help people learn about native communities so we welcome visitors to come and learn even though primary focus is ecosystem biodiversity preservation. Hopefully people will gain ideas for managing a portion of their property to enhance biodiversity.

Visitors should support safe survival of species that make Ody Brook their home. Create minimal disturbance when hiking Ody Brook. During the 20 years I was director at Howard Christensen Nature Center, our focus was experiential education for Kent Intermediate School District groups where we taught science, social studies, language arts, and mathematics core curriculum to support classroom education with real world experiential education. This was accomplished in native communities and their associated habitats. To teach in native habitats it was necessary to manage the nature center in a manner that preserves natural communities while providing exploratory activities. Both preservation and education were part of the vision for the nature center.

Guided hikes to explore nature niches at Ody Brook can be organized for fee-based programs tailored to personal or group needs. This spring consider an evening watching the woodcock mating display, wildflowers walk, tree identification, bird watching, or other ecological explorations.

Mickey Shortt Jr., a fellow naturalist from North Carolina, recently shared the vision for the role of naturalists and interpreters of our natural and cultural heritage. He said: “At our sites, we are the voice: of the place, of the life within our site, and for conservation and preservation of our natural and historic areas.” I encourage each of us take responsibility for our personal home sites to ensure healthy nature niches greet future generations.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.

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Limits of Cold Tolerance

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Mike’s water line burst in the crawl space at -23 F, Charlie and Julianne had the main water line to the house freeze at -16 F, and we had a kitchen waterline freeze. Mike replaced a 6-inch section of piping and the others, with quick attention, were thawed with no damage.

Significant below zero temperatures in the area have not occurred in 20 years. Cold air settles in the lowland at Ody Brook. During a recent week, two days experienced -15 F and another -16 F.

For wildlife the cold can be more than an inconvenience. Locally millions of animals, mostly insects, likely froze during February’s cold snap. Some survivors were probably maimed. Such events are hidden from our view. Opossums have established more northerly and we can expect frostbit, stub-tailed animals this spring unless the naked tailed animals had well protected shelters. Many opossums likely froze because they do not have a well-developed under fur and protective guard hairs like mammals better adapted to this climate.

Insect species inhabit areas with suitable climate and expand populations northward when milder climatic conditions allow. Each year Painted Lady butterflies immigrate northward, reproduce, and late season offspring succumb during winter. Other species have partial success until an extreme winter ends range expansion. Life expands, from best survival conditions in core habitat areas, to outlying fringe areas, where generations over time might develop survival adaptations to new conditions. The new local genotype adaptations get passed on to offspring.

Flowering Dogwood trees from Georgia, sold at plant nurseries in Michigan, will not be as hardy as those with local genotypes developed in a northern climate. Nursery purchasing agents probably buy appropriate plant stock but ask for stock origin when buying.

Over-wintering Giant Swallowtail butterflies spend the winter in pupae and are thought to die during Michigan winters. Most probably do but there might be exceptions. I’ve found them in some habitats year after year and not in suitable neighboring habitats. That indicates that some populations have succeeded in isolated areas. In the mid 1990’s, -30 F eliminated the Giant Swallowtail from even those limited areas. It was several years before immigrants established colonies in those areas again.

Eastern Bluebirds used nest boxes at Ody Brook but the -30 F froze a bird during the night. In the morning a survivor sharing the nest box tried to leave but its wing feathers were frozen to the dead bird and it could not break free. It was found hanging dead outside the nest box hole. I wonder if more birds had huddled in the box and survived.

Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, chickadees and many other birds spend the winter picking millions of hibernating insects from vegetation. Even one failed food-finding day could spell death and successive day failures result in starvation. Fortunately the Black-capped Chickadee has a hibernation-like torpor during the night to help it save energy and survive. Once I saw a chickadee eating a dead chickadee and it insured existence through another winter’s day.

A multitude of insects undoubtedly perished in recent cold but their bodies continue as food for other animals, fungi, bacteria, and Protozoans. Those that selected winter hibernation sites that became buried in snow have a better chance for survival. Deep snow is fortunate. The Viceroy butterfly winters as a tiny 1/8-inch long caterpillar in a curled willow leaf tied with silk to the twig. Will its nature niche adaptations developed over millennia ensure survival this year? Interestingly, Florida Viceroy genotypes have developed unique genotype adaptations to that climate and its predators.

Local aspens might not be adapted to -20 F and many could experience tree bark splitting injuries in extended cold, while those in northern Canada have adaptations to survive to -40 F. Take a walk to look for fresh splits in tree trunks and branches. They are good places to watch birds and squirrels eating sap-sickles when tree juices flow. Yes, its time for us to taste sugary sap-sickles. Any season is good for nature exploration.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, or call 616-696-1753.

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North and South Facing Slopes


Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


The sun is rising higher in sky, moving farther north and shines in our east facing bedroom window. I speak of appearances instead of accurate occurrences. For most of human history, it was thought that appearances were how things worked in nature niches. We thought the sun rose instead of the Earth rotating to make it appear the sun rises. In the 16th century, Copernicus shared that Earth was not center of universe, and he was placed on house arrest for life unless he recanted and stated his scientific discovery was false. He did not recant his scientific discovery.

An event of great significance for plants and animals is the angle the sun strikes the landscape. Though it is easily observable, many of us have not consciously noticed or considered its importance. Our noses may have noticed skunks begin venturing out in February when days are longer. Day light has been lengthening for two months, even though we receive some of our coldest air at this time of year. We experienced -15 F in mid February.

Cold arctic air masses alternate with warmer southerly air masses sweeping over the region. When clouds are not blocking the sun, higher angle sunrays make more direct contact with the landscape. They warm south facing slopes, melt its snow, and warm the ground to kick-start spring growing conditions earlier than occurs on north facing slopes, where sunlight skims over the slope. Sunray energy concentrates in a smaller area when it strikes south facing slopes perpendicularly. On north-facing slopes, the same amount of energy is obliquely spread widely over a larger area and results in less warming of ground, plants, over wintering insects and other creatures.

Growing seasons on north and south-facing slopes vary depending on the amount of energy they absorb and it creates unique plant and animal microhabitats. As March approaches, notice the variations. The north side of Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary’s big field has exposed bare ground earliest when warm rays reflect infrared heat off forest trees. The middle of the field is slower to lose snow and frozen ground. The south edge of the field is slowest to warm and lose snow because naked winter tree trunks and branches filter light energy and prevent some rays from reaching that edge of the field.

Energy captured by dormant winter trees warms the bark and begins sap flow in February. Look closely at tree buds to notice they swell in advance of spring. It is easier to see changes in trees and shrubs than changes in field plants on north and south-facing slopes. Herbaceous plants have dead vegetation above ground but the warming Earth stimulates unobserved root activity. When spring growth emerges, plants on south-facing slopes bloom earlier than the same species growing on north-facing slopes.

Unfortunately, people often reject science evidence for political or religious reasons as happened with Copernicus. Concerns might stem from human fear of the unknown when we consider changing how to use Earth’s resources. Some people are willing to change behavior to sustain future generations, in addition to caring for our present population, while others focus only on the present. When asked, it appears people are interested in our children’s, grandchildren’s, and succeeding generations sustainability. However, actions are more important than talk, when addressing how we live and strive to sustain a healthy Earth for present and future human generations. It is important that we do not ignore accumulating scientific evidence for how things like the Keystone pipeline or human-caused climate change impact the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Present and future generations depend on healthy functioning ecosystems. In present day society many are unwilling to accept scientific evidence, much like political and religious leaders were unwilling to accept Copernicus’s discoveries.

Go beyond appearances to discover and understand the importance of evidence-based occurrences.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.

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Spruce branch tips

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Pounding front feet, a flicking tail, and loud chatter from a red squirrel demonstrates its defiance, as it scolds me in his woods. I do not view the woods as his, mine, or yours. We live and share a space for a short time on Earth and hopefully leave it healthy for those that follow us. We all impact those around us and red squirrels bring benefit and harm to spruces. Gray and fox squirrels seem more tolerant of my presence. All three species give me space but the red squirrel is feistier.

Gray squirrels are most comfortable in extensive, unbroken forest dominated by oaks. Fox squirrels prefer a deciduous forest with openings. The red squirrels claim dominance in the coniferous forest where they let intruders know they are trespassing.

At the Howard Christensen Nature Center, a plantation of Norway spruce referred to as the Enchanted Forest is home to red squirrels. In the forest’s youthful days, green boughs were in contact with the ground and there was more open space among the trees. Younger aspen trees grew in the surrounding area. As the spruce plantation grew, more shade was cast upon the ground. When I first arrived in 1979, the trees were tall and sunlight reached the ground in few locations. Those locations bore luminescent bright green moss. Though it was reflected light, one would think the light was shining directly from within the moss—hence the name “Enchanted Forest.”

In winter, the forest is quiet unless one passes too close to a red squirrel. Often we do not see or hear the squirrel but other evidence of its presence is abundant. It took some time for me to link the evidence to the red squirrel. Six-inch green spruce branch tips regularly cover the ground in winter. I wondered why. It does not seem that they would break free from the tree in mass. A strong windstorm or ice covering should not cause branch tips to break.

Finally I realized red squirrels venture toward branch tips to eat lateral buds along the branch. Buds swell most toward branch tips and their succulence is preferred. The bud at the branch tip would taste even better but the branch becomes too flimsy for easy access.

When the squirrel eats the two buds along the side, the remaining tip falls to the ground. If it does not fall immediately, wind will break the weak gnawed area causing it to fall in short order. On the ground, the red squirrel could enjoy the terminal bud that it could not reach when it was in the tree. I do not find evidence that it eats those buds but I have not really inspected the new and growing green carpet that thickens under spruces as winter progresses. Mice or other ground animals might find good nutrition just laying around for their taking. It does not cross their minds to thank the squirrel for making food accessible. The squirrel’s action might even be compared to us putting out birdseed. Actions of one animal in nature niches often have positive effects for other animals.

One would think biting branch tips off would only cause harm. The squirrel activity also has some positive impacts for the tree. We prune Christmas trees to cause them to form shorter bushier thick growth. The squirrels do the same for Norway spruce. It encourages the tree to put more energy into vertical growth and helps prevent growing branches into a neighbor’s space. It forces the tree to spend energy for upward growth that keeps its head in sunlight. That helps the tree live instead of being shaded to death by neighboring trees.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, or call 616-696-1753.

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Family hiking exploration (part 2)

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Five Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) trails were described last week and five more follow.

Trail signs have word names, picture icons, and color codes to involve all family members.

Spring Creek Loop (light blue lettered signs with frog icon)

Begins at the Welcome Center parking area and follows east past Chrishaven Lake and lake’s floating dock. It connects with Nature’s Habitats Trail (NHT) for a short distance and then continues eastward to Spring Lake where it loops south to follow the ridge above Spring Creek westward. It joins with NHT along the south side the enchanted Norway Spruce forest at the Spring Creek access spur and continues west until it spurs north to complete a loop near Chrishaven Lake.

Arboretum Paths (Red lettered signs with oak leaf icon)

It is a two-part trail. The East Arboretum Loop contains many species originally planted for ornamental transplant. The West Arboretum Loop is a Spruce/Pine plantation. The East Arboretum Loop is .4 kilometers (.25 miles) long.  The West Arboretum Loop is .5 kilometers (.3 miles).

Boardwalk to Chrishaven Lake (Dark blue lettered signs with sensitive fern frond icon)

A boardwalk leads through an old lake that has been largely replaced with vegetation to create a swampy/bog. A floating dock is present on the remnant of a once much larger lake and the boardwalk leads north to connect with Nature Habitats Trail. Its length is .27 kilometers (.2 miles).

Swamp Ridge Trail (Brown lettered signs with turtle icon)

Begins at the amphitheater fire circle between the Welcome Center parking area and the Red Pine Interpreting Building. It follows the south edge of the swamp eastward to Chrishaven Lake and continues east along the ridge.  At the open area south of the lake it raises from the lowland trail to upland but continues to follow the swamp ridge until meets Nature’s Habitats trail.

Thunderwood Trail (Green lettered signs with woodpecker icon)

Trail departs from Nature’s Habitats Trail, loops through upland forest to a boardwalk through what has become mostly swamp from what was once a marsh. Before entering an upland forest, hikers encounter large hemlock trees on their way to joining Arrowhead Trail. Length is .44 kilometers (.27 miles).

Some unnamed trails are meant for limited activity to allow wildlife privacy but are used during special programs. HCNC’s trail plan provides human access to nature niches balanced with providing plants and animals with needed sanctuary isolation for survival. Design incorporates three-use activity levels: High Activity, Passive Activity, and Limited Activity areas.

Constructed features along the trails enhance family hiking experiences. They include two interpretive buildings, Howard Christensen Memorial Spring, floating docks on the north and south side of Chrishaven Lake, Floating Bridge on Tadpole Pond, Swamp Shelter and Swamp decks on NHT, amphitheater, Swamp Tower, Tadpole Tower, Legend Circle, and Serenity Circle. A Welcome Center with restrooms is located at the south parking area.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433 or call 616-696-1753.

Posted in Outdoors, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Family hiking exploration (part 2)