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Tag Archive | "Howard Christensen Nature Center"

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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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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Nature Center awarded grant for boardwalk


Howard Christensen Nature Center recently received a $2,000.00 grant from the Sparta Community Foundation.

According to Nature Center Director David Kieft, the grant will be used to repair and rebuild the Thunderwood Swamp Boardwalk at the Nature Center, located on Red Pine Drive, in Tyrone Township.

“This boardwalk is one of two remote trails on the HCNC property and was closed in the summer of 2015 because of disrepair and for general safety,” explained Kieft.

He said the grant money, along with donations from local businesses, and service from local groups, will rebuild the boardwalk to the high safety standards of HCNC. It will then reopen to provide uninhibited natural experiences in the hardwood swamp called Thunderwood.

HCNC is still accepting volunteers and contributions to help complete the project and those interested are asked to call the office at (616) 675-3158 to inquire.

HCNC has received several grants from the Sparta Community Foundation. Others included funding for the Planetarium, the Bird Wall, the Chrishaven Boardwalk, the aquarium wall and Animal Resource Center.

“Howard Christensen Nature Center greatly appreciates and thanks the Sparta Community Foundation for their continued support in the improvements and programming intended to enrich the community and offer a place of solitude for hikers, runners and families,” said Kieft.

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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.

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Changes in Animal Communities

By Ranger Steve Mueller



Ernest Thompson Seton and his naturalist partner studied caribou, arctic hares, wolves, arctic foxes, Canada Geese, Lapland Longspurs, Ptarmigans, and many other animals when they explored the arctic tundra in 1907. He headed north from the Eastern Deciduous Forest Biome where we live to explore a vast and relatively unknown arctic biome.

He wondered if caribou and musk ox still survived with the onslaught of uncontrolled shooting. He hired local native people to guide him north through known country and then ventured farther into an unknown landscape with the use of sketchy maps created by early explorers.

When I lead groups through various habitats in the deciduous forest biome at Howard Christensen Nature Center or Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, I focus attention on the succession of animal communities in habitats. Lichens and mosses colonize bare ground and are followed by a variety of plants in succession from grasses, herbs, shrubs, and trees. Associated with each set of plants are specific animal communities of greatest interest to people. The animals can only survive when associated with appropriate plant communities. The plants sustain many animals that become prey for other animals.

Farm fields at Ody Brook and HCNC were abandoned and became good study sites. At the site that later became Ody Brook, the farmer drove his tractor and equipment through the creek in spring and found it problematic so two 5-acre fields were abandoned. This also stopped the stirring of sediments that would cover trout eggs. Farming was abandoned in one field during the 1970’s and the other in the late 1980’s. At HCNC, the farm field was abandoned in the early 1960’s.

Habitats became qualitative observation areas (general overviews) when HCNC was established in 1974 for students in the Kent Intermediate School District. Observational field trips were led to help students understand succession relationships in nature niches. Qualitative studies are a good introduction to science but provide limited evidence required for making supported conclusions.

When I became director at HCNC in 1986, we established a study plot where students could learn how to gather quantitative data (detail numerical observations) in the abandoned field. The study plots supported school curricula expectations in science, mathematics, social studies, language arts, and art classes. The field trips allowed students to gather detailed quantitative data with hands-on learning experiences that helped apply classroom “book learning” to real-life applications. Quantitative studies supported the students general qualitative impressions made on discovery hikes at the nature center.

As society becomes more urban and suburban, people have fewer opportunities to learn the importance of qualitative or quantitative farming and wildland ecology values or their importance and how they are essential for maintaining a sustainable society. Farmers need quantitative observations to know when to treat insect infestations because qualitative is not accurate enough. They also need to know how to properly space crops. Following my departure for HCNC, the Kent Conservation District that assumed management of HCNC removed the quantitative study plot in the field. Quantitative studies in wildland communities require long term detailed data collection, and require coordination and integration among a variety of subject areas. Teachers need classes to return yearly and have students gather data for current classes to analyze to make valid scientific conclusions using data from previous years. Science, math, art, social studies, and writing teachers need to coordinate together for student learning to be most effective. Students need guidance to apply connections among art, math, science, and social studies.

What does this have to do with Seton’s arctic expedition? He spent the summer recording general qualitative observations but he also gathered some scientific quantitative evidence. Both are useful. Qualitative observations provided a general appearance of occurrences but quantitative evidence provided detailed records with specific numbers, species, and plant growth that would be useful for documenting changes over time. That is what students were gathering between 1986 and 2005 at HCNC. Detailed long-term data collection is necessary to make valid conclusions. In the arctic Seton made initial qualitative observations that set the stage for quantitative studies to follow. He also gathered quantitative data by collecting animal and plant specimens. Representative animals were shot for the American Museum of Natural History. The opened the stomachs of animals to document food eaten as well as documented behaviors observed.

It was not until Dr. Curtis provided detailed quantitative data from Lake Michigan Dunes that concept of plant succession was supported with adequate quantitative scientific evidence for valid analysis and conclusions. His model is now used worldwide. Quantitative studies are essential. Quantitative studies are not perfect but further repeatable studies allow scientific debate and corrections. Quantitative science is self-correcting. Most of us did not receive that kind of education as students. I didn’t. Modern curricula better prepares students with the help of places like HCNC. Unfortunately field trips have become fewer even though they are vital for helping students apply content learned in classrooms. Cedar Springs used to visit HCNC regularly with all grades from K through fifth. Parental encouragement at schools may help reinstate them. Lily’s Frog Pad Inc. has now assumed management of HCNC and we will see where the future leads learning. HCNC has expanded opportunities beyond school groups to community programming.

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



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Halloween Happenings


Check out some of the fun, fall activities going on in our area for Halloween!


MCC Haunted Indoor Forest

Oct. 24, 25: Montcalm Community College Art Club hosts a Haunted Indoor Forest from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, October 24 and Saturday, October 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Instruction North Building, on the college’s Sidney campus. A $2 donation is suggested.

Harvest Brains at Sand Lake/Nelson Library

Oct. 25: Program for teens, at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, October 25. Save your brains! Build a survival bag, practice your aim, and learn what it takes to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse. The library is located at 88 Eighth St., Sand Lake.

Harvest party

Oct. 25: Cedar Creek Community Church, at 2969 14 Mile RD NE Sparta, will host a harvest party on Saturday, October 25, from 5-8 p.m. There will be hayrides (using straw due to allergies), pumpkin painting, dunking for apples, cake walk, games, face painting, soup, hot dogs, popcorn, and lots of fun! All are welcome. Call 866-9829 for more info.

Pumpkin Carving and Lit Trails Walk

Oct. 25: Pumpkin/Carving and Pumpkin lit trail hike from 5-8:30 p.m. at Howard Christensen Nature Center, 16290 Red Pine Dr., Kent City, on Saturday, October 25. Suggested donation is $8 per person or $30 for family of four or more, including pumpkin to take home. (No one turned away for inability to pay. This donation helps keep HCNC operating.) Pumpkin carving from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and pumpkin lit walk through our spooky Enchanted Forest from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. (Friendly enough for your toddlers. Non scary animals will be on display in the forest, weather permitting for the mock-animals). Includes pumpkin to take home or leave at the center for the wild animals to munch on. Dress up as your favorite nature character. Open to all ages.

Trunk ‘r Treat at Courtland-Oakfield UMC 

Oct. 25: It’s our fourth annual Trunk ‘r Treat for kids of all ages. Saturday, October 25, 5:30-7:00 p.m. at Courtland-Oakfield United Methodist Church, 10295 Myers Lake NE. Candy outdoors; hot dogs & baked beans indoors.

Trunk or Treat at East Nelson UMC

Oct. 25: Bring your kids and come “Trunk or Treat” at East Nelson UM Church, 9024 18 Mile Rd., Cedar Springs on Saturday, October 25 from 5-7 p.m. Warm up with hot chocolate and sloppy joes. Games and fun for all.

Fall Festival  

Oct. 29: Fall Festival for all ages at the Solon Center Wesleyan Church, 15671 Algoma Ave., Cedar Springs on Wednesday, October 29, from 6:30- 8 p.m. For families with children 5th grade and under. Games, prizes, snacks, boy and girl door prizes and candy, candy, candy! The church is located on Algoma, just north of 19 Mile Road.

Nightmare on Cherry Street

Oct. 30: Calling all 4th to 6th graders!  You are officially invited to come to our “Nightmare on Cherry Street” party at the Cedar Springs Library! The fun, games, and food will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 30 and go until 7:30. Registration is required, so come into the library to sign up or call 616-696-1910

Trick or Treat Trail Walk

Oct. 31: From 3-5 p.m. on Halloween, bring your kiddos by Howard Christensen Nature Center, 16290 Red Pine Dr., Kent City, to take a short walk down one of our trails to collect some candy, so we don’t get tricked!

Cedar Springs Spooktacular

Oct. 31:  The Cedar Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, businesses and churches in Cedar Springs are sponsoring the annual Main Street Halloween Spooktacular on Friday, October 31. Some of the free events include: spooky storytelling and crafts at the Cedar Springs Public Library, 4:30 p.m.; a haunted school house at the Cedar Springs Historical Museum in Morley Park 5-7 p.m.; a Kids Carnival, hosted by Calvary Assembly of God 5-7 p.m.; Trick-or-Treating at local businesses between 5-7pm; and Trunk or Treat at The Springs Church from 6 to 8 p.m. (see more details below).

Kids carnival

Oct. 31: Calvary Assembly of God will be presenting a free carnival during the Chamber of Commerce’s Spooktacular event from 5-7pm on Friday, October 31. The carnival will be at the corner of Ash and Main Street, next to DJ Nails, and will have lots of family-friendy games, with prizes and candy.

Haunted school house

Oct. 31: The Haunted School House is back this year at the Cedar Springs Historical Museum in Morley Park from 5-7 p.m. again. Nolan Patin has worked up another fun spooky event for the museum. We do adapt our spookiness when young children are coming through and will be handing out treats.

Trunk or Treat at The Springs

Oct. 31: Creative costumes—check. Oodles of goodies—check. Lots of giggles and loads of fun—doublecheck! You’ll experience it all at The Springs Church at Trunk or Treat on Halloween night from 6 to 8 p.m. There will be lots of candy for the taking, carnival games, a giant slide, and refreshments. It will be fun for the whole family, and a safe, well-lit environment for kids. The church is located at 135 N. Grant St., in Cedar Springs.

Traffic Squad/Fire Department

Oct. 31: There will be cider, donuts and candy at the Cedar Springs Fire Department on Maple Street from 5 to 7 p.m. or while supplies last.

Halloween Hospitality Center

Oct. 31: Warm up station at the Cedar Springs United Methodist Church, 140 S. Main Street, Cedar Springs, on Friday, October 31, from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. Serving hot chocolate and popcorn, everyone is welcome to join us.

Halloween party – Courtland Fire

Oct 31:  Stop by the Halloween party at the Courtland Fire station #2, 9535 Myers Lake road from 5-9 p.m. Games, snacks candy, cider, coffee,  car trunks with treats welcome. Sponsored by women auxiliary, and many stores in the area.

Family Harvest Celebration

Oct. 31: Pine Ridge Bible Camp invites you to its annual Family Harvest Celebration on Friday, October 31, from 6 to 8 p.m. This free event includes hayride, games, puppet show, cider, donuts and trip through Treat Town. Please bring a bag for collecting treats. It is a fun night for the whole family. Costumes welcome but not necessary. Please no witches, ghosts, monsters, etc. Pine Ridge is located just 5 miles east of town at 8415 17 Mile Rd. Call 616-696-8675 for more information.

Trunk or Treat at Crossfire Church

Oct. 31: Trunk or Treat at Crossfire Church, 4780 Cornfield Drive, Cedar Springs, from 6-8 p.m. There will be games and prizes, candy for the kids, hot dogs and chips available.

Ghostbusters at the Kent Theatre

Oct. 31, Nov. 1, Nov.2: Don’t let the Halloween weekend go by without spending some time at the Kent Theatre. A special showing of Ghostbusters will be on the big screen October 31, November 1 and 2, in celebration of Ghostbusters 30th Anniversary. Now in digital format, watch your favorite ghost busting team in action! Showing Halloween night at 6 and 9 p.m., Saturday at 3, 6 and 9 p.m. and Sunday at 3 and 6 pm. Tickets are only $3.00.

Sand Lake Fire Department

Oct. 31: The Sand Lake Fireman’s Association will host their annual Halloween festivities at the fire station at 2 Maple Street in Sand Lake from 6-8 p.m. There will be games, a bounce house, prize drawings, goody bags, cider, donuts, and coffee. There will also be a costume contest. Judging is at 7:15, must be present to win the contest. Call 636-8854 for more info.

Trick or Treat at Meadowlark

Oct. 31: Meadowlark Retirement Village in Sparta loves having trick or treaters. Their doors will be open from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, October 31. The residents can’t wait to see all the kids dressed up! Meadowlark is located at 65 Ida Red Ave, Sparta. Call 887-8891 ext. 102 for more info.




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New director at Nature Center

David A Kieft and his daughter.

David A Kieft and his daughter.

Lily’s Frog Pad, Inc., the operating entity of Howard Christensen Nature Center located at 16190 Red Pine Drive, Kent City is proud to announce the election and appointment of David A Kieft as the new Executive Director.

Cindy Perski, former director and founder of Lily’s Frog Pad, resigned July 14 to enjoy retirement with her husband. “She has done many wonderful things and has made a tremendous impact at Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC),” said a spokesperson for Lily’s Frog Pad. “Although she will remain on staff teaching and volunteering, her retirement will leave her daily presence dearly missed.  She has left very big shoes to fill, thank you Cindy for all you have done, we cannot express our gratitude enough!”

Those big shoes will be filled by David A Kieft, “DK”, of Kent City. David is a father to an outgoing 8-year-old daughter Skylynne, and many pets. David’s educational background certificates and degrees include Culinary Arts, Accounting and Business finance and he will be transferring his graduate credits to a state university this fall. David is the general manager of Kieft Hospitality Company (a local caterer and concessionaire). He is an avid outdoorsman, and graduated from a Colorado Springs Community College affiliated naturalist guiding and survivalist program, before taking up work in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a guide and camp cook.

He also enjoys volunteer work, especially with children and youth, and is a long-standing board member and coach for Grant AYSO region 1472, assists Sparta United Methodist Church’s youth pastor with youth group, is vice-chairman of the Kent City Village Board of Zoning Appeals and served as a board advisor for HCNC until his appointment to executive director July 14.

In his spare time, David enjoys spending time at his weekend home on Ryerson Lake, working in his organic garden at home, hunting and fishing. As an experienced chef and caterer, cooking is also an enjoyable activity for David.  When asked what he enjoys doing most, David responded, “I just love working with kids, and really anything outdoorsy.”

We welcome DK, and wish him luck in his new position as executive director at HCNC.  Stop by and welcome him and see what HCNC has to offer as well. Dave will have a large pot of coffee on as long as he’s on the grounds!


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Chickadee Loop Trail

The short Chickadee Loop at the Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) is rewarding. From the Welcome Center parking area take a quarter mile walk for exposure to things wild and natural.

Walking directly west from the Welcome Center, the trail leads through an oak forest to a junction where the trail continues north (right). The habitat transitions from oak forest to young oak forest at the junction. The area was maintained as an oak savanna in the 1980’s through the 2008.

A savanna is an open grass and forbs community with scattered trees. Scattered trees allow sunlight to penetrate to ground vegetation. In the savanna, Wild Blue Lupine (a forb) flowers in late May. It adds nitrogen to the soil with the aid to root nodules that contain nitrogen-fixing bacteria. A variety of plants thrive in a savanna’s lightly filtered sunlight.

Oak savanna is Michigan’s rarest plant/animal community. We often hear how over 70 percent of Michigan’s wetlands have been drained and has led to a great decline in waterfowl and associated wetland species. Groups like Duck’s Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the Audubon Society, and many others have worked for a century to restore essential habitat for nature niche neighbors that depend on wetlands.

Savannas are home for rare and endangered species that require survival help and management if we are to keep nature’s bounty alive and well. There are a few prairies species that can be found at HCNC but the landscape does not contain any prairie habitats. Michigan’s prairies were mostly restricted to SW counties of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Oak savannas contain some prairie species but referring to it as a prairie would be a disservice and teach scientific misconceptions.

Chickadee Loop turns east at the north end of the former savanna. A beautiful shrub known a winged sumac grows at the clearing edge. It has large compound leaves. A compound leaf is a leaf that has many leaflets that appear leaf-like. To recognize a leaflet from a leaf, look at the base of the flat leaf-like blade. If a bud is present, it is a leaf. If one needs to look farther back to find a bud, it is a compound leaf made of several leaflets.

At the next trail junction Chickadee Loop turns south toward the Welcome Center. At the junction one can take a short spur to the left that leads about 100 feet to a vernal pond. I designed a trail around the west side of the pond to the nature center’s service drive. That allowed the east half of the pond to remain wild for nature to carry on without disturbance from human activity. Please recognize you are a guest in nature’s habitats when visiting HCNC and provide proper respect for plant and animal privacy and living condition needs.

On the final stretch to the Welcome Center, you will cross a floating bridge that rises and lowers with water level at the permanent pond. A pond is a body of water where light penetrates to the bottom. Lakes are deep enough to prevent good light penetration. Size is not best measure for separating ponds and lakes biologically.

Before reaching the Welcome Center, you pass the Howard Christensen Memorial Spring. Frank and Rita’s only child died from a brain tumor while a high school senior and graduated posthumously in 1962-63. To honor him, his parents donated land to establish a nature center that would allow youth to experience discovery in the natural world. Frank and Rita were not wealthy people but owned about 100 acres they gave to the community. It was a gift of the heart that founded HCNC in fall 1974. The Grand Rapids Downtown Kiwanis Club provided funds for the construction of the Welcome Center, memorial spring stonework, and the drilling of the flowing well. Visit the office to purchase a HCNC membership.

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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Exclosure Observations

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Helping students and the public understand the nature of science was an important goal for me as director of Howard Christensen Nature Center. Education deals with many misconceptions and the scientific process helps people understand that science, based on verifiable evidence, is self-correcting.

To see science in action we constructed an “exclosure.”  It helped people observe natural changes in nature niches. It was a ten by twenty foot fenced area. Fence posts were five feet apart. In the first section we did not disturb the area during construction and left it untouched for the next twenty years. The other five by ten-foot sections were cleared of vegetation on a rotating three-year cycle.

Sheep sorrel was an early colonizing ground cover. Plants, insects and small animals could enter and colonize without our influence. Large animals like deer were excluded. After the plants were cleared and roots filtered from the soil, we observed colonizing plants and animals. Ants made about 20 small mounds about 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Sheep sorrel, pigweed, and five clumps of grass also took hold within three weeks.

Rather than describe details of what was observed, lets focus attention on nature niche establishment. John Curtis first described the process of plant succession. By documenting the species and the order they colonized sand dunes, he established predictable models. Plants changed the soil and made it more hospitable for different species. It could be predicted how long it would take for particular species to establish.

Plant colonizers were replaced by mosses, perennial grass or other plants when soil conditions improved. Later woody shrubs and trees could establish. With each new plant species various insects, birds, and mammals could make a living.

I mentioned science is self-correcting. Over the years, repeated studies showed a predictable sequence of colonizing plants and animals. It was found the sequence was somewhat variable based on surrounding vegetation and animal populations. Generally species arrived in the same sequence to occupy nature niches. Continued long-term studies corrected initial conclusions.

Using HCNC’s exclosure, students learned the process of collecting and analyzing data. As humans, we are prone to draw conclusions based on how things appear or how we want them to be. Often they are correct but frequently we have not collected adequate data to confirm our conclusions. Scientific process slowly builds valid conclusions that get modified and corrected when studies indicate our conclusions are not perfect.

The process allows us to discard misconceptions and support what is shown to be correct. That is where climate change discussions frustrate many. Some people deny it is greatly influenced by human activities. Most scientists acknowledge climate change is greatly human influenced but qualify the statement with “pending further data collection.” Science process is always open to modification pending further data collection. Many people accept unsupported absolute conclusions because they do not like science being open to modification or not being what they desire to think.

The exclosure experiment at HCNC helped people learn how scientific process works and how new data collection modified our understanding of how nature functions. It would have been nice if the experiment were continued after I left. We could have documented changes in growing season as well as plant and animal composition. Many scientific studies take decades or centuries to make valid predications. We tend to be impatient and want absolute answers now.

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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Why are these robins spotted?

This bird was photographed by Betty VanderWal and sent to Ranger Steve.

This bird was photographed by Betty VanderWal and sent to Ranger Steve.

This bird was photographed by Jennifer August in Solon Township.

This bird was photographed by Jennifer August in Solon Township.

Jennifer August, of Solon Township, sent us this photo of an American Robin, with feathers that look like they are missing some pigment. We sent the photo on to Ranger Steve Mueller, our wildlife and botanical expert, and he told us that it is a partially albino (or pied) robin.

He said he also received pictures this week of the same type of bird (or possibly the same bird) from Betty VanderWal.

And the condition is not as rare as you might think. “My ornithology instructor, Harold Mahan at Central Michigan University wrote an ornithology textbook with George J. Wallace from Michigan State University. They commented that partial albinism is common and is most frequently reported in robins, crows, sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds,” he explained.

Albinos have white feathers lacking pigment and reflect all the light making them appear white.

“Complete albinism is a genetic disorder that often results in death at a young age in affected individuals,” wrote Steve. “They often experience other physical problems.”

He said that the partial albinism is referred to as the pied state and may be patchy, forming a mosaic like is pictured in the photos. “Such individuals may live well without the serious health effects that happen in complete albinos,” noted Steve. “A pied robin returned to a banding station in Pennsylvania for eight years.”

He added that they have several mounted specimens of partially albino house sparrows at Howard Christensen Nature Center, 16190 Red Pine Dr NW, Kent City, and he encourages readers to go visit and take a look at them. Visit http://lilysfrogpad.com to learn more about the Nature Center’s open hours.


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