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Tag Archive | "Natural history"

Insects in Winter


By Ranger Steve Mueller

Winter active insects have different nature niche adaptations for getting warm compared to birds or mammals. Reptiles and amphibians are inactive in winter as are some mammals and many birds migrate to warmer regions. Most insects and other invertebrates are stuck here all winter. Many aquatic insects maintain activity in winter. Their activity along with that of other invertebrates is minimized. 

Even when the ground is covered with snow, terrestrial insects can be seen actively going about their business of walking, jumping, or flying when conditions are suitable. Snowfleas are usually absent until well into the new year. They are not a flea but because they are small, black, and flip summersaults into the air, they have gained the name “flea.” A better name is springtail. When active on sunny winter days, they gather by the tens of thousands, usually at the base of large trees making the snow surface appear black. 

Dark tree bark absorbs heat and radiates the sun’s warmth. Winter sun rays are not restricted from striking the trunk as they pass through the bare canopy branches. Springtails are soil inhabitants that come above ground where the snow has melted around the south side of the tree trunks. They have a small spine on the underside at their tail end that projects forward. It is locked in place at the spine’s tip. 

Simulate the snapping mechanism that allows the springtail to flip summersaults into the air. Place two fingertips from opposite hands together at their very tip and provided increasing pressure until they snap apart. When the springtail lever snaps against the snow or hard surface it sends the lightweight an inch or two into the air to land somewhere nearby. A close view of massive snowfleas appears like jumping pepper on the snow.

Winter stoneflies, flies, and other insects fly on sunny winter days. When you see a name like stonefly with the two parts combined rather than separated to read stone fly, it indicates the species is not a true fly but belongs to a different classification Order. The same is true with snowflea.

To warm adequately to jump, walk, or fly, the organism must be small and usually dark. The dark body allows it to absorb sun energy and the small size allows heat energy to penetrate the body to warm muscles quickly. They also lose heat quickly. During short bursts of sun warmth, they can become active. 

Large hibernating adult insects like the mourning cloak and eastern comma butterflies require a longer stretch of warming to bring their muscles to a temperature for flight. I have seen a mourning cloak come out of hibernation in early January but usually they are not active until near the spring equinox. Even so, I watch for them to become active in late February or early March before the sun crosses the equator and gets spring into high gear. 

We might lay naked on the snow on a warm winter day but the sun will not warm us to a comfortable activity temperature by penetrating deep to our muscles like it does for a springtail. Instead, we will quickly suffer from hypothermia and die. I suggest we keep our oversized bodies bundled and lay in the snow making snow-angels. Each species has specialized body adaptations that allow it to function. Body size and color are important. 

Habitat is critical. Aquatic insects, crayfish (can you tell by letter spacing if the crayfish is a true fish or not?), and fish can remain active in chilly liquid water. Their body temperature, though cool, allows activity all winter. Anglers know fish eat in winter but feeding and digestion are slowed in cold water compared to warm season rivers and lakes. Peer into an ice fishing hole from a dark ice fishing shanty where it is like watching TV with fish swimming through the viewing screen. Viewing is best when sunlight penetrates the ice.

Enjoy looking for active insects on beautiful sunny winter days when you rent snowshoes or get free use with your family membership at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. Take the family winter exploring in new ways during the coming months between the winter solstice on December 21 and spring equinox on March 20. There are always interesting things to do outdoors any time of year. Remain active and enjoy active insects.

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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How birds stay warm


This winter might be a good time to feed the birds if you haven’t done so before.

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Many birds stay warm by migrating to warmer climes. Even more important for migrators is locating to places where they can find adequate food. Many birds that depend on insects, worms, and other invertebrates find moving to a winter home with adequate food is essential. Some that eat invertebrates stay in cold country but change their diet to vegetation and feed heavily on berries or even buds in winter.

American Robins that stay in our area move from our yards to swamps. I have been seeing robins during the last week of November and I am sure we will find many during the Christmas Bird Count on December 29. Come join us and discover what species are around in winter.

One of the most important ways birds stay warm in cold weather is by eating enough calories daily to maintain body heat. It appears this winter has a scarcity of food farther north. Evening Grosbeaks that we have not seen locally in years are making an appearance. Common Redpolls arrived in open country. Pine Siskins arrived at feeders after Thanksgiving. I did not expect them to arrive this early. Saw-whet Owls are reaching southward. This might be a great year to begin feeding birds if you haven’t maintained winter feeders.

As for staying warm, watch birds at your feeder on warm and cold days to notice differences in appearance and activity. I have not timed the frequency of birds returning to get seeds on cold verses warm days to learn if their foraging behavior changes. It seems they come and go more rapidly on cold days. It is difficult to keep track of a particular bird to monitor its behavior when several of the same species are visiting. Perhaps one will have feathers that make it distinguishable from others of its kind. Watch that bird and note the frequency of visits. Hopefully you will be able to observe it on both cold and warm days.

One of the most obvious things to notice is how birds look heavier in cold weather. They fluff their body feathers called contour feathers to trap air. The trapped air insolates and reduces heat loss. Small contour feathers are numerous and more abundant in winter. If feathers get wet they pack and do not insolate. You may have noticed this with a down sleeping bag. Birds have a preening gland at the base of their tail. They use their bill to gather waxy oil from the gland and spread it on feathers much like we use waterproofing oil on our boots.

Waterfowl, like ducks, geese, and swans, have a massive quantity of down feathers that keep them warm in winter while they float or swim in frigid water or lay on ice. If their down gets wet, the bird’s life will be short. Another vital adaptation to their aquatic nature niche is how blood circulates to and from their feet. Warm blood traveling in arteries to the feet flows adjacent to veins carrying blood from their feet. Heat from hot blood on the way to feet is transferred to cold blood returning from the feet. Cold blood is warmed by the veins touching warm arteries before blood reenters the body. The hot blood in route to feet is cooled. Instead of losing the heat to the environment, some heat is conserved by being transferred to the cold blood before it returns to the body.

It might not seem like a big deal but having moderately warmed blood entering the body instead of cold blood means the bird does not need to consume as many calories to maintain its body temperature. Watch birds like gulls standing on the ice to notice they often stand on one foot and tuck the other to the body. When watching behavior, determine if birds are facing the wind or away from the wind. When facing the wind, the air flows over the feathers and they are not ruffled to let cold air enter like when the wind approaches from behind.

Little things spell life and death. Like us, they can generate heat by increasing physical activity but this is only effective when they have enough food to replace lost body fat. During the night, a bird can consume its fat and starve in extreme cold. Black-capped Chickadees can go into a hibernation-like torpor where their heart rate and metabolism are reduced on long winter nights preventing too much body fat loss causing starvation.

These are some major methods employed to survive cold weather. Birds do not directly say thank you for us providing black oil sunflower seeds and suet but increased use of feeders in cold weather tells us they are appreciative.

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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Wild Turkeys


 

 

The family was seated and enjoying a turkey dinner. Extended family brought additional side dishes and desserts. Traditional family gatherings are special events. My Cub Scout leader cut turkey shaped pieces of flat wood for our pack to paint and decorate for our mothers. That flat wood turkey given to my mother still survives even though she does not. The turkey decoration is now in my possession along with a coloring of a turkey with fantail made from the outline of my 3rd grade hand.

The holiday season annually began at Thanksgiving by going to my cousin’s for dinner and watching The Wizard of Oz on a TV that got a full three channels. We gave thanks for family members no longer with us that lived happy, sad, joyous, and humorous lives. Those lives continue in our memories. I hope the tradition continues in my absence. Maybe someone will tell the story of a 21-turkey parade at Ody Brook.

It was Thanksgiving Day two years ago. We were eating when a turkey walked through the yard. My brother said it must know it is safe because we already have turkey on the table. Then another appeared followed by more. Like the Count from Sesame Street, we each counted until 18 ventured from the woods, across the drive, behind the landscape mound, reappeared at the other end and disappeared into the tall weeds and shrub thicket. Three more brought up the rear to finish the parade.

Our conversation shifted to wild turkeys. I told of a neighbor farmer that complained turkeys were eating his newly planted crops in the spring. The investigating DNR biologist told him it was not turkeys but deer. The farmer did not believe him because he often saw turkeys in the field feeding. The DNR biologist said deer feed at night and returned to his truck get a rifle. He shot a turkey, cut it open, examined the crop and stomach and showed the farmer it was insects and not young crop plants.

We all make assumptions that are logical and rational but are not supported by scientific evidence. We tend to believe what parents, grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, and friends tell us. I was trained as a scientist to require supporting evidence before making a conclusion. Like all, I make assumptions that scientists call hypotheses. These are just a first step in science reasoning and we need to study nature niches to gather evidence to learn if our assumptions (hypotheses) are correct.

How much turkey information is myth, fairytale, fact, or correct? Facts as we know them are often incorrect and get corrected was we gather more evidence. Wild turkeys were a staple food of Native Americans and numbers were not excessive due to harvest. Native American populations plummeted with the advent of small pox and other diseases introduced by European settlers. Turkey populations exploded with fewer Indians and collapsed again when market hunting eliminated them from most nature niches.

None survived in Michigan but fortunately some survived in the deep swamps of the southeast US. Environmental conservationists introduced laws to manage hunting practices. Turkeys were reintroduced to Michigan and today a healthy turkey population fluctuates between 100,000 and 200,000. Enjoy watching or hunting turkeys that filled the void vacated when turkeys were extirpated without thought for our children’s generations.

With younger generations that are following mine, we ate Thanksgiving dinner watching wild turkeys. I have satisfaction having been a part of the DNR release of Wild Turkeys back into the Rogue River State Game Area surrounding the Howard Christensen Nature Center about 1988. They thrive in the forest with scattered farm fields. Turkeys feed on grain left after fall harvest, acorns and other forest food. Some natural predators kill adult turkeys but humans remain their primarily predator. Skunks, raccoons, and foxes prey heavily on eggs. The presence of coyotes helps keep these predators in check.

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

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