web analytics

Tag Archive | "nature niches"

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Seeing with Kids Eyes

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Outdoors, Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Seeing with Kids Eyes

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.


Posted in Ranger Steve's Nature NicheComments Off on Exclosure Observations