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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Everyday Wonders

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Itty Bitty Sleeper

Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weekly Fishing Tip

Catching a catfish in Michigan


Rodney Akey with record catfish.

The new state record flathead catfish caught on May 22 on the St. Joseph River has brought a relatively unheralded species into the daylight. The record flathead, which weighed 49.81 pounds and measured 45.7 inches, was caught by Rodney Akey of Niles, who was fishing with an alewife for bait. That’s one of the main differences with fishing for the flathead than other catfish species. Anglers often use live baitfish when pursuing flatheads, unlike the earthworms, shrimp or various stink-bait concoctions many catfish anglers use.

Flatheads tend to live in slow-flowing rivers where they typically inhabit deep holes. Veteran flathead anglers often pursue them at night, fishing on the bottom in the leading edge of the hole or on the flats upstream. Large minnows, small sunfish or cut suckers are preferred baits. Summer is the most popular season to fish for flatheads; what better time to get out and try your luck!

For more information on fishing for catfish, check out the Michigan Fish and How to Catch Them section of the DNR’s website. Go to Michigan.gov/dnr and then click on fishing, then angler information, and then “Michigan Fish and How to Catch Them.”


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Reminders for snowmobile and ORV riders

Winter is a beautiful time to experience Michigan’s outdoors. Whether riding a portion of Michigan’s groomed snowmobile trails or riding an off-road vehicle (ORV) to a favorite remote ice fishing hole, the Department of Natural Resources reminds riders to always exercise safety.
“With Michigan’s riding opportunities also comes inherent risks associated with motorsports,” said Gary Hagler, chief of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division. “It is each rider’s responsibility to ensure their safety and the safety of their passengers and bystanders.”
There are several common factors with snowmobile and ORV accidents in Michigan.  The DNR urges snowmobilers and ORV operators to take simple precautions this winter season.  Excessive speed, alcohol use, inexperience, failure to wear helmets, operating on roadways and unfamiliarity with terrain are some of the most common factors involved in accidents. Many fatal accidents have one or more common factors as contributing causes.
“Operators should respect the speeds that snowmobiles and ORVs are capable of attaining, and the demands that operating over snow and ice pose,” Hagler said. “Safety education is a crucial factor in safe and responsible snowmobile and ORV operation. Safety education is required for youths and highly recommended for all others.”
Persons interested in finding a safety course, go online to www.michigan.gov/dnr and click on the “Education & Outreach” menu and then select Hunter Education & Recreational Safety Classes.  Safety training classes are offered in a classroom setting and some are available online.
The DNR does not recommend operating on the frozen surface of water; however, the DNR recognizes that it is a popular activity.  If an ice crossing is unavoidable there are several safety concerns operators need to be aware of in the event they fall into the freezing water.
Once a person is suddenly immersed in freezing water, their respiratory system will automatically and instantly have an uncontrollable inhaling gasp reflex because of the cold shock. If initially under the water, individuals will inhale water into their lungs. It is critical to get your head above the surface and first get your breathing under control which will take at least one minute. If you do not control your breathing the chances of drowning sooner are exponentially increased. Once you have your breathing under control, get to the edge of the solid ice you were at before you fell in because you know that ice held your weight at one point.  Secure your arms on top of the edge of good ice.  Use your arms to lift your body up and kick your feet hard in a swimming motion while leaning over the good ice.  Get your upper body up onto the solid ice and roll away from the open water. Using self-rescue ice spikes, which typically consist of two plastic cylinders with spikes on one end connected with a line, can greatly assist in pulling yourself out of the water onto safe ice.  Once you are out, do not stand up immediately or you will have an increased risk of falling through thin ice again. Once far enough away from the open water, begin to crawl away and eventually walk.
If you’re unable to get yourself out of the water, ensure your arms and as much of your upper body are out as far as possible. Reach out as far as you can onto the ice and do not move your arms. This will hopefully freeze your clothes to the ice and keep you from falling farther back in and increase the chances of being rescued. You will lose effective movement in roughly 10 minutes, but you can remain conscious for up to two hours. You should yell or signal for help.
Do not remove any protective gear such as a helmet or jacket. Your appropriate protective gear (riding clothes, suit and helmet) will offer some degree of floatation and provide insulating qualities. Helmets, while not marketed as a Personal Flotation Device (PFD), are partially constructed of foam liners and offer about the same amount of buoyancy as a PFD. Wearing a helmet will also help retain body heat around your brain which would otherwise be lost quicker, hastening unconsciousness, if not wearing a helmet.
There are free safety videos available online to illustrate what to expect and how to react in cold water immersion scenarios. These videos made be viewed at:  http://www.yukonman.com/cold_water.asp.

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Horse owners reminded to vaccinate for mosquito-borne diseases

Eastern Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus cases could be worse this year

Lansing – The Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development’s State Veterinarian Dr. Steven Halstead today reminded horse owners to vaccinate against mosquito-borne illnesses and prevent mosquito exposure to themselves and horses during this year’s rainy season and warm weather months.  Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) is suspected of being the cause of 129 out of 133 horse deaths in 2010, 56 of the deaths were laboratory confirmed; and West Nile Virus (WNV), another mosquito-borne illness has been found in Michigan in past years.  Both can affect humans, birds, deer and horses.

“The viruses circulate in mosquito and bird populations throughout the spring and early summer, and gradually spill over to horses, and potentially to humans,” said Halstead. “Owners should plan to vaccinate horses now to protect them against these diseases. Michigan typically sees an increase in the number of cases of EEE and WNV in late summer and early fall each year.”

EEE, commonly called sleeping sickness, and WNV are both caused by specific viruses found in wild birds. Mosquitoes that feed on birds carrying EEE or WNV can transmit the disease to horses and humans. Some birds are able to harbor the viruses without becoming acutely ill, thereby serving as reservoirs for the diseases.
Clinical signs of both viruses in horses include: depression, fever, muzzle weakness, the horse is often down and unable to get up, sweating, dehydration, seizing, grimacing, not feeding, head down, stumbling, blindness and circling.

“We encourage diagnostic testing because EEE and WNV can look like rabies and while rabies is not very common in horses, rabies is contagious from infected horses to people,” Halstead said.  “Horses do not develop high enough levels of EEE or WNV in their blood to be contagious to other animals or humans; however, vaccinations against EEE, WNV and rabies are always critical to protect horse health.”

Horse owners should follow these tips to prevent mosquito-borne illness:

  • Vaccinate your horses. Inexpensive vaccines for EEE and WNV are readily available and should be repeated at least annually. It is never too late to vaccinate horses. Talk to your veterinarian for details.


  • Use approved insect repellants to protect horses.


  • If possible, put horses in stables, stalls, or barns during the prime mosquito exposure hours of dusk and dawn.


  • Eliminate standing water, and drain troughs and buckets at least two times a week.


For more information about WNV or EEE in horses, contact MDARD’s Animal Industry Division at 517-373-1077 or visit www.michigan.gov/emergingdiseases.

MDARD encourages horse owners to report suspect cases to the department at 517-373-1077 or, after hours, at 1-800-292-3939. When disease surveillance begins, weekly updates of affected animals will be posted on the Emerging Diseases website at www.michigan.gov/emergingdiseases.

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