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Tag Archive | "Ranger Steve Mueller"

Insect or wind pollinated

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Showy attractive flowers tend to be insect pollinated. Flowers that do not capture our attention are typically wind pollinated. The size of pollen is a critical factor between the wind and insect pollinated flowers. Large pollen weight causes it to fall to ground near the parent plant when dislodged. An insect or bird is needed to carry heavy pollen from flower to flower in order for the plant to have successful fertilization. Tiny pollen is easily carried long distances by wind to improve chances for pollination.

When a bee, butterfly, beetle, other insect, or hummingbird carries pollen from one flower to another, the pollen sticks to the top of a pistil if it is ripe and receptive. Male pollen is equivalent to sperm in animals. When it is released from a flower’s anther, an animal carries it to another flower. Animals that carry pollen improve the chances for pollination because pollen on their bodies has the best chance of reaching a flower of the same species. Wind carried pollen rides the wind wherever it goes.

We notice yellow pollen on a honeybee’s body. Showy flower petals attract the attention of insects. When insects approach a flower, they see “lighted runway” landing strips. They are not as noticeable to our eyes because petals reflect ultraviolet light we do not see. Insects see a broader visible spectrum. We might see dark or light lines on the petals that lead toward the center of the flower.

Those lines are runways that direct the travel of insects like airport runway lights help a plane’s pilot on the landing strip. As the insect walks toward the center of a flower to probe for nectar, it brushes against an anther that sits atop a thin string-like filament that bends when bumped. If the anther is ripe, pollen will be released onto the body of an insect and sticks to its “hairy body.”

The female part of the flower usually ripens later than its flower’s anthers and is not receptive when the pollen is released. This helps prevent inbreeding. The part of the flower pistil that captures pollen has a sticky top called the stigma. Pollen on it digests its way through a long neck called the style and when it reaches the ovule (egg) in the ovary it will fertilize it. The fertilized ovule becomes a seed.

The same process occurs in wind-pollinated flowers like corn, grass, sedges, and ragweed. Ragweed blooms at the same time as showy yellow goldenrod flowers in a field. The pollen on goldenrod is large and fewer in number than minute pollen cells released from ragweed. Goldenrod pollen will not be carried far by wind and falls to the ground. It is insect dependent for pollination. Ragweed pollen, like corn pollen, can float in a gentle light breeze. It will go wherever the wind goes and is less efficient at reaching a flower of its own species. More pollen is produced by wind-pollinated plants and compensates for the lower efficiency.

Pollen from the nondescript green ragweed flowers makes it to our nose and sinuses where it causes an allergic reaction we call “hay fever.” People unjustly blame goldenrod for “hay fever.” Goldenrod pollen is unlikely to get in our noses unless a bee enters our nose. If that occurs, the bee will be of greater concern than the pollen.

Some insect pollinated flowers are green but the insects find them. I wonder if they reflect ultraviolet light. Some flowers can utilize both wind and insect pollination. How I wish I knew more about the secret workings in nature niches. There is always something new to discover outside. Do not blame the insect-pollinated goldenrod for “hay fever.”

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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Ant stories

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Ant stories abound. Some are good and then there are others. I hope children still watch ants carrying sand grains and sticks as they tend to their house keeping. It was always interesting to watch ants march one by one in a long row carrying food bits to the nest while others walked in the opposite direction to a food source that an ant found and trail marked.

The ant finding a food source laid a trail of pheromones for ants to follow and a great chain of ants began work. I’ve watched them walking over cement following an invisible trail. I rubbed a finger across the trail about three inches wide. It removed the trail scent. On both sides of the rub, the ants came to a stop and did not know where to go. They piled in mass about three inches apart.

After I watched and waited for about 30 minutes, an ant found a way to reconnect their road. The new trail was about three feet long instead of three inches. It made a big loop like a bypass we might encounter when a road is closed for repair. One would think they would have found a short route but they did not. I had read about pheromone marked trails and wanted to verify it. Science requires observation that is repeatable with verifiable physical evidence. I do not need to personally conduct every science experiment to accept it but some are great learning experiences. When food is depleted, the ants cease placing pheromone drops on the trail. It evaporates and the trail is abandoned.

It was sad for a beetle when a group of ants discovered it for a meal. I was tempted to save the beetle by shooing ants and moving the beetle to safety. Instead, I allowed the ants to continue their predatory role. The beetle fought for its life as long as it could but the ants chewed off its legs. Once the beetle could not move, ants proceeded to kill it for a hearty meal. I suppose it is like humans fishing, hunting birds, mammals, or slaughtering cows and pigs for our sustenance.

Our daughters were raised to respect life and to avoid causing needless or cruel harm or death. When Jenny Jo was in second grade, she told her teacher that kids were stepping on ants and killing them in the playground. The teacher acknowledged but did nothing until she realized how traumatic it was to Jenny Jo and decided to stop the students from needlessly killing ants going about their daily work. It was new experience for the teacher to encounter someone valuing ant lives.

We each raise our children with different values regarding a “Reverence for Life.” There are times when it is appropriate to kill insects and times when we should not. I have written about the importance of insects as pollinators, predators of other insects, and their importance for maintaining healthy ecosystems. Many kinds of butterfly caterpillars require ants for protection in order to survive to the winged adult form. The Endangered Karner Blue butterfly in our region is one example. In Karner Blue habitat one will find large ant mounds and without the ants, their survival would be greatly reduced.

Preventing ants from causing houses to collapse is important. Carpenter ants found our home and began hollowing support beams. That was unacceptable and we hired a treatment company to save the house.

Most insect activity provides direct or indirect benefit for society. We should make intelligent decisions to live with most insects. They do not know the difference between carrying food they found, a hapless beetle, or beams in a house. We can selectively control problem ants to protect our homes. Value ant roles in nature niches and support life when reasonable. Spend time outdoors with family members to discover the biodiversity of life sharing our yards and encourage a reverence for life.

Few wildlife are harmful to us or property so I suggest we do not to use excessive control, pesticides, or herbicides that kill the approximate 99 percent that are beneficial. Selectively target the 1 percent causing damage.

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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Big Timbers Fall

By Ranger Steve Mueller

We each have our own mentors, heroes, and life guides.

As a young person, we latch on to experienced seniors in areas of interest or professions. Interestingly, as we age, we learn many younger than us surpass our own skills and knowledge in specialty subjects. Our mentoring leaders become younger people that model how to complete our work more effectively.

Despite the concept of “in with the new and out with the old,” it is important to build on foundations forged by those that came before us. They redirect our lives. Each of us have special mentors. Most often they are people we interact with personally or have secondary connections with through others.

I began college at Ferris State where an emphasis was on pharmacy and bio-chemical education. I wanted to focus more on wildlife management and ecosystem analysis. I decided to transfer to Michigan State, which is well known for its wildlife management programs. It was a much larger institution than I desired with 40,000 students but it focused on skills I hoped to achieve.

I happened to meet Wakelin McNeel, professor at Central Michigan University. Camping with him in the wilds of Michigan and discussing education opportunities offered at MSU and CMU, he redirected my college selection. Some aspects of MSU education would provide better education and narrow my focus, while opportunities at CMU would develop and improve teaching and field biology skills.

Classes at CMU involved more outdoor instruction and experiences than MSU. Upper level science class sizes were smaller with greater individual instructor interactions during the 1970’s.

I chose to be mentored at CMU by a variety of skilled instructors and students. At MSU, I expect I would have forged some great mentors but I particularly liked the smaller education community at CMU. My career opportunities would have been different and great at MSU but CMU guided me to a wonderful career. Fellow CMU field biology graduates acquired careers that suited their interests and life desires. We maintain contact and they continue to mentor me from afar and when we get together.

The take home message is we each need to direct our own lives in a manner the matches our skills and desires. My career path took me to many jobs and places before settling into a career nature niche as director at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, Director at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center and now Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary. Major unexpected occurrences interfered along the way but mentors helped me develop despite challenges.

My advisor, Dr. McNeel, was hit and killed on his bicycle when a college student passed another vehicle on a double yellow line. A second car came over the hill, saw the student passing and went onto to the road shoulder to avoid a head-on collision. Wake was biking there and was killed at age 45 in 1970.

Despite his death, he continued to mentor to me through his legacy. I became an unofficial “Big Brother” for his three young children Ted (8), Amie (7), and Ross (4) by spending every other weekend with them while I finished my college years. A good friendship with their mother, Katie, helped me learn more about Wake’s personal life. That mentored my development.

I have great stories to share and continue to maintain a causal relationship with Ted, Amie, and Ross. We will all pass but maybe beforehand we will become a mentor for someone and it might continue when we become a fallen timber. Live a life as an important big tree. Be a person someone chooses as a mentor. You might not know it but you could already be a Big Timber for someone.

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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Arrowhead Spiketail


This Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly photo was taken at Ody Brook, the property owned by Ranger Steve Mueller. Photo by Jerry Belth.

This Arrowhead Spiketail dragonfly photo was taken at Ody Brook, the property owned by Ranger Steve Mueller. Photo by Jerry Belth.

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Standing on vegetation in sunlight, an Arrowhead Spiketail allowed us to see its bright yellow arrows that appeared to have been painted on its black abdomen by an artist. The spiketails are large dragonflies and the Arrowhead is striking and beautiful.

My colleague Jeff Belth, who wrote the book Butterflies of Indiana, was able to photograph one while we explored Ody Brook (see picture). Dragonflies are active insects pursuing small insects for a meal. The agile flyers are perhaps the best insect flyers and it is difficult to get looks at details. Venture out early in the day and the dragonflies might still be perched and sleeping with dew covered wings.

I tend to be a late sleeper so I do not beat the sun up for its morning rise. If you go out when the sun is above the horizon and warming the day, a watchful eye might find various dragonflies perched. My first experience with the Arrowhead Spiketail was in Porcupine Mountains State Park and I was elated to see such a magnificent creature.

It is generally difficult to approach this species but I have seen them perching in grassy in fields where I could get a great look with binoculars. Generally, they are a northern species so I did not expect them here. It is wonderful that so many life forms share Ody Brook. The down side is that is difficult to observe everything. I have not given adequate attention to dragonflies and have only documented a few species here. This year we first noticed the unexpected Arrowhead Spiketail at Ody Brook. They have probably been here since I joined this community of nature niches in 1979. For 37 years I have lacked adequate focus on who my neighbors are but we have shared the property in harmony.

Many dragonflies are fairly small (1.5 to 2 inches long) but the spiketail is three inches long. Its wings are clear except for a small black stigma near each wing tip. The stigma is a dark thickened wing membrane near the tip appearing as a dark spot. It helps provides weight and flight stability.

It is hard to notice body pattern details when dragonflies zip about the yard. Patient observation provides an opportunity to see details when the insect hunter takes a break and lands. When we are lucky, it lands in a field, but in forested areas this species will perch in sunlit tree tops.

Dragonflies, like other insects, have three body sections (head, thorax, and abdomen). A long, black abdomen with yellow arrows pointing toward the tail make this one an easily identifiable dragon. The abdomen is long and thin. Between the wing bases is a large thorax with powerful muscles attached to the inside of the exoskeleton. Unlike vertebrates that have an internal skeleton, insects have their skeleton on the outside. Muscles in the thorax pull the two sides of the exoskeleton together in alternation with muscles that pull the top and bottom together. The alternation of contraction and relaxation, in rapid sequence, forces wing movements to create flight.

Pay attention to colors and patterns on the thorax that are helpful or essential for identification. The Arrowhead Spiketail has two yellow thorax stripes. On the head, how the eyes meet with each other is important. All spiketail species have eyes that only touch the other eye in one small spot. Many species of dragonflies have eyes completely separated or touch along their length on top of the head.

Associate dragonflies with habitat. Little Cedar Creek at Ody Brook has many spring seeps, with soft bottoms in the west part of the sanctuary, that keep water flowing all year. The creek headwaters in the east portion of the sanctuary dry in summer. The spring seeps with small persistent pools and muddy bottoms covered by shallow water, is where female Arrowheads lay eggs. After eggs hatch, the small aquatic naiads feed on insects in the water before transforming into the gorgeous adults. Look for adults in June and July. Always expect something new.

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: New pollinator guide

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

A new Michigan State University pollinator publication PDF is available for free download titled “Protecting and Enhancing Pollinators in Urban Landscapes for the US North Central Region.” This 2016 publication (MSU Extension Bulletin E3314) is the complete guide to protecting pollinators while gardening, growing flowers, or managing trees, shrubs, or turf grass in urban areas.

The extension service encourages people to plant native species and also suggests use of non-native species. Non-native species plants spring up in the lawn. Like the extension service, I encourage allowing them to live among the grass. They attract nectar seeking butterflies and insects. The Extension Service provides a list of non-natives for the garden; also I suggest New pollinator guide use of non-natives. They point out that cultivars and non-natives often do not attract insects well.

Though I strive to encourage native plants, I am not a purist and tolerate some exotics. Part of the reason is because it would be necessary to use herbicides and fertilizers to eliminate broadleaf plants in the carpet of monocot grasses. A pure grass yard has nice appeal but supports little diversity of life. I encourage the greatest diversity of insect life and that in turn allows more birds to thrive.

Regularly I see an Eastern Phoebe fly from a tree perch into the yard to eat insects. Ground feeding birds walk or hop in the lawn searching for insects. That is not as common in manicured pure grass lawns. Karen commented that our yard looks like something out of a Disney movie. When we look out the window, we see two or three rabbits nibbling on clovers, deer, birds and squirrels. Many birds and mammals are present in our yard because it is not excessively manicured.

When the Wild Ones Native Plant Group comes for field trips, I share that I am not a purist and allow some non-native plants to live. I try to restrict most planting to native species. I realize most people do not have the books that identify species as native or non-native. I encourage landscape nurseries to sell native genotypes but they sell what people buy. Request nurseries to sell native species genotypes. That might affect healthy change that encourage maintenance of native biodiversity in your yard.

In sections of the yard that I mow, I leave areas unmowed until July to allow wildflowers to brighten the landscape. Two species that provide dense beauty, color, and food are Maiden Pink and Cat’s-ear. The pinks form a wonderful layer of pink flowers with Cat’s-ear making a towering layer of bright yellow above them. They are present because of delayed mowing. Both have flowers that open in sun and close in shade or night. Butterflies and other insects visit for nectar. When the pinks go to seed, I mow them but summer garden flowers have begun blooming and provide continued nectar.

I greatly appreciated the volunteer work from the River City Wild Ones that prepared the butterfly garden for the past two springs. They are Meribeth Bolt, Tammy Lundeen, Mindy Miner, Deanna Morse, and Gretchen Zuiderveen. My oncologist has stated my gardening days are through because I am not fungus protected. The cancer and three chemo chemicals limit my body’s immune system. The limitation does not prevent me from exploring, enjoying, and discovering something new every day in nature niches. Use the new pollinator guide will help liven your yard with flowers, insects, and birds.

Download the Pollinator Guide PDF:


I met with with Extension Agent Erwin (Duke) Elsner at his request this spring to provide sources for pollinator data. He had most sources for our region identified but I was able to assist with a few more.

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: Bowl and doily in your yard

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Look for dozens or hundreds of cups and saucers, as I like to refer to them, tied to vegetation in tall grassy areas of your yard in the morning. They are only visible on special days.

The name one uses is not important unless you try to look up information in books or on the Internet. Scientists use the standardized English name Bowl and Doily Weaver (spider) and Frontinella pyramitela for its scientific name to communicate clearly with Arachnologists around the world. I have not confirmed which species lives at Ody Brook. Two Bowl and Doily Weaver species live in Michigan.

Several bowl and doily spider’s webs wet with dew, on a trail in the Adirondacks, between Long Pond and Bessie Pond, St. Regis Canoe Area. By Marc Wanner

Several bowl and doily spider’s webs wet with dew, on a trail in the Adirondacks, between Long Pond and Bessie Pond, St. Regis Canoe Area. By Marc Wanner

Webs are invisible to us and to prey during most of the day and night. If you take an early morning walk, you are likely to get wet shoes and see massive numbers of two parted webs covered with dew. When the dew evaporates, the webs disappear from view but are still present to capture prey.

The upper portion is largest and looks like a bowl that has many threads stretched to plants above the bowl. The threads create a sloppy appearance but those guy wires cause small insects to collide and fall into the bowl. Beneath the bowl is a flat doily where the spider sits belly up waiting. When an insect falls into the bowl, the tiny spider reaches up, bites the insect and pulls it through the bowl for a meal.

The spiders are about as long as a dog tick. Males are only two tenths of an inch and females are about three tenths of an inch long. Most insects and spiders are tiny but we notice the big ones like honeybees, June beetles, butterflies or big moths that hit our screens at night. Most of the insect world remains hidden to us unless we look for minute organism nature niches. The little Bowl and Doily Weaver is not easily seen on its doily beneath the bowl shaped web. They often stand toward the web’s edge.

My brother and his wife live in a rural area outside of town where a plane flies over and sprays for mosquitoes. Mosquitos are food for many organisms we like to have in our yards. Very few insects are bothersome to people and most are beneficial in a variety of ways. About three of every five bites of food we eat are present because of insect or other pollinators.

More insect pollinators means larger bird, mammal, and wildflower populations.

Some people prefer to live in a sterilized environment. They do not recognize the negative impact pesticides have by reducing necessary insects that pollinate and maintain ecosystem health. I see a commercial on TV showing a man spraying a family’s yard with mosquito pesticide. He is wearing a mask and protective clothing. This is meant to look good for eliminating mosquitoes but many pesticides also eliminate pollinators and organisms like the Bowl and Doily Weavers that eat mosquitoes. Many pesticides are not healthy for people.

If you maintain a portion of your yard as field with grasses and wildflowers growing one to three feet tall, you have ideal conditions for weaver webs. They occur in shrublands and forests but my experience indicates fewer numbers. I’m amazed with the abundance of webs scattered throughout the field on wet mornings and then suddenly there are none seen. They have not gone anywhere but without dew droplets they become invisible.

Their abundance increases all summer but dewy mornings are less frequent in July and August. September and October provide the best opportunity for seeing the webs and finding the spiders. My colleague, Diantha, has focused attention on spiders and she tells me we are never more than three feet from a spider even in the house. Most are so small we never notice. I pick up spiders in the house and carry them outside because I think they will find more food so they can “live and be happy.” Let spiders do the killing instead of poisons. If you do, you should get to see more butterflies and interesting 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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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Silver beads of guttation

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Shining silver that does not tarnish glistens at the tips of wild strawberry leaves early in the morning. Instead of tarnishing, the silver evaporates in the morning warming sun. Humidity in the air determines how long silver beads will persist.

Guttation is responsible for water drops developing in rows along leaf edges and tips. At strawberry leaf tooth tips are microscopic spongy cells surrounding a tiny pore that allows water to ooze from the leaf. Water is drawn into plant roots like corn, grasses, and many other plants by uneven water pressure between high soil moisture and low moisture within the plant.

When soil is dry, water does not enter the plant. Avoiding dehydration is essential and all plants have adaptations in their nature niche to help them survive. In the Great Lakes region, it seems we have plenty of moisture but even within sight of the Great Lakes, some plants live in an arid environment.

The sand dunes have large coarse sand particles where water flows through rapidly. Without drought resistant adaptations, dune species would not survive. Plants living in constantly wet soils or in shallow standing water would drown without special adaptations for such conditions.

To some degree plants regulate water flow through their bodies. Leaves have massive numbers of tiny pores on the surface called stomata. Surrounding each pore are two bean shaped guard cells. When the plant is full of water, the guard cells swell. The inner side of each guard cell by the pore has a thick inflexible wall and the outer side has a thin wall that bulges when the cell fills with water. The more inflexible side arches to make the pore opening bigger as the outer side bulge increases outward.

The tips of the two bean-shaped cells touch but the opening between the two cells enlarges allowing water to escape to the air. When water evaporates from the surface, it tugs on water molecules and pulls more up through the root, stem, and leaves. It helps transport nutrients for plant tissues. The plant controls water content by opening and closing stomata based on moisture in the guard cells.

Guttation is different and is not regulated. The pore at the leaf edge is always open but these pores are limited in number. During the night when water vapor is high in the atmosphere (high humidity), evaporation is reduced. Large drops form and grow to form the silver beads we see in the morning.

During the Memorial Day weekend, it was a great pleasure to venture in the naturalness of Ody Brook to see any and all special things. Hopefully everyone spent time outdoors between infrequent rain showers. Much of the weekend was rain free but both ground and air humidity were high. As water was drawn into roots by uneven water pressure, it accumulated on leaf tips as it leaked from the always open pores. The result was beautiful silver water beads shining in the early day’s sun along leaf edges.

For eons this natural process occurred before our presence. It moves valuable nutrients like potassium and nitrogen through the plant. If we add too much nitrogen to the soil, fertilizer burn can occur. During the past 20 years’ a new danger to life has been added. Neonicotinoid insecticides have been added and become concentrated in guttation water beads. When bees drink guttation water from plants grown from neonic treated seeds, they can die within minutes. It is increasingly difficult for farmers to purchase seeds that have not been treated. Neonics are thought to be a cause of bee colony collapse disorder. Research continues but scientific confirmation takes time and repeated verification.

We can enjoy the natural wonders in our yards but we should learn to live in harmony with the lives of bees and other insects that make our lives possible by their daily work in gardens and farm fields.

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: Lead in wildlife 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The U.S. Army is going with green ammunition. This summer soldiers in Afghanistan began using a new “green” bullet that experts say is more effective than the traditional lead round. The green bullet will eliminate up to 2,000 tons of lead from the manufacturing process annually.

Lead hazards in the environment have been known for over a century. Alternatives for lead shot are known. Questions remain regarding the impact on wildlife. Some hunters are concerned that more wildlife will be injured and escape if alternates are used. For the past 40 years, I have heard hunters state that steel shot is not as lethal so we should not use it. Research conducted at Shiawassee River State Game Area in 1973 and other locations across the US showed no significant statistical difference in crippling loss between steel and lead shot. People’s perceptions often do not match verifiable research studies.

The distance at which waterfowl are shot is important. Shooting birds from too far away results in escape of injured birds. It is an unfortunate reality that there will be injured wildlife that are not killed for various reasons.

In 1977, steel was required in the Mississippi flyway for waterfowl hunting and that includes Michigan. Lead is still permitted for upland game hunting. This is not the place to list decades of research papers. For quick concise information I suggest reviewing the Michigan DNR website.

Embryonic exposure to lead can affect avian immune systems, brain development, and hatchability. Early post-hatch exposure can affect behaviors critical to survival including brain development, and growth. In adult birds, the effects of lead exposure include anemia with potential detriment to migration capability, increased mortality due to environmental temperature stress, immunotoxicity, behavioral deficits, and reduced egg production.

The banning of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in wetlands 40 years ago has likely reduced lead levels in some areas. Lead poisoning in animals continues. Animals ingest it thinking pellets are seeds, nuts, or eat it when scavenging on carcasses. It is ingested as stones to grind food in their gizzard.

Similar concerns have made headlines recently regarding lead exposure to people in Flint’s water and how it affects people’s health. For some reason it has been ok to knowingly inflict this on wildlife but not people.

What goes around comes around and I suspect what we do to life in nature niches will return to impact our families. We want to believe we are isolated from damaging substances we put in to the environment but we are not. Whether it is lead, excessive carbon, DDT, oil in drain sewers, or toilet boil cleaners, we are not isolated.

Three studies, as example, estimated densities of 11,000 lead pellets per acre in a field managed for dove hunting in Indiana; the Washington Fish and Wildlife Nontoxic Shot Working Group in 2001 estimated densities of 188,000 to 344,000 pellets per acre at two pheasant release sites in Washington; and over 122,000 pellets per acre were in uncultivated fields near duck blinds in Missouri.

Hunting and fishing gear containing lead could economically be replaced with non-toxic alternatives. I still have lead sinkers in my tackle box but I do not use them. They were my grandfather’s. I do not think my grandfather understood the dangers from lead. I didn’t, as a youngster. I bit on lead split-sinkers to attach them to my fishing line. My dad had a lead rod used for soldering. I demonstrated my strength by showing how I could bend a “steel” rod like superman. My hands probably went in my mouth afterwards. What damage was done?

Once lead reaches toxic levels in tissues, muscle paralysis and associated complications result in death in eagles, loons, ducks, geese, swans or others that ingested it. The Common Loon on display at Howard Christensen Nature Center washed into the shore of Lake Michigan. A DNR autopsy showed it died from lead pellet ingestion. I would rather see it live in a healthy wild world than be displayed as a casualty of lead we put in the environment.

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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Repelling Insects 

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Biting insects can drive us indoors. Wildlife are not as fortunate as we are in escaping biting critters. They find ways to reduce the nuisance by selecting breezy locations that keep mosquitoes and black flies away. Deer flies arrive later in the season and provide a painful bite but not as bad as a horse fly bite.

Black flies swarm in early spring. A friend said black flies were in thick swarm around me. I did not receive a single bite. When black flies first emerge, they do not seem to bite. I need to study that more. Maybe males emerge first. They do not need blood for egg development. When tiny black fly females arrive, they crawl around on skin looking for edges like hairline or bite at clothing edges.

When I wore a swimsuit, black flies couldn’t find a place to bite except at the suit’s edge. I treated that edge with repellent and I remained bite free while fishing. Large numbers of these small humpbacked flies landed on me and crawled about but they are so small I did not feel them. We do not feel their bite either. It is not until later that bite sites become red, itchy, and painful.

Avoid insect repellent chemicals as much as possible. Many repellants are not healthy for us when applied to skin. Place repellent on clothes. When biting insects are numerous, keep your body covered for protection and apply a safe repellent to limited exposed skin. Insect head nets are better than chemicals for protection.

Be careful not to get the chemical on the palms of hands because it will get on things you touch. I touch plants, insects I study, frogs, or other life. I do not want to injure anything I handle or leave chemical traces on leaves that are beneficial for insects to eat. Apply repellent to the back of hand and wipe it on face or neck. Do not spray your face because some might get in eyes. Avoid applying to forehead. When you sweat, it will to run into your eyes.

Mary Miller, who worked with me at the Howard Christensen Nature Center, taught me that wearing a bracken fern worked well to keep deer flies from biting and swarming my face. These flies circle our heads and are disturbing beyond their bite. Pick the fern and place its stem in hair or hat. The leafy portion of the fern rises above your head. Flies swarm that instead of our face. It is a simple repellent.

Wearing cologne, perfume, or hair gels attract biting insects and even irritated stinging wasps. We might want to smell great for people but it will attract unwanted insects. It has been difficult to get some students to appreciate the natural world if they use hair gels. They are bothered too much by insects to enjoy the outdoors.

Some people have their own natural repellents. My youngest daughter and I are not bothered by insects as much as Karen and my older daughter. I think it is because Julianne and I have more vitamin B. The four of us were hiking Five Lakes trail near Strongs in the UP and it was 80 F. Karen and Jenny Jo wore sweatshirts with hoods and covered all but face and hands. Biting insects were so thick around them they could not enjoy the hike. Julianne and I wore light weight clothes with skin exposed and insects were not thick around us.

A world of natural chemicals in nature niches attract, irritate, or repel insects. Plant chemicals protect them from insects and we extract those to use as commercial repellents. Native Americans historically rubbed sweetfern leaves on themselves because the chemical in leaves repels insects.

Biting insects are most problematic from May to late June. It is wonderful to be outside but bugs can drive us indoors. Find ways to be outside during all seasons. Staying in open sunlit breezy areas works well to avoid biters. Shaded wet areas have more mosquitoes. Camping in mid to late summer and fall has fewer irritating insects and makes for a better family experience.

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: Hidden Sounds

Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Deep within tree and shrub canopy some birds sing to announce their presence without exposing themselves to predators. Gray tree frogs sing from obscure shrub branches and hidden crevasses of house siding. Chipmunks cluck from logs and red squirrels chatter on needle-filled pine branches.

Many of us have experienced a stern scolding from a red squirrel when we entered what it considers its territory. Animals lay claim to territorial space in order to establish adequate room for rearing a family. The living space might provide essential food, water, and shelter but maybe not. Protected territory space does not always meet basic needs for survival.

That is fine for some species because space needed for family raising is different from where they acquire food and water during the breeding season. They leave a smaller size nesting “territory” to feed in social groups or to visit convenient watering areas in “home range” space.

Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds gather in feeding groups within inches of one another but will not tolerate such closeness in nesting territory. At nesting sites, larger territories are guarded by singing males. Even females have territories. Not all species behave in this manner.

Gulls, terns, swallows and several other species nest in close proximity to one another. There are advantages and disadvantages for colonial nesting. Isolation is important for the hidden singers.

Colorful warblers, thrushes, chickadees, sparrows, finches and many others need isolated hidden locations to successfully raise a family. Many do not succeed with difficult challenge. Singing from a hidden podium offers protection from predators when birds claim breeding territories. Sometimes the danger from predators is not significant but breeding song still comes from among the thickness of leaves.

It is nearly impossible to see other birds of their own species in the thick of the woods. Searching every tree and shrub for intruders would take time away from gathering food and courting. Instead, each species has a unique song to sing from hidden locations to warn others “this space is taken.” When one dares challenge the boundary, the resident will hear the song and travel to oust a space competitor.

Territorial singing is most prevalent early in the day. Birds patrol their boundary singing from hidden locations. Sound travels well through the canopy where sight is limited. In addition to sound being an important territorial marker, color is important when the birds see one another. When seen, particular colors might make birds see “Red” in the case of another male and causes them to defend a territory. The beautiful flash of color patterns owned by many birds are also used to woo a mate.

Singing from a hidden location can protect nature niche food, water, and shelter during family upbringing from others of the same species. Once appropriate space is established, the bird can display its flamboyance to a resident female.

Great variety of species behaviors fill habitats. The Red-winged Blackbird does not sing from a hidden place. Instead it stands bold on a cattail in an open marsh. Explore and witness over 300 species of birds in unique Great Lakes ecosystem habitats and their diverse behaviors.

Listen and enjoy the hidden sounds of nature even when you do not get to enjoy seeing the maker.

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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