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Tag Archive | "Ranger Steve Mueller"

Do you fly?


By Ranger Steve Mueller

When is the last time you flew under your own power and ability? This does not refer to flying in a plane. Many insects are small, lightweight, and have wings that allow them to become airborne. Some newly hatched spiders float miles through the air on a single silk thread and disperse a long distance from their site of origin. Birds take flight on feathers that lift their hollow-boned lightweight bodies. Bats are the only mammals that have mastered the air with flight but “flying squirrels” glide with the aid of skin flaps.

The Southern Flying Squirrel in our area and the Northern Flying Squirrels a bit to the north have skin that stretches between their front and hind legs. They leap into the air without fear of falling with a thud to the ground. They glide like a parasailer. These small squirrels, the size of chipmunks, are among the most nocturnal mammals so they are seldom seen. If you have allowed hollow trees to persist in your yard, it is likely you have these cute bug-eyed squirrels. 

Bats have thin sheets of skin between bones that are analogous to our phalange finger bones and are adept fliers who make a living removing flying insects in our neighborhood. The idea that they will get tangled in our hair has more to do with poor observation than reality. Bats flying near people’s heads are seeking an abundance of insects and an easy nature niche meal. They do not swoop so close to get tangled in hair. 

We are mammals that only fly in our dreams. Perhaps we have limited flight experiences. Remember those youthful days when you jumped from a swing and were airborne for a short flight. I recall once when I was in a leather strap swing seat instead of being on a solid board seat. When it was time to jump, the strap seat held me until the swing reached its peak assent. My body flew upward into the air from a tall swing in a county park. It was a long fall and when I hit the ground it hurt my legs. Flying did not work well that time.

Another flight experience was in dune country where I ran and jumped off a steep sand dune cliff. I sailed free through the air and landed on shifting sand where I slide downhill. My stomach seemed to rise into my chest as I dropped through space and produced a tummy tickler. It was great fun. Many of us have had a similar exciting experience when a roller coaster drops making us feel like we are suspended in air. 

When I sleep, I get to fly through the air in dreams. Karen says it is ridiculous how I fly. She flies “like a normal person” head first with arms outstretched in the manner we have seen superman or other super heroes fly. I fly flat on my back feet first and lift my head to look where I’m going. She says I am a lazy flier. I do not flap my arms or legs but simply move peacefully through the sky. In Karen’s dreams she is often being pursued and flies between utility wires to escape danger pursuing her. Her flights are “James Bond” events. 

My dreams do not indicate where I am going or what I am doing but it is a joy to travel through air viewing the countryside. Not every flight has been a joy. Twice I have fallen to my death in dreams. For whatever reason, I fell from a high building or mountainside and plunged earthward, where I splatted and died instantly. My spirit rose from the lifeless body where I viewed my crushed limp being.

Fortunately, my flights of fancy are usually wonderful excursions of mind and body. It would be nice to flutter like a butterfly through fields, hover like a hummingbird nectaring at a red columbine flower, or flit from tree to tree like a chickadee. 

Birds have lightweight hollow bones, which weigh less than their feathers, making flight possible. Insects are small and able to lift their bodies into the air. For us heavy bodied creatures, we must content ourselves with joyous flight in dreams or maybe with the aid of a hot air balloon that lifts our weight. 

How often do you fly aided by a parachute, hang glider, airplane, or some other device? What is your manner for being airborne? Self-propelled free flight is only a momentary reality in dreams. Enjoy the 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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River Wind


By Ranger Steve Mueller

We arrived at the river shortly before dusk. Our friends would join us early the next day. The river flowed straight toward us for about a quarter mile from the west before turning abruptly south. We selected a tent site where we could view the river and feel the breeze. It was fall so few bothersome insects were present and a breeze was comforting during the warm evening. 

We built a small fire in the forest service campsite grated fire ring to cook supper and make s’mores. Birds were mostly quiet during the late season but migrating warblers could be seen foraging in their transient nature niche from summer breeding grounds to winter havens far to the south. 

Grass was green and trees were beginning to flash colors we hadn’t seen in twelve months. Some were shedding a few leaves early. It was a peaceful evening and we were the only campers present. Families were home with children in school routines and it was premature for most hunters. 

We erected a dome tent with fiberglass rods that arched over the top. A rainfly covered the dome a few inches above the screen tent ceiling. The sides were waterproofed nylon. We laid our sleeping bags on small pads to make a comfortable bed and went to sleep after dousing the fire with water in the dark cloudy night. 

It was a quiet evening with only the infrequent hooting from a Great Horned Owl and the sound of rustling leaves as wind forced its way through the tree canopy. The breeze was soothing and lulled us to sleep like a mother humming at our bedside. 

Without warning the roar of a train startled and woke us from sound sleep as it raced closer. The dome tent that we could stand in was flattened and pressed against us. The rainfly was ripped off and carried into the forest. A strong straight wind or perhaps even a tornado was upon us. It was scary but exciting for Karen. For me it was terrifying. I had not inspected the area for dangerous trees that might break and crush us. 

I immediately envisioned John and Pat finding us in the morning dead under a fallen tree. The wind lessened quickly and the fiberglass rods supported the tent dome again. A pouring rain was coming through the screen tent apex. With flashlight in hand, I unzipped the tent and ran into the dark toward the downwind forest to recover the rainfly. Quickly, I returned with the slightly damaged bungy straps and rainfly that were ripped loose.

Together while being doused like in a shower, we covered the tent. Once back inside, we toweled our bags and tent floor as dry as possible and then dried ourselves. The sound of the roaring train came and went in an instant. I had learned that sound accompanies a tornado. When we got up in the morning little evidence indicated a tornado. No trees were uprooted and the area looked much like it did when were arrived. 

It must have been what is referred to as straight wind that came forcefully speeding down the quarter mile stretch of river and it did not turn at the river bend. Instead it continued eastward pressing the tent against our faces and trapping us prone on our backs. It was one of the scariest moments of my life but fear quickly passed when the dome erected itself and no tree was laying across our chests. 

We had a story to tell our friends when they arrived and that was much better than them finding us dead under a fallen tree. I learned that night it is important to survey a temporary camping residence for unexpected dangers. Rarely am I frightened when in the wild. Well maybe I should say infrequently. Dangers are present but rarely are they as dangerous as traveling in a car. One needs to be vigilant and cautious whether camping in wild country or going to the grocery in a car. It is usually more peaceful and safe camping than traveling on what seem like safe roads. Enjoy camping, learn how to stay safe, and have fun outdoors.

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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Kent County Christmas Bird Count


The Grand Rapids Audubon Club has maintained bird count records dating back to 1953. I began placing the data on an Excel spreadsheet in 1986 when I became count co- ordinator and added the historic data sometime during the 1990’s. That is 64 years of data tabulated. I use the data when summarizing the current year’s count by looking for interesting comparisons and include a couple notes for the published summary report.

It would be helpful for someone to proof the data entries and help get the tabulated data in order so it can be made available for distribution or printing. Let me know if you are interested in such a project. You can come to Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary and we can plan the project.

Join bird count participants at 7:30 a.m. on December 29, 2018 at Wittenbach/Wege Agriscience and Environmental Center (WWC), 11715 Vergennes Rd. in Lowell, Michigan 49331. Field teams are organized and depart by 8:00 a.m. They return around noon for lunch. Joan Heuvelhorst will prepare a lunch. Lunch cost is $5.00 or you can bring yourown. At 5 PM, section ndings are collected. Participatepart or all day. Participation is free with donations sent to support the National Audubon Program.

This citizen science project is great for introducing fami- lies to bird discovery and is fun data collection. It is a way for families to do meaningful things together outdoors with help from experienced birders.

Have a great time enjoying birds, birders, and gathering data useful for tracking bird locations and species abun- dance. Individual teams see about 25 to 30 species and when all teams’ data are compiled, we total around 55 to 60 species sighted.

I hope you are enjoying your domestic Thanksgiving tur- key dinner today. Wild Turkeys were mostly killed by over hunting and disappeared completely from Michigan and from most of North America. There were about ten million in the North American in the early 1800’s. By the early 1900’s they had been killed to near extinction. Only about 2 percent survived in widely scattered areas and were unable to rebuild their population.

People became aware of the disappearance and tried to remedy the problem. Hunting regulations were enacted but failed attempts to capture wild turkeys for reintroduction to suitable habitat nature niches were problematic. By the 1950’s an effective method for capturing turkeys was de- veloped using a cannon net.

In the 1980’s I participated with the Michigan DNR in a release of wild turkeys in the Rogue River State Game Area. Later a DNR wildlife biologist called me to learn if I could provide information about the success of reintroduc- tion from the small number released.

By serendipity, the night before I saw 97 turkeys cross the road in front of my vehicle as I went home from the Howard Christensen Nature Center where I was director. Ten years ago, at Ody Brook on Thanksgiving when our relatives were gathered and eating domestic turkey, 21 wild turkeys paraded through the front yard.

Species are declining for a variety of reasons while many politicians work to weaken or dismantle the Endangered Species Act. Vigilance is needed to protect species and nat- ural resources for our present and future wellbeing.

For more information about the bird count and citizen science, direct inquiries to count coordinators:

Tom Leggett: (616) 249-3382 E-mail; tomleggett@hot- mail.com or

Ranger Steve(Mueller) odybrook@chartermi.net 616- 696-1753.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be di- rected 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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Palmate, Pinnate, Toothed, Entire


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Look at your palm to notice your hand bones radiate from one basal area at your wrist outward to finger tips. Spread your fingers to make it more obvious. This pattern is called palmate. Think of the ribs branching from your spine and how they wrap around your chest in vertical rows. This pattern is like leaflets branching outward from a central shaft called the rachis on plants with compound leaves like roses, walnut trees, or sumac shrubs. 

Palmate, pinnate, toothed, entire, simple, and compound are few easy leaf characteristics to use to identify trees, shrubs, and other plants. Now is great time pick up leaves from the ground to enjoy the beauty of colors and to notice a variety of characteristics. Maybe you will want to pile leaves while raking, bury the kids, or even flop into the pile yourself. Take time to have fun with family and do things the kids or grandkids might not expect.

Imagine their surprise if grandpa gets into a pile of leaves with the kids. It will probably be even more surprising to grandpa’s kids than to the grandkids. When in the pile, have each family member pick a leaf and see how many colors can be found. Don’t miss the shades of tan, brown, yellow in addition to red, orange, green, and even black. 

If you are raking maples, the leaf veins will be palmate like the bones in your hand. Apple leaf veins will be pinnate and branch from a straight midrib that runs up the center of the leaf. On the abundant dogwood shrubs or dogwood trees, pinnate veins will branch from the central midrib, but veins curve toward the leaf tip. It is best to look at the underside of leaves where veins are more evident.

Beginning with a few leaf characteristics will make it easier to distinguish different plants. It is not even necessary to learn the names of the various plants. Simply enjoy different patterns and recognize how to separate them. 

Leaves might have teeth along the edge of the leaf blade. Teeth are sharp pointed projections along the edge. Some teeth are straight but cherries have curved teeth. There are plants with doubly serrate teeth. They are alternating teeth with one being large followed by a smaller one in a repeating pattern. The leaf blade might have a smooth untoothed edge from its base to the tip and is referred to as having an entire edge. 

Fallen leaves can be a bit tricky. Those with compound leaves tend to fall in pieces. Look at plants that have not dropped their leaves. The sumac shrubs still retain bright red compound leaves making them easy to find even when they are on the ground. To recognize if a leaf is compound, one needs to locate the leaf bud at the base of the leaf. Leaflets do not have a bud at the base of the leaflet.

On the sumac or walnut, there is a main leaf shaft called the rachis with pinnate leaflets branching from it. Look closely to notice there are no buds at the base of the leaflets. One needs to follow farther back to discover the bud at the base of the compound leaf where it attaches to the shrub branch. 

Bitternut hickory trees have compound leaves with fewer pinnate leaflets branching from their rachis than the sumac shrubs or walnut trees. The hickory drops leaflets individually while the walnut drops the leaf as a whole unit. Bitternut leaves become yellow while walnuts leaves fall green. 

The difference between simple and compound leaves is based on whether there is a bud at the base of the single leaf blade or whether the bud is at the base of a leaf having many leaflets. Spend time enjoying leaf characteristics in nature niches this fall and help family members experience the variety growing around the yard. 

Make raking leaves more than work. Make it an adventure into the mysteries of the living space you share with plants. There is more to enjoy in fall than the color change. 

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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Guardabosque Esteban


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Fall is a good time to plant trees. Here, I am known as Ranger Steve. When I took middle school students to Costa Rica from Kent County, we worked with students from their communities to plant trees in damaged rainforests. There I was called Guardabosque Esteban. As “forest guard Steven,” the effort was to help young people learn how to protect the environment that supported community health, water, and the economy. 

Our students were paired with Costa Rican students and they planted nursery-grown trees. It was a wonderful experience for all, including the trees that could establish a good root system in a suitable nature niche.

Those middle school students are now 25 years older and I hope they show their kids the trees they planted. It was a fun and thrilling experience where the young people recognized how they could do something in their community to help maintain a healthy sustainable environment. 

Here at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary our girls planted trees yearly. We planted seedling Christmas trees to harvest for our personal use. In order to harvest a tree at Christmas, it was required we plant trees so they would learn how to maintain a sustainable supply. 

Pine trees need care as they grow. Sawflies, a type of wasp, would eat limbs bare of needles. The girls were responsible for protecting the trees from the foraging damage and manually removed the insects rather than use poisons. The caterpillar like larvae were placed on ant mounds as a special treat for the ants. 

We wanted fir and spruce trees to provide winter cover for birds and to block visual and sound impacts from the road. They were planted in several locations. The trees were only knee high. Within a few years they were taller than the girls and heavily used by birds and rabbits for shelter. Now the trees are 30 plus feet tall. 

It started with the family act of planting. Fall has cooler weather that is good for plants and tree planters. We prefer to work in cool weather. It is even great to plant during a light rain. It protects the roots from drying. Fall soil is still warm and allows the tree to grow and establish before the ground freezes. 

Fall showers aid root survival. Trees were planted in locations that are not accessible to the garden hose and carrying water long distances is difficult. We hoped adequate rain would come as needed but that is always a gamble. During dry periods carrying water helps survival. Properly planting is important. 

Fertilizer is not recommended with fall planting. It encourages new root growth that will be killed by winter weather. Allow the tree to establish on its own in the warm fall soil with available moisture. When planted properly it should survive the winter and grow vigorously in the spring. I have noticed slow growth during the first few years as the roots establish out of sight and rapid stem growth follows.

It is best to plant trees and shrubs a few weeks before freezing weather cools the ground. Keep newly planted trees well-watered when possible so they go into winter dormancy well hydrated. 

Dig a hole twice as wide as the tree root mass and properly deep so the base of the stem meets the ground surface. Do not bury the stem or have the root trunk exposed above ground. Use the same soil removed from the hole when planting. Using other soil is not recommended because new root growth will stay in the richer amended soil. Let the tree seek nutrients from the surrounding area and reach outward. 

Hold the tree upright as it is planted and pack the soil so air pockets are eliminated. Watering helps eliminate air pockets that can cause roots to dry and die. Mulching around the tree prevents plant growth that will compete to make living difficult. Keep mulch away from the stem. Watch the tree grow. It will add zest and beauty to the yard for you and wildlife. Select native trees species because they have adaptations to the local 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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Gold Treasures


A soldier beetle. Photo by Ranger Steve Mueller.

By Ranger Steve

The field has turned to gold overnight. The rich value exceeds that of the precious metal many would trade several weeks’ pay to possess. The field transforms itself without the aid of a forger pounding and engraving to human desire. The field knows just what a person needs to lift one’s spirits and hopes. 

Unlike the metal artisan that makes permanent engravings, the field has ever changing beauty that entices us to search its gold flower settings. Its golden surface has creative intricacies of a jewelry artist’s dreams.

After weeks of drought when plants seemed frozen in time, a 6-inch rain soaked deep. Plants greedily took every drop possible to quench a long waiting thirst. Less than half of the goldenrod were in bloom yesterday even though it was past normal flowering season. Today more than 70% are blooming. The waiting burst of gold was not just by plants. Insects of great variety have been on hold in quest of the rich golden treasure. 

Goldenrod’s flowers and pollen are more essential to life than a person’s quest for gold at the end of the rainbow. Like people seeking a pot of gold at rainbows end, insects seek the ephemeral gold of late summer. Many have their nature niche lives timed to its flowering. Bees and other insects seek nectar. The nectar reward is not free. Insects leave with a full stomach but are loaded with pollen they carry to neighboring goldenrods. 

Goldenrod pollen is large and heavy. It does not blow distances in the wind and requires delivery service to transport it to mature flowers. When a golden finch lands on a goldenrod stem in search of a tasty insect morsel, it undoubtedly knocks loose pollen. Instead of easily drifting on air currents to another flower, it falls to the ground. A number of ground creeping invertebrates consume the manna falling from the heavens. 

Pollen eating insects are attracted to the flowers like people are attracted to all you can eat restaurants. Goldenrods like other members of the large aster family, produce in excess to make sure pollen grains fertilize other flowers. Insects at the smorgasbord leave with pollen covered bodies to serve as dispersal agents.

I was told by a honeybee keeper, that members of his profession do not appreciate gold season. Honey bees get rich feeding on goldenrod nectar but the honey produced is bitter. People desire sweeter honey. 

The value of gold is in the eye of the beholder. Bees are joyous with the concentrated fields of gold. Honey connoisseurs are dismayed. I am particularly pleased with the great variety of creatures found among goldenrod. The abundance of monarchs deep golden orange in fields brings happiness to many. Pearl Crescents stand still on flowerheads long enough for us to see the tiny silver pearl adorning the hindwing undersurface at its tail end. The pearl is surrounded by the butterfly’s own version of muted gold. 

One can walk through a field of gold and return home with more golden memories than are possible to retain. It is necessary to share as many as possible at the dinner table before they are lost like nighttime dreams that seem to vaporize by the time breakfast is finished. 

Soldier beetles with gold and black wings find the massive flower heads perfect beds for copulation. Net-winged beetles with their own version of gold and black wing elytra are differently shaped, with the tail end of wings widening to give a triangular appearance. 

It is always good to have a field guide at the ready. Many find cell phone photos useful. Increasingly Apps are able to narrow an identification search to a few likely insects similar to how facial recognition programs are being used. For those of us still more comfortable with paper field guides, we flip pages in books like the Golden Guide to Insects. The Golden Guide is still our version of gold treasure at the end of a rainbow.

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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Parasites and parasitoids


Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

We are familiar with parasites like mosquitoes that suck blood essential for egg development. Females are parasitic and males are not. Males seek nectar and so do females for general energy requirements. The female needs blood proteins for egg development. After sucking blood, she takes a few days to digest blood protein that serves egg yolk development. 

If a female survives the effort of sucking blood, she might lay 100 to 200 eggs on water surfaces after she has processed blood proteins to adequately nourished eggs. Only two of her eggs survive to reproduce if the mosquito population remains stable from one generation to the next. That is the norm. Some species lay eggs in unique ways to meet specialized nature niche adaptations. Population abundance has seasonal peaks.

Most mosquito parasitism occurs at dawn and dusk. We avoid harassment by selecting outdoor activity times and locations. Instead of using yard pesticides, we mechanically manage vegetation. Near the house we mow a 20-foot wide area that is avoided by most mosquitoes. Beyond the mowed area is a lush display of maiden pink and Cat’s-ear flowers (see photo) that please our eyes in June and house insect predators that help control parasites and parasitoids. Learning to live with nature has rewards. Sterilizing the yards diminishes the wonders of life that enrich our lives. It prevents bird habitation and beneficial insect predators important to landscape ecology.

Parasites do not normally kill their host. Mosquitoes carry parasites like the malaria amoeba that kills a half million people annually. There is a middle ground between the impacts of parasites and parasitoids. Most things exist on a gradation. To be most effective a parasite captures needed substances from a host without killing it.

Parasitoids kill their host. If parasitoids were completely effective, the host species would become extinct. Host species have structural and behavioral adaptations that help them complete their life cycle and reproduce. Parasitoids are more effective at controlling pests than predators and they are more susceptible to pesticides.

The adaptations of a parasitoid are for an adult to find a suitable host and lay eggs on or in the animal. Sphinx moths and large silk moths are sought by tiny specialized Braconid and Ichneumonid wasps. They sting the caterpillar to lay eggs. Tachinid flies lay eggs on the caterpillar. When hatched, larvae burrow in. 

The host larva often jerks and waves its body to prevent parasitoid egg laying. Some caterpillars like the Federally Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly are ant tended. The butterfly secretes honey dew, a sugar solution, that ants eat. Ants protect the caterpillars from both parasites and parasitoids. Perhaps you have had ants jump off plants and bite you if you got too close to a caterpillar they protect. The Edwards Hairstreak butterflies are ant protected. Ants herd the caterpillars from oak leaves where they feed at night to the ground in the morning and back to leaves at dusk. Ant behavior is similar to farmers herding cows to and from barns. 

Once the parasitoid larvae of wasps or flies hatch from the egg, they feed on the least essential body tissues like caterpillar fat. The caterpillar goes about daily feeding to meet its energy needs for pupal development to transform to an adult. As it nears the pupal forming stage, it often has inadequate stored nutrition to complete pupal formation. Finally, vital organs are consumed by the parasitoid. Parasitoid and parasite activity exist in other organism groups. The few examples presented are simply representative to introduce their roles. 

When you explore wild areas of your yard or neighborhood, you might find a shriveled desiccated caterpillar skin or one with obvious white pupae on the surface of a living individual. It is common for 100 or more parasitoids to emerge from the caterpillar’s body. If the parasitoid killed the caterpillar quickly, it would not survive to adulthood and its own species would parish. 

Ask plant nurseries to sell native plant genotypes, buy cultivars minimally, and use minimal pesticides to enjoy life’s abundance. Such practices will maintain Earth’s biodiversity and enhance your life’s enjoyment.

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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Tent Caterpillars


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Tent caterpillars become abundant and then seem to disappear for years. During the recent Memorial Day weekend, I led ecological interaction walks in the Jordan River Valley for the Michigan Botanical Club Spring Foray. Members gathered from the state to explore the advance of spring ephemeral flowers, trees, shrubs and associations with insects, birds, fungi and other organisms. Organisms were busy at work in their nature niches. 

Eastern Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) on bark. Image from U.S. forest Service.

Driving to the natural areas from home, many foray attendees noticed eastern tent caterpillar webs on cherry trees along freeways, highways, and back roads. The roads act like threads of silk to get us from where we work to places we rest in shelters at night. The tent caterpillars create their own highway with silk threads used to mark the way from where they feed to their nightly tent residence where they sleep protected and safe.

Many hazards prevent safe return as they go about work and travel. At times they reproduce in excessive abundance. Over 30 years ago, I interviewed Suzy for a position as interpretive naturalist at Howard Christensen Nature Center. We walked the trails discussing natural history and the work. Eastern tent caterpillars were abundantly feeding on cherries and had stripped most cherry leaves from trees. 

She asked if that would kill the trees. I suggested she conduct a scientific study to determine the answer. I told her to select a tree of her choice and report back to me whether it survived longer than her. She selected a particularly heavily infested cherry that was 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide. It was nearly nude from having its leaves almost entirely eaten. By mid-June the tree was looking much like it did in winter. Silk tents were woven among branches throughout the tree. 

The caterpillars had removed the organs responsible for providing life giving sustenance and seriously threatened its health. The tree had adequate stored energy to survive that summer and photosynthesis provided some added daily food to meet energy requirements. After the spring population eruption, the caterpillars spun cocoons that emerged as drab brown moths. The moths laid masses of 100 to 300 eggs glued to cherry branches. 

The next spring when new delicate leaves filled with water and sugars carried from roots through stems to buds, the leaves expanded for work capturing sunlight energy to produce more sugars and plant tissues. Caterpillars hatched from the egg masses and ate the soft new tissues. For a second year, the tree was stripped naked during May and June. By mid to late summer the tree produced more leaves while the moths were hidden in cocoons. 

During the third summer, tree branches were filled with caterpillar tents despite birds, ants and many predators eating their share and using them to feed young. Predators were not abundant enough to reduce the tent caterpillar population. Along came a virus that had been building its own population yearly. During this third year, it became abundant enough to kill the majority of caterpillars. The virus had its survival job and was doing to caterpillars what the caterpillars were doing to the trees—killing them—or were caterpillars killing trees? 

Back to Suzy. After 30 years, I asked Suzy if her selected tree was still alive and asked if she was still alive. She said both were living and both appeared healthy. After that third year the caterpillar population crashed and so did the virus. Every decade or so the tent caterpillar population builds and crashes with the virus life cycle conducting its ecological role. Some cherries already weak from over-crowding or other reasons, die during the moth eruption. It thins the forest providing more growing space, nutrients and health for remaining trees. 

In the natural areas where we hiked with botanical club members, forest tent caterpillars were abundantly feeding on sugar maple leaves. This species does not build tents like the eastern tent caterpillars but their life cycles resemble each other’s. We stood quietly and listened to their frass (poop) falling from tree tops. It sounded like a gentle rain on the 88ºF clear summer afternoon. I suggested participates return to see whether they or their selected trees lives longer.

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 lives up to promise


Cedar Springs seniors were led by the Cedar Springs marching band in a Red Hawk parade on Wednesday, May 30, as eager elementary students cheered them on. Some of these seniors are students that Ranger Steve Mueller spoke to 10 years ago, and promised he’d live long enough to be at their graduation. Post photo by J. Reed.

Ranger Steve Mueller, our local expert on nature and all manner of wildlife, made a promise ten years ago to students in his wife Karen’s second grade class that he would see their graduation. The problem was that he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, and given only a few short years to live. But he is still here, 10 years later, and ready to make good on his promise. Those students graduate tonight, May 31. See his column here for the full story.

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