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Tag Archive | "Ranger Steve Mueller"

Watching like a hawk


OUT-Bird-sighting-Coopers-Hawk-Mike-DeGrootMike DeGroot, of Solon Township, sent us this photo of a bird he saw in his backyard recently. “I spotted this bird closely watching over my squirrel feeder in my backyard on White Creek Avenue,” he wrote.

Mike thought it might be an American Kestrel Falcon. We thought it looked similar to a sharp-shinned hawk. We passed the photo on to our resident expert, Ranger Steve Mueller, and he identified it.

“It looks like an immature Cooper’s Hawk,” said Steve. “Adults have bands across the breast and immature’s have vertical tear-drop markings on the breast. It appears this one has the vertical markings.”

He added that the Sharp-shinned hawk looks nearly identical and can be difficult to separate from the Cooper’s Hawk. “The Sharp-shinned is not as common and is smaller than Cooper’s Hawk,” he explained. “The Cooper’s also has a rounded tail caused by the outer tail feathers being shorter. The tail feathers are equal in length on the Sharp-shinned,” he said.

Thanks, Mike, for sending us your photo, and to Steve for identifying it!

Please send us your wildlife photos. Send them to us at news@cedarspringspost.com, and we will run them as space allows.

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Changes in Animal Communities


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

 

Ernest Thompson Seton and his naturalist partner studied caribou, arctic hares, wolves, arctic foxes, Canada Geese, Lapland Longspurs, Ptarmigans, and many other animals when they explored the arctic tundra in 1907. He headed north from the Eastern Deciduous Forest Biome where we live to explore a vast and relatively unknown arctic biome.

He wondered if caribou and musk ox still survived with the onslaught of uncontrolled shooting. He hired local native people to guide him north through known country and then ventured farther into an unknown landscape with the use of sketchy maps created by early explorers.

When I lead groups through various habitats in the deciduous forest biome at Howard Christensen Nature Center or Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, I focus attention on the succession of animal communities in habitats. Lichens and mosses colonize bare ground and are followed by a variety of plants in succession from grasses, herbs, shrubs, and trees. Associated with each set of plants are specific animal communities of greatest interest to people. The animals can only survive when associated with appropriate plant communities. The plants sustain many animals that become prey for other animals.

Farm fields at Ody Brook and HCNC were abandoned and became good study sites. At the site that later became Ody Brook, the farmer drove his tractor and equipment through the creek in spring and found it problematic so two 5-acre fields were abandoned. This also stopped the stirring of sediments that would cover trout eggs. Farming was abandoned in one field during the 1970’s and the other in the late 1980’s. At HCNC, the farm field was abandoned in the early 1960’s.

Habitats became qualitative observation areas (general overviews) when HCNC was established in 1974 for students in the Kent Intermediate School District. Observational field trips were led to help students understand succession relationships in nature niches. Qualitative studies are a good introduction to science but provide limited evidence required for making supported conclusions.

When I became director at HCNC in 1986, we established a study plot where students could learn how to gather quantitative data (detail numerical observations) in the abandoned field. The study plots supported school curricula expectations in science, mathematics, social studies, language arts, and art classes. The field trips allowed students to gather detailed quantitative data with hands-on learning experiences that helped apply classroom “book learning” to real-life applications. Quantitative studies supported the students general qualitative impressions made on discovery hikes at the nature center.

As society becomes more urban and suburban, people have fewer opportunities to learn the importance of qualitative or quantitative farming and wildland ecology values or their importance and how they are essential for maintaining a sustainable society. Farmers need quantitative observations to know when to treat insect infestations because qualitative is not accurate enough. They also need to know how to properly space crops. Following my departure for HCNC, the Kent Conservation District that assumed management of HCNC removed the quantitative study plot in the field. Quantitative studies in wildland communities require long term detailed data collection, and require coordination and integration among a variety of subject areas. Teachers need classes to return yearly and have students gather data for current classes to analyze to make valid scientific conclusions using data from previous years. Science, math, art, social studies, and writing teachers need to coordinate together for student learning to be most effective. Students need guidance to apply connections among art, math, science, and social studies.

What does this have to do with Seton’s arctic expedition? He spent the summer recording general qualitative observations but he also gathered some scientific quantitative evidence. Both are useful. Qualitative observations provided a general appearance of occurrences but quantitative evidence provided detailed records with specific numbers, species, and plant growth that would be useful for documenting changes over time. That is what students were gathering between 1986 and 2005 at HCNC. Detailed long-term data collection is necessary to make valid conclusions. In the arctic Seton made initial qualitative observations that set the stage for quantitative studies to follow. He also gathered quantitative data by collecting animal and plant specimens. Representative animals were shot for the American Museum of Natural History. The opened the stomachs of animals to document food eaten as well as documented behaviors observed.

It was not until Dr. Curtis provided detailed quantitative data from Lake Michigan Dunes that concept of plant succession was supported with adequate quantitative scientific evidence for valid analysis and conclusions. His model is now used worldwide. Quantitative studies are essential. Quantitative studies are not perfect but further repeatable studies allow scientific debate and corrections. Quantitative science is self-correcting. Most of us did not receive that kind of education as students. I didn’t. Modern curricula better prepares students with the help of places like HCNC. Unfortunately field trips have become fewer even though they are vital for helping students apply content learned in classrooms. Cedar Springs used to visit HCNC regularly with all grades from K through fifth. Parental encouragement at schools may help reinstate them. Lily’s Frog Pad Inc. has now assumed management of HCNC and we will see where the future leads learning. HCNC has expanded opportunities beyond school groups to community programming.

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

616-696-1753

 

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Easter Egg Bird


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

What you call it is not as important as what you enjoy about it. In the spring, this bird leaves Michigan’s cozy balmy winter residence, for regions to the north, where it will nest. Some people call them “snow birds.” Small flocks of the Dark-eyed Junco are seen throughout the winter but they head northward in April. Some linger well into May.

They are gone from our area during summer. My first sighting this Fall was October 10, when one arrived in the yard. Within a week several were present. They prefer open woodlands, so many of our neighborhoods are desirable habitat. Similar to us, they prefer fields with scattered trees and thicket borders. It is easy to be a good neighbor to these small active sparrows.

Take time to look closely when they are near bird feeders to notice the pink bill and their charcoal dark heads. They have gray backs and sides but their bellies are white. They also have outer white tail feathers that flash as they walk or hop about the yard. The white tail feathers are usually visible in flight. Notice the moderate long tail. Females have a brownish back but it is not obvious so separating sexes is not easy.

When I was first learning about birds, the junco reminded me of an Easter egg that had been dipped in dark gray coloring. Only the portion that was not dipped remained white so I began referring to it as the Easter egg bird. I wonder how many people remember dipping eggs? When my daughters were young, we referenced them as the Easter Egg Bird but the girls learned the name Dark-eyed Junco also. The descriptive Easter Egg Bird name was more memorable and fun for us. It was an enjoyable way to help them learn to observe the wonderful variety of shape, form, and color in nature niches. We spent family time outside observing and enjoying while experiencing the natural wonders around us.

There are several subspecies of juncos across North America. In Michigan and the East the Slate-colored Junco subspecies is normally the only one present. They tend to hop but will walk about the ground while foraging seeds. Watch how different species move about uniquely. During summer about half of their diet is insects. Young are raised on an even higher percentage of insects. Insects are important for successful rearing of young for most songbirds.

Juncos are a winter treat that offers variety from the regular summer birds. They appreciate the open yards that have scattered conifers and deciduous trees where they can take shelter. When they return north in spring to breed, they select open areas among conifers and hardwood trees.

Nesting occurs northward from Cadillac and well into Canada’s open forested areas. I have seen Juncos remain near the Howard Christensen Nature Center during summer and suspect there could be some nesting this far south. They nest on the ground near logs or other objects that help conceal the location.

While you stay nestled in the house this winter, keep feeders full and enjoy the variety of feathered neighbors that stop by for a meal. Your yard can provide entertaining activity all winter when you provide food and shelter.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at the odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433, 616-696-1753.

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Warblers Come and Go


By Ranger Steve Mueller

American Redstart

American Redstart

Most warblers pass through our yards unnoticed during April and May, and again in August and September. Some stay to raise a family. As a group, they are the most colorful of the birds. They work in shrubs and trees feeding on insects. Insects are essential for them to increase weight rapidly to survive their long migration.

A Chestnut-sided Warbler is setting up summer residence in the yard among shrubs near the pond (Picture 1). It is one of the most colorful with a bright yellow cap and wonderful contrasting patterns of white and black throughout the body. Scattered yellow-green is present on the wings and rump. Varying amounts of rich chestnut orange-red patches line it sides. Adult males have extensive chestnut feathers on the sides and younger birds have shorter bands of color.

Chestnut sided Warbler

Chestnut sided Warbler

When looking for warblers, most people locate them by listening for songs and search the branches for their small presence. The warbler described above is only 4 inches long and weighs less than one half ounce. To identify birds remember GISSS. First acquire a general impression (GI). Is it sparrow, robin, or crow size and does it stand tall and upright or more horizontal. Habitat will help with general impression. Expect some birds high in forest trees, others near the ground in shrubs, or some in wetlands. Most people know to think Great Blue Heron along stream or water, robins in lawns, and Red-winged Blackbirds in marshes. Each warbler has a preferred habitat.

After acquiring a general impression, focus on size, color, and shape to help identify it. Behavior will help. A Black-and-white Warbler will climb on tree trunks like a nuthatch; Chestnut-sided Warblers will be among the shrubbery as will American Redstart (Picture 2). Some warblers just pass through so expect them only in spring and fall. Others will stay for the summer. Very few stay during the winter but the Yellow-rumped Warbler is sometimes found in the cold months. The SSS in GISSS refers to the size, shape, and seasonality. Add another S if you use sound like many birders to identify a warbler. I am not good at separating species by sound. I consider myself at best 80 percent proficient so I do not document presence based on song.

Pine Warblers are considered to have a stable population of 13,000,000. This sounds large but when compared to 200,000,000 European Starlings in the US it is not. Even starlings are not a numerous as humans in the US where we number about 350,000,000. Everyone’s yard can be critical habitat in a shrinking natural world. Encourage family and others to return portions of yards to native habitat to help warblers survive.

Compare the difference between the two warblers pictured. The redstart has an all black head with white only on the belly and not mixed among the body feathers. There is bright orange on the sides instead of chestnut and it has orange in the wings and tail. Nature niches are more interesting when we get to know our wild neighbors. Warblers will come when yard habitats include native wild plants for insects and birds. Horticultural and non-native plants usually do not support insect populations needed by warblers.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.

 

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What kind of bird is this?


Jennifer August of Solon Township has been seeing some bright blue birds around her home, and this week she brought in some photos she had taken over the weekend.

“At first I had just one bird, and then by the end of the weekend, there were three,” she told us. She said at first she thought they were indigo buntings, but then after looking at her bird book, wondered if they might be blue grosbeaks.

We sent the photos on to our resident expert, Ranger Steve Mueller. Here is his response:

“The two look similar. Blue Grosbeaks have been recorded in Michigan but the pictures are of an Indigo Bunting. The grosbeak would have brown wingbars. One of the pictures shows the bill and it is slimmer than a Blue Grosbeak’s bill. Those two feathers give reason to call it a Indigo Bunting.”

N-Indigo-bunting-vs-blue-grosbeak-BirdfeederBook

This National Audubon Bird Feeding book shows what a blue grosbeak would look like. Notice the notation about the wingbars.

We asked Steve for clarification on the wing bars. “The brown wing bars are quite distinct groups of small feathers that make small elongated patches about an inch long and 1/4 inch wide on the Blue Grosbeak. The Indigo Bunting may have some scattered brown feathers but they do not make a distinct patch,” explained Steve.

He said that the bunting is smaller than the grosbeak and the Blue Grosbeak is smaller than other grosbeaks. “The bill shape is very helpful. The bunting bill is conical and the grosbeak bill is larger and more rounded.”

Thanks, Jennifer, for your photos!

Please send us your bird and other wildlife photos news@cedarspringspost with some information and a contact number. We will print them as space allows.

 

 

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Why are these robins spotted?


This bird was photographed by Betty VanderWal and sent to Ranger Steve.

This bird was photographed by Betty VanderWal and sent to Ranger Steve.

This bird was photographed by Jennifer August in Solon Township.

This bird was photographed by Jennifer August in Solon Township.

Jennifer August, of Solon Township, sent us this photo of an American Robin, with feathers that look like they are missing some pigment. We sent the photo on to Ranger Steve Mueller, our wildlife and botanical expert, and he told us that it is a partially albino (or pied) robin.

He said he also received pictures this week of the same type of bird (or possibly the same bird) from Betty VanderWal.

And the condition is not as rare as you might think. “My ornithology instructor, Harold Mahan at Central Michigan University wrote an ornithology textbook with George J. Wallace from Michigan State University. They commented that partial albinism is common and is most frequently reported in robins, crows, sparrows, and red-winged blackbirds,” he explained.

Albinos have white feathers lacking pigment and reflect all the light making them appear white.

“Complete albinism is a genetic disorder that often results in death at a young age in affected individuals,” wrote Steve. “They often experience other physical problems.”

He said that the partial albinism is referred to as the pied state and may be patchy, forming a mosaic like is pictured in the photos. “Such individuals may live well without the serious health effects that happen in complete albinos,” noted Steve. “A pied robin returned to a banding station in Pennsylvania for eight years.”

He added that they have several mounted specimens of partially albino house sparrows at Howard Christensen Nature Center, 16190 Red Pine Dr NW, Kent City, and he encourages readers to go visit and take a look at them. Visit http://lilysfrogpad.com to learn more about the Nature Center’s open hours.

 

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Bird Watching Hotspots


Ranger Steve Mueller

 

 

Almost 100 bird watching “Hotspots” is listed for Kent County on ebird. Ebird is a web site where people enter bird-sighting observations. The benefit of entering data to ebird for you is the site organizes personal data, keeps record of all the bird species you have seen with dates and locations. Hotspots are locations where many people list sightings for a particular location.

Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) between Cedar Springs and Kent City currently has the seventh most bird species sightings for Kent County hotspots. The six locations with more bird species sightings are in Grand Rapids population centers that have many observers and thus larger species lists. HCNC has more varied and wilder habitats with greater solitude for enjoyable birding. It remains an undiscovered nature niche resource that waits your visit.

Currently 141 species of birds have been documented for HCNC. The number will grow as more people discover and enjoy the variety of habitats that support bird life at the nature center.

One February afternoon I encountered a Long-eared owl standing on the railing of Thunderwood Boardwalk. It was my first experience with the species. We looked at each other for a moment; it flew into a white pine and looked down at me. The experience invigorated my heart, mind, and spirit. Long-eared owls are quite secretive and usually do not show themselves in daylight.

Another species that does not show itself during the day is the American Woodcock. During spring it dances nightly in the evening sky for about six weeks. In the field north of the Red Pine Interpretive Center at dusk, it will start pneeting on the ground. A pneet is a buzz-like call. It stomps its feet and turns from side to side in the dim light. After many pneets, it takes flight and circles higher and higher before diving toward the ground and quickly leveling to land, where it repeats its ground dance with more pneets. Over the years, I have led many field trips to watch the mating dance display.

Scarlet Tanagers do not arrive until May and are surprisingly difficult to see. They have brilliant red bodies with black wings. It seems they would be easy to see but somehow they blend into the new spring green foliage high in trees. People refer to their song as sounding like a robin with a soar throat. The coarser sound helps locate the bird’s singing location and with careful search the bird can be seen.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful spring songs is made by Wood Thrushes in the deciduous forest. Its Ee-o-lay song is clear, loud, and beautifully musical. Another thrush called the Veery makes one of my most favorite bird songs. It stays well hidden. As a young birder it took me about 10 years to discover what bird was make the song. Its spiral-descending warble is most intriguing.

The Common Yellowthroat, unlike the Veery, will readily show itself. It wears a black mask over it eyes. Maybe it thinks the mask keeps it hidden. A bright yellow breast helps locate this bird in shrubby wetlands. I could describe 141 different species that have been seen at HCNC. Each has a unique nature niche. People would quickly tire of descriptions. Instead, become entranced with sights and sounds by walking nature center trails during spring.

Google “ebird” and explore listings for various locations in the County. Enrich your life and contribute to citizen science efforts by documenting bird species that visit your yard. I have observed 102 species at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary where I live.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.

 

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Giant Swallowtail


OUT-Nature-niche-SJM-GiantSwallowtail-OdyB13May2012-12-copy-2By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Immobile and vulnerable all winter, the Giant Swallowtail waits. It has many adaptations for survival. During the winter wait, it is too cold to do anything but wait. Enclosed in a chrysalis it transforms from caterpillar to winged jewel. It transforms within its last larval skin during the fall from a full-grown caterpillar to a chrysalis in a hidden location.

Inside the jewel of a chrysalis, body tissues of the caterpillar dissolve to an apparent liquid. Primordial cells actively work to rebuild an adult body through most miraculous changes. Cool or cold weather delay completion of the work for weeks or months. In the more southern states the wait between caterpillar and adult is shortest. Warm weather arrives sooner allowing the transformation process to continue.

In Michigan it is thought that the process never completes and the butterfly freezes to death in the chrysalis before spring arrives. The result is that we have no Giant Swallowtails until some immigrate north to colonize the state with a new population.

I disagree in part with such thoughts. I have seen Giant Swallowtails year after year at Ody Brook where the host plant for the caterpillar is abundant and have found them in repeated years in other patches of Xanthoxylem americanum. In still other patches of the prickly ash, I have been unable to find the butterfly. That led me to the scientific hypothesis that some swallowtails survive in isolated patches to provide an ongoing legacy.

To further support the hypothesis, I discovered that reliable patches containing the butterfly year after year had none after a very cold winter with subzero temperatures. It took a few years before those patches supported the species again. My idea is that it took a few years for immigrants to find populations of the host plant.

When host plants are found by an adult swallowtail, it lays eggs that develop into bird turd looking caterpillars that fed on the leaves. Caterpillars pupate and develop into adults by fall to provide many beauties in landscapes with host plants. Those pupating in fall wait the long winter. Many freeze but a few might survive to maintain a population in isolated patches of prickly ash. This is still not scientifically proven.

To scientific prove my hypothesis, it is necessary to provide evidence that chrysalises survived the winter in the wild. I have not looked for or found supporting evidence. That does not mean they do not survive. It means there is no supporting evidence that some survive winter in this climate. This skeptical process is what makes scientific method so valuable and self-correcting. It dispels unsupported information that we often choose to believe because we want to or because it appears logical.

Through scientific process we learned the sun does not rise in the east and set in the west. Instead we discovered the Earth rotates to provide the illusion of sunrise and sunset.

For now, science supports that Giant Swallowtails do not survive Michigan winters. I expect any Giant Swallowtail chrysalises found this winter will be frozen. Immigrants will be essential if we are to see the species this summer. The winter provided chilling subzero temperatures in local nature niches. Maybe the deep snow covered and protected a few precious winged jewels.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net Ody Brook, 13010 Northland Dr, Cedar Springs, MI 49319-8433.  616-696-1753.

 

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Signs of Spring


OUT-hawk-march-2014-009

Mary Lou Fuller, of Solon Township, sent us this picture of a hawk having his afternoon meal in the lilac bush right outside her kitchen window.

Ranger Steve Mueller identified it as a Cooper’s Hawk. The Cooper’s Hawk can be found from southern Canada to Northern Mexico, and usually migrates south for the winter.  They mainly prey on smaller birds such as robins, doves, woodpeckers, and others.

Thanks for your photo, Mary Lou, this gives us hope that springs is right around the corner!

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Leaf Experiences


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The best learning is a family experience with fun. I was raking leaves and thought about my girls helping or thinking they were helping. Then I thought about when I helped my dad rake leaves or thought I was helping. What I remember best from both experiences is that I jumped into the pile of leaves and buried myself and my girls jumped into the leaf pile and buried themselves.

A difference in our experiences was what happened to leaves—Earth Stewardship. In the 1950’s people up and down the block raked leaves into the road and burned them. My girls learned leaves make good compost and should not be burned. As mulch they decay and release nutrients into the soil or garden rather than into the air. We used leaves to spread on trails at Ody Brook to prevent dirt from getting in the soles of shoes.

A great experience helps kids observe the intricate natural world. They see details and gain basic knowledge, comprehend what they experience, apply experiences to life at home and in the community, analyze what is best, synthesize what they experienced to use for new unrelated purposes, and then evaluate the value.

The experience allows discovery. I did a leaf activity with students when I was classroom teacher and at the Howard Christensen Nature Center. In fall we found a sugar maple and each student collected ten leaves and then we found a silver maple and collected ten more leaves.

In the process the students learned to distinguish leaf similarities and differences for the two species. Learning more about adaptations for the species took us deeper into reasoning and mental development. Students compared the amount of substance in the two kinds of leaves to discover that silver maple leaves were lighter with less substance. They curled and shrivel more than the heavier sturdy sugar maple leaves. We weighed the leaves and found sugar maple leaves were heavier.

I shared that sugar maple leaves do not remove most of the nutrients from the leaves but allow nutrients to fall to ground in the leaf, where they rot under the tree to release nutrients for the tree’s use in spring. Silver maples ship a greater proportion of nutrients to the roots with the sap, and store it until spring for new growth. Both species have unique nature niche strategies for recycling nutrients. Silver maples are floodplain trees and their leaves wash away with spring flooding so nutrients would be lost if dropped with leaves. Sugar Maples are upland plants and their leaves stay near the tree and release nutrients to their own roots.

My dad, like most other dads, did not realize that releasing nutrients into the air by burning leaves contributes to air pollution and increased atmospheric carbon. I like fires and “some-mores” so we burn branches cleared during trail maintenance and make our “some-more” treats. We allow many to decay in the woods to replenish soil health. Most nutrients are in the small branches that decay rapidly so we leave those in the woods and burn some larger branches. We use large branches for brush pile construction for bird and mammal shelters.

Create family experiences and build relationships. Our kids are grown but I still desire help with projects at Ody Brook. I can use the help but more importantly I think it continues to build our relationship. Of course, their lives are full and busy but sometimes we still build relationships working together outdoors.

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

 

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