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Tag Archive | "Ranger Steve Mueller"

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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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Snippets of life 


Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Picking wild blue berries with the family, catching grasshoppers and worms for fishing, swimming in a lake, canoeing a river, climbing a tree with neighborhood kids, catching lightning bugs are all snippets from my childhood outdoor experiences. Each of us recall a multitude of experiences from growing up.

Make a mental list of your experiences growing up. How many are outdoor experiences with family? How many are outdoor experiences by yourself or with other kids? Ask your kids to list outdoor experiences with family, by themselves or with other kids.

Compare your lists. Do you and your kids have similar outdoor experience lists? Times have changed but are you providing your children or grandchildren with experiences that were a joy for you as a kid?

One of my happier moments came with each of my girls separately. I asked each when we were alone, to tell me their favorite family activity from when they were growing up. Interesting both had the same answer. They said going horseback riding at Wolf Lake Ranch. That is something we did during a fall weekend each year. My favorite family activity when I was growing up was going to Wolf Lake Ranch with my parents every fall.

How many parents can say their children’s favorite family activity is the same favorite activity they had with their parents? Going to a rustic ranch for horseback riding, hayride, campfire, and other activities is one way to experience the outdoors.

In some ways, the girls and I grew up in the same time three decades apart. Of course, the world changed but the natural world was there for all of us. We had time to explore on our own and with friends.

Technology brought new advances as I grew. A new thing called transistor radios came into existence, FM radio developed, and automatic engines were replacing stick shift automobiles in my youth. As my kids grew, pinball machines gave way to video games, computers like the Apple IIe hit the market, and CD’s replaced vinyl records.

TV shrunk the world even more and brought distant places and events closer to home. Despite the changes going on around us, our kids grew up with frogs, deer, ants, oak trees, and apples as neighbors. We grew Christmas trees in the yard and learned tree husbandry. Each girl had their own garden. As  waves rolled toward Lake Michigan’s shore, we threw stones to see if we could hit white caps.

We camped in Hiawatha National Forest campgrounds and put our feet in the icy water of Lake Superior. In warmer shallow water of a campground lake, we waded among thousands of American toad pollywogs.

We choked on campfire smoke that seemed to follow us where ever we moved.

The world might be changing in ways we wish it were not but that does not mean our kids and grandkids cannot grow up in a time and place that was present 50 years ago. The natural world provides a place to nurture one’s sole, spirit, and physical health.

Tents are still sold, outhouses still are found in rustic campgrounds, dirt hiking trails are more abundant throughout the state, birds are singing, coyotes howl, bull frogs bellow, and deer bound from secret bedding areas. Raise kids in a time and place that you remember. It is safe and wonderful.

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: Beyond belief


Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

The wonders of nature are often beyond belief. Constant amazement surrounds us with the antics of life. All sizes, shapes, colors, sounds, and smells take us to emotional highs that enrich our lives or lows that break our hearts.

Science is isolated from emotion and belief when used properly. Science accepts nothing about nature niches without the support of physical evidence from repeated experimentation.

A published study documented planaria could be taught to turn left to eat but to avoid turning right because they would get an electric shock. Planaria are small flat worms about one forth inch long and live under rocks in streams. I look under rocks in the creek at Ody Brook annually to enjoy the emotional uplift of seeing the worms and knowing stream conditions are still suitable for them.

In the study, “educated” planaria were ground up and fed to other planaria. The study reported flat worms that ate the “educated” planaria turned left to eat and avoided turning right. The scientist concluded planaria learned their behavior by eating “educated” planaria. Other scientists repeated the study to verify the findings but the results could never be duplicated. Science discarded the conclusions of the original scientific study. Science is self-correcting through repeatable, verifiable tests using controlled experimentation.

Many things in nature seem unbelievable but repeated tests often support conclusions. One thing people informally test annually in our yards is with robins, cardinals, and some other birds. The male birds fight their reflection in windows until they break their beaks or even die. Bird brains are not smart enough to know the reflection is not another bird and they try drive the other male from their territory.

TV shows try to portray the “ideal” scientific thinking devoid of emotional influence and devoid of making conclusions without adequate physical evidence. Shows like “Bones” and “Rizzoli and Isles” have scientists that do not make conclusions without adequate physical evidence. In the real world, scientific process requires peer reviewed analysis to help prevent erroneous conclusions from getting published. The rigors of science help keep beliefs from influencing scientific conclusions.

Belief is beyond scientific acceptability. Evidence supports climate change is greatly human influenced. Many people however accept or reject it depending on the conclusion they want. Science requires tentative conclusions based on physical evidence. Science conclusions are always tentative pending further study like in the planaria behavior study. People usually believe based on their perception without rigorous scientific experimental support. That is typical with politics and religion. No amount of physical evidence will usually convince people otherwise concerning politics or religion.

The question can be asked, should religion and politics be dismissed because they are not supported with adequate rigorous scientific conclusions? My answer is No. There is a place for multiple realities that impact our lives. Emotions and feelings are a real part of our lives and drive our moral behavior. Science does not include morals. It is about “How” the world works solely based on physical evidence. It is not about “Why” the world exists. Society is guided by melding logical reasoning of “How” with emotional feelings and morals taught during upbringing of “Why.” Religion is a “Why” reality. Faith depends on acceptance without physical evidence. Faith is believing without supportable physical evidence. Science and faith can complement each other for a sustainable future.

When something seems beyond belief, determine if it is scientifically supportable or is accepted on faith. Determine if decisions benefiting future generations should be made based on science, faith, or both. I suggest science and faith together will support a better future and should not be an either/or decision.

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: Howard Christensen Nature Center


By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve

The Howard Christensen Nature Center (HCNC) has developed a cadre of community programs under the leadership of Dave Kieft. Weekend, spring break, and summer camps are part of the variety. Family events meet the interests for all family members. School programming is increasing.

Individual and family memberships provide opportunity for people to visit everyday of the week at no additional fee. Swamp boardwalks lead to where spring frog chorus is a highlight just before dusk. Learn about additional HCNC membership benefits at the office or web site.

One can slowly approach Vernal Pond near the Red Pine Interpretive Center and frogs will quiet. You might see their heads retreat beneath the surface. Stop, sit, and wait less than three minutes and a brave Spring Peeper will begin a single peep. Soon others will feel safe and a massive chorus will fill the air.

While you are sitting, cup your hands behind your ears to enlarge your sound catching ear pinnae. The sound will become so painfully loud you will unable to continue with hands cupped behind your ears. Rotate hands so the cup is facing behind you. The back of your hands in front of ears reduces a large amount of sound from reaching and hurting your vibrating eardrums.

When you leave Vernal Pond, discuss how valuable movable ear pinnae are for dogs, foxes, squirrels, deer, and other mammals. They allow gathering of specific directional sound. Mammals are able to determine exactly where danger might approach. Notice Vernal Pond has more frogs than nearby Tadpole Pond. Vernal ponds are more important for frog survival than permanent ponds and lakes.

Predators approach prey quietly but a rustle of leaves, a broken twig, or even brushing against a shrub can alert mammals because ear pinnae enhance sound. People cannot move ear pinnae but we can use our hands to demonstrate the effectiveness of movable pinnae.

It was always my expectation when director at HCNC to share space with creatures that make the nature center home. We maintained a single file pathway along the west side of Vernal Pond from beech tree to driveway. The east shoreline was reserved for frogs and other creatures with no human disturbance.

Green Frogs sat frozen like statues. On the west shore, frogs submerge as we approached or they would jump frightened into the pond. Some would stay motionless ready to escape. They blended well with shoreline vegetation. East shore frogs waited still and quiet until we left the pond.

Green Frogs begin singing much later in the season when temperatures approach 70 F. Wood Frogs are mostly done singing by early April. Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs continue song through April. Unfortunately, Western Chorus Frogs have declined in our area. It is a reason to leave some pond borders free of disturbance for native species. We worked to help people recognize we are visitors in wildlife nature niches and encouraged living with nature instead of crowding animals from homes in ponds, streams, forests, fields, and our yards. Small vernal ponds are essential with fewer predators.

Seeing animals is difficult without entering their home but we can provide minimal disturbance that allows habitats to remain healthy. That is a primary reason for restricting activity to one half of Vernal Pond. It allows vegetation to grow to pond edge and provides frogs with healthy living space in appropriate arrangement for food, water, and shelter to meet survival needs.

Please become an HCNC member. Discover frogs by walking nature center trails maintained for school and family groups in wild habitats. Make real world connections that would otherwise be vicariously through books, digital screens, or stories about the natural world. Enjoy being outdoors with wildlife.

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


Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Spring Springs

Spring is more than a date on the calendar in nature niches. By the end of March, spring is less than two weeks old and the region appears to be in winter’s wardrobe. A close look reveals change is underway.

The Great Horned Owl pair has selected breeding and feeding territory. In the evenings during March, they are heard hooting together from various vantage points near territory’s edge warning other owls to stay clear. The male owl selected a horizontal branch at field edges. It was more comfortable than standing on one that angles upward. Soon he joined the female to the west and they began a large circle hoot fest as the night sky darkened along Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary’s forest boundary. In darkness, their focus changes to eating mice and rabbits with periodic breaks for nighttime hooting.

I am anxious for the greening of shrubs and trees during April but March has been busy with its own spring activity. Children are better at discovery and seeing changes so make it a family affair to get out as “Spring Springs.” Less commentary below about each species allows more listing of March events but it will be easy to add your own commentary on family outings. Take 15 to 30 minutes with family to explore occurrences at your home site. More will occur if you dedicate some yard space to things natural and wild. Allow yard space for native plants and animals that resided in pre-settlement Michigan.

Male Goldfinches are yellowing and their black cap has returned. Male birds of many species are chasing females wherever they fly. Females birds only find peace when standing.

Groups of male Brown-headed Cowbirds stand in trees near a female ready to pursue when she flies. Female cowbirds select forest/field edges where they stand and watch other species hour by hour to learn where nests are built. When egg laying begins their eggs are deposited in other bird’s nests. They have them raise their young. Nest parasitism is not underway in March in our area.

Male red-winged blackbirds arrived two weeks before females to claim the best habitats for improved mating success. The most fit females compete for best habitat to insure reproductive success with adequate food, nesting location, and water. Most people do not notice the arrival of the dull gray female with its eye stripe and no red on the wing.

Chipmunk daily activity outside their burrows is typical except during late season snows. Painted Turtles sun on logs during moderately warm sunny days. Woodcock’s spectacular display is well underway. Wood Ducks float on streams and ponds where they depend on neighboring live or dead hollow trees for nesting. Let large dead trees stand.

Wood Frogs singing peaks in March and mating winds down by early April. Spring Peepers and Western Chorus Frogs are well into spring chorus. Gray Tree Frogs try out their song on warmer nights.

Moss’s two-toned green of new and old growth is obvious. The sporophyte stalk with spore head stands tall and grows out of the leafy gametophyte plant below. Look closely from inches away.

Elms, silver maples, and aspens flower high above while speckled alder, hazelnut, and skunk cabbage are shedding pollen in closer view.

Eastern Comma and Cabbage White butterflies are on the wing. The first overwintered as adult and the second emerged from a chrysalis that overwintered in protected recesses attached to wood or other structures.

Eastern Bluebirds have not started claiming nest boxes by the end of March but I am anxious for their blue and orange colors to brighten the field. That will be one of the April pleasures not to miss.

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: Everyday Wonders


Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spring Equinox


 

By Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The sun is directly east everywhere on Earth during the first day of Spring. It is a most dangerous time to drive east shortly after sunrise and west shortly before sunset. Many people have been injured or killed during travel due the Earth’s position on its annual trip around the sun.

Wildlife make hazardous trips at this time of year, when hormone levels rise to stimulate seasonal movement. This week a muskrat and an opossum were killed at Ody Brook as they crossed the road.

Whether you are at the North Pole, South Pole, equator, or at home on this date, the big warming ball of gas is about 93 million miles east at sunrise and west at sunset. The sun does not rise and set. The Earth is spinning one rotation every 24 hours to make the sun appear to rise and set.

The 24-hour spinning rotation is different than the Earth’s revolution around the sun that takes 365 days for one trip. The Earth is held by the sun’s gravity as it is moves in a large loop around the hot gaseous ball. Put your palm toward the sun and feel the warmth. The sun not only warms your hand, it warms your spirit. Attitudes and behavior change as daylight hours lengthen. Like people, animals experience hormone changes in response to day length changes. Animal migration to breeding grounds is under way.

Monarch butterflies are departing wintering habitat in Mexico and are heading north.

It is not just warmer temperatures that influence animal activity. The position of the Earth and sun are important. A North and South Pole line through Earth is not at a right angle with sun. The imaginary pole that extends from the most northern point of Earth to the most southern is tilted at an angle to the sun. The Earth is spinning like a top around that imaginary pole once every 24 hours.

Interestingly, when the northern hemisphere is leaning toward the sun in summer, the Earth is farther from the sun than it is in midwinter when the hemisphere is leaning away from the sun. We are about 91.5 million miles from the sun in winter and about 94.5 million miles from the sun in summer. One would think we would be warmer when closer but the angle of tilt compared to the sun makes the difference. The northern hemisphere is tipped toward the sun in summer when we are farther away causing more direct sunrays to warm us more.

Locally, many birds have arrived from the south by the first day of spring but others are still far south. Some, like Mourning Doves, may already be on nests. American Woodcocks are performing their mating display of dancing on the ground and aerial acrobatic flights high into the sky. Bluebirds claim nest boxes. Eastern Comma and Mourning Cloak butterflies hidden as adults all winter are venturing out on warm days. Woollybear caterpillars not seen since fall crawl in the leaf litter.

During February and March as the equinox approaches, sap in trees and shrubs flows, causing buds to swell. Damaged twigs leak sap. Squirrels and birds tend the wounds to lap the sugar rich sap. Freezing temperatures create sapsickles that hang as icicles when liquid flows from stems but freezes in air. I always enjoy sucking on these frozen sugary treats offered free for the taking by nature.

Look around your yard for nature niche signs of spring that would not occur if the Earth did not revolve around the sun. Near the equator, day length and warmth remains fairly stable all year with a continuous growing season. Daylight length stays close to 12 hours as does darkness. Organisms near the equator do not get to experience shorter day light hours we have in winter or the wonderfully long lighted hours of summer. Enjoy the change of seasons with snow and rain, cold and warmth and animal movements during spring transition as plant growth bursts.

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

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Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche: Itty Bitty Sleeper


Ranger Steve

Ranger Steve

By Ranger Steve Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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