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Tag Archive | "Ranger Steve Mueller"

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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Butterfly counts


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Mark your calendars. Butterfly count participants will receive Mo Nielsen’s book Michigan Butterflies and Skippers as a bonus. Discover butterflies in a variety of local habitats with people knowledgeable in butterfly identification. It is a great way to begin learning some of the 170 species known to Michigan. Join with the West Michigan Butterfly Association on a count for fun and learning.

Counts are sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) and cost $3 for each participant. The money is used by NABA to create a publication documenting butterfly abundance, distribution, and trends throughout North America. Scientists make use of citizen science data. About 17 counts are held in Michigan annually. Make it a family event. Contact Ranger Steve for more information about Michigan counts. He is the regional editor for all Michigan counts and can help connect with any Michigan count leader. Your help spotting butterflies is desired. Knowledge of butterflies is not required.

We carpool to various sites in the 15-mile diameter designated count circles. Have a good time discovering in the outdoors, learn species identification, habitat associations, behavior, and nature niche needs. Participate for part of the day or stay all day. 

Bring a bag lunch, plenty to drink, snacks, and dress with lightweight long sleeves and pants to protect from any biting insects or raspberry thorns. Some exploration is off trail when searching for butterflies. 

Local count dates and meeting locations:

June 30, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Allegan Butterfly Count – Allegan Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meet at the Fennville Allegan State Game Area headquarters, 6013 118th Ave, Fennville. odybrook@chartermi.net

 

July 5, 2018 (Wed) 9:00 a.m.

Newaygo County Butterfly Count – Newaygo Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

Meeting at the grocery parking lot at the corner of M82 & M 37 in Newaygo. odybrook@chartermi.net

 

July 7, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Rogue River Butterfly Count – Kent Co.

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller)

(Kent, Newaygo, Montcalm Counties)

Meet at Howard Christensen Nature Center Welcome Center 16160 Red Pine Dr. Kent City. odybrook@chartermi.net

 

July 14, 2018 (Sat) 9:00 a.m.

Greater Muskegon Butterfly Ct – Muskegon Co.

Leader: Dennis Dunlap 

Meet on Mill Iron Road from M-46 (Apple Ave.) east of Muskegon at second set of power lines that cross the road north of MacArthur Road. dunlapmd@charter.net

Rain day alternates will be the next day. Sign up with Ranger Steve so unexpected changes can be shared.  

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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Prepare for Earth Day April 22


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Celebrate Earth Day and be active in nature to renew your spirit and strengthen family relationships. Having healthy nature niches for wildlife and us to live protects our families and future. Recognize the importance of science-based evidence to protect the fish and wildlife we eat, water we drink from home water taps, and crops that come from farm fields to sustain our physical and mental health. They provide a sustainable future.

Conservation organizations are appalled with current efforts to undo or weaken environmental protections that protect groundwater from things like PFAS, mining practices that allow waste to again be dumped directly into rivers where it was stopped, and the release of air pollutants because protections are thought to be unnecessary. The President is championing deregulation of environmental protection and has elected supporters in Congress. Many elected leaders do not understand the relevance of John Muir’s journal entry from July 27, 1869. Muir wrote “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” 

Dave Straus states and asks: “My Nature Conservancy colleagues and I believe we have a responsibility to stand up for just how critical science is at this make-or-break moment for our Earth. With our 600 scientists on the ground around the world, now is the time to champion cutting edge, evidence-based conservation.

Science matters—especially at this critical time for nature. On April 14, The Nature Conservancy will participate in the March for Science in Washington, D.C., to join with concerned people from across the country in speaking out for the importance of science.

That’s why I’m marching. And it’s why I hope you’ll be with us in spirit—even if you can’t be there in person. As someone who’s shown your commitment to protecting nature, you know that we have a shrinking window of time left to put our planet on the path to a more hopeful future.

Show that you agree that science is key to safeguarding the air we breathe, the water we drink, the safety of the places we love and the places we call home.” The Nature Conservancy web site is www.nature.org.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, President, Defenders of Wildlife sent me this message. “If the Trump administration gets its wall built, it will leave wildlife and communities broken apart at the border. The biologically rich lands and waters that make up our southern border with Mexico would be irretrievably damaged.

This nightmare is quickly getting closer to reality. In fact, Congress just approved more than $1 billion for the wall that could forever divide species and tear apart wolf packs as well as human families. Ultimately, it could be the end of the road for critically endangered species like Mexican gray wolves, jaguars and ocelots. 

But Defenders won’t let the administration or Congress steamroll wildlife without a fight. We have already filed a lawsuit challenging the wall’s construction and Defenders’ of Wildlife legal team is preparing to take this battle all the way to the Supreme Court.” Defenders Of Wildlife web site is: defenders.org.

It was stated the entire wall will cost $20 billion and this does not include the cost of the National Guard standing at the border. It is my thought, $20 billion could be used to protect our nation’s economy, physical/social health, and environmental sustainability more effectively. It would not divide and isolate critical habitat and prevent access to water of the Rio Grande for wildlife or prevent movement essential for population maintenance. 

I am a member of the North American Butterfly Association. We own property adjacent to the border that is being taken without due process of law under orders from the President. Our property ranks with areas having the highest butterfly biodiversity in the United States. It is being taken and wall construction has begun. NABA has filed suit to protect our private property. This administration exempted our property rights from due process of law and has begun illegal construction on our property. Trump and supporters do not want the Endangered Species Act or pollution regulations to interfere with their desires. This is a critical Earth Day for action.

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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Old Books


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

My bookshelves are filled with old books. Authors shared riveting human connections with animals. I grew up at the edge of a city and ventured to wild country two blocks away. That countryside had scattered fallow farm fields nestled among active croplands in a flat open landscape that stretched for miles. 

I read fiction stories about dogs, a boy, and their adventures in the wild but my experience was hunting quarry in the fallow farm fields. The quarry was butterflies, frogs, and a lone big tree that could be climbed. I resorted to fictional books for connections with large wild creatures that did not live in my neighborhood.

This duck is known as a surf scoter. The male’s strong head pattern earns the species the hunters’ nickname of “skunk-head coot.” Photo from audubon.org.

By middle school age, I was reading non-fiction about animals and developed a sense of purpose to share the world with them rather than usurp it from them. I had yet to become a naturalist or spend time in truly wild places. By age 15, I was working during the summer at a Boy Scout camp, living in a tent, and exploring wild woodlands at the scout camp. 

The world of discovery unfolded as I followed animal trails, stumbled upon deer bedded in bracken ferns, and found a skeleton that challenged me to determine what caused the animal’s death. I still have that deer skull and bones I found in a bog in 1962. I determined it got mired in the muck and could not free itself. It is a prized possession I often show visitors. 

Early connections with nature developed mostly through exploratory adventures. As my curiosity expanded, I needed help. Books became important. I bought my first nature field guide when I was 15. It was a late start. My exploration was limited to places I could reach by walking or biking. I had an opportunity that many kids did not. Our family took a trip to western national parks when I was eight and again when I was twelve. 

It was on one of those trips I decided to become a park ranger. I needed to absorb as much nature niche knowledge as possible. I did not know how to study wildlife. New books have the latest information and field guides have improved in many ways. The newest books are concise with great photographs but many do not retain the flavor of old books that have detailed observational descriptions written by early authors. 

I was told recently that books are a thing of the past because technology has made the information available electronically. I disagree; books are not a thing of the past. Most old books by nature writers are not available like popular novels for MP3 players or other electronic means. Old natural history works that can be held in hand contribute a foundation for present day books. They can often be found inexpensively for sale online.  

I just read a great new engaging book titled “American Wolf” about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, but old books like Adolph Murie’s about wolves are indispensable and not available electronically. Old books give us perspective for how our current knowledge developed. They offer extensive descriptions of animal behavior and the author’s personal relationships with their surroundings. 

Perhaps authors had long hours by campfire light to write details of the day’s events. Today, we have daylight 24-hours a day in lighted rooms if we want. We can lodge in motels and seek entertainment after dark. We do not need to spend hours by firelight writing. Motels, TV and internet were not available to Lewis and Clark as they worked their way west describing species and recording detailed descriptions of the landscape. 

Edmond Way Teale, Sigurd Olson, Ann Zwinger, Henry Beston, John Muir, John Burroughs, Ernest Thompson Seton, are some authors that will take you on journeys like you have never experienced. Old books take you into historic wild places. Henry Beston’s wrote about the skunk coot in The Outermost House. I could not find the old name in recent books. I have an old 1904 bird guide that pictures them. They are now known as surf scoters. Old books are not a thing of the past. They are a connection to the past and are a wonderful read. Let their stories take you into the wild country.

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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Outdoor groups for you


Howard Christensen Nature Center on Red Pine Drive offers outdoor opportunities for both adults and children.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

The New Year is bright with opportunities for being outdoors with nature organizations. Enjoy being in the natural world with others of common interests. 

There are organizations that address activity interests most important to you. Each takes a different approach and all offer enjoyable opportunities. Support some or all the organizations listed that serve your interests. It is not a complete list but hopefully adds new opportunities for you. Spend time enjoying the outdoors with groups to create connections with nature that will hopefully lead to its protection.

Select local conservation organizations that work to support fun outside in healthy and nature niche ecosystems. Some organizations providing outdoor enjoyment are:

Michigan Botanical Club White Pine Chapter (wild flower field trips and programs); Grand Rapids Audubon (birding field trips); a variety of hunting clubs with most being affiliated with National Wildlife Federation and Michigan United Conservation Clubs; River City Wild Ones (native plant group); Izaak Walton League (fishing and conservation); West Michigan Butterfly Association; Kent, Ottawa and other County Parks; township, city and village parks (Ada, Hudsonville, Grand Rapids, Wyoming and others); Sierra Club (outdoor adventure and conservation); local nature centers (Howard Christensen, Blandford, Calvin College’s Bunker Interpretive Center); Nature Preserves (Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Michigan Nature Association, Grand Rapids Audubon Maher Sanctuary, Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary); county Conservation Districts; MSU Extension agencies; and the Stewardship Network. 

Be thankful for efforts of The Stewardship Network that helps support multiple organizations by:

  • Empowering people to care for land and water by providing field based opportunities using best scientific based practices
  • Protecting biodiversity through activities, education and land management
  • Working to control invasive species that degrade ecosystem functions, our economy, health, and nature niches
  • Safeguarding water to keep nutrients on the land and out of creeks, rivers, lakes and groundwater
  • Caring for habitats that support threatened and endangered species
  • Defending local communities by promoting local ecosystem solutions to prevent flooding
  • Working to prevent human enhanced climate change
  • Supporting organizations with missions to protect land and water ecosystems to sustain our economy, social community structure, and environment.

Do an Internet search or better yet attend any or all of the organizations listed to learn more about them. Most state and national conservation organizations are not listed. This article focuses on local organizations where you can personally get together with others in the outdoors or attend entertaining educational programs.

Spend time outdoors with at least one of the listed organizations to enjoy local natural wonders. Learn from others how the natural world serves your physical and mental wellbeing.  

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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Snowy Owls


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Forty-eight transmitters were attached to Snowy Owls from North Dakota to Maine during 2013-17. The solar powered devices track movements by recording latitude, longitude and altitude. Some owls remain within a quarter mile of where they were tagged and others move hundreds of miles. “Project SNOWstorm” research focuses on winter movements but reveals information gathered on the summer range in the far north that has previously not been accessible.

In winter, some owls spend weeks or months floating on Great Lakes ice where they hunt gulls, ducks, geese, and grebes. Recently, I have observed Snowy Owls on the center dike between massive ponds at the Muskegon Wastewater facility. Thousands of gulls and waterfowl are found in these ponds. I thought the owls depended on lemmings in the far north and ate a similar diet of voles here.

Evidence indicates gulls and waterfowl can be an important part of their diet and is a reason owls perch on floating ice. Capturing a gull provides more food per catch than a small rodent. I wonder what the success rate is for capturing a rodent compared with a bird. It might be more efficient hunting rodents when abundant. 

Massive numbers of gulls are present at the Muskegon wastewater facility. It is a birding hotspot where people scan with scopes to find rarer gulls. My friends, the two Gregs, Jim, and I have seen Greater Black-backed, Glaucous, and other infrequently seen gulls among abundant Ring-billed and Herring Gulls. 

We have only seen the owls observing or moving to new perch locations. They stand patient. It would be nice to see one pursuing a gull. They have 14 neck vertebrae that allows them to turn their head more than half way around. Other birds and mammals have seven cervical vertebrae preventing such great head swivel. Owls can look straight backwards from the direction their body is facing. It appears their head is on backwards. 

Adult males and females can be distinguished by plumage. Males are nearly all white, while female have brown or black flecked feathers. Immatures are more heavily dark marked. Snowy Owls appear larger than they are because fluffy feathers provide a robust appearance. Under the fluff is a lean 3 to 6-pound body. Visible contour feathers covering the body shed water. Underneath, non-waterproof down feathers trap air and insulate. 

Large eyes have a yellow iris with dark penetrating pupils. Like ours, their eyes are on the front of the face providing depth of field binocular vision. Close one eye and notice how the distance of two objects is difficult to discern. When hunting it is important to judge distance while flying. Notice birds at your feeder have eyes on the side of the head. To determine distance, they must move their heads to gain a three-dimensional view. Eyes on the sides of the head provide an advantage of a nearly 360º view for spotting predators.

I did not notice a black transmitter on the back of any owls. It would be just below the skull. With only 48 tagged, I would not expect to see an owl with one. Owls are captured in fine mess nets strung in flight areas. Mist nets are similar to golf course screens installed to prevent balls from entering highways and hitting cars. 

Owls living in the tundra far from human activity reveal their movements when they migrate to our region. Information stored in transmitters north of cell tower range is retrieved when they enter tower range in winter. 

Periodically large numbers move south when arctic food is scarce or populations are high forcing hunting dispersal. This year is an excellent year for learning more about the daily lives of owls for which we know little. Many have already arrived southward. 

Spend time exploring farm country and areas with large fields to search for white bumps. Look with binoculars and you might find a Snowy Owl. Enjoy exploring on your own or participate on Audubon field trips.

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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