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Tag Archive | "ranger steve"

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche Different Kinds of Birding


By Ranger Steve

Are you a window watcher? That means most of your bird watching is done through a window. Much of my birding is casual with glances out the window. I used to leave for work before sun up and arrive home after dark. I still fed the birds all winter for their benefit even though I was not present to enjoy them. 

On occasion, a friend and I travel to interesting locations in West Michigan to see birds that are not found in our yards. Lake Michigan shoreline is a great place to see winter waterfowl. Binoculars are needed. A closer view in the open water where rivers like the Grand and Muskegon empty into the big lake provide good views. 

During the winter, my friend and I pick a January or February weekend when we can make a trip to the Upper Peninsula to enjoy the snowy scenic beauty and birds that do not come this far south in winter. The Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, Northern Hawk Owl, and Sharp-tailed Grouse require us to visit their winter range to see them. This is referred to as “target birding” where people go somewhere to see a specific species. 

Birds end up in places where they are not expected. Some have been seen only a few times in our region. Why they are there is a mystery. Perhaps their navigation system has been confused. Their survival can be precarious. We observed a Rufous Hummingbird visiting a sugar water feeder the last week of December one year. The home owner saw a hummingbird and promptly put out a feeder to help it survive. It stayed for a couple weeks before disappearing. It was never known if it made the trip south or died in the stark cold winter weather. The Rufous Hummingbird is a western species that winters in the extreme southeastern states or farther south. 

I find exploring bird nature niches an exciting and rewarding endeavor that can shed new information for understanding bird behavior, ecological adaptations, and normal daily habits. Forging my way into difficult areas people tend to avoid is fun and challenging but reveals things not generally observed. 

The American Woodcock has a wonderful ground dance followed by an aerial spiral flight, plunges toward the earth, levels before crashing and resumes the ground foot stomping and spinning display at dawn and dusk. This can be observed during the late March and April breeding season at Luton Park and many area locations. We manage habitat for the bird at Ody Brook and always enjoy its performance. I occasionally keep records of the vocal calls called peents during the ground dance between aerial flights. They vary from a few to more than fifty. Peents increase in number as dark settles in. I note where they land and what they do on the ground. 

A different kind of birding is to discover woodcock activity before their breeding displays begin. I have tried to determine how early they arrive north. In late February and early March, I have forced my way through thick swamp shrubbery in hopes of flushing one when thick snow still covers the landscape. Trudging in such habitat is not easy and I have never encountered another person on such adventures. To my joy, I have come upon a woodcock feeding along a tiny rivulet of open water where it can probe its long bill in to mud in one of the few places where food can be found at that time of year. My observations indicate the species returns earlier than most people expect but they remain hidden and focus on feeding and shelter until breeding time. 

Another different kind of birding is documenting where nests are constructed, how many eggs are typically laid, the height of nests, plant species used for nest placement, and behavioral interactions with their own species and others. I waded in a marsh from nest to nest during a Red-winged Blackbird nesting season. Attached is an abbreviated table of observations from that venture into the wild wet world of blackbird nesting territory. Some data fields were deleted for space limitations and to prevent losing your interest with too much information. I keep bird nest records annually as shown in the accompanying sample table. That year I had records for 65 nests. This year, I have records for 49 nests. 

A different kind of birding is the life blood for sustaining a naturalist. I also keep records for plants, insects, weather, and more so we can best manage Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary to “Enhance Biodiversity.”

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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Hidden towhee beauty


 

Eastern towhee. Photo by Marilyn Keigley.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Two male Eastern Towhees stopped by for a visit at Ody Brook. We offer special treats but that is not why they come. They do not make secretive stops to play tricks on us either—well, maybe one that I will discuss in the conclusion. Perhaps they simply discovered other bird species and too many squirrels find the yard inviting. Now with trick or treat over, I can contemplate a nature niche reason they visit on their journey south. 

Some will rarely be found in the region during the winter months. It can be hazardous for males that stay here where winters are more moderate than farther north. There are benefits and hazards. As much as we would like to think they could predict the severity of winter, they are not fortune tellers and cannot. If severe winter conditions occur, their survival is challenged. An advantage of staying farther north than those wintering to the south is it provides a head start in spring for securing the best breeding sites before rivals arrive. 

Those leaving our area to claim choice breeding habitat farther north arrive earlier than males that departed from farther south. Once a male claims a territory, it is likely it will be able protect it from intruding males that arrive later. From secluded and even exposed tree branches during breeding season, it will sing a phrase referred to as “drink your teeeeeee.” The phrase is frequently repeated so we can follow the sound to discover the bird’s stunning beauty. Rarely do they make themselves obvious in the yard like robins.

Wintering farther south where snow does not persist on the ground enhances winter survival. A primary feeding strategy is to scratch through fallen leaves and they particularly like to hunt under shrubs and branches that conceal them. They prefer the seclusion of evergreen trees and shrub thickets. 

We get to observe their amazing beauty when they show themselves. We planted a balsam fir when the girls were young. The tree is about their age and now stands 30 feet tall. The girls did not keep pace with tree growth and we are pleased. It is difficult enough to raise children without having to deal with giants. The purpose for planting the evergreen tree was to provide a location where birds can hide when coming for a feeder meal. 

The towhees are appreciative and spend time when traveling to stop in or under that tree. They scratch through the deciduous leaves blown under the fir to look for choice food. Sometimes one will be seen under the bird feeder throwing seeds in every direction while looking for tasty morsels other birds ignore.

I watched one preen on a fir tree branch and ready itself for the continued journey south. It used its beak to clean and straighten feathers. It wears a sleek black hood that trails black on the back all the way to the tip of its tail. Under its chin, the black hood extends midway on the chest and stops abruptly at a clear line where white contrasting feathers grow. The belly is white with robin orange feathers that cover its sides and somewhat obscure the white underside. One could mistake a towhee for an American Robin at a glance. Robins are gray on top instead brilliant black and their orange covers the entire belly. 

The towhees have white markings accenting its black back and white on tail feathers that can be seen when the bird spreads its feathers or most easily when it flies. You might rarely have the opportunity to see one during winter. If evergreens are part of the landscape, viewing chances are improved when leaves are allowed to remain under them so don’t over rake. Even better are thickets of shrubs where they hide among clustered branches during the winter. Wet lowlands are often wild, not mowed or cleared so towhees find them good dinning accommodations. Allow unmanicured areas to establish in the yard and more wildlife will treat your eyes during the trick or treat season and throughout the growing season. Landscape to support bird biodiversity. 

In old bird guides, the bird was listed as Rufous-sided Towhee. It was discovered that instead of being one species, the bird played a trick on us and hid two species with nearly identical appearances. The towhees have now been separated into two species. The different western birds are named Spotted Towhees. Plan a trip west next summer to enjoy the similar species that has more white spotting on its back than the Eastern Towhee. 

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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Waxy Bloom


By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Hopefully all have enjoyed the beauty of Colorado Blue Spruce trees that are planted in Michigan to enhance yards and businesses. Blue spruces have a white wax secretion on new green needle growth that creates the blue we enjoy. It is not unique to blue spruces but the wax abundance is.

Waxy bloom secretion is common on plants and prevents evaporation desiccation on new growth. It is particularly important for blue spruces in their native western North America’s dry nature niche with low humidity. Needles exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide through the needle surfaces to survive. Pores called stomata, where gas exchange occurs, are concentrated on needle undersurfaces in tiny pits. These pitted micro-humidity chambers help prevent excessive drying in the tree’s arid habitat. 

Native plants and animals support healthy Great Lakes Ecosystem functioning. I am not a purist. Nonnative plants are used in gardens and along the road but are kept to a minimum. We enjoy non-natives as do a small number of insects, birds, and other taxa. By limiting non-natives, native species can support large populations of native animal populations. Non-native plants support few native animals and mowed lawns almost none.

Enjoy some non-natives and touch them. Rub your fingers on blue spruce needles to notice the blue changes to green. The wax rubs off allowing green to show without being modified by light passing through the white waxy bloom. Become friendly with trees, shrubs, and other plants you invited to live with you on your property. You hug your kids so don’t neglect the plants you adopted. 

We help, shape and guide the development of our children and grandchildren. Do the same for plants. Prune, shape, and water so they thrive. Non-native plants usually need extra attention, time, support, and work so keep them to a minimum. Plant native species because they do not need fertilizers or much work to survive.

Plants are not the only species with a waxy bloom. Common Whitetail Dragonflies will search your yard for lunch if you allow native plant growth in portions of your home habitat. Keep as much native landscape as possible and mow minimally. Field areas provide a large variety of spring and summer wildflowers that support biodiversity and beauty. They require less maintenance and expense. Mow wild areas once or a few times a year to prevent unwanted woody growth. Dragonflies will stop in for lunch. The “teenager” whitetail dragonflies will find good meals. Colorful species will rapidly zip about and occasionally land where you can view them well. 

As whitetails mature, they will secrete a white waxy bloom that turns the abdomen brilliant white. They are seen in yards but when mature, concentrate in wetlands protecting the best breeding habitat from other males. It is valuable to allow native wild vegetation to grow along stream and lake edges, and by wetlands where they support dragonflies, fish, birds, mammals and other wildlife we enjoy seeing. Weasels turn white in fall and the color helps them blend with winter’s snow. They do not produce a white waxy bloom but enjoy them anyway by providing wild places to thrive in your yard where they will eat mice, voles, and moles.

Explore the feel of leaves. Notice some have a thick waxy surface that is heaviest on the sun exposed surface and thin on the shaded lower surface where microscopic stomata concentrate. The thick wax coating is referred to as a cuticle instead of a bloom. It does not rub off and helps protect plants from being eaten. Many insect feeders chew or suck plant juices from young leaves or needles before they develop a thick cuticle.

The waxy bloom is thin and temporary on new growth. Take time to compare with older needles from previous years that are green with a thick cuticle. Summer’s new blue spruce growth has the bloom that entices us to plant this tree. As fun as it is, do not get carried away with rubbing off the bloom. Make sure you spend time with kids and grandkids that will enjoy the activity. They will remember it better than you. Simple activities in nature develop appreciation and love for the natural world that needs support to prevent habitat loss as our human population continues to grow. Our yards are critical for maintaining biodiversity for future generations.

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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Only You Can


Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Many of us recall the US Forest Service billboards stating, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” That changed a couple decades ago when the forest service began promoting “Only you can prevent wildfires.” In the 1930’s, scientific study demonstrated the importance of periodic forest fires to promote healthier forest ecosystem niches, prevent the spread of devastating pestilence, thin forest, provide essential nutrients for tree growth, increase the tree growth rate, and enhance wildlife reproductive success, among other benefits. 

Most Midwest forest fires are understory fires that burn near the ground rather than through the canopy. Canopy fires burn haphazardly and skip through the forest leaving a checkerboard appearance with unburned sections. 

The 1988 Yellowstone crown fire that swept the park and national forest improved the forest health and its wildlife populations. Immediately, it left black desolated areas that were unpalatable for many that were taught forest fires are “bad.” They claimed the fire ruined the park. I hiked Yellowstone in 1996 where lodge pole pines dominate. The pine is a fire dependent species that reseeds itself with the aid of fire. Like local jack pines, lodge pole pines depend on fires to open areas to full sunlight and to release seeds.

In 1996, eight years after the fire, crowded young trees were three to six feet tall. They continue to struggle for light, space, and nutrients as they grow and self-thin the forest. I do not understand why the park service spent time and money replanting trees when the tree’s adaptation is fire adapted to reseed itself. 

A couple reasons might be that efforts to prevent fires for decades caused ground duff to become thick and it burned hot destroying released seeds or bowing to political pressure to plant trees demonstrated humans were doing something. Some areas might not have had an adequate seed source to establish a forest rapidly. 

When I fought fires at Bryce Canyon National Park in the 1970’s, the policy was to quickly extinguish them. Fires I fought were caused by lightning. We hiked to them carrying heavy loads of firefighting equipment on our backs. Fire breaks were built to contain fire spread and they were allowed to burn out. We camped by them as needed to prevent spreading. During later decades park policy changed to have “controlled burns” to provide healthier conditions for trees, wildlife, and people. It also helps prevent large uncontrollable fires. 

We have seen news broadcasts that share the devastation of uncontrollable fires that sweep large areas. Frequent controlled burns during carefully selected times and weather conditions allow “safe” burning that does not burn homes, create conditions for deadly and destructive mudslides or cause massive wildlife destruction. It is important to call to get a burn permit from your township fire warden who will verify conditions are safe for you to burn brush. At Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, we cut and haul to a burn area or create wildlife brush piles. 

During the Yellowstone fires, large animals like elk were frequently seen grazing in areas where fires jumped through the forest. Ungulates laid and chewed their cud. There were elk, bears, and many animals that did not escape flames and died. New regrowth, allowed remaining animals to have more successful reproduction with improved conditions of greater and more accessible food availability for grazing. Predators found more prey. 

Human attitudes have been slowly changing during the past 90 years since we began to understand the valuable role of fire in ecosystems. Our knowledge remains inadequate. When to burn, how frequently, and how large an area to burn is different for survival of various species. What works well for plants might be too frequent for insect herbivores that support bird and mammal populations.

This same conundrum causes many people to reject what is known regarding the effects of climate change for our lives and health. Hopefully it will not require 90 years for us to embrace corrective actions. Studies indicate human carbon release increases climate change that increases fire frequency and intensity. Variables prevent complete understanding. “Only you can” support policies that shift us from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

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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Enhancing community health


 

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Nick Sanchez, our district forester with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is sharing a cost-effective incentive to help protect our health, stream health, ground water, and air quality. A healthy community depends on people caring for themselves, neighbors, and community. The program available was included in the Farm Bill in 2014 that Congress approved.

Nick states, “Trees have many benefits. They provide food and a home for wildlife, and even help keep your family happy and healthy! Did you know that trees filter dirty water and keep our topsoil from washing away? Trees also help store water underground, preventing flooding in the spring and low levels during summer drought. Even the shade from trees provides a benefit, keeping streams clear and cold, ideal for fish like trout! Planting trees along a stream provides big benefits and we want to help you keep our home rivers clean and healthy for your family, fish, and other cool wildlife!” 

He would like community members and farmers know about the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. A representative from the Rogue River Partners came to Ody Brook to enlist my advice for protecting the quality of the local environment for the benefit of people and wildlife. 

Nick would like all to know, “Conservation partners have teamed up to bring farmers and forestland owners access to a unique pool of funding to help them take actions on their land to help prevent soil loss, and to create and improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Rogue River and Indian Mill Creek watersheds, a 250 square mile area in northern and western Kent County. Financial assistance is available now to help you plant: filter strips, grassed waterways, cover crops, and riparian forest buffers, as well as many other options to help in this effort. This special opportunity is available through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) over the next four years. Call Matt Soehnel, NRCS District Conservationist, at (616) 942-4111 ext. 3 for more information!” Programs are available for others besides farmers. Give Matt a call to learn how NRCS can help you be a good land steward in your neighborhood. 

I receive requests asking me to address the PFAS groundwater issue, the water mining issue impacts on wells and wetlands, and other pressing issues. I could write an article a week on issues for the entire year. Environmental quality for our lives depends on sound science-based data being scrubbed from the EPA website. Information is being censored to downplay the impact of human caused climate change that is degrading the environment. The long-term cost of anti-environmental policies threaten a sustainable economy, our health, and future generations. Scientific data supported by decades of research is not “fake news.” 

I encourage people living in the Rogue River Watershed to take positive action locally to enhance the health of the environment that supports our physical and financial health. First contact the NRCS at the number listed above to learn what you can do on your property and in the community to enhance the health of our neighborhoods. Second contact your US Representative and Senators to protect environmental laws established in the 1970s that are currently on the chopping block. They protect a sustainable economy and our health. Both actions are important for your family. The current administration is working to remove Water, Air, Endangered species, and Wilderness Act protections. Such actions will allow a return to things like PFAS dumping that was stopped decades ago. Things like the PFAS contamination that occurred prior to the federal environmental protection acts could result again if laws are dismantled.

It is less expensive to protect the environment that supports our livelihoods and health than to try to clean it up after we discover it is injuring our health, killing people, and causing economic hardship such as lowering home and property values. Contaminated fish and wildlife affects their health. It makes them dangerous for us to eat.

Nature niche health for fish, bees, birds, and mammals ensures healthy conditions for people. The triple bottom line of economic, social, and environment stewardship protects your family’s future. 

 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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Enjoying the beauty


A Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) perched in the branches of a Weeping Holly tree.

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Imagine a bird slightly smaller than a cardinal with a brown crest that it can raise or lay flat on its head at will. It has a black “lone ranger” mask outlined with white “eye-liner” surrounding the black. From head towards the tail, its russet brown head subtly grades to an olive brown on its back to gray wings and rump. On the gray wings are tiny splashes of red on the secondary feathers next to the large primary wing feathers. It appears these smaller wing tip feathers have been dipped in red wax. 

The light golden brown on the head, back, and chest, transitions to become lighter and changes to yellow on the belly and sides. The yellow belly gives way to white under the tail. The tail above is gray with a rather abrupt change to a black crosswise band near the tail’s end. The terminal end has a bright yellow band. 

When the bird stands on branches, it is more erect than many birds. One often expects birds to stand horizontal with head out front and tail protruding backwards like a robin. A cedar waxwing posture angles from head to tail at an angle steeper than 45 degrees. Its black mask provides a penetrating look even though it eyes are quite hidden in the mask. 

Waxwings became a favorite beauty for me in the 1970s because their brilliant colors blend in a manner that creates a gentle over-all appearance that must be studied for details. The beauty of goldfinches, cardinals, and blue jays grab our attention with flamboyance. Cedar waxwing colors are vivid but hidden in plain view among subtle transitions.

Even their calls are someone secretive. They have a high-pitched simple call that I can no longer hear. The calls are not meant for me anyway. The waxwings travel in small to large flocks where they cluster in trees and maintain vocal contact. This morning I saw a half dozen together with four eastern bluebirds. Last week I saw 100 together. 

During the winter, they seek shrubs and trees with berries. As I waded a stream one early summer during a mayfly hatch, waxwings fluttered from tree branches to snatch mayflies in the air like one expects from a flycatcher. 

For today, no bird equals the beauty of these avian wonders. Tomorrow, next week, or month, a different species might claim the title as “my favorite.” Our choice of favorite depends somewhat on where we live and observe. When I was a ranger at Bryce Canyon National Park for nearly a decade, the Green-tailed Towhee provided hidden brilliance of blended colors similar to what we experience with waxwings here.

Use a bird field guide to study the patterns, shapes, distribution, and habitats of moving beauties that come and go in yards. I am an old guy and still prefer to hold a book in hand. An Internet search provides hundreds of outstanding photographs for each species. You could while away the day with beauty on the computer screen but for me it does not match the joy of seeing these neighbors in real life. 

Your outdoor yard is the place to be or at least view from a home window. To attract cedar waxwings, provide for their needs by planting viburnums and other native berry producing shrubs and trees. Waxwings are not attracted to bird feeders. They seek yards with choice berry shrubs and insects. 

It is nice to see a dozen species that visit bird feeders daily. A yard and neighborhood planted to meet bird nature niche needs provides opportunity to enjoy the beauty of 50 to more than 100 species. Enrich your life by inviting birds of beauty by landscaping for wildlife. 

Hope to see you this Saturday, March 24, at the Howard Christensen Nature Center for the Modes of Animal Behavior program at 9 a.m. 

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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Leg Joints


 

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Femur, tibia, fibula, metatarsals, and tarsals comprise the bones in our legs and feet. Their arrangement allows movement. Other mammals have bones in different arrangements that serve their mobility for greatest survival. Other groups of organisms like birds and frogs have their own special configurations to meet their needs.

Diagram of a typical insect leg.

Insects do not have bones but have specialized leg joints. Insect exoskeletons are on the outside of the body instead of inside like ours. Leg section names are similar but are structurally different. Between the body and femur is a rounded knob called the coxa followed by another small section called the trochanter. The femur is often the largest leg section much like our femur. Though the name is the same, the insect femur is made of a hard chiton comparable to our fingernails that are on the outside to protect inner tissues and muscles. Consider an insect’s skeleton to be like a knight’s armor that protects from the outside.

To move, it is necessary to have flexible connective tissue between various sections of the leg like is used in a knight’s armor. Progressing from the body to leg tip, the leg sections have adaptations that serve the insects life style for survival in its nature niche. The tibia connects the femur with the tarsi. The tibia is comparable to the tibia and fibula of our lower leg.

A series of small leg sections called tarsi beyond the tibia allow flexibility. Most insects have three, four or five aligned in a row. Go outside to look at a large grasshopper or katydid’s leg joints. Some of the large Carolina Grasshoppers with black wings are still active. The last pair of legs on the grasshopper are large, adapted for jumping and are easiest for viewing leg construction. When you try to capture a grasshopper, it becomes obvious how well suited their legs are for escaping danger.

Crickets and long-horned grasshoppers, like the katydids, have an “eardrum” or tympanum at the basal end of their tibia. We have been enjoying the raucous sound penetrating the blackness of night. It is essential for noise making insects to hear the sexual calls at night for successful breeding. Instead of hearing in their heads like us, they hear in their legs.

There are more specialized leg structures than described here so consider visiting the library, the web, and spend time outdoors exploring. One very important feature not mentioned is tarsal claws. Most insects have small claws that aid gripping surfaces. When an insect stands on your arm, you often feel the claws grip.

The front legs of the praying mantis have a long femur and tibia lined with stiff spines that allow it to grip insect prey firmly. Its coxa that connects the femur to the body is long instead of small and round. It allows greater mobility for capturing prey. Each insect species has unique adaptations that meet its lifestyle. If you have been grabbed by a mantis, its spines might have penetrated your skin and even caused some bleeding.

Inside the exoskeleton leg, is where the muscles are attached. Our leg muscles extend across joints so when contracted they cause the leg to bend. If both ends were attached to the same bone, contraction would not result in movement. Insects are similar in muscle attachment except their muscles are inside the hollow exoskeleton but they stretch across joints. You will not find an insect with bulging muscles because they are hidden inside.

Beetles have interesting legs. They are sometimes quite easy to observe in fall because they frequently stand on flower heads for extended periods. Visit a goldenrod or New England Aster to watch. Notice how the front pair of legs reaches forward and the second and third pair of legs extend backwards. Some insects only use four legs (two pairs) when walking so watch to discover them. Observe leg movement and notice if the front and back legs on one side are used with the middle leg on the opposite side when walking.

Some insects like the blister beetle ooze a substance from their leg joints when disturbed. The fluid can cause skin blisters. There are thousands of insects with interesting leg joints. Take time to observe nature’s wonders.

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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Biting flies


Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

At our annual Lehr family reunion in the 1950’s, we gathered at a city park. It was an event for my dad’s mother’s side of the family. I always looked forward to it. One year, I ventured away from family to the large swing sets. The swings sets were tall and we could swing higher than possible on neighborhood swings.

While swinging with pleasure, I suddenly started screaming bloody murder. I was too far from family for anyone to notice. Nearby mothers with their children took notice and came to my rescue but had no idea why I was screaming and in tears. They helped me stop the swing. I was slapping at my leg.

Under the right leg of my trousers was something horrible. A woman pulled up my pant leg to discover a horse fly biting me. It was worse than a bee sting but it did not inject venom. Not all experiences in the outdoors are pleasant and some people avoid outings because they fear the unpleasant. Positive events out number negative ones and hopefully bad events do not prevent time among nature niches.

Deer flies are more common than horse flies. They can drive us inside at certain times of the day and during some weeks of the year. Karen and I hiked in a western cattle grazing area on public land. At Deer Creek in Utah, we found it necessary to leave. The cattle could not. Deer could not. Other mammals could not.

They had to endure the onslaught of biting Tabinid flies. Fortunately, cows have long tails with a hair tuff fly swatter. Deer have shorter tails but one can watch them constantly twitching it back and forth.

Selected behavior helps deer and other mammals avoid painful “bites”. The flies do not actually bite. Their mouth parts are saw-like. They saw into the skin and lap oozing blood to nourish eggs in their abdomen. It is the female that seeks blood much like it is female mosquitoes that poke holes in our skin. Males feed on nectar and pollen at flowers.

Horse flies are much larger than deer flies and cause considerably more pain. Both lay eggs near water on vegetation where hatching young drop into a stream or other water body. The maggots go to the bottom where they feed on other insects and invertebrates. They grow and shed their “outer skin” known as an exoskeleton to reach a size for transforming from maggot to flying adult that leaves the water to mate and produce more flies.

Most of the biting flies do not survive to leave the water. They are eaten by other aquatic organisms from fish to insects. As adult flies, they are eaten by dragonflies and even frogs. Despite us not wanting to share the world with them, they are important for maintaining organisms we want to share time and space with like fish, frogs, and dragonflies. Birds pluck them out of the air for nourishment.

There are tricks that help us enjoy the outdoors despite the presence of biting flies. We can use chemical insect repellents and at times they seem almost essential. Effective repellents are often dangerous if applied to our skin. Most should be applied to clothing instead. I rarely use repellent insect creams or sprays.

Appropriate dress is quite effective. Wear light colored long-sleeved shirts and long pants to keep skin covered. Dark clothes attract flies. The deer flies like to circle around our heads and become a major nuisance. My friend Mary Miller taught me to pick a bracken fern and put the stem in a headband or hat so the leafy frond stands above my head. The flies circle the frond instead of my head.

Choosing where and when to spend time outdoors at certain times of the year helps. During fly season, it is better to hike at a distance from streams. There are many trails in the area, so select one away from deer flies. As August progresses, deer flies become less frequent and areas near water become suitable again. Hiking on breezy days sweeps flies away. Wildlife spend time away from water and in open breezy areas. Learn by watching and enjoying wildlife. Discover ways to keep spending time among nature’s outdoor wonders.

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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Butterflies and citizen science


photos from West Michigan Butterfly Association’s website, http://www.graud.org/wmba.html

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

 

Join on one or more fun citizen science outdoor field studies. Discover butterflies in a variety of local habitats with people knowledgeable in butterfly identification. It is a great way to learn some of the 170 species known to Michigan. Join with the West Michigan Butterfly Association for fun discovery.

Counts are sponsored by the North American Butterfly Association (NABA) and cost $3 for each participant. The money is sent to NABA to create a publication documenting butterfly abundance, distribution, and trends throughout North America. Scientists make use of citizen science data. Between 17 and 22 different counts are held in Michigan annually and you can contact Ranger Steve about other Michigan counts. Your help spotting butterflies is desired. Knowledge of butterflies is not required.

To find species and count numbers, we carpool to various sites in the designated count circle with a 15-mile diameter. 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, camera, and dress with lightweight long sleeves and pants to protect from biting insects or raspberry thorns. Some optional exploration is off trail.

Dates and meeting locations:

July 1, 2017 (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, 2017 (Wed) 9:00 a.m. Newaygo County Butterfly Count – Newaygo Co. 

Leader: Ranger Steve (Mueller) Meeting at the Leppink’s grocery parking lot at the corner of M-82 & M-37 in Newaygo. odybrook@chartermi.net

July 8, 2017 (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 22, 2017 (Sat) 9:00 a.m. Greater Muskegon Butterfly Ct – Muskegon Co.

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

Rain day alternates will be the next day. It is suggested to sign up with Ranger Steve so unexpected changes can be shared.

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 progression


Ranger Steve Mueller

Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Expect the same sequence of change but not the same timing annually. I attempt to record dates when plants and trees first flower to compare changes from year to year. Butterfly appearance is a special treat for me and an excel file is maintained to record the species sightings daily. Daily bird sightings are recorded. A narrative is written in my journal of nature niche occurrences like the location and abundance of Earth Star Fungi and Ebony Spleenwort Ferns.

It is an impossible task and for many species an X on the excel file suffices to document a species has been sighted this year. Busy life activities keep us all from noticing the first day when each species makes its grand appearance. Accurate phenology progression can be important to document things like Climate Change. For most of us, it is more important to experience the wonder and joy of life as it unfolds each day of spring.

I try to walk among the abundance of life daily witnessing what neighbors are doing. I am a nosy sort of guy. Ephemeral neighbors like hepatica, springs beauty, trout lily, bloodroot, marsh marigold, and skunk cabbage race to flower before tree leaves expand and shade the ground. Flowering is an energy expensive activity and for many it needs to be completed before intense tree canopy shade reduces access to adequate sun energy.

Some plants like marsh marigold spend the summer slowly storing energy so when spring arrives they have adequate energy to produce flowers and seeds. Others like the trout lily gather sunlight during the short period before tree shade reduces light. Their flowers and leaves decay by June ready for new growth next spring. Evidence of their existence is only visible for about six weeks annually.

Butterflies have certain flight periods that result in a sequence of appearances and disappearances for various species throughout the warmer seasons. Most have their activity linked with specific plants their caterpillars feed on so their flight is timed with the plant’s life cycle for egg laying.

Join for a couple hours of ephemeral exploration at Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary with the Michigan Botanical Club on 6 May from 2 to 4 p.m. Park at V&V Nursery on Northland Drive about a mile south of Cedar Springs. The sanctuary does not have adequate parking space so V&V Nursery has kindly allowed parking. Considering shopping for plants at the nursery before or after the wildflower walk.

This year many species of flowers are blooming one to three weeks earlier than last year. Plant activity is weather dependent. During years when cold and snow persist well into April flowering is delayed. Other years early warm weather encourages ground thawing and sap flow in February. Wildflowers progression advances flowering dates in warm springs. This year it was necessary for maple syrup tree tappers to begin in February to capture the first dense sugar surge rather than wait until March.

I am waiting with anticipation to discover when the trilliums, baneberry, saxifrage, wood betony, and many other ephemerals bloom. I expect they will be in flower during the 6 May field outing. Though the sanctuary’s purpose is to primarily enhance survival success for plant and animal species, we are pleased to share the beauty of nature’s bounty with our human neighbors and to encourage you to discover the opportunities provided by the Michigan Botanical Club.

Come mingle with plants and plant enthusiasts. I will meet you in the parking lot at V&V Nursery before 2 p.m. for our stroll through ephemeral days of spring.

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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